Air Beat Magazine: November - December 2003


November - December 2003

DUAL ROLES: Two Missions Under One Hat

Helicopter Rescue Missions:
Pilots Without Passion Need Not Apply

Search, Rescue and Risks
Safety in the SAR Mission

The Art Of The Search
Aptitude, Altitude, & Attitude

The Tactical & Practical Use Of Hoists


DUAL ROLES: Two Missions Under One Hat

By James D. Paules, Jr.

In this current climate of doing more with less, public safety agencies are increasingly called upon to wear a variety of hats. Often, no other law enforcement unit has a bigger hat rack than aviation support. The mission call out may entail surveillance, law enforcement and patrol duties or high-altitude mountain search and rescue operations. While these two missions require increasingly different tactics, training and equipment, more and more airborne units are being asked to do both. 
In the 2001 film, "We Were Soldiers", Mel Gibson recounts the bloody origins of the U.S. Army’s Air Cavalry during the early stages of the Vietnam conflict. The film features great aerial cinematography and flight sequences, plus when one of his officers asks Gibson what he thinks about being both a soldier and a father, Gibson replies, " ... I hope that being good at the one makes me better at the other ... "

This then is the central theme for our profile of air operations units that engage in both law enforcement and search and rescue. Does the training to be good at one mission translate into better performance and results for the other mission? This was the question we posed to a number of airborne law enforcement units around the country and their challenges in wearing those two hats.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau

One airborne unit that has had its upbringing affected by the double duty of law enforcement and search and rescue is the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau. Based at the Long Beach Airport, LASD Aero Bureau is currently under the leadership of APSA member Captain James A. Di Giovanna who brings to the job over thirty years of experience with LASD and fifteen years with the Sheriff’s Aero Bureau.

True to the Sheriff’s Department motto, "A Tradition of Service," the Aero Bureau carries out a diverse number of tasks and the department has become something of the poster child for multi-tasking in the world of airborne service. The department covers a range of severe environments that include mountains, rivers and lakes, deserts, and even Santa Catalina Island, located 26 miles off the California coast. Missions run the whole gamut of civil government helicopter operations including patrol support, covert surveillance, mountain search and rescue, paramedic services, victim treatment and air transport, and of course, swift water rescue.

It’s likely that the LASD’s Aero Bureau started in both the law enforcement and search and rescue business on that fateful day in 1955 when they took delivery of their first Bell 47G Helicopter. Since then, their dual mission role has only expanded as well as their fleet. Currently in the process of replacing their MD products with American Eurocopter A-Stars, the composition of the Aero Bureau fleet, perhaps more than any other in the country, shows the effects of wearing those two hats. The sleek American Eurocopter AS350-B2 ASTAR is used for patrol and surveillance, and the muscle of the Sikorsky H-3 Sea King for mountain search and rescue. They are two distinctly different aircraft for each mission in the new millennium.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Aero Bureau is the largest sheriffs aviation unit in the country, and it is widely regarded as one of the world’s premier air rescue squads with a broad scope of airborne services ranging from patrol support to homeland security to search and rescue operations. The patrol helicopters support all law enforcement ground units involved in police activity. With the use of advanced technology, the aircrews provide real time proactive support to law enforcement personnel and Command Operation Centers.

The AIR-5 rescue program provides some of the most advanced technical rescue capabilities available in the nation. With a flight crew of two deputy pilots, a sergeant crew chief and two Emergency Service Detail deputy paramedics, the team is deployed on search and rescue and over water operations, and can rapidly deploy Tactical Response Forces during major incidents or fly critical resources into remote areas during natural disasters.

With a full plate of missions, Di Giovanna understands, perhaps better than most, the hurdles of flight crew training that faces an airborne unit handling both patrol and search and rescue. "One of the biggest challenges we face is that the two missions require significantly different piloting skills," Di Giovanna notes. "This is largely due to the diverse environment within which the two missions are flown." Di Giovanna explains that even though pilots join the Aero Bureau with a significant number of flight hours and experience, they must have 2,500 hours before looking at a spot on the AIR-5 program.

Even within the AIR-5 program itself, the training protocols need to cover mountain flying, the possibility of fast-rope insertions of SWAT teams or deploying swift water rescue resources into any of the 470 miles of flood control channels that crisscross the Los Angeles basin. The big Sikorsky H-3 also means two qualified pilots in the cockpit, which brings a special training aspect into the H-3 program. "We’ve made it a priority with the H-3 crews for CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) and instrument training," Di Giovanna said.

