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Airborne Law Enforcement has been around since approximately 1929, when the New York City Police Department started an aviation unit consisting of airplanes tasked with combating the menace of the day reckless flyers. It seems that some aviators, looking to earn some extra money, would set up at a local field and offer rides or perform stunts. Apparently, these daring aviators caused quite a stir and the authorities were forced to take some action.
In the next 80 years or so, police aviation emerged as a wonderful resource in the law enforcement world. The unique capability of an aircraft, combined with the latest in technology, has produced a powerful and effective weapon and tool. Today s aircraft are equipped with the latest in aviation technology, such as glass cockpits, heads-up displays and advanced navigation systems. Partnered with the latest in law enforcement technology, such as night vision goggles, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and microwave downlinking, this all adds up to one reality a very capable and effective crime-fighting weapon. In almost every state in the nation there are airborne law enforcement assets at the local, state and federal level.
The future is full of promising possibilities. The recent advances in high resolution cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles all have tremendous possibilities that will make airborne law enforcement more effective and flexible. The success of the military surplus program, placing surplus military aircraft into the hands of local and state police agencies, has given many agencies their introduction into airborne law enforcement. During the last ten years, airborne law enforcement has grown at a fast and exciting pace.
Aviation Unit Missions
The missions tasked to an airborne police aviation unit are numerous. Using both airplanes and helicopters, today s police airborne units perform routine patrols, surveillance missions, search and rescue, counter-terrorism patrols, searches, transports, speed enforcement, vehicle pursuits and command and control for emergency incidents. These missions are carried out by a wide and diverse range of aircraft, including jet airplanes, turboprops and helicopters of all shapes and sizes. Local agencies use small and light piston or turbine aircraft, while some agencies on the federal level use quite sophisticated and large aircraft for their assignments. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff s Department uses a very large military surplus aircraft known as Air Five for their search and rescue missions in the mountains and canyons of California.
The advantages of airborne law enforcement are numerous. In some cases, the airborne platform is the only means of carrying out a mission. In other cases, the airborne unit is a force multiplier carrying out searches safely and effectively. For example, a well-equipped helicopter with a trained and competent crew can effectively search a wooded area for a wanted or missing person in a matter of minutes, as opposed to numerous ground officers taking hours.
In a vehicle pursuit, the airborne unit is unsurpassed in safety and efficiency. Ground units can simply maintain a loose perimeter while the airborne unit follows the vehicle until it can be apprehended successfully.
The airborne platform is also used with great success in surveillance, real-time video downlinking and photo missions. In search and rescue missions, the combination of airplanes and helicopters provides a tremendous advantage. Lost or injured persons can be located quickly and if need be, hoisted to safety and removed for emergency medical treatment.
The airborne unit also provides a very visible and imposing obstacle for those intent on doing us harm. In 2004, a threat at a major New York bridge was thwarted because in the words of a terrorist, The weather was too hot. In other words, the constant stream of ground, airborne and marine units made the odds of a successful attack unlikely.
Recent technological advances in both cameras and downlinking capability have given ground commanders a new and unique tool in managing scenes. Using a small portable receiver, a SWAT commander can get an excellent view of a scene in real time both before and during the actual tactical operation. Police commanders can watch events such as parades, demonstrations and other public gatherings from their command and control centers, adjusting and adapting to actual conditions.
Aviation is expensive. Unfortunately, there is no way around it. There is truly no way to cut corners or reduce costs without compromising safety. In addition, training is intensive and complex and requires a large commitment from the agency. Maintenance is not like the 10-minute oil change for our vehicles every 3,000 miles!
Aircrafts require time and money to operate safely. This sometimes leads to misunderstandings between the brass and the aviation unit. It is hard for those outside of aviation to understand the complexities involved. As one aviation commander once remarked, I wish the brass understood it is easier for me to say yes than no to a mission request. My pilots and crews want to do the work, but sometimes I just have to say no based on the limitations of safety and maintenance.
The good news is there are grants that can be applied towards aviation. There is also a recent trend in sharing financial resources for a regional airborne unit that covers several jurisdictions
A funded, properly trained and properly managed airborne police unit can make a huge difference in meeting agencies objectives, missions and goals effectively, while helping to keep ground units safer. As more than 800 agencies in the United States alone can attest, airborne police aviation is crucial in their agencies operations and is playing an increasing role in the law enforcement scene. There is no doubt that, pun intended, the sky is the limit for airborne police units.
Lieutenant Kenneth J. Solosky retired after 21 years of service with the New York City Police Department (NYPD), where he had been assigned to patrol, patrol sergeant, Lieutenant Patrol Platoon Commander, the Warrant Division and police academy instructor. He retired as the Chief Pilot/Director of Training in the NYPD Aviation Unit. He recently was appointed the Chief Pilot for the Newark (N.J.) Police Aviation Unit. Solosky holds a bachelor s degree in public administration from St. John s University and is pursuing a master s degree in criminal justice from the City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He holds FAA Airline Transport Pilot ratings in both airplanes and helicopters, is a certified flight instructor and a member of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Airborne Law Enforcement Association