Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 59 seconds.
A ride-along in a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter is unlike any other ride-along in the world. Thats not because theres anything out of the ordinary about the departments Eurocopter AS350 AStars, or because its pilots and tactical flight officers are anything other than consummate professionals. No, an LAPD ride-along is unique because, well, its hard to shake the feeling that youve seen this all before.
Its 10 p.m. on a Friday night in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and Im in the back of an LAPD AStar as it circles an alley that has been blocked off at both ends by patrol cars. A dozen other patrol cars have established a perimeter from Main Street to South Broadway, and from 91st Street to Century Boulevard, diverting traffic away from the nine-block area of interest. A mobile command post and K-9 units are en route.
As we fly our left-hand orbit, the helicopters Spectrolab Nightsun searchlight passes over each backyard in turn, illuminating barking dogs and overgrown hedges, but not the suspect: a six-foot-tall, 18- to 22-year-old male alleged to have fired shots at a police officer before disappearing over a fence. Wait a minute, I think to myself. Havent I seen this in a movie? Or a music video?
The near-mythical status of the LAPD Air Support Division (ASD) has a lot to do with its location in the heart of Americas motion-picture and music industries, which have made ASDs helicopters a staple of American popular culture. Their prominence is not undeserved, though: the divisions 19 helicopters fly a staggering 16,000 to 18,000 hours a year, responding to around 50,000 calls (yes, you read that correctly).
But, while the divisions helicopters appear on Hollywoods screens as regularly as they appear in its skies, ASD personnel are surprisingly friendly and down-to-earth. The sheer number of flight hours to the divisions credit has given it a wealth of valuable experience, and its more than happy to share that with the rest of the helicopter industry.
The degree to which the LAPD values its helicopters is suggested just by the size of the Jay Stephen Hooper Memorial Heliport, the rooftop facility in downtown Los Angeles from which ASD conducts its flight operations. With 16 aircraft parking spots and a central runway, the heliport deck alone measures 600 feet by 210 feet; floating above the snarl of L.A. traffic, it resembles an urban aircraft carrier. The heliport sees so much activity that to keep tabs on it, the division staffs its own control tower.
The Hooper Memorial Heliport has a nearly 30-year history (it dates to 1983), but the history of the division dates back even further: to 1956, when the LAPD began flying a Hiller 12J for traffic patrol. It added a second Hiller in 1963 and a third in 1965. In 1968, it added a turbine-powered Bell 206A JetRanger to the fleet, significantly increasing its capabilities and allowing the helicopter unit to respond to a wide variety of police emergencies. In 1974, having thoroughly demonstrated its value to the department, the helicopter unit was expanded to 15 helicopters and a Cessna 210, and was re-designated as the Air Support Division.
In 1988, ASD added its first Eurocopter AS350 AStar to the fleet, a B1 variant. The AStars size and performance proved invaluable, and the model now makes up the majority of the fleet, which consists of 14 AS350 B2s, five Bell 206B-3s and one Beechcraft King Air.
Currently overseen by Capt. William D. Sutton, ASD employs three lieutenants and 10 sergeants (who are also pilots), 34 line pilots, 24 tactical flight officers (TFOs) and 11 civilians. It is the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world.
Part of the divisions size is a natural function of the size of Los Angeles, which, with about 3.8 million people, is the second-largest city in the United States (after New York). But much of it owes to the LAPDs deliberate strategy of using helicopters as a force multiplier, allowing it to effectively police the citys more than 465 square miles with many fewer ground officers than it would otherwise need.
Weve always had half the officer-citizen ratio of other cities, observed the divisions chief TFO, Cole Burdette, noting that the LAPD has an officer-to-citizen ratio of roughly 1:400, whereas the New York City Police Departments officer-to-citizen ratio is closer to 1:200. Its very, very deeply ingrained in our officers now, the benefit of the helicopter.
Helicopters support the LAPDs ground officers in numerous ways. The backbone of the ASD is Air Support to Regular Operations (ASTRO). ASTRO missions are routine patrols that are directly analogous to the vehicle patrols done by ground officers; they ably carry out ASDs motto: The mission is the same, only the vehicle has changed. Each ASTRO patrol includes one pilot and one TFO (and perhaps one ride-along passenger in the back seat).
For 20 hours out of every 24, the Air Support Division keeps at least two ASTRO helicopters in the air, so its assets are able to respond immediately to most calls; in fact, they are often the first LAPD assets on scene. If were the first ones there, we can describe the scene to [ground units], said Sgt. Jorge Gonzalez, officer-in-charge of ASDs support section. Theyre not coming in blind anymore. . . . These guys are thinking well ahead, based on what youve told them.
When it comes to perimeter searches such as the one I witnessed in Watts, the helicopter can help search for suspects with its Nightsun and FLIR Systems thermal imager, as well as advise ground units of suspicious activity and the location of other police assets. Having a helicopter overhead makes it infinitely harder for a contained suspect to escape especially when that helicopter is tenacious.