Running a two-program shop also means making choices and sometimes living with less than you need. "Like many programs," Di Giovanna admitted, "our shortages are people and money, especially for the AIR-5 rescue ships." Di Giovanna explained that AIR-5 is available seven days per week only on a seasonal basis, the remainder of the time it’s deployed four days per week.

"We schedule patrol ships to support our deputies on the ground and schedule AIR-5 when we believe they’ll provide the best response for rescues. It’s a constant balancing act to keep the resources aligned with the mission load and keep it all running within the budget we’re given."

How does that mission load break down for the LASD Aero Bureau? Although the summer months brings out the extreme sports fanatics and drive up the SAR percentage, Di Giovanna estimates that flight hours associated with traditional law enforcement and patrol duties account for 65 to 70 percent of his team’s time, while SAR operations range from 10 to 15 percent, with the balance of flight hours spent on surveillance, transportation and training.

The Aero Bureau recently celebrated 75 years of airborne service to the community, many of those years completed while wearing two hats and flying two types of missions. For the airborne agency that is considering expanding their mission box into SAR because LASD make it looks easy, listen to Captain Di Giovanna. "It’s never, never easy to balance the two missions. Be certain there really is a mission to expand into," he cautions. "Don’t let the desire for the mission drive the mission. Years of our operations have taught us the value of constant, clear risk assessment for each mission." Sound advice, whichever hat your unit is wearing.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol

As part of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol has been charged with maintaining the safety of the 111,994 miles of roads and highways in the Sooner state since its creation in 1937. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) currently has about 680 members. The majority of the members are assigned to the thirteen field Troops, A through M, and the turnpike Troops, X and Y. These troopers are first responders to emergency situations from traffic collisions to natural disasters and civil disorders. Troopers provide everyday service to the public and are prepared and willing to assist any law enforcement agency when asked and perceptive to take the initiative to offer assistance when needed.

In 1949, the department became one of the first law enforcement agencies in the nation to utilize aircraft for traffic enforcement based on the vision and hard work of Trooper Art Hamilton, commonly regarded as the originator of the OHP’s aviation unit. The Aircraft Division quickly proved itself in the law enforcement arena.

Based at the Wiley Post Airport near Bethnay Oklahoma, the OHP air support unit is Troop O. The fleet consists of nine Cessna 182s, two OH-58s, and a King Air 350. The 13-member Troop O flies more than 3,500 flight hours annually. The air support unit is under the command of Lt. Rick Dodson, who has been with the OHP as a trooper for 20 years and in the Aircraft Division since 1995.

Until 2001, this unit operated the fixed wing aircraft and was able to only perform searches. Combined with the newly acquired military surplus helicopters, the agency is now expanding its mission profile. The helicopters were modified with avionics, thermal imaging and video downlink as well as a rescue harness and net.

"We often find ourselves over waterways looking for drowning victims or over wooded areas looking for lost children, missing or injured hunters or tracking Alzheimer’s patients," said Dodson. "Since the airplanes are constantly flying, they are usually first on the scene. The helicopters are then called in to perform the search and/or rescue, equipped as needed."

Dodson estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the OHP’s overall missions are now search and rescue related. "Right now, we’re the best team we’ve ever been," he said. "As we continue to evolve in SAR missions, I think that becoming better at one mission will definitely help in the other."

NYPD Aviation Unit

Expanding the mission profile to fit unique environments is something the NYPD Aviation Unit has defined for over sixty years. Based at the Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn and flying in the urban landscape of New York surrounded by water, it’s no wonder that the NYPD Aviation Unit has easily worn the two hats of airborne patrol and search and rescue.

One of the very early adopters of aviation in law enforcement, the NYPD has been flying since 1929 when it was given an early mandate for Air Sea rescue operations. With the Manhattan skyline a major part of their horizon, it is a quick six-minute hop to the World Trade Center site. Currently under the command of Deputy Inspector Joseph Gallucci, Lt. Glenn A. Daley, the current APSA Northeast Region Director, is also a member of the Unit Command Staff.

