In 1949, the New York City Police Department acquired a Bell 47 helicopter, launching the first air support division in the world. What started as a simple aerial observation platform has evolved into a high-tech police asset. Today’s law enforcement helicopter has high-definition, multi-sensor, gyro-stabilized, camera systems, tracking devices and microwave downlink capability to name a few.
One highly effective camera that severely limits a criminal’s ability to hide at night is a thermal-imaging system. This type of camera sees in the infrared spectrum, which detects differences in temperature. For example, a suspect hiding in a group of bushes glows on the screen from body heat. These systems are very effective as the Albuquerque Police Department’s air unit demonstrated when directing ground officers to apprehend a fleeing suspect. The TFO (tactical flight officer) saw him remove a gun from his belt and throw it on the roof of a building. The heat from the suspect’s body had warmed the gun enough that the air unit’s thermal camera saw the abandoned weapon.
This chase won second place in FLIR Systems (one of the camera manufacturers) 2007 vision awards. This and other chases using FLIR cameras can be seen on the Web site under the vision awards tab (http://www.flir.com/cvs/americas/en/lawenforcement).
Another valuable tool for police helicopters is a moving map system. When responding to a call, the TFO simply keys in the street address and it appears on the map with heading and distance information for the pilot. As the helicopter flies directly to the location its position is over laid on a detailed street map. Once overhead, the TFO can give precise information regarding streets, directions and intersections to the ground crews.
To see all of this in action, my wife and I rode along with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The air support unit began in 1956 with one helicopter and has grown to a fleet of 20. Our pilot was Bob Harrell and the TFO was Mark Burdine. That night they were assigned to the San Fernando Valley. Bob was busy flying the aircraft, listening to police radios, and talking to ATC. At the same time Burdine was communicating with headquarters, managing the equipment and directing ground crews.
They responded to one particular call where a patrol car was attempting to stop a car that was identified as a vehicle used in a previous armed robbery. We flew an intercept course to join up with the ground officers. Arriving at the scene in just a few minutes the car had pulled over in a parking lot and the officers were waiting for back-up before approaching the vehicle. We circled a few hundred feet overhead keeping a powerful spotlight on the car. Once back-up arrived, the officers were able to approach the car and take the suspects into custody safely. The spotlight allows the officers to clearly see what is going on, but makes it hard for the suspects to see the officers.
On another call, the crew helped officers search a dark and assumedly abandon building. Here they were able to provide extra light in some areas and watch the perimeter. In the end, no one was hiding in there, but for the ground officers it’s a good feeling to know there is an extra set of eyes watching from above.
To make all this happen safely and effectively, the pilot and TFO each focused on their area of expertise and then worked together as a team to get the mission done. Seeing the professionalism and competence with which these guys did their job was impressive.