What Happens Inside a Police Helicopter?

You may have noticed I haven’t been as active as I usually am, both here on the blog and on social media. That’s because I’ve been tucked inside my writer’s cave, finally nearing the end of a massive workload. Several projects are completed; only one remains unfinished for a few more days, maybe a week. With each new release in 2017, all that hard work pays off. Which is so exciting! Over the last few months, I’ve written CLEAVED (sequel to MARRED), a second 10K-word story — entitled A SULTRY ABYSS — for SCREAM (sequel to RUN; the next anthology in the trilogy is entitled DIE), and I’m now finishing BLESSED MAYHEM.

I’d planned to take 2017 a bit slower, but fate had different plans for me.

So many incredible opportunities have come my way. I’m both humbled and thrilled by the invitations. The top two are… In July, I’ll release a novella using my characters inside Critically-Acclaimed Author Susan Stoker’s Kindle World, SPECIAL FORCES, OPERATION ALPHA. In September, I’ll release a novella (done the same way) inside Critically-Acclaimed Author Elle James’ Kindle World, BROTHERHOOD PROTECTORS. Both are such amazing opportunities, I can hardly believe I’m involved. They both have cool logos, too (check the sidebar).

Anyway, while I wrap up BLESSED MAYHEM, I invited a guest here to explain what happens inside a police helicopter. Please welcome Adam from writersdetective.com. For those unfamiliar with Adam — he’s written a few posts for me over the years: What It Feels Like Inside a Crime Scene, Writing Detectives: Learn from a Pro, and Police Procedures: US vs. Canada — he’s a former Major Crimes Detective who now works as the “Eye in the Sky.” Enjoy!

“So you’re a pilot?”

“No, I’m the other guy. The pilot rows the boat; I shoot the ducks.”

That is my standard response whenever someone learns that I fly in police helicopters for a living.

The Pilot’s job is pretty simple: Fly the helicopter and don’t hit anything.

My job as the “Tactical Flight Officer” is to handle all of the cop stuff.

It’s a bit like working uniformed patrol, but I have a chauffeur, and we’re in the air. My job title is often abbreviated as T.F.O. which many cops and aviators use interchangeably with Crew Chief, Observer, JAFO (Just Another F*&^ing Observer) or Self-Loading Baggage.

Similarly, cops may refer to the helicopter by its police radio call sign (such as Air One, Henry One, Eagle One, etc.) or in general by calling it an airship or euphemistically as a ghetto-bird.

The primary role of the police helicopter aircrew is to watch over our police officer partners on the ground. Most often, we think of law enforcement aircraft playing the role of eye-in-the-sky during vehicle or foot pursuits. While we certainly do our fair share of that, our main focus is making sure the ground units aren’t running headlong into an even more dangerous situation.

Domestic violence calls are, statistically speaking, some of the most deadly calls officers go on. Having a police helicopter overhead can be the tripwire that prevents an officer from being ambushed by an armed suspect returning to the scene of the crime. Supporting the Patrol Officers is such a vital mission that the LAPD assigns the majority of its Air Support Division aircraft to a unit called ASTRO (Air Support To Regular Operations.) As an officer on the ground during critical incidents, it’s comforting to know you have a partner overhead that is watching your back.

To do “all of the cop stuff” in the helicopter, I have police radios for communicating with the officers on the ground and a “moving map” video screen that plots our location over What Happens Inside a Police Helicopter?the image of various maps (such as street maps, topographical maps, and aeronautical charts.) A gyro-stabilized “gimbal” (think of a basketball-sized globe that can pan-tilt-zoom in all directions) is affixed to the bottom of the airship. That gimbal houses a high definition video camera, a low light video camera, a forward looking infrared camera (called FLIR), and a laser range finder which shows me the GPS coordinates and distance away of whatever it is I’m looking at on the screen. I also have a set of ANVIS night vision goggles (NVGs) to see in the dark and a pair of gyro-stabilized binoculars for zooming in over long distances despite the turbulence of flight, respectively.

Although FLIR and the NVGs both allow me to see at night, they operate very differently. The FLIR shows me an image on my screen (this is a flat screen monitor mounted within the helicopter’s instrument panel) of heat radiation. The NVGs are mounted to my flight helmet and they simply amplify whatever ambient light is available from the moon, stars, etc. Neither the FLIR nor NVGs will allow me to “see through” anything.

While all of this technology is great for enabling me to oversee the patrol officers, I most often find myself playing chess master with the positioning of officers on the ground. Since I usually have the best view of an incident like a pursuit, I am uniquely positioned to assign officers to specific perimeter locations and to call out danger areas (such as unseen crossfire situations where officers are on either side of the same fence.)