This is where ASDs large fleet and generous staffing come into play. In an effort to distract an orbiting helicopter, suspects or their friends may call in false reports of shootings or robberies on the other side of town. Because the Air Support Division always has another asset available to investigate, however, it doesnt have to call off a helicopter already working a case. It can also rotate helicopters and crews over the scene of an incident, providing hours upon hours of continuous coverage.
Once we respond to a call, well stay until the ground personnel tell us were not needed, said Lieut. Phillip Smith, ASDs assistant commanding officer. The Watts search I witnessed was typical of this: once our AStar had burned through its bag of fuel, we were relieved by another helicopter. Eventually, ground officers found the suspect hiding in an abandoned house within the perimeter area, having had aerial support throughout the entire search.
Helicopter assets are also invaluable in the vehicle pursuits for which L.A. is notorious. Having a helicopter overhead allows ground units to pursue a fleeing vehicle without driving recklessly, as Sgt. Chad Costello, a ground officer assigned to LAPDs Hollywood Division, explained to me during an afternoon ride-along in his patrol car. Theres nothing like a vehicle pursuit, because you dont know what to expect: from the suspect, from the cross traffic. A stolen car isnt worth someone dying for. The air unit has a better perspective. . . . It allows us to stay in pursuit, but fall out of sight of the vehicle.
Putting the brakes on vehicle pursuits puts fewer officer and citizen lives at risk, which also reduces the citys associated liability. And, it gives pursuing officers a tactical advantage over their suspects: as support section officer-in-charge Gonzalez noted, from the air, We can see if theyre loading weapons inside [the car]. We can see if theyre throwing evidence out the window.
In addition to ASTRO, the Air Support Division operates a Special Flights Section (SFS), which was created to provide surveillance and support for detectives and undercover operations. Continued Costello, They [the helicopters] are so useful on a surveillance. Big [drug] dealers, they pick up on car surveillance [just] like that. SFS aircraft, on the other hand, can use their on-board technology to observe from altitudes and distances where they are virtually unnoticeable from the ground. Because of the sensitive nature of its operations (it is also used in some LAPD internal investigations), SFS is kept distinct from ASTRO to limit the dispersal of critical information. Pilots and TFOs are assigned to the section on two-year rotations, which most view as an interesting break from routine police work.
The Air Support Division also provides direct support to special units, such as the Special Weapons and Tactics Team. In 2003, the division bought Tyler Special Operations Platforms, and, working with SWAT, revived its airborne sniper program (which had been abandoned in the 1970s after a fatal crash). More recently, ASD and SWAT renewed their commitment to the program, significantly increasing the frequency of their training. The communication between us and SWAT is much better than its ever been, said ASD chief pilot Robert Price. The division now has 10 pilots qualified for airborne shooting operations, although it deploys on such missions only rarely, and none of these have yet resulted in an actual shooting. Its got to be really high-benefit, because the risk is high, continued Price. The scenarios do exist. But weve got to be very selective.
One thing ASD does not do is anything other than police work. There are so many other public-service agencies operating helicopters in the Los Angeles area that the division has been able to focus solely on law enforcement, rather than diversifying into multi-mission work. All we do is support the patrol guys, emphasized Gonzalez. We dont drop water on fires. . . . We ensure that the public that calls 911 gets the quickest response possible.
Cream of the Crop
Like many law enforcement agencies, LAPD requires that its pilot and TFO candidates have a minimum amount of experience with the department (five years) and as patrol officers (three years) before moving into the Air Support Division. This is to ensure that its personnel have a solid understanding of the needs of officers on the ground the people whom the division exists to support. Its just the guys in the cars, thats what its all about, pilot Brent Jones told me as we cruised past Beverly Hills during a daytime ASTRO flight. The ground guys are our customers and I think our approval ratings are pretty high.
The requirement for significant ground patrol experience is unlikely to change. However, in recent years the division has altered its hiring requirements to permit a broader variety of candidates to apply for pilot positions. Previously, pilot candidates required at least a fixed-wing private pilot certificate and 100 hours of flight time. Now, officers can apply for pilot positions with only a private pilot certificate, or five years of experience as a TFO. This encourages candidates who might not have the time or money to accumulate 100 flight hours on their own, including many excellent TFOs.
The selection process is no less rigorous, however. We walk them through the whole gamut, said chief pilot Price. From among the many pilot applicants who come in for face-to-face interviews, the division selects only a handful of the best prospects for each class. But it doesnt end there. Candidates then undergo a one-month ground school designed to identify the cream of the crop (in one recent class, eight candidates started the ground school, but only two were retained for full pilot training). TFO selection is equally tough, involving a one-month evaluation period that, according to chief TFO Burdette, has a washout rate of about 80 percent.
Youve got to weed out the people who can actually do it and those who are just looking for more money, observed Gonzalez. He has a point: pilots and TFOs earn about 30 percent more than patrol officers for their additional training and skills.
Pilot training spans about six months and results in each candidate receiving a rotorcraft commercial pilot certificate. Training is conducted in JetRangers, and newly winged pilots patrol in the Bells for an additional probationary period. After a pilot has around 400 or 500 hours, he or she will transition to the AStar, a process that includes factory training at Eurocopter.
