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When most people think of airborne law enforcement, images of low flying helicopters with searchlights shining, pilots equipped with night vision goggles and using sophisticated heat sensors are usually what come to mind. Many people, including law enforcement officers themselves, are surprised to learn that the fixed-wing side of the airborne law enforcement house still has an impressive array of airplanes flying airborne law enforcement missions everyday.
Although the New York City Police Department takes credit for the "first" official airborne law enforcement unit, (a point contested by some west coast departments) airplanes were being used by police officers in the mid-1920s when individual police officers would use planes flown by friends or associates. These officers would accompany their pilot-friend to fly law enforcement missions. In the first recorded line-of-duty death of a police officer in an aircraft, Deputy Clifford Nelson of the Pima County Sheriff's Office in Arizona was killed on October 23, 1928 while flying in an airplane looking for a lost hiker. In 1929, the NYPD introduced police aircraft to combat a growing menace: aircraft barnstormers. It seems many local pilots would set up shop in the many fields in and around New York City charging the locals for a ride or performing an impromptu air show for a small fee, of course. As these barnstormers became more popular and undoubtedly more reckless, public clamor called for the creation of an aviation unit.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, many departments acquired small single-engine aircraft and began using them for searches, speed enforcement, photo missions and the transport of equipment and personnel. When helicopters were introduced in the late 1940s, the airplane seemed to play second fiddle to the helicopter, as dramatic rescues and assignments using the helicopter seemed to grab the headlines.
Although helicopters might steal the headlines and glamour, airplanes are still an integral part of airborne law enforcement. The models of airplanes flown in law enforcement vary widely. They range from single-engine Cessnas to sophisticated Pilatus PC12 Spectres, King Air 350s and 200s, P3 Orions, Cessna Citations, Learjets, Gulfstream jets and some larger airliner-type aircraft. The federal agencies have the larger and most sophisticated aircraft, as their missions sometimes include flying internationally.
Airplanes perform a wide range of missions and have capabilities that a helicopter simply cannot match. The most typical assignments for law enforcement airplanes are photo missions, surveillance, homeland security, speed enforcement and the transport of people and gear. In some cases, the use of an airplane allows an agency to perform missions that could not be carried out using a helicopter or any other means of transportation. Richard Weber, a pilot with the Jacksonville (FL) Sheriff's Office Aviation Unit explains, "we recently picked up prisoners in Michigan, West Virginia and Georgia all in one day, with the trip taking a total of about ten hours. There is no way our agency could have done that using airlines." In addition to several helicopters, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office uses a Beechcraft King Air airplane for these types of missions. "Not only does it save us time and money, it is a much secure way to transport prisoners," noted Weber.
The U.S. Customs Service, now a division of ICE, uses large four-engine turboprop airplanes, primarily to perform long-range patrol missions involving drug smugglers and/or homeland security. The airplane also brings another advantage in surveillance missions: a low-noise signature and the ability to fly high when conducting the surveillance, making it almost impossible to be detected from the ground. If anyone remembers the ending scene in the movie "Goodfellas," Ray Liotta's character is being dogged by a helicopter and he easily realizes they are following him. As one federal agent who wished to remain anonymous and who flies a fixed wing airplane, said, "I can set up at 5000 feet, and using our on-board equipment, perform a close surveillance. No one ever sees us or hears us. The perfect platform for this type of mission."
The U.S. Marshals Service operates the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), better known as "Con Air." The Marshals transport almost 1000 prisoners a day using cars, buses and aircraft. This system is operated very similar to an airline and uses airliner-type aircraft. In fact, JPATS is the only government-operated, regularly scheduled passenger airline in the nation. JPATS transports sentenced prisoners who are in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), as well as ICE alien detainees to hearings, court appearances and detention facilities. JPATS also provides regular international flights for the removal of deportable aliens. Military and civilian law enforcement agencies use JPATS to shuttle their prisoners between different jurisdictions at a fraction of what commercial sources would charge. JPATS routinely serves approximately 40 domestic and international cities, plus other major cities in the United States on an as-required basis. Air fleet operations are located in Oklahoma City, Okla., with hubs in: Alexandria, La.; Mesa, Ariz.; Anchorage, Alaska; and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Conklin and de Decker, one of the most respected aviation information and cost projection companies in the world, also point out another advantage of a fixed wing aircraft that is sure to make every chief, director, commissioner and sheriff smile: lower cost. David Wyndham, the vice president of Conklin and de Decker notes, "Given the lower relative operating costs of the fixed-wing airplane versus the helicopter, it should be given serious consideration in missions that do not demand the vertical component only a helicopter can provide. However, when the vertical mission is required, such as the insertion of teams or rooftop level pursuit of fugitives, the low, slow, vertical helicopter has no equal."
Although helicopters might make headlines and capture the glory, their fixed-wing cousins might just be content being a little older and perhaps wiser. Doing the airborne law enforcement missions quietly and effectively: airplanes, the workhorses of airborne law enforcement.