Other common calls for service I handle while working in the police helicopter are searching for missing persons, taking overhead photos of crime scenes, and assisting Detectives with surveillance.

We are also occasionally called upon to act as a flying bus for specialty teams such as the SWAT Team, Dive Team, or K-9 when they need to be deployed quickly to remote areas.

What happens inside a police helicopter?While larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and New York City have the luxury of helicopter fleets, many areas of the country rely on State Police Air Support Units or police agencies with part-time flight crews to handle air support needs. The response times to incidents vary drastically based upon the location of where aircraft are based and the staffing schedules of the aircrew. If you plan to have a police helicopter in your story, it’s worth checking out where the nearest helicopter is based in relation to where your scene will play out.

One important Hollywood fallacy worth pointing out is the concept of shooting from a helicopter. There are some agencies in the U.S. that do permit their flight crews and/or SWAT members to shoot from aircraft, however, the vast majority of airborne law enforcement units do not shoot from their helicopters.

If you are inclined to have cops shooting from helicopters in your story, it’s important to know that shooting from a helicopter is not a precision tactic. The shooter usually “walks rounds onto the target,” which means a one-shot-one-kill sniper style target strike is not reality.

To learn more about the realities of shooting from helicopters, I’d suggest checking out Magpul Dynamic’s Aerial Platform Operations DVD. Here’s a preview: https://youtu.be/kaC4hrTbwIY

If you plan to write a police helicopter into your story, you can learn more about police helicopter operations by visiting the Airborne Law Enforcement Association website at http://www.alea.org.

Adam from writersdetective.com-Adam

Website:  writersdetective.com

Twitter: @WritersDetctive

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly.

In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue’s the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show “Partners in Crime” on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She’s also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio — menu bar).


  1. Brilliant post! Thanks for sharing the inside story 🙂

  2. A very informative and interesting post. I never would have suspected that domestic violence calls could be so deadly. Sadly, we just lost a young officer in our state while he was investigating a protection from abuse violation. Officers came from all over the country for his funeral. The solidarity and honor among these men and women for their fallen brother was moving to see.
    Congrats on all your projects and accomplishments, Sue, and thanks to Adam for the inside view from the copter. I was once caught in the beam from a search helicopter, but that’s another story, LOL.
    Mae Clair recently posted…Character Interview with Brandi from #NakedAlliances #RRBCMy Profile

  3. Excellent piece, Sue & Adam. Nice that you cleared up the bit about sniping from the air – great video clip, too!

    I’ve curious about restricted airspace, Adam. How do you deal with entering normally restricted airspace during an emergency? Do you have to get permission from air traffic control or do you have the authority to tell them you’re entering?

    • Excellent questions, Garry! I’m curious about that too. Let me see if I can track down Adam for an answer. To be continued…

    • Happy New Year, Garry! Great question. We get permission from ATC to enter restricted airspace. ATC is great at giving us priority when we are working a call, so we definitely get to fly places most aviators don’t. However, the airspace restrictions are there for a reason and most often it’s a safety reason.

      Think back to the flying shenangians…er…I mean…dog-fighting sorties that Maverick and the gang flew in Top Gun. Miramar is in Southern California and the desert is due East of there. I’d hate to be flying out there in my helicopter going 80 knots (92 miles/hour) and have a bunch of F-14s coming at me at near super sonic speeds. That is cause for disaster. Hence, that airspace restriction makes it a safer aerial training ground.

      So if we had a call in that Restricted Airspace, ATC would check to see if the Airspace was “hot” or not. If Maverick is in the O-Club singing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and all the F-14s are on the ground, we’d most likely be allowed to fly in there.

  4. Very informative and I love being let on the inside to learn the lingo. There is so much more to this post that I want to explore so I’ll be here a while. Sorry you have to look at this little alien, still haven’t figured out what’s up with my gravatar on self-hosted sites. He’s fine everywhere else. Great job, you two.

  5. Good stuff. Glad he explained that it’s not one-shot one-kill shooting from a helicopter. Too often I read authors who make that sort of mistake. As a firefighter, I wince whenever a writer says “the firemen entered the burning house wearing their oxygen tanks.” BOOM!

  6. Thanks for the interesting post you two. Congratulations on the invites to those new projects.

  7. Thank you very much, both, for this look at what police life is really like. I’m sure it makes all the difference in the world to the police on the ground to know they can count on the air crew. And it’s good to be able to sift out what’s real from what’s TV.

    • Besides the usual, I had no idea what their duties were. Adam’s always a great source of information for crime writers. Glad you enjoyed it, Margot.

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