When training new Tactical Flight Officers (TFOs) we describe foot pursuits as the lowest common denominator of all pursuit scenarios. Suspects on foot are much smaller and more maneuverable than cars, motorcycles and bicycles. They can easily see where we are, and if they’re familiar with the tactical environment, which they often are, they know the best places to hide, and where all the holes in the fences are.
As with all missions, safety of flight must be an aircrew’s highest priority, but depending on how foot pursuits are flown, aircrews may be exposed to excessive and unnecessary risks. Many years ago, it was common to fly nighttime foot pursuits relatively low – between 300 and 400 feet AGL or even lower. The technology and techniques that enabled aircrews to keep suspects in sight from higher altitudes were not refined enough to be effective. Pilots would spiral around running suspects at low altitudes in high-G turns while TFOs tried to illuminate them with a searchlight. The job got done, but the aircrew’s workload and their exposure to ground-based hazards was relatively high.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but in open areas, I was actually taught to herd fleeing suspects with the helicopter. We would descend to within 50 feet of the ground and then maneuver around them in a senseless attempt to block their path. “Risk Management” was the name of a division within the City; it certainly wasn’t a process WE used to evaluate, reduce and eliminate risk. Fortunately, we made it through that phase of our existence with no accidents, which is remarkable when you consider how vulnerable we were to power lines, fences, over-torques or even rocks that were thrown at us.
Years later, after acquiring new technology and experimenting with different ideas, we discovered that if the pilot could position the aircraft by referring to the FLIR display, and the TFO was a proficient FLIR operator, we could fly these and other missions much higher, and with a higher degree of success. Our exposure to ground-based hazards and our flyover noise were reduced, which enabled our ground units to hear the TFO better. That can be crucial to officer safety.
The most noticeable change, however, was the reduction in aircrew workload. We discovered that, when these techniques were understood, a proficient crew could loiter over a fleeing suspect in a gentle 50 to 60 knot orbit at 800 to 1000 feet AGL, while calmly updating ground units with the suspect’s actions. Low altitude foot pursuits were about to become a thing of the past – or so we thought.
The wide disparity in proficiency between FLIR operators was the first barrier we encountered. Some TFOs were skilled FLIR operators and could easily keep a suspect in sight while staying oriented. Others required some additional training, but they rose to the occasion. There was a small group, however, who rarely picked up the hand-controller. There was no way they were going to be able to control the FLIR well enough from 1000 feet AGL to keep a running suspect in sight, and they refused to practice.
This disparity in proficiency was problematic, because the techniques, technology and tactics used during higher altitude foot pursuits are, to a large degree, not interchangeable with lower altitude foot pursuits.
At 300 to 400 feet AGL, the position of the aircraft in relation to the suspect can change rapidly and significantly as they move in relation to each other. This is due to their close proximity. The lateral offset angles that develop, combined with whatever obstructions are present, make it easier for suspects to move behind obstructions, or move more easily from building to building without the aircrew being able to see them. The lower the aircraft gets, the worse this problem becomes. Urban environments are particularly bad, because there are plenty of structures for suspects to hide behind. We can reduce their ability to do this somewhat by flying faster, but then we often end up in a high-G, high-bank turn, as we spiral over the suspect’s head.
If the suspect and aircraft get too close to each other, which can happen quickly at lower altitudes, both crewmembers may lose sight the suspect behind, or beneath the aircraft. If we turn sharply to keep them in sight, we can easily find ourselves in an undesirable situation – downwind, low and slow, in a tight turn with a lot of pitch on the blades.
For the most part, the general public has no idea how much training it takes and how much work is involved in safely and effectively flying a helicopter during a vehicle pursuit. Even law enforcement officers who haven’t been in a helicopter during a pursuit can’t fully appreciate the workload and crew co-ordination that occurs.
Most people associate the presence of a law enforcement helicopter with the apprehension of pursuit suspects, but a well-trained aircrew can do much more — they can make the pursuit safer for everyone. When tactical flight officers (TFOs) play an active role, they can significantly reduce the workload of ground units, who can then concentrate more on their driving and not worry about losing the suspect.
Even when a helicopter is overhead, officers must constantly balance the risks of continuing the pursuit with the likelihood of someone getting injured or killed. Unfortunately, the primary unit is sometimes the one least capable of objectively evaluating the situation.
During stressful situations, physiological changes take place, which cause fine motor skills to degrade, auditory and visual abilities to be impaired, and reaction time to increase by as much as 400 percent. As such, supervisors are tasked with monitoring the conduct of a pursuit and weighing several factors: their knowledge of the pursing officer’s experience and judgment; what the suspect is wanted for; the time of day and other environmental factors; the location and speed of the pursuit; the type of vehicle and how the pursuing officer sounds on the radio. How the officer sounds, is usually the best indication of how well the pursuit is going and how much stress he or she is feeling.
Tactics: a mode of procedure for gaining advantage or success.
