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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Law Enforcement Notebook

Frank Lombardi

Duck and Cover

My previous column mentioned performing the right job at the right time and how most of our time in the air is spent as pilots first and police officers second.

To beat these systems one must plan backward from the objective to the starting point.

In this column, I’d like to explain some instances where we need to put the cop hat back on, and perhaps, even a Kevlar vest, as we examine some airborne threats. Due to the inherently dangerous nature of police work, you constantly find yourself in scenarios where you are assessing "how can this hurt me?" This mentality holds true for any airborne law enforcement flight crew. The layperson may believe that because we are aviators we are no longer exposed to the dangers of being a street cop. Nevertheless, truthfully, being part of an aircrew can expose you to some of the same and some very different threats during the course of your tour.

Let’s classify these threats as what I would call either passive or active. As pilots, we are all familiar with the passive threats. These are the antennas, wires, cell towers, tall trees, buildings, mountains...anything that, when left to its own device, can do nothing to alter the spot it’s already in, has no interest in occupying the same space as we do, and relies on our see-and-avoid skills to keep us from meeting by accident.

Next, there are the active threats. These are the threats that can end up filling our windshield even after we’ve seemingly cleared the area of passive threats. I will further classify these as either actively dumb or actively smart. Actively dumb threats are moving threats that can find their way to us albeit by chance, such as kites, helium balloons, model airplanes, birds or other air traffic. Our see and avoid radar should always be on the lookout for these. Finally, there are the actively smart threats. These are the threats that are deliberately directed at our aircraft by others in an attempt to discourage, alter or even abruptly end our flight. I’m referring to threats such as gunfire, fireworks, high-intensity lights, lasers or anything being consciously aimed at our flying police car.

Just because we are fighting the good fight from above does not mean we should forget what we learned in the police academy about cover and concealment. I can remember one instance where we were called to aid in the search for a violent subject held up in a wooded area. The fact that this subject possibly had a high-powered rifle necessitated that we stand off and loiter in wider orbits to avoid possible gunfire, and conduct the search as best we could from a less than optimum, yet less vulnerable vantage point. Surprisingly, upon completion of the search I received a phone call from a supervisor on the scene, chastising me for not giving his men "good air support."

I politely explained to him that while a police cruiser’s engine block offered his men a good form of protective cover, the thin sheet metal and composite underbelly of our aircraft provided our flight crew with a mere form of concealment, and only little protection. I also reminded him that anyone, including any bad guy who’s ever been to the arcade, knows that shooting down the aircraft ALWAYS scores you more points than anything else, making us a way more desirable target. I’m not sure if he cracked a smile, but I made my point. On a different occasion, we located a suicidal subject on a bluff overlooking the water. Sadly, he appeared to have already taken his own life, but that made us no less aware of the shotgun lying next to him and the possibility of it being used against us, and we altered our flight path accordingly.

Fireworks, spotlights and lasers are also on the threat list, and while they may not immediately convey the same malicious intent as gunfire, they are no less dangerous. Some of the larger mortar-type fireworks have a secondary percussive explosion that detonates at altitude, which could easily take out aircraft components. While professional fireworks shows may have temporary flight restrictions in place for their event, the low-flying police helicopter called to survey the summer block party-gone-wild is sometimes too good of a target for amateur fireworks shooters to pass up. (Please reference again the arcade game rule). We all intuitively tend to fly higher on or around Independence Day, but leftover fireworks can be shot off any time of the year.

It takes approximately 40 minutes for your night vision to reach full acuity. That can be ruined in a matter of seconds by the flash of a high-intensity spotlight or strobe. Worse yet, permanent eye damage can occur if laser light is beamed directly into the cockpit. Police officers are not always viewed as the good guys. Add to that the inherent risk of flying, and we must be ever vigilant and proactive regarding our safety. Be it on the ground or in the air, recognizing the threat, preparing for it, and practicing tactics to minimize it will increase the likelihood of getting home safely after each tour.

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