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It is no secret that assignment to an airborne law enforcement unit is often a very competitive and highly coveted assignment. The challenges of airborne law enforcement are many and the rewards even greater. Just ask any police aviator and they will be quick to tell you that they have the best police assignment in the world! Usually slots are limited and turnover rate is very low. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to airborne law enforcement is it can be a relatively high risk assignment. The very nature of the mission, flying low and slow in demanding environments, increases the risk to the law enforcement aviator. Due to the fact that most airborne law enforcement units assign two persons to their aircraft, any accident often involves two fatalities/serious injuries, which further compound the tragedy for a particular agency.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
The Airborne Law Enforcement Association's web site contains a "Fallen Heroes" section that lists airborne law enforcement aviators that have made the ultimate sacrifice from around the world. This list, which contains the names of almost 300 airborne law enforcement personnel, is a permanent memorial to the men and women that have given their lives in the line of duty while assigned to a law enforcement aircraft. In a further tribute to these aviators, at the annual awards banquet held at their annual; conference, the ALEA has a place setting at a "table of honor" in front of the dais for any fallen aviator over the last year. It is quite a poignant and moving sight to see the table and reflect on what has been lost. Airborne law enforcement came into existence in the late 1920s, and on October 23, 1928 experienced their first fatality when Deputy Clifford Nelson of the Pima County (AZ) Sheriffs Office accompanied an airplane in an aerial search. On October 21, 1928, 18-year-old William Hyatt set off on a hunting trip in the Oracle area. When he failed to return the next day, his mother called the sheriff's office. Sheriff James McDonald sent a posse of deputies and volunteers to search the area. They found nothing that day.
The next day, George Peck and Charles Mayse offered to search the area from their planes. Deputy Clifford Nelson, Harold Whitman, a Veteran's Bureau employee, and Bruce McIntyre, a University of Arizona student, flew with Mr. Peck. As the plane circled the area, observers on the ground said that the plane seemed to just suddenly plunge to the earth. When deputies reached the crash scene, they found the charred shell of the aircraft and four bodies, burned beyond recognition. William Hyatt's body was found later that day, a victim of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Clifford Nelson was survived by his wife, a three-month-old baby, and a 13-year-old stepson. A review of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund web site and the Officer Down Memorial Page shows that over the last ten years, airborne law enforcement accidents was the fifth leading cause of police officer line-of-duty deaths. Most aviation units are very small, so the comparative risk can be high. For example, in their almost 80 years of existence, the NYPD Aviation has lost six aviators from a unit that only has had at the maximum, approximately 60 members assigned.
The Safety Goal
Airborne law enforcement officers, just like their ground counterparts, knowingly accept the risk associated with the assignment. Airborne law enforcement does take a very proactive and very aggressive stance in promoting aircraft safety and is constantly pursuing methods and techniques to make airborne law enforcement ultimately "accident free." The ALEA has started such programs as "Safety First." aimed at promoting flight safety among airborne law enforcement personnel and is an active supporter of the Joint Helicopter International Safety Team's (HIST) "Safety Management System." The HIST has set a goal of reducing helicopter accidents by 80% by the year 2016. The entire airborne law enforcement community is heavily involved in this endeavor, including aircraft manufacturers, equipment vendors, training companies, and of course, the aviators themselves. Sometimes is seems that pilots are fanatical about safety. It is correct to say that "safety of flight" is (in almost all police aviation units) an obsession. The Airborne Law Enforcement Association leads the safety charge in this area and has placed safety as one of the priorities on their agenda. Indeed, they have a full-time safety consultant and have seats on numerous aviation safety committees within the industry.
It is hoped that police ground personnel understand that aviators are always assessing risk and looking at their missions considering the risk vs. benefit outcome. In a recent vehicle chase in the Newark, NJ area, ground units were pursuing a vehicle for traffic violations. The ground commander terminated the ground portion of the pursuit and requested the Newark Police helicopter to continue pursuing the vehicle. The subject vehicle entered a highway and was about to cross the final approach course for the runway in use at Newark Airport. The police helicopter, already in contact with the tower, informed the tower that the pursuit would likely cross the approach path of several approaching airliners. The tower asked if the police aircrew wanted to declare an emergency and if so, they would order the airliners to go around. The police pilots did a very quick risk assessment and elected to terminate the airborne aspect of the pursuit as well. There was no need to possibly endanger several hundred airline passengers for such a minor infraction. It should be noted that almost universally around the country, air-traffic control does an incredible job of allowing airborne law enforcement aircraft to do their jobs both effectively and safely.
We would all love to see the day when the National Law Enforcement Memorial has a very brief ceremony in May and simply reports "no names" need to be added to the wall. Now that is a goal we can all strive to achieve.