As Lt. Daley explains it, " ... there’s a lot of water in our area for folks to get into trouble in and that’s when we go to work." Evidently business is good, because the aviation unit is staffed up and running around the clock with a fleet that includes two Bell 412s, one Bell 206 Long Ranger and three 206 Jet Rangers, a toolbox that brings the right tools to the multi-mission job at hand.

"During the acquisition of the Bell 412s, we had a good sense of the mission demands," Daley explains. "We wound up with the first 412 SAR ship in the continental U.S. with a four-axis autopilot with auto-approach and auto-hover capabilities." Daley explains that the system reduces pilot workload significantly, especially during let downs over water in poor weather when outside visual cues or reference points may be minimal.

Their specialized Bell 412 SAR aircraft also features a Flight Management System that includes a search pattern program that can predict the drift of waterborne objects as well as the ability to lock onto surface targets with the radar, fly to them and then execute an auto approach and hover. "We don’t want to fly to where an accident happened, we want to go where the victims may have drifted to," Daley adds. Although he noted that the 412s are the best fit for their double duty mission, they are looking forward to taking delivery of four shiny new Agusta 119s next year that will replace their Jet Rangers.

Being good at both missions comes down to a simple equation according to Daley, "It’s the training," and he adds that having a clear view of the mission and bringing the right tools along are key elements.

"Our bread and butter is Air Sea rescue," Daley explains, "and understanding that means our unit has assigned to it the NYPD Harbor Unit Scuba Team, the only full-time airborne rescue divers in this country. They work twelve-hour tours, and they are based here with the aviation unit, right here, right now, ready to go."

Daley estimates the mission mix at 70 percent patrol and 30 percent search and rescue, but sees changes down the road. "A lot of our general patrol has given way to special surveillance since 9/11," Daley explains. "Since the new homeland defense is a mindset of prevention, we’re often flying surveillance and patrol in a very high profile manner just to let everyone on the ground know we’re keeping an eye out ... from a very, very good vantage point."

One distinct benefit of wearing both hats is the diversity of missions for pilots. "Our pilots love the mix of missions," Daley admits. "They might be flying a water SAR mission with divers deployed from the skids in the morning and a high altitude covert surveillance that afternoon." Clearly, this is a group of pilots who appreciate that wide hat rack.

For the airborne unit currently flying a patrol role but looking at a bigger mission, Daley offers some advice. "Don’t spend time re-inventing the wheel, talk to other aviation units. Get their procedures and SOPs and ask for their training curriculum and their checklists." Daley added that the APSA membership and the APSA website is an excellent source of contacts and resources. "Learn from our mistakes ... and our successes."

According to Hollywood, success on the silver screen is often the result of large caliber weapons and fast cars, and of course, a cool helicopter never hurts. In the previous mentioned film, Mel Gibson’s character returns home safely. However, in the unforgiving real world of airborne law enforcement, getting home safely is more often about teamwork, training and sound mission planning.

Speaking with ‘double duty’ airborne units from coast to coast with years of experience, the message is simple: being good at one mission is clearly a very good way to be better at the other.

Helicopter Rescue Missions:
Pilots Without Passion Need Not Apply

By Deputy Terry C. Ascherin
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Air Rescue 5

Building The Team

Canvass your agency’s database for potential hidden gems. You may find out that the quiet guy over in traffic was a Navy rescue swimmer or the patrol training officer is an experienced National Guard pilot skilled in fire fighting and high altitude rescues in a Sikorsky H-60.

Many organizations rely heavily on reserves or a volunteer pool. This is an ideal way to fortify your new rescue unit without burdening the budget. Recruiting outside qualified personnel is another useful tool to fulfill your staff requirements. Advertisements and word of mouth may also produce several potential reserve candidates. /p>

Once an aviation unit decides to provide rescue services, assigned personnel are usually expected to transition with training into the rescue mode. Many agencies have started in just this way, using little steps to feel their way slowly to success. Research the options, visit established rescue organizations, and network with your counterparts.

Helicopter rescue is a challenging, multifaceted adventure featuring cliffhangers, overturned cars, hunting accidents, lost hikers, horse extractions, hospital transfers, flood and swift water rescues, injured skiers, pregnant campers, twisted ankles, automobile accidents, snake bites, skinned knees, knife wounds, overdoses, self-inflicted GSWs, drowning victims, missing persons, organ transportation, the occasional injured cop or fireman, and a host of unimaginable missions. In the years to come, you will shock and amaze your dinner guests with the humorous and tragic stories you have encountered. This is only a small list of challenges awaiting you.

