SPECIAL UNIT PROFILE
San Diego Police AS350s protect citizens and the US border
Law enforcement on the frontier straddles geography and politics.
An AStar stands ready for a patrol flight. The FLIR unit projects downward from the left-hand side of the fuselage.
But Means's description of flying below the overcast, away from the lights of the city, on NVGs, was testimony to just how harrowing it can be to respond to a border-related problem.
As for why a Navy or Coast Guard helicopter wasn't called to respond, Means notes, "There are whole squadrons of military and Coast Guard helicopters stationed in San Diego, but by the time they got a call like that and launched in response the problem would be over.
We're in the air every night, as long as we can maintain VFR, so we get the urgent calls for assistance."
AS350 LE systems
There are 3 major components to the law enforcement systems on San Diego PD's AStars—the Nightsun searchlight, a FLIR Systems forward-looking IR, and a specialized moving map system which uses detailed city street topography as its base.
The Nightsun is a model SX16—the standard in police and SAR searchlights for decades. It is an arc-light powered unit that can put out almost 40 million candlepower. The observer can control the beam from a small focused spot to a broad flood lighting up large areas.
The FLIR unit is both IR sensor and long-range video camera.
There are 2 screens at the TFO station. One is for the FLIR image, and the other is for the 3rd component in the avionics suite—the mapping system. It looks like a large MFD that you'd see in a modern jet cockpit—until you look closely at it. There are no airports, no airspace designators and no airways. Instead, a large red dot in the center of the screen shows the precise position of the aircraft over a city block.
Street names, house numbers, parking lots, and every other detail of the city below are included. The video data is actually sourced from local tax records, and updated periodically to account for demographic changes.
TIJ (Tijuana, Mexico)'s Runway 27 ends right at the US border. Jets departing westbound inevitably cross over into US airspace. SoCal Approach and its Mexican counterparts coordinate these border infringements as best they can to avoid airspace violations.
In order to manage the tactical situation, the TFO switches back and forth between the IR or camera image on the left-hand screen and the map on the right-hand screen. As the situation begins to evolve, he or she may use the map screen to guide the helicopter into position, based on radio traffic describing the situation and addresses.
Then the IR/camera screen will show the foot and vehicle traffic, and the TFO can home in on the fleeing perpetrators, the victims, and pursuing patrol cars and officers on foot.
On arrival overhead the scene, the pilot will roll the helicopter into a left bank, putting the tactical situation on the TFO's side of the aircraft. The pilot can monitor the IR/camera screen to position the helicopter precisely in an orbit around the location.
At night, the searchlight can be used to illuminate a scene and give the officers a better view of the surroundings, the people around the scene, and often the perpetrators when trying to intimidate them. The FLIR is the primary search tool, however, and it enables the crew to search in total darkness, and do so far more covertly than when using the searchlight.
This entire hardware and software suite is a blend unique to nonmilitary helicopters. Incorporating many elements from military targeting and battle management systems, the TFO avionics and sensors are light years ahead of what earlier law enforcement helicopter crews had available.
And units like San Diego PD's Air Support Unit are generating arrest statistics that are vivid testimony to their success.
An ideal multimission helicopter
McClendon (L) and Sgt Bob Gassmann listen as Officer Kevin Means (R) describes San Diego PD patrol tactics.
Means likes to extol the virtues of the AS350B3 as a police vehicle.
"The cockpit is what we've always needed," he says. "It has the console space and the cabin width to accommodate the equipment we need to do our jobs.
And the extra room and seating give us a lot of capability for other missions—tasks we couldn't even consider in older model helicopters."
He goes on to explain how the AStar can be used as an airborne command post during major disasters. Since the AStar, even in law enforcement configuration, is equipped with 4 passenger seats, command staff members can board the aircraft on a moment's notice in the event of a disaster.
With an airborne perspective, they can get an immediate overview of the problem and begin issuing response directives and deploying rescue and protective assets.
In similar vein, the AStar can be pressed into service as a special team transport. SWAT teams, medical crews and other special response units can be transported with their equipment to crime scenes, major accidents or disasters.
And, in extreme cases, victims of accidents, violent crime or sudden traumatic illness can be transported to the hospital. Means makes the point, though, that they would do this only under the most extreme circumstances. "We're not in the emergency medical business," he says, "but we would never stand by and let a victim die if there were no transport options available."
Flying over San Diego
Means had invited the author to accompany him and a TFO on a flight to view the border and the unit's normal patrol area. It was now late evening, almost dark, and time to go flying. After a thorough safety briefing, we strapped in to AStar N710SD. Shortly after completing the prestart and start procedures, we were flying over the city.
Means' crew partner, Todd Jager, was flying as TFO. The California marine layer was lying low over the coast, the precursor to a foggy night in San Diego. The forecast called for 100 ft ceilings by midnight. Means and Jager commented that their flying would most likely be cut short later in the night.
As we flew south, Jager pointed out the cities of Chula Vista and National City, which are surrounded by the City of San Diego. "We end up providing air support for their police department on a routine basis, but it means we add even more square miles to our patrol area without any additional budget support."