A primer on police aviation
Ed Note: PoliceOne is pleased to introduce Kenneth J. Solosky as the newest addition to our growing roster of writers. Ken presently serves as Chief Pilot for the Newark (N.J.) Police Department and is the founder, president, and lead instructor for Code Red Training Inc., an aviation, emergency medical, safety, and security training company. Previously, Ken served for 21 years with NYPD as a Lieutenant/Chief Pilot/Director of Training for that agency’s Aviation Unit. Ken has lectured across the U.S. and in various other countries on airborne law enforcement operations and has written for the Airborne Law Enforcement Association’s magazine (Air Beat), Professional Pilot magazine, and others. We proudly welcome Ken as our PoliceOne Aviation Columnist.
Law enforcement aviation was born in 1929 when the New York City Police Department assigned fixed-wing airplanes to combat the growing aviation menace of the day; barnstormers! It seems that enterprising young pilots would set-up shop on the farmlands of New York City (yes, farmland!) and offer rides or fly aerial stunt shows (for a small fee, of course!). After a few accidents, and amid public outcry, police aviation was born.
During the past 20 years, police aviation has seen explosive growth with many agencies acquiring their first aircraft through the military surplus program. This program, which allows agencies to acquire military aircraft at little or no cost, has allowed many smaller agencies to join the police aviation arena. Many of these previously could have never started an aviation unit. As these programs grew, many agencies have subsequently purchased “purpose-built” aircraft designed specifically for their missions.
Today, more than 800 law enforcement agencies operate aircraft in the United States. Other countries that deploy police aviation units are numerous and diverse; Canada, England, Italy, Australia, Dubai, Germany, and Japan are just a few of the many countries that now routinely use dedicated airborne law enforcement units.
Police Aviation units in America exist in order to directly to support the law enforcement mission. Operating both airplanes and helicopters, every level of law enforcement is represented including local, state, and federal agencies. The aircraft being operated range form small single engine airplanes and helicopters up to large business jets. Naturally, the larger federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA, and Customs operate large fleets that consist of airplanes and helicopters.
Aviation Unit Missions
The aircraft used by airborne law enforcement range from military surplus aircraft to brand new aircraft purchased and designed specifically for the law enforcement mission. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office uses a very large military surplus aircraft known as “Air 5” for their search and rescue missions in the mountains and canyons of California.
The unique capability of an aircraft, combined with the latest in technology, has produced a powerful and effective weapon. 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 infra red (FLIR) and microwave down-linking, this all adds up to one reality – a very capable and effective crime fighting weapon. This weapon not only can save lives and provide dramatic results; it provides the patrol officer with a high degree of confidence, allowing them to do their jobs more effectively.
A Police Aviation Unit’s Make-up
Some agencies, particularly at the federal level, hire a pilot and require them to be trained, attend their appropriate academy and earn the “sworn” status. They are then immediately assigned to the aviation section.
Both models have their advantages and disadvantages but both have demonstrated a very high degree of safety and success.
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