Crew Medical Training

Crew safety and victim medical training is essential and expected today. You’re only as good as your least-trained team member. This is a daunting challenge for most of us flying cops. It is a good idea for crewmembers to take some advanced first aid or paramedic training in their spare time. Go back to school? Ouch! But yes, it takes time to train any group to the high standards we have come to expect.

With terrorism rearing its ugly head, we are now required to provide an even higher level of service. Some of the training you receive now may someday be practiced on your own team members or family. Medical training is a long, continuous and tedious journey, but a necessary and worthy trip.

Pilot Technique Training

Helicopter rescue pilot technique training is also a necessary evolutionary process. You start slowly, gaining experience with which to build on. Controlled training environments will minimize risk and enhance confidence, as in these examples:

  • Pick safe, obtainable goals within the experience level of your group.
  • Brief and critique each step to assure that the safest operating procedures and guidelines are being followed.
  • Faithfully practice crew resource management.
  • Seek outside experts to enhance your library of knowledge.
  • Question each other with the "what if this emergency happened in-flight or what if that happened during a hover rescue?" It just might save you or the aircraft in a tight spot.
  • Learn each other’s job so you can intuitively know what your fellow crewmember will do in an emergency. When the team understands each other’s duties, it makes for a safer working environment and fosters mutual respect.

Rescue Equipment

Crew, medical and rescue equipment is like shopping for Christmas presents. If you have a huge budget, no problem. But, that’s not the case for most law enforcement aviation units. Equipment purchases should be investigated on several levels. Know what missions you may be tasked with and seek the right tools for the job.

Shop around and ask a lot of questions before you buy. Our budgets can’t afford frivolous spending sprees. Seek out other agencies that fly similar airframes and perform functions similar to those that you are intending to provide. Use your APSA directory to find out who flies what and give them a call. Attending the APSA conferences is also a great way to gather information.

Ask yourself, "How much money is your agency able or willing to spend? Will there be replacement funding yearly? Do you know what equipment or tools you need?" This is a living list and don’t be surprised if it changes. Change is fine as long as it’s on paper, and it is researched before the purchase.

Some agencies have purchased tools that have lost their usefulness even before they were used. Learn from other’s mistakes. Ideally, you’ll make an informed choice on equipment and training, eliminating loss of budget resources.

Prioritize Your Needs

The mission is the driving force behind what type of equipment your agency should purchase. Helicopter hoists, long lines, short hauls, thermal imagers, cargo hooks, searchlights, floats, NVGs, medical equipment and interiors are costly and require a yearly budget to maintain due to wear, damage, mishap and expiration dates.

Team equipment such as backpacks, mountain rescue radios, ropes, carabineers, GPSs, overwater gear, snow shoes and cold or wet weather gear are the tip of the iceberg. Your imagination can, and will, add to your wish list. A healthy budget or several wealthy benefactors would fall very nicely into your plans. As you can see, there are many avenues to explore.

Unit Analysis

Is your current airframe the correct one for a rescue mission? Is your agency willing to invest millions in a rescue aircraft? Can you convince the brass on the need to obtain a multi-mission package? Does your agency have a memorandum of understanding with other agencies and is that memorandum offer a revenue sharing plan?

Are you able or willing to zero time a military surplus airframe? Is there a willing benefactor or benevolent company ready to assist your agency? Would a bake sale help? Don’t laugh, I know of one agency that has raised millions of dollars by holding golf tournaments and soliciting large companies to donate to the cause.

Government grant programs are also an excellent way to obtain equipment, aircraft and financial aid. In addition, think "outside the box" with creative financing ideas (i.e., create a foundation) that will help your agency augment their budgets for a rescue operation. Build citizen awareness and ask for community input and help. This approach will bond the community to your agency and will serve the community well. Locate a champion who will carry the flag for your cause.

The cost of doing business is not cheap, and there’s certainly no limitless money tree. But, if you can "sell" your program and show the need to the community, you may find yourself looking at a new shiny helicopter with all the rescue bells and whistles.

If an outright purchase fails, think rental during the busy cycles of rescue responses. Some locations may have corporate or industrial companies who provide aircraft for community service. Keep a focus on experience for help in your quest for a rescue operation in your community. 


