Rotor & Wing International

The Difficult Privilege

As law enforcement aviators, we are tasked with protecting and serving the public through our flying police car. Sometimes, this means making tough decisions about duty and safety.

As law enforcement aviators, we are tasked with protecting and serving the public through the use of a flying police car and anyone who has done time on the street knows how police cars get treated. They get taken to their limits of maximum throttle and maximum braking on a regular basis. They find themselves in precarious positions on and off-road. They provide transportation, solace and protection. They are true work horses.

To the uninitiated, it may look like an aviation asset can be treated like just another police vehicle; in fact, some departments expect it. But being aviation professionals, we know better.

The unpredictable nature of police work will put officers in positions that require quick thinking, selfless action, and at times great personal risk. All who wear the uniform are familiar with this. The police aviator manages that same risk, with some unique caveats.

Not only is there the ever-present personal risk to ourselves, to our crew, and the heads we fly over, there is also great risk to the aviation unit or even the department itself. As one of the highest-profile sections of any law enforcement agency, a catastrophe involving a departmental aircraft could bring enough scrutiny, lawsuits and politics to potentially shut down an entire airborne operation.

We know that aviation is incredibly unforgiving of error. When the risks far outweigh the reward, those are the clear-cut flights that must be turned down. But what about times when the line between risk versus reward is blurred? Do you elect to conduct a night search in marginal weather, with a VFR-only helicopter, for a missing child? What about performing a desert mountain rescue when your only available helicopter has minimal payload capability? How do you respond to a plane crash with subjects in frigid water, when your aircraft has a hoist, but your department cut the training budget, and the crew isn’t hoist-qualified? Are you willing to risk violating your agency’s standard operating procedure to accomplish any of these?

Such situations certainly do not have one right answer. As the pilot in command, those are the decisions you may have to make.

Within every agency, there are those who are charged with finding ways to do more with less. That can translate into less equipment, less training, and less options, yet at the same time increased expectations. Being the experts in our field, it is incumbent upon us to work not only within the performance limits of our aircraft, but within the limits of what our agency provides us.

While other patrol officers might selflessly run into a burning building to save a life, the nature of our risk requires us to be a little more deliberate and disciplined in our heroic response. Have a plan and train for as many scenarios as possible — even if it’s just hangar flying. When you can’t respond at the level you’d like, step it down a notch and discuss a plan for that.

Sometimes the risk is far too great and we just can’t respond. But usually, we are able to do something. Such was the case years ago, when a subject with a high-powered rifle was hiding in a wooded area and had officers pinned down behind their police cars. Called to respond with the infrared camera to locate the subject, we elected to stand-off at a difficult angle and conduct the search much less aggressively than the supervisor on the scene had asked for to avoid becoming a big arcade-style target to the gunman.

The subject was ultimately apprehended. When that supervisor called to chastise me for not protecting his men, I explained that while his officers may have had good cover behind the thick engine blocks of their cruisers, my aircraft provided my crew and I virtually zero cover. He thought for a second, apologized for not realizing our situation and then thanked us for the response we did provide.

It takes incredible fortitude to wear the uniform, have the ability to command such an amazing tool and then decide you’re not able to use it in the way that was hoped. But this is the difficult privilege we have been given. Despite the pressures of management, the public and the nature of the call, we are the aviation professionals who know how to best do the job.

Like the old saying goes, as superior aviators, we try to use our superior judgement to avoid situations that would require having to use our superior skills. Be safe out there.