TFO training takes about four months and involves instruction in navigation, radios, coordination with ground officers, and operation of equipment such as the Nightsun and FLIR camera. It also involves some basic flight training, so TFOs can perform at least a run-on landing in the event of an emergency.
As in all good flight programs, however, the training never ends: both pilots and TFOs undergo regular recurrent training and checkrides. Pilot checkrides are quarterly and encompass the full spectrum of emergency procedures, including touchdown autorotations. We look at risk versus benefit, and the benefit [of practicing touchdown autorotations] is huge, said instructor pilot Jack Schonely, a long-time Vertical 911 contributor and nationally recognized expert on perimeter containment and suspect tactics. If you do it four times a year, you stay pretty current.
Elaborating on the divisions commitment to training, Price explained, We operate in a very hazardous environment, and weve got to give our guys the tools they need to survive. Other safety initiatives include a safety management system, monthly safety meetings, incident reports for any flight that is not completed as planned, and computerized risk assessments. Although the division has had fatal accidents in its history, it has now flown around 400,000 hours since its last fatality.
The other part of safety, of course, is good maintenance. And, as impressive as the Hooper Memorial Heliport is, ASDs maintenance facility may be even more so.
The Air Support Divisions aircraft maintenance is conducted through the citys Department of General Services, which boasts a spacious, state-of-the-art new hangar at Van Nuys Airport (see p.70, Vertical 911, AMTC 2008). This facility has 26 mechanics and nine supervisors, and is a U.S. Federal Aviation Regulation Part 145 repair station with a dedicated quality assurance department. It also has a full machine shop, a composites shop, an electrical shop and a component room, among other things. We have a lot of capabilities, said David Honeywell, director of maintenance and helicopter mechanic supervisor for the Department of General Services. And, the facility has a $2 million US parts inventory. Said Honeywell, We need that just to keep things rolling. Some things cant wait until the next day.
The Department of General Services also conducts aircraft maintenance for the Los Angeles Fire Department and the citys Department of Water and Power, but the LAPD is the only department that stations a full-time officer at the Van Nuys facility: maintenance coordinator Pat McNamara. McNamara has been with ASD for two decades, working as a TFO, pilot and flight instructor before assuming his current position eight years ago. As one of two ASD pilots qualified to conduct maintenance test flights, McNamara has a little better than average idea of what goes on in the aircraft. Consequently, he devotes much of his time to assisting with troubleshooting: Theres rarely a day when we dont fly something. Were always diagnosing something.
However, McNamara is also responsible for the divisions scheduling juggling act, making sure its 19 helicopters dont all time out for inspections on the same day. Every morning, McNamara submits a list to flight operations detailing the order in which the helicopters should be flown. The next day, he receives actual flight times from the mechanics on site at Hooper, and tweaks his list as required. We adjust to get the end product that I need, he said.
McNamara also project-manages the divisions completions and equipment installations. The division began performing its own aircraft completions around 2007 (the process saves around $440,000 per airframe) and now has six full completions under its belt. They keep getting better and better, said McNamara. I think weve finally come up with a cookie cutter.
ASD replaces its airframes one at a time as they reach around 15,000 flight hours. Although McNamara said the division would like its helicopters to be perfectly standardized, the reality is that technology is changing so fast, we have to make compromises. Accordingly, new technologies take a while to trickle through the fleet.
Some technologies havent made it there yet, including night vision goggles in L.A.s brightly lit metropolitan area, the division has been hard-pressed to justify the cost of equipping 19 helicopters for NVG operations. Being as big as we are has a downside: it costs more, said the divisions aviation safety officer, Marco Bolanos. Its like turning an ocean liner. We can turn it around, but its going to take a while.
As support section officer-in-charge Gonzalez noted, Its more important to us to have the number of aircraft we do than to have NVGs. Nevertheless, NVGs are in the back of everyones mind, and the division has taken some small steps to prepare for them, such as ordering NVG-compatible components for repairs when theres no cost difference.
Although ASD may not yet have funding for NVGs, its personnel know that they cant complain too much: over the past several years, the Air Support Division has largely escaped the deep budget cuts that have hit other law enforcement aviation units. Its because we have the support of the LAPD from the chief of police on down. They see the significance, explained ASD assistant commanding officer Smith. Whether its by saving money in salaries and benefits through its force-multiplier effect, or preventing a costly lawsuit from a high-speed chase gone tragically wrong, Just in one day we could save the city millions of dollars.
For all of its funding and fame, however, the LAPD Air Support Division remains eager to share and collaborate with the industry, whether through formal training programs or informal conversations and ride-alongs. When asked to sum up the attitude of the division, McNamara had two points: No. 1, we share what weve done because weve done a lot of stuff people cant afford to do. No. 2, were always looking for different ideas. Thats where the Hollywood stereotype breaks down most ASD personnel are just not very pretentious. Theyre good at what they do, but are committed to getting better. And they are, above all, sincerely dedicated to the safety of their fellow officers and the citizens of Los Angeles.
Elan Head is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. She holds commercial helicopter licenses in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and is also an award-winning journalist who has written for a diverse array of magazines and newspapers since the late-1990s.