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By Dwaine Parker

I believe that this question has been the most asked of me. I never mind answering it and I use to respond back with lengthy emails trying not to forget the slightest detail. I then realized it would be easier to cover the information with a simple phone call. But that required several emails coordinating times and numbers. So I have finally decided to put everything I know all together in one thread. Hopefully anyone who wants the information will be able to find it and review it at anytime…sorry for the length and I hope you find the information beneficial.

To Protect & Serve from the Air:

Helicopters are an important tool in law enforcement and are used daily in just about every role you can imagine including public relations. The biggest problem a police agency has to deal with is the perceived cost of an aviation unit. Since police departments all suffer from reduced budgets, trying to obtain and then justify the existence of an aviation unit is a monumental task. IF the department is lucky enough to start a unit then the next monumental task will be trying to keep the program alive. Positive public relations with the community and even with your fellow officers are crucial but this is another topic for another day.

Over the past thirty years several Universities* studied police aviation units to determine if having an aviation program in law enforcement was cost effective for the tax payers. Each research yielded the same result; use of helicopters is cost effective and is considered a Force Multiplier. Each helicopter in the air is like having an additional 10 to 15 officers on the ground with regard to span of control, reduced response times and ability to cover large areas. The more valuable you make yourself to your police department and citizens the better your chances are to avoid the tax cuts and budget axes.

*London Ontario Police Service Helicopter Study,*University of Toronto Study of the Impact of Police Helicopters & Criminal Behavior, *The Use of Helicopters in Policing: Necessity or waste? University of South Carolina & University of Maryland

The first police helicopter used in the United States was with the New York Police Department in 1947 utilizing a Bell 47. In major cities police helicopters are often referred to as ghetto birds by inner city youth. At my department our official call sign is Air 1 or 2 (Slang; Air Wolf) and our ATC call sign is “Shadow 1 or 2.”


A police helicopter is a helicopter used in police operations. They are commonly used for traffic control, ground support, search and rescue, high-speed car pursuits, foot pursuits, missing persons, observation, aerial photography of crime scenes / search warrants, recons, air patrol, riot / crowd control, crime deterrence, detection / recovery of stolen equipment, surveillance and emergency evacuations. Police helicopters are also used as air transportation for SWAT personnel, K-9 teams and other Special Operations unit members. Some police agencies are now conducting hoist rescues and fire fighting through use of the Bambi bucket.


Police helicopters and pilots are normally equipped with variants such as night vision goggles (NVG’s), FLIR (Forward looking infrared), surveillance cameras, micro-wave downlinks, special radio systems, loudspeaker systems, searchlights, hoists, police rescue equipment and special seating or personal equipment. Also included are uniforms, helmets / headsets and duty weapon. Weapons are never attached to the aircraft.

Many police agencies started their programs by obtaining military surplus helicopters, such as the Bell UH-1 Huey, OH58 models and the OH6 (Littlebirds) (Hughs 369). Other units purchase their helicopters directly from major aircraft companies such as Eurocopter, Bell, Augusta-Westland, Robinson, Schweizer, and McDonnell Douglas. The most popular airframe in use today is the Eurocopter AS350 models and the Bell 206 & 407 models.

Airborne Patrol & Pursuit:

Airborne patrolling gives police a bird's-eye view of what's happening in and around our cities, or along our nation's borders and coastlines. When needed, ground units can ask their counterparts in the air to help patrol large events. Often, routine aerial patrols are conducted day and night looking for illegal or unusual activity and when the criminals try to flee, the police can track them from the air.

Our department looks at crime trends every two weeks. If a certain area is starting to show signs of increased criminal activity our scheduled patrol flights are altered to cover the affected areas. This type of strategy has had a very positive effect on apprehending suspects or reducing the crime trends.

Federal Border Patrol, Customs & Immigration (ICE):

Border patrol was once largely a matter of controlling drug smuggling and illegal immigration. Today, it's a primary means of keeping terrorists from penetrating the United States. After the events of 9/11 the Customs and Immigration combined departments and are now known as Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Helicopters, airplanes, blimps, and jets are used to support the monitoring, tracking, pursuit and interception of people trying to enter or leave the country illegally. Federal Law Enforcement agencies have specific pilot requirements and age limits for eligibility. For the most updated information on becoming a pilot for the Federal Government you will need to contact them directly.

