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Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Nice, Steady Shot

Law Enforcement Notebook: March 2014

By Ernie Stephens

Ever since the beginning of police aviation, law enforcement agencies have studied, implemented, de-implemented, and studied again the merits of delivering deadly force from helicopters. The name of the department escapes me, but I recall there being an agency out west that kept MP5 submachine guns in locking racks aboard their aircraft. They even made it a point to conduct regular airborne target practice at their pistol range.

My department played with it back in 2003, just to see if it would be feasible for our combination of aircraft, counter-snipers, and population density. The results were not impressive. One of our SWAT sergeants, who was probably the best shot on the department at the time, went up with me, and put several well-placed rounds in the paper target as I performed a number maneuvers with the helicopter. Of course, the slower I was moving, the better his shots were.

Two issues readily came to light with our experiments. First, I had a hard time imagining a scenario – considering our environment and department’s shooting policy – where I could get a counter-sniper into a good enough firing position to neutralize an individual without getting my aircraft and crew neutralized in the process. And second, even though Rusty was hitting the target, it wasn’t with the kind of accuracy or consistency that he was comfortable with, considering the one or two scenarios our commanders would authorize such a tactic to be used for.

Back on the ground, we all talked about it, and decided that while other police departments were able to make the pieces fit together properly, we had not reached that point. So, the idea was “dismissed without prejudice,” as they say in civil court, and we left it to be re-examined at some other time farther down the road.

Now, enter a product that I saw at the Airborne Law Enforcement Association’s annual conference last summer. It was a gyro-stabilized weapons mount, or “GSWM.”

If you have ever seen or read about a gyro-stabilized video camera mount, you already understand the concept of the GSWM. The same way those systems cancel out the movements of the helicopter so that a video camera can get a smooth, steady shot of the subject matter, the GSWM allows a crew to mount their weapon of choice into the device, and train it on a target without it being bounced around by the helicopter.

For those of you with military experience, you have probably seen GSWMs installed on ground vehicles and even some airplanes. And I hear they are invaluable aboard inflatable assault boats as they bounce across the waves.

The mount that I saw in Orlando was light enough for one person to carry, and was intended to be affixed to the cabin floor of a helicopter with quick-disconnect hardware or cargo straps. Once in place, just about any long gun could be quickly fitted into mount.

The heart of the GSWM was a series of high speed, mil-spec gyros that read the aircraft’s attitude and vibrations thousands of times per second. That information is then fed into a computer that sends signals to a part of the mount that looks like a main rotor swashplate. So, as a helicopter is rolling into a turn, for example, the gyros and software instantaneously detect it, and adjust the weapon’s position to maintain its original line of sight.

How do you acquire a target? The GSWM has a video camera system that quickly attaches to the weapon’s scope. This allows the counter-sniper to sit comfortably in the aircraft with the controller in hand, and see what the scope sees by way of a small color monitor. It can even give range data.

The salesman let me give it a try right there on the exhibit hall floor. I took the control unit, and used the little joysticks to swing the dummy weapon onto a stationary target about 100 feet away.

With the gyros off and the sales person shaking the mount by hand, the crosshairs danced all over the place. Had it been a real-world situation, a great “T” shot one second would have been a clean miss the next. But once he turned the gyros on, shaking the mount violently did nothing to my aim. The crosshairs remained glued to the spot I had put them on.

There are plenty of agencies that have had good luck using only a rifleman and a good weapon. But I like the odds that a GSWM can offer. You might even be able to get in some deer hunting between calls!

 

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