Matching aircraft and equipment for best use in LE, SAR and EMS

Stable, powerful platforms with recon package are required for these specialized missions.

By Ken Solosky
ATP/Helo/CFI Chief Pilot, Newark Police Av Unit

Miami–Dade PD’s Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar, equipped for tactical operations, is shown here with a SWAT officer on each side during an exercise at OPF (Opa-Locka, Miami FL).

In the not too distant past, the typical airborne law enforcement (ALE) aircraft carried a crew of 2 armed with paper maps, perhaps a pair of binoculars and a searchlight.

Their crews performed their missions admirably and showcased ALE as an effective, vital crime fighting and rescue resource.

Contrast that to today’s typical cockpit. Flightcrews use electronic moving maps, downlink cameras, thermal imagers and a wide array of aviation and public safety radios. And they use aviation-specific technology to ensure the safety of flight and main­tain high levels of performance. The mission profile can vary widely.

For the agency considering airborne law enforcement, it is critical to do an honest mission needs assess­ment. There is always a temptation to try to “do it all” and not purchase the most effective aircraft for agency needs. Will the mission consist primarily of patrol and surveillance? Will we perform rescues? Are special operations going to be part of the mission profile?

Even the geographic base of a law enforcement aircraft brings additional considerations. For example, the “sea level” agencies of the east coast of the US do not normally have the “hot and high” issues of those in the mountain regions.


One of the primary missions of many ALE units, and the “backbone” of law enforcement, is patrol. This includes general omni­presence patrols as well as directed and focused patrols at homeland security sites.

Such sites include critical infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, power plants and ports as well as tourist attractions. Other patrol missions include traffic enforcement, drug interdiction surveillance and support of ground units in perpetrator searches and vehicle pursuits.

In the litigious world in which we live, many agencies are reluctant to initiate high-speed ground pursuits for safety and liability reasons. However, once an aircraft is involved, ground units can follow at a safer distance with almost no chance of the suspect escaping.

Many agencies begin ALE missions conducting these types of mission. Naturally, single-engine airplanes and helicopters are well represented. Almost all helicopter manufacturers’ models can be found in the law enforcement inventory. In the single-engine piston market, Enstrom, Robinson and Schweizer (Sikorsky) all offer police helicopter packages—the Enstrom 28F/280FX, Robinson R44 and Schweizer 300 series.

Agusta A119 Koala on patrol over New York City. NYPD uses its Koalas for patrol, surveillance, search and downlink missions.

In the single-turbine market, popular law enforcement models include the AgustaWestland AW­119, Bell 407, Enstrom 480B, Eurocopter AStar and MD Helicopter 500/600 series. The single-engine helicopter makes for an excellent initial entry aircraft.

Their lower acquisition and operating costs are appealing to many agencies that want to start their own operations. For single-engine fixed-wing ALE operators, there are models in service from Cessna, Piper and Pilatus.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, charged with providing law enforcement services to all the provinces as well as the Northern Territories, use the Pilatus PC12 for transporting investigators and specialized personnel. In one homicide case they needed to fly in investigators and crime scene personnel to a remote camp in the Northern Territories as there was no ground access.

Lower operating cost, longer loiter times and quieter noise signature are all advantages compared with a helicopter. One federal pilot, who flies for an agency that uses the Cessna 206 as its primary surveillance platform, comments that the aircraft is ideal for the agency’s mission.

Puerto Rico Police Bell 407s on patrol. These aircraft are equipped with hoists and thermal imagers.

“We can fly higher and longer in a surveillance mission than a helicopter,” he remarks, “and at altitude we’re virtually silent.” Ohio State Highway Patrol uses a large fleet of Cessna 172s for various missions including speed enforcement.

If you’ve ever wondered why some stretches of highway have large white lines painted across the lanes, it’s likely that it is used as a marker to time a vehicle from one line to the next. A quick mathematical calculation based on the time it takes to travel between the lines reveals the vehicle’s speed.

A ground trooper stationed ahead takes care of issuing the ticket. No vehicle radar detector yet developed will see an airplane flying overhead.

Special operations

As the mission profile grows in complexity or degree of specialization, the aircraft needed to conduct such missions also changes.

If search and rescue (SAR) missions are to be flown, it’s necessary to have a hoist-equipped aircraft capable not only of flying all the necessary personnel and equipment to the rescue scene but of hoisting and flying victims to safety.

In several LE agencies across the US, the twin-engine helicopter is the aircraft of choice for these missions. For SAR missions, Suffolk County (NY) Police Dept uses a Eurocopter EC145, while to the west New York City Police Depart­ment (NYPD) uses the Bell 412.

Other models utilized by ALE operators for SAR missions are the MD900 Explorer and the Agusta­Westland AW119. The past decade has also seen a dramatic demand for homeland security missions. In particular, many LE agencies have developed highly specialized tactical teams for high-speed and high-risk missions.

These tactical teams rely heavily on aircraft for tactical insertions, fast-roping and rappel operations. The capability of higher useful loads—both personnel and equipment—make these missions ideal for the twin-engine helicopter.

Unusual types

Many federal agencies use multiengine fixed-wing aircraft for highly specialized missions. Models in the federal law enforcement inventory include Citations, Gulfstreams, and even Boeing 727s and MD80s.


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