Airborne law enforcement helicopters typically fly with a pilot and a tactical flight officer (TFO). The TFO communicates with ground units and operates the surveillance equipment. The pilot communicates with ATC and flies specific orbits and altitudes that maximize the TFO’s visibility of the suspect or scene. Both of these positions require good communications skills and the ability to work together as a team.
Recently I flew with Texas DPS in their Dallas based AS350 helicopter. The TFO was Clay Lacey and the pilot was Jim Rohrman. One of the interesting pieces of equipment they used was a gyro stabilized FLIR camera. The term FLIR stands for forward looking infrared, and is used to refer to a thermal imaging camera. FLIR cameras allow the TFO to see in total darkness by producing viewable images of invisible infrared energy. Infrared energy is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we perceive as heat, so it is invisible to the naked eye. Some level of thermal energy is emitted from all people, objects, and material.
On the night I flew with Texas DPS we circled a fight in an apartment complex parking lot. Hearing the helicopter overhead some of the subjects walked into dark areas between the buildings probably thinking they couldn’t be seen. They were perfectly clear on the FLIR screen. Although no one ran, Clay explained that when they do it is very easy to follow them at night and direct ground units to apprehend them. In one case as ground units were surrounding a suspect he reached into his pants, removed a gun and threw it onto a building roof. The gun retained some of the heat from his body and the TFO caught it on his FLIR camera and directed the ground units to find it.
Both Clay and Jim have won awards for their work in apprehending criminals using a FLIR camera. To see a video of their work and how effective these cameras and crews are at apprehending suspects follow these links: