Massachusetts State Police Air Wing

Veteran unit with Eurocopter AS355s and EC135s maintains public safety, apprehended Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

Unit organization and personnel

Mike Landers, a line technician at PYM, fuels one of the Air Wing's EC135s following a mission.

The unit is led by Lt Rob Smith, a 32-year veteran of the State Police who joined the aviation unit in 1988 as one of the first flight crewmembers at the new CEF base. He held private licenses for both fixed and rotary-wing aircraft when he started, and earned the remainder of his ratings in the department, including rotary-wing commercial, instrument, CFI and CFII.

Before joining the Air Wing, Smith spent his first 7 years with the State Police as a patrol officer on the road. He has commanded the Air Wing now for 7 years.

Smith conducts operations from CEF. Lt Timothy Riley is executive officer and is based at LWM. Sergeants John Rota and Dennis Remkus are the senior officers on site at the PYM base.

The department currently has 12 pilots and 10 tactical flight officers (TFOs). Two of the pilots are pilots-in-training, having been transitioned fairly recently from TFO positions.
TFOs operate the radios and navigation equipment, thermal imaging system, video equipment and related search gear.

They also have flight­crew responsibilities, performing traditional SIC roles that would be normal on aircraft requiring a 2-man crew, including checklists as part of the department's crew resource management procedures.

The TFOs report to Sgt Rota, who is responsible for their training. On being transferred into the Air Wing, TFOs enter a 6-month formal training program. They are assigned to a lead TFO and operate as a crew of 3 until they achieve proficiency, with the new TFO in the left front seat and the lead in the rear seat with a screen and full set of controls for the search equipment so he can take over if the new TFO should become overwhelmed.

Lt Timothy Riley, executive officer of the unit and senior officer at the LWM base.

As part of their initial indoctrination TFOs are trained to proficiency in recovering an aircraft to straight-and-level flight after an upset, navigating to an airport and making a run-on landing. The standard TFO career path is designed to prepare them to become pilots, and most TFOs in the department have or are working toward private, commercial or instrument ratings.

There are 3 pilot levels in the department—pilot-in-training, probationary aircraft commander and aircraft commander. It takes 500 hrs to advance to probationary commander status, along with demonstrated proficiency in both aircraft types the department currently operates as well as operational skills.

At 1000 hrs pilots can achieve aircraft commander status—a process that typically takes 2 to 3 years.

"In the helicopter world you don't build time quickly," Smith says, noting that the average department mission lasts about an hour. Last year the unit flew approximately 1800 missions and logged about 1800 flight hours on its 4 duty aircraft.

Training procedures have evolved as the department has matured, Smith says, and almost all of the unit's pilots, except for a few older men with military backgrounds, have been trained on the job.

Unit Commander Lt Rob Smith has flown with the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing for 25 years.

Unit officers work a 4-days-on/2-days-off schedule that begins with two 1500–2300 evening shifts followed by two 0700–1500 day shifts. The unit does not normally operate between 2300 and 0700, but one crew is always available on standby if an emergency requiring air support should arise during that time.

Recurrent training is provided annually by instructor pilots from American Eurocopter, who travel to Massachusetts to put on a 2-day ground school and provide training in the department's helicopters.

Smith notes that, while a simulator would be available at American Eurocopter's training facility at GPM, extensive equipment differences related to the law enforcement customization of the unit's aircraft make training in the department's own aircraft desirable.

Aircraft are typically flown with a pilot and a TFO, although a 2nd TFO can be added during high-workload situations and the aircraft are equipped to provide video screens and communications equipment for a rear-seat TFO as well as the standard TFO position in the left front seat.

Smith describes the unit's mission today as primarily a search function—seeking good people who are lost or bad guys who don't want to be found.

Technology, he says, has greatly simplified the search function compared with 20 years ago, particularly for people who want to be found. Cell phones and heat-seeking cameras can make the task of finding someone lost in the forest a simple matter—say, by having the victim generate a hot spot with a small fire or even their own body heat, then directing searchers to the location.

The department receives a lot of calls, particularly in the summer months, to help locate missing persons off the many beaches along the Massachusetts coastline. Many of these calls originate with local police departments seeking assistance.

Sgt John Rota leads and directs training for the unit's 10 TFOs.

The unit shares responsibility for offshore calls with the US Coast Guard, which is primarily responsible for boating and other water-related rescues. The Coast Guard's responsibility includes the coastline from New York to Maine, however, and the Massachusetts State Police provides coastal backup when the Coast Guard is otherwise occupied. State Police helicopters also respond to calls for assistance on the offshore islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

In another water-related activity, the unit regularly provides surveillance for tankers inbound to Boston Harbor. The helicopter and crew typically meet the ships at Deer Island and fly ahead, observing bridges, buildings and any small boats that might be approaching inappropriately. The mission typically takes about 2 hrs and was instituted as a precaution after Sep 11, 2001.

Traffic is not a normal mission, but helicopters are called out for special events such as New England Patriots games at Gillette Stadium or holiday events, and are called in occasionally to assist if there is a major accident, particularly if it involves hazmat issues. The unit routinely supports traffic pursuits when they occur.


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