SPECIAL UNIT PROFILE
San Diego Police AS350s protect citizens and the US border
Law enforcement on the frontier straddles geography and politics.
This US/Mexico border checkpoint processes thousands of vehicles a day entering the US. The right-hand lanes are filled with vehicles entering Mexico.
Our heading would take us to the border in such a way that we could turn and fly along it westbound toward the Pacific shore, and view the variety of terrain and demographics. Only a few miles inland, the border region becomes rugged, mountainous terrain that is for the most part uninhabited.
Directly across the border from San Diego is the city of Tijuana, formerly a popular tourist destination for Americans wanting a fleeting glimpse of Mexico.
But in recent years, given the level of violence in Mexico, few Americans have been venturing there. In fact, the US State Department has a standing warning for Americans to avoid the border regions of Mexico.
As we flew westbound at a patrol speed of about 60 kts, we suddenly saw a border patrol vehicle beneath the helicopter. The 2 officers were dealing with a small mob of what appeared to be people trying to cross into the US. San Diego PD AStars monitor federal communications channels, together with California Highway Patrol, along with their own dispatch frequencies. There was no traffic with the ground unit indicating that they needed support, so we flew on westward.
SDM (Brown, San Diego CA) is about 2 miles from the border. TIJ (Tijuana, Mexico) is just across the border—in fact, the departure end of its only runway, 09/27, literally touches the border.
Jager remarks that, because there is no coordination for VFR traffic between US and Mexican ATC, they will often see the evening Aeroméxico Boeing 777 bound for PVG (Pudong, Shanghai, China) lift off westbound and fly 2 or 3 miles into US airspace before making its initial turn. "We're TCAD-equipped," he says, "so we do get the alert. But before we had TCAD—well, it was interesting at times."
We flew north along the base of the mountains until we were over Cowles Mountain State Park—a wilderness area in the middle of the residential areas of San Diego. Cowles Mountain is a small cluster of steep hills and valleys that San Diego residents love to hike and climb.
"Unfortunately, some of our residents don't pay attention to the time of day, and then find themselves stranded in the dark," says Means. He explains that many of these lost citizens are close enough to landing areas already defined and marked by the unit. "Most of the time, we can land at one of our predesignated LZs, and the TFO can walk to the victims. Then we simply give them a ride down to the parking lot."
Airborne LE advances
A lone Border Patrol ground unit keeps an eye on the border fence as it drives along the no-man's-land between the US and Mexico.
We had flown the allotted shift time, so Means flew us back to MYF. After shutdown, Means and Jager made plans for their next flight, then we adjourned for a postflight wrap-up.
Airborne law enforcement has come a long way in the 25 years that Means has served with the Air Support Unit. The equipment has improved, and safety programs are primary to all the unit's operations.
He reflects, "We were kind of cowboys back then. Certainly we didn't have the rules of engagement and operational protocols that we have now. So, although we didn't know it, we were exposed in a lot of ways. Today, thanks to the work we did through ALEA, we have some pretty powerful management tools, operational programs and safety assets that our members can deploy. As a result, we're all more effective at our missions, and we're a lot safer as well.
"The accident rate in law enforcement aviation has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to ALEA member units' focus on better oversight, risk management and safety philosophies in every aspect of police flying."
The AStar B3, and its inventory of current technology law enforcement systems, is a major leap forward from the helicopters the Air Support Unit and many other agencies used 20 years ago. And the tactics, management tools and safety programs the unit has in place ensure an effective and safe operation.
San Diego Police Dept Air Support Unit, and its sister organizations along the Mexican border, have a big job to do protecting their constituents. But they are always ready to support their federal colleagues charged with securing the border against cartels bent on mayhem, drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder—and the unit's helicopters help enormously in this endeavor, as do the men and women who dedicate their service.
Woody McClendon has written for Pro Pilot for 20 years. He flies jets and helicopters and is currently a sales manager for FlightSafety Intl.