Keeping Arizona skies safe

Fleet of 5 AS350B3s, 3 A119s, 1 A109 and 1 PC12 NG help Phoenix Police Dept maintain law and order.


Pilatus PC12 NG Spectre departs at dusk on an all-night surveillance mission.

Eagleton notes that Phoenix PD's PC12 NG is equipped with infrared and long-range camera systems, as well as multistation communications via simultaneous multiple channels. Camera images can be recorded or downlinked to a command post from the airborne observer station.

A station next to the observer is set up for a scene commander—from either Police or Fire Dept management—to monitor a situation from the aircraft, both visually and on a discrete monitor with its own image controls.

Five additional seats are installed in the PC12's cabin for other observers and emergency management personnel, for a total of 7 in the cabin. These seats also make the aircraft useful for transport missions as needed by various city agencies.

The PC12 NG's arrival solves a major problem that the Air Support Unit grappled with for years—flying within Phoenix Sky Harbor's Class Bravo airspace. PHX is located just a few miles from downtown Phoenix, so airplane operations around the city are severely constrained by Class Bravo restrictions.

When the Cessnas were the only available aircraft, Air Support Unit pilots often found themselves negotiating tensely with PHX Approach at the same time that ground units were pushing hard for close overhead contact with their targets.

The PC12, loitering at 9500–13,500 ft MSL—well above the local air traffic—allows unit crews to concentrate on their mission, staying in touch with PHX Approach Control to coordinate around local jet traffic.

The Cessnas will now serve as trainers, personnel transports and occasional low-altitude surveillance platforms. The P210 will remain available for surveillance flights, backing up the PC12 and expanding the Air Support Unit's operational area and available hours.


Crew of an Air Support Unit AS350B3 prepares to take off on a night patrol flight.

The Air Support Unit maintains a continuous recruitment program within the Police Dept to replace retiring members and cover attrition. Officers interested in joining the unit submit a departmental ap­plication and are called for an initial Oral Board exam as the need arises.

Screening parameters include an officer's ability to be comfortable in the flight environment, and to get along with fellow officers for long hours within the cramped confines of a helicopter or airplane cabin. Those passing the Oral Board are placed on the candidate list and are tested further when their name comes up.

Once a candidate has passed all the entry tests, he or she begins a 9-month on-the-job training program. Training includes the basics of flight, safety practices, use of all onboard communications and surveillance equipment, and airborne tactics for surveillance and pursuit.

The program is divided into modules, and the candidate must pass a final oral and practical exam on completion of each module before moving on to the next one. Failing the test is grounds for the candidate to be dropped from the unit.

On completion of training, the successful candidate is designated a tactical flight officer (TFO) and begins working regular shifts. He or she accumulates flight hours toward the next steps in their progress, increasing their TFO qualifications and moving toward eventual pilot training.

That training is paced by the availability of instructors and aircraft—at the point where a TFO enters pilot training they are off the working TFO schedule and are full-time students. They remain in training until they complete their FAA commercial helicopter or airplane training and receive their license.

They then return to the unit and begin flying as a pilot with a senior pilot or CFI as their observer. Once they have achieved all the required knowledge and experience objectives, they are awarded the status of unit pilot-in-command (PIC).

In previous years, pilots would train initially in the Cessnas and then move into helicopters. But today, with such an extensive airplane and helicopter fleet, unit members are assigned either airplane or helicopter duty when they join up and remain in that specialty during their entire Air Support Unit tour.

"It's a careful balance of assets to maintain the new pilot training stream," says Air Support Unit Commander Lt Pat Tortorici. "Obviously, training takes assets away from our primary mission set of supporting the department, so we're always cognizant of the need to prioritize. On the other hand, we have to train new people, or attrition alone will find us without enough qualified folks to staff our aircraft."

Maintenance and safety

Phoenix PD A119 Koala settles into a hover before a refueling stop and a return to airborne duty.

Phoenix PD's Air Support Unit Maintenance Dept employs 10 full-time technicians. All routine maintenance, on both airplanes and helicopters, is done in-house, up to and including major periodic airframe inspections.

"We work closely with our maintenance folks to manage inspections so that they're not overloaded with multiple aircraft at the same time," says Chief Pilot Phil Tilford, a 27-year veteran of the Air Support Unit.

"We maintain a full library of technical documentation so that our technicians are always working from the latest manufacturers' data," notes Tilford. "Our aircraft records office is staffed with 2 full-time administrators, who ensure all records are up to date and that the Maintenance Dept has a clear look ahead at when each aircraft is due for its next event."

The Air Support Unit has never had a fatal accident in its 37 years of flying, says Tilford. He adds, "We had several incidents and accidents with the 300s but no fatalities. Since we acquired the turbine helicopters we've had 1 engine failure over the city and 3 incidents of moderate damage. The night autorotation we had over the city was successful with moderate damage and no injuries."


1 | 2| 3| next