One way to get started as a new helicopter rescue unit is to network, network, network. Visit with other agencies in your area that have a rescue program. Many established rescue units have a history of cross-training with other agencies. Veterans will be eager to share their knowledge. I have found that every cop that has flown is more that eager to tell you of his or her heroics.

Getting Started

I was very lucky to be accepted into a well-established air rescue unit in 1974. Early in the 1960s, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department started their rescue unit flying Bell G-47s, adorned with skid-mounted litters. These early flying machines had wooden blades. Scary, huh?! Gradually, we worked our way up the food chain of airframes to our most recent acquisition, the Sikorsky, Sea King (H-3) helicopter.

Also, LASO has had the exceptional luck to have a large group of volunteer and reserve Deputy Mountain Rescue Team members to assist. Reserves and volunteers have provided tens of thousands of hours of dedicated service yearly.

One thing to be cautious of is that cops tend to be driven, and that drive is fast. In rescue, fast is not always the best approach. A well-trained and experienced crew is priceless. Decisions are made very quickly during an emergency rescue. The cooperation, experience and decision making of the rescue crew will determine the outcome of the mission.

Not a day goes by that I am not astounded by the intelligence of our law enforcement, fire and military helicopter rescue communities. Take advantage of every opportunity to listen and learn from your peers, and take their helpful hints and tricks of the trade. It will make you a better rescue operator. 
One unexpected benefit when you network is the wealth of assistance at your disposal in time of need. Don’t limit yourself to only law enforcement agencies. The fire and military aviation communities have a wealth of experience and knowledge you can draw from. Don’t miss out on this opportunity.

My past experiences mixing fire and military with police provide a caliber of training opportunities never obtained when working in a vacuum. Once you have established a working relationship, only good seems to come from it. During a disaster, there is no better feeling that to call on a local friend who you can count on and know his capability. By networking with your fellow public agencies, you can provide a higher level of service to your community.

The Future

The Viet Nam War produced the first generation of truly turbine rescue aircraft. The Bell UH-1 was the workhorse for utility, troop transport and medevac rescue. Today, we are looking at a surplus fleet of military airframes that have been adopted by many public service agencies through the United States.

The public service community has benefited from the numerous combat trained pilots that are now making their mark in the law enforcement profession as patrol or rescue pilots. In the next few years, those pilots are reaching retirement age and ending their career. The future looks bright for aspiring law enforcement pilots. Pilots with passion need to apply!

Search, Rescue and Risks
Safety in the SAR Mission

By Jay Fuller, APSA Safety Coordinator

A state police helicopter launched shortly after daylight to initiate the assigned search. A light aircraft had disappeared off radar the night before and had not turned up at any local airports. It was wintertime where the terrain was hilly and completely forested, but aerial search conditions were perfect with no foliage and a light covering of snow to highlight impact scars or aircraft wreckage. The weather had cooperated as well with clear skies and little wind. /p>

After a two-hour search, the pilot and observer landed for fuel and called to confirm their original briefing. They had been told that search coordinates were based on an ELT hit and had minimized their search area to the vicinity of the coordinates. The call verified that the coordinates given were actually the last reported radar position. Once back in the air, and by this time joined by two other department aircraft, the pilot and observer proceeded to the coordinates and then continued the search along the last known course of flight. Within five minutes, the observer spotted the crash.

The second department aircraft, with trained rescue crew on board, found a suitable site adjacent to the scene and lowered two paramedics via external hoist. Of the family of seven involved in the crash, four were still alive. On the first extraction, two small children plus one paramedic were lifted out. A rescue snowmobile had now arrived on scene.

The third department aircraft, although hoist equipped, did not have qualified rescue personnel on board. With two other extraction options available, the pilot wisely decided to stand off. After dropping the first accident victims at a medical command post base established for the search, the second aircraft quickly returned for a second extraction. The remaining adult survivor had already been consigned to the snowmobile and was on his way to the base location, therefore, the last victim and remaining paramedic were extracted on the second and last lift.

The non-surviving victims were taken out later by surface. Ultimately, three lives were saved in a situation that would have otherwise been total disaster.

Of the myriad missions now being performed by police aviation agencies, one of the most rewarding is search and rescue. And this fact, accompanied by the non-tactical nature of the work, can obscure the hazards involved with SAR. Due to the unsurpassed area surveillance capability of the helicopter, search is almost an automatic law enforcement assignment. And this mission, in itself, is no more hazardous than any other low level, observation/surveillance type duties carrying the same risks associated with those tasks. Rescue, on the other hand, whether by hoist, Billy Pugh or other means, conveys additional hazards primarily due to the fact that the work involves operating with humans, which are virtually unprotected, external to the aircraft. If anything goes seriously wrong, somebody is going to get injured or killed.