The use of tactics applies to any scenario in which one entity is opposed to another and is trying to gain the upper hand on an opponent. And, while no single tactic applies to all scenarios, there are some very effective ones that, if mastered, can significantly enhance the safety and effectiveness of air and ground units in most situations.
In all situations, maintaining tactical flexibility allows officers to shift gears quickly and effectively when something unexpected happens.
After aviation safety, officer safety is an aircrew’s first priority. As an aircrew, our tactics should reflect that. And, both air and ground units should have a clear understanding of how they’re going to work together.
The best way to accomplish this understanding is for ground units to ride with the aircrews, and for us to attend their pre-shift lineups and discuss issues associated with our common missions. This lets ground units put a face to the voice they hear on the radio, and helps build relationships.
Our tactical opponent, meanwhile, is anyone who commits or attempts to commit a crime and then tries to escape. There are three law enforcement responses to this opponent and their actions: prevention, detection and apprehension.
Prevention is difficult to measure in terms of success. But, we do know that the high-profile presence of a law enforcement helicopter can help prevent criminal activity — even if only on a short-term basis.
Detection and apprehension is where aircrews can excel. Our effectiveness here depends on factors we can control, including: tactics, technical proficiency, crew co-ordination, air/ground unit co-ordination, and law enforcement skills and judgment. Any shortfalls in these areas can negatively impact safety and effectiveness.
Most law enforcement helicopters are similarly equipped with thermal imagers (forward-looking infrared [FLIR]), searchlights, GPS mapping systems, stabilized binoculars and a variety of radios. Night vision goggles (NVGs) are also being used by an increasing number of agencies, but, while they have some tactical uses, they primarily increase situational awareness (aviation safety).
Having technology available is only one part of the equation; its effective use is the other. This begins long before we arrive at a call, with ***Preparation H (Preparation Helicopter)***, which ensures our equipment is ready to use and that we’re proficient in its use. It means we turn the FLIR on well before it is needed, or practice with it before we get into a real-world scenario. That preparation can make the difference between a suspect escaping and getting caught.
When I was asked to write an article about how an airborne law enforcement training program should function under a Safety Management System (SMS), my first thought was that it would be easy. Simply describe how a training program should be structured to evaluate and minimize risk while maximizing mission effectiveness. As I tried to describe the concept in words, however, I found myself referring to other areas of our unit’s operation to explain the process – Safety, Unit Management etc. The fact is training is not an isolated, independent component under the SMS concept. Training must be integrated with other areas of a unit’s operation to effectively manage risk.
Rescue victims usually have one thing in common – they want to be found. If able, they will be doing everything they can to signal searchers on the ground and in the air. Occasional exceptions to this are children. They sometimes think they’re going to be in trouble when they’re found, so they hide. If that behavior is suspected it might be more effective to use suspect search techniques, rather than victim search techniques. Let’s evaluate the differences.
A victim’s actions, as rudimentary as they may be, will sharply contrast with that of suspects, who will be doing everything they can to avoid being found. Most airborne law enforcement units in the United States receive extensive training in suspect searches, and they routinely perform those missions. They have technology aboard their aircraft that is very well suited for suspect searches (FLIR, Night Vision Goggles, searchlights, Public Address systems, etc.), but that technology is also effective for victim searches.
Many U.S. airborne law enforcement units have extensive Search and Rescue programs and in some cases SAR missions are prioritized over patrol support. They are usually well trained and equipped to perform SAR missions from beginning to end. Other units often limit their role to searching. Their missions might more accurately be described as Missing Person missions, because the rescue is performed by someone else. The distinction between a Search and Rescue program, and a program that limits its crewmembers to searching, is usually defined by what is done after victims are found. Do we, as a practice, rescue the victims ourselves or do we direct other resources to them? Those are policy decisions that each agency needs to address, but if agencies authorize their crewmembers to perform rescues, it’s crucial that they are properly trained and equipped.
In the last 15 years, I’ve seen the world of nighttime operations change dramatically. Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) revolutionized our ability to search in dark environments, but FLIR wasn’t an answer to the risks associated with flying in dark environments. In fact, glare from the FLIR’s display made the pilot’s job even more difficult. Some of those flights were just downright scary.
The San Diego Police Air Support Unit started using Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) several years ago. There was no particular incident that moved us in that direction, the opportunity to acquire them just presented itself. We originally didn’t think they’d be of much use. Someone even thought that they were nothing more than a poor man’s FLIR, only to be used by the Tactical Flight Officer. We knew nothing about incompatible lighting, NVG limitations, training, etc.
Like FLIR, NVGs are military trickle-down technology. Originally designed for military applications, they have clear parallel benefits for airborne law enforcement operators. Most of the lessons learned about NVG operations were learned by Army aviators decades ago. Early generation NVGs (Generation 0 and 1) were contributing factors in several nighttime accidents. Their performance was relatively low, and their displays distorted the image, sometimes significantly.