Duty Characteristics:

A police pilot is responsible for enforcing laws and ordinances; preventing, investigating and detecting crimes; and the apprehension of criminals. Work is performed in accordance with departmental rules and regulations and helicopter unit established procedures. Work involves an element of personal danger. Pilots must be able to act without direct supervision and exercise independent judgment in meeting emergencies. Assignments and general instructions are received from a superior officer or Chief Pilot who reviews work methods and results through reports, personal inspection and discussion. You are basically required to carry out two professions in one; Police Officer and Commercial Pilot. (I wish we were paid for maintaining two professions )

Essential Duties:

A Police Pilot patrols a designated area of the City or regional area as assigned in a helicopter aircraft to preserve law and order, to prevent and discover the commission of crimes, and to enforce traffic regulations. While in the air or Standing by for a call at the hangar, Police Pilots answers calls and complaints involving misdemeanor and felonies crimes and mutual aid to other local / federal agencies when requested. Police Pilots also assists in the apprehension of wanted persons through the direct use of their aircraft. Police Pilots confers with other pilots, department staff and detectives on problem cases or known crime trends. Pilots perform daily inspections of helicopter aircraft and may perform minor equipment repairs, prepares various records and reports; testifies in court. Police pilots may be required to assist fire personnel with fire fighting duties by providing an aerial platform for fire commanders to monitor and control fire operations. Rotating shifts, day and night schedules and work during holidays will apply.

Occasional Duties:

May take charge of, guide and direct the work of subordinate law enforcement personnel in various situations until relieved by a superior officer. Coordinate with law enforcement or security personnel from other public or private agencies activities which prevent and control criminal conduct. May provide flight instructions and ensure flight proficiency of peers or subordinates. Pilots may be temporarily assigned to other functions which require knowledge and abilities usually acquired through experience on the force as a sworn police officer. Pilots may be required to cover on-call status during non-working or time off hours.

Position Knowledge and Skill Levels:

Knowledge of: modern police practices and methods; the rules and regulations of the Department you are employed with; controlling State, County and City statutes, laws, ordinances, to include court decisions and their effects; Police pilots must maintain skills in the use and care of firearms through yearly qualifications; maintain department physical fitness requirements through yearly testing; maintain an FAA Medical Certificate, Commercial Pilots License and conduct yearly training to maintain proficiency with all aspects of a Police Pilots job responsibilities.

Career Path:

There is no easy answer or solution to this question. As I have stated before you are essentially combining two professional careers into one job. With that in mind you will need to train for each job. There are the rare occasion that you may find a department that will hire civilian pilots but this is the exception and not the rule.

Each department will have their own requirements and those requirements can change depending on the needs of the unit. Like all things in aviation, timing is everything and so is networking!
This is what I have found to be true over the years; remember there are always exceptions to the rules:

* You will need a minimum of two to four years street experience as a cop.
* You will need a minimum of a Commercial Rotorcraft rating.
* Generally speaking you will need a minimum of 300 to 500 hours of helicopter time.
* Often you will be assigned to the unit (initially) as a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO)
* It takes about one year to become fully trained as a TFO; meanwhile, you will be building turbine time from the left seat until you meet the unit’s insurance requirements.
* Although very large departments (Over 1000 Officers) usually have multiple aircraft and pilot staffing they are also filled with qualified pilots already employed as a road cop ready for a transfer.
*In very large departments it is not what you know but who you know that will ultimately decide your future.
* I find that smaller departments (Less than 1000 officers) you will stand a better chance of being hired directly into a unit or work your way from the road to a unit.
* It took me seven years to gain my road experience and flight experience to be assigned into an aviation unit. I started at the age of 32.
* It is wise to become a member of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) attend the regional and national conferences and network, network and then network some more. Get to know all of the departments and their members.
* Remember that there are no guarantees and anything is possible!


Each department is different and benefits will vary. I can tell you what I currently have at my place of employment; 25 year state retirement system, medical, dental, vision, education reimbursement, training, uniforms, vacation / sick pay, take home vehicle, disability / death, best equipment and job in the agency!

Pay will also vary depending on size and location of your department too include years of service. Starting pay for police officers is around $35,000 to $45,000 and by the time you get into an aviation unit your initial pilot pay should be around $50,000 or more.

Final Thoughts:

Large city aviation units will generally fly several times during their shift and mostly over heavy populated areas. Some units may be mandated to call-outs only. Smaller units usually have the freedom to fly where, when and as much as they want. Each unit is unique with mission profiles determined by numerous factors. This is why it is critical to know the department and its mission before you apply.

Flying law enforcement missions, in my opinion, is really the best all around helicopter pilot job you can have. Each day and flight is different. With the exception of logging, flying a police helicopter could allow you to fly EMS, ENG, Corporate, Law Enforcement, Photography, Search and Rescue all in a day’s time.

I find it very challenging and rewarding. But there are a few other police pilots on this forum. Their experiences will differ due to their department profile and geographic location. Please do not take only my perspective on the subject. Reach out and ask others in this profession and get a real sense of the job to see if it is right for you.


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