SPECIAL UNIT PROFILE

San Diego Police AS350s protect citizens and the US border

Law enforcement on the frontier straddles geography and politics.

By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo. Challenger 604,
Bell 222/412, Eurocopter AS350B3


San Diego PD Air Support Unit AStar B3 prepares to launch on a night-time patrol flight.

These days the very words "the border" conjure up disturbing images—furtive souls crossing muddy rivers, desperate men and women staggering across hot, desolate sands in search of a better life.

And cartel gangs in bloody gunfights over drug turf. Mexico has lost count of the dead along its border with the US, but a recent estimate was well over 200,000.

The Mexican border has become a time bomb. The flow of illegal immigrants is nonstop, but now it includes jihadists bent on terrorist missions, East European criminals and Asian smugglers. Cartel battles spill over frequently into US border towns, while their delivery teams, driving Humvees and all-terrain-capable SUVs, deliver tons of drugs to destinations in Texas, Arizona and California.

Standing in defense against this onslaught of societal dysfunction, US border patrol agents drive pickup trucks and ATVs, defending themselves with pistols and shotguns against cartel warriors carrying M16s, AK47s and RPGs.

But, as the border war has escalated, so have the committed resources of the US. Army National Guard UH72 Lakotas and OH58D Kiowas now patrol the entire US border, deploying their infrared (IR) surveillance gear to identify roving bands of criminals.

Sprawling along the California shoreline is the city of San Diego, with naval vessels fresh from combat duty in for refurbishment.

US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) UH60s and AStars fly air support for those lone border patrol agents. Even the occasional Predator drone is now working up and down the border, its high-tech sensors sending detailed intelligence data to forces on the ground.

Inevitably, law enforcement agencies in every city on the border are drawn into the fray, backing up border patrol agents or encountering criminal enterprises in action. And their own helicopter support is overhead, giving them overview and tactical input.

San Diego PD Air Support Unit

The City of San Diego spreads from ocean beaches to remote, rugged mountains, with a typically dense Californian urban environment at its center. The Air Support Unit is thus tasked with a wide variety of responses, both urban and open country.

Based at MYF (Montgomery, San Diego CA), a few miles northeast of SAN (Intl, San Diego CA), the unit's spacious hangar houses 4 Eurocopter AS350B3 AStars and includes the maintenance facility, training and briefing rooms, and administrative offices.

The unit's goal is to keep at least 2 of the AStars available for flight duty at any given time. The Department maintenance staff is qualified and equipped to perform all AStar maintenance except for component and engine overhauls.

Eight members of the Air Support Unit are fully qualified as patrol pilots. They fly 6–8 hrs during their 10-hr shift. Flying is divided into 2-hr missions, with the 2 officers swapping roles between pilot and observer/tactical flight officer (TFO) on each flight.

Officer Kevin Means checks an image on the FLIR screen as he flies a patrol mission.

Newcomers to the unit are first trained as TFOs, learning to operate the aircraft's high-tech surveillance and communications equipment. They are also taught how to handle tactical situations in support of police ground units.

When a pilot position opens up, the unit draws from its cadre of TFOs and they attend initial pilot training at a nearby civilian flight school, completing their FAA commercial rotorcraft license. Then they begin learning police flying with the unit's 2 training officers.

Next they complete a basic pilot check­out in the AS350, followed by the AS350 pilot course at American Eurocopter's GPM (Grand Prairie TX) facility. The remainder of their training is completed on actual patrol flights, with one of the training officers acting as TFO and pilot instructor.

Flying over the city and border

A San Diego Police Dept AS350B3 cockpit includes (L–R) the screen that displays FLIR and camera outputs (in shadow), police map display, audio panels and Garmin 430, vehicle and engine multifunction display (VEMD), and pilot's PFD. Above the map and FLIR displays are the 2 police radio panels.

Air Support Unit Chief Training Officer Kevin Means says, "The City doesn't get involved in border or illegal alien activity as a matter of policy. With budgets as tough as they are, we have all we can handle just taking care of our own community.

"But inevitably our patrol folks end up responding to incidents along the border, because there are never enough local, state or federal resources to cover all of the problems."
Means goes on to describe a recent incident in which a large speedboat, running drugs from Mexico up the coast to some destination in the US in the middle of the night, rammed a Harbor Police boat that was in pursuit.

The Harbor Police Boat crew requested urgent assistance from Means and his TFO, and, after determining that the police boat crew were safe, they set off in search of the criminals.

The weather was 1500 ft overcast and the Air Support Unit crew were several miles offshore, using their night vision goggles (NVGs) to search for the offending craft. The type of speedboat in question is capable of speeds in excess of 70 kts, so it disappeared into the night.

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