Many ground officers and airborne law enforcement flight crews never get a chance to personally interact and get to know each other. The airborne flight crew normally performs a mission at 800 - 1,000 feet and departs without ever talking with ground units face-to-face. The only interaction is on the radio. So what do flight crews think and talk about as they perform their missions?
When an airborne law enforcement aircraft is requested for service, there could be a wide range of requests. Of course, suspect searches, vehicle pursuits and crimes in progress lead the list, but there is a larger variety of uses for the aircraft.
When the initial call comes in, and the aircraft is responding, they will normally conduct a quick mission briefing that will include:
- any known obstacles
- the particular airspace they will be operating in
- is a major airport right in the response area?
They will also quickly review their individual responsibilities. Both crew members have an absolute and number one priority: flight safety. Regardless of the nature of the call, the crew must make certain that they perform the mission safely.
The Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) will enter the incident location on the aircraft’s moving map and paint a mental picture of the characteristics of the incident scene. Moving maps of today will give the TFO a good sense of the streets, parks, golf courses, lakes, railroads or any other factors that could affect the assignment. The pilot will normally make their requests to operate in a particular area with air traffic control. In most instances, air traffic controllers will go to great lengths to allow airborne law enforcement aircraft to operate and complete their missions. In one instance, there was an urgent request to help locate a homicide suspect that lost in the weeds right at the end of an in-use runway. The pilot and air traffic controllers working in cooperation allowed the police aircraft to effectively complete the mission while allowing the inbound airliners to continue landing with a minimum of delays.
Upon arrival at the incident the crew will almost always conduct a high reconnaissance in which they look for any safety-of-flight concerns such as high buildings, towers or wires. In addition, the flight crew will identify a place to go in case of emergency. Once safety-of-flight issues are addressed they will perform the requested mission. For example, if the particular request is for a thermal imaging search of backyards, the crew may fly a slow orbit while the TFO, utilizing the thermal imager, looks for the suspect. Keep in mind that thermal imagers pick up heat signatures that do not necessarily mean the signatures are a person.
The Newark Police Aviation Unit performed a thermal imaging search of a heavily wooded field. There was thick underbrush but they definitely had a heat signature in the middle of the field. After directing ground units to the location, it was found to be a sewer cap. The heat was leaking from the cap and was picked up from the thermal imager! During the search, the TFO will communicate with the pilot as to the effectiveness of the orbit, speed and altitude. The TFO will also work in close cooperation with ground units and alter the search based on information from the ground.
There is one instance in which the flight crew is often tasked to their limits. Sometimes during a vehicle pursuit, the pursued vehicle loses the ground units but then the suspect realizes the aircraft is still following them. Often, the decision is to abandon the car and make a run for it on foot. The airborne law enforcement unit now has responsibility for transmitting the vehicle, directing ground units and trying to maintain visual contact or a perimeter of multiple suspects. This is very workload intensive!