Risk itself is not the problem. What we have to keep in mind is that during any kind of rescue operation using an aircraft, you effectively have two physical tasks being performed simultaneously. One being maneuver of the aircraft by the pilots, and the other being operation and management of rescue equipment by the rescue crew. Individually, neither falls into the category of rocket science. And for this reason, we can sometimes underestimate the complexity of the operation. However, each task is totally dependent on the other. Each is impacted by variations of the other. Problems multiply exponentially and any rescue operation of this nature can turn into a bag of worms very quickly. Couple this with the potential for injury, and you can see the problem.

The response to this situation is training and standards. Training is to insure that the crews know what they are doing; standards are to insure they are current in their skill level and that missions accepted are performed consistently and appropriately.

Training for cockpit crews goes without saying; however, training for rescue equipment operators should be taken just as seriously, although not necessarily as extensively. Individuals should train on their mission equipment until they are completely proficient in its use. Once this has been accomplished, the rescue equipment operators and pilots need to practice their mission tasks as a team in a benign environment, most effectively a static aircraft with electrical power on.

Standard communications, normal procedures and emergency procedures should all be practiced until personnel are totally familiar with required actions. Finally, crews should practice full up sessions on operating aircraft, keeping hazard factors low by utilizing appropriate minimum altitudes (ten feet skid height for hover would allow a reasonable hovering autorotation and save cycle time on a hoist) at controlled locations and involving only essential personnel. Necessary ground personnel should also be included in training. A variety of rescue missions require ground support during extraction or recovery and these personnel need to be familiar with their tasks as well. Training time for search and rescue far exceeds actual mission time.

Since missions tend to occur irregularly and are always spontaneous, documented standards are necessary. These insure that aircrew personnel are not assigned to missions without being fully trained and proficient via authenticated practice or bona-fide missions. Standards also dictate that each mission, since it will be unique, is preplanned to the maximum extent possible and pre-briefed so that all players are fully cognizant of what is expected to take place during the event. Beyond this, standards spell out the acceptable environmental and operational limits for mission acceptance.

Terrain, ceiling, visibility, wind conditions, temperature, day or night, the cooperating agencies and resources available, the life or limb determination, and viable options are all factors influencing rescue mission launch. Acceptable parameters need to be spelled out. We can’t do everything, and identifying disqualifying conditions at the outset so alternate rescue arrangements can be made immediately, makes it better and safer for everyone.

In emergency situations, cool heads must prevail and that is no more true anytime than during SAR. It’s easy to let the euphoria of saving a life during a dramatic rescue steer us into inappropriate decisions. Therefore, training and standards, strictly adhered to, are a must!

Search and rescue is a rewarding, meaningful and completely appropriate mission for law enforcement air units. For those units prepared to do it right,  this can mean increased utilization of equipment, justification of equipment and overall enhanced crew proficiency levels, among a host of other positives.

Take a close look at the other articles and advertisements in this issue to check on how you can be doing this mission better and safer .

Ancillary to training and standards (and in its own way no less important to safety in the search and rescue mission) is the subject of personal equipment.  For missions such as  this, all flight and rescue crew should have applicable protective gear such as boots, nomex flight suits, gloves, and flight helmets. If over water or if a water landing is an emergency possibility, flotation gear, emergency air bottle and web vest should be required.

 During cold weather or in remote areas, some form of austere weather protection and or survival equipment  should be available. It doesn’t take much in these situations to transition from crewmember to victim.

The Art Of The Search
Aptitude, Altitude, & Attitude

By Ralph Wilfong

While some jurisdictions have so many search and rescue cases that they can dedicate aircraft and personnel to SAR as a primary mission, these types of police units are truly the exception. br> Search and rescue is a complex discipline. By definition, SAR means "to locate, access, stabilize and evacuate distressed or injured persons, by whatever means necessary, to ensure their timely transfer to appropriate care or to a familiar environment." The search part of SAR means to locate.

Types of search missions may include missing persons, missing or overdue aircraft, Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), missing or overdue boats, and manmade or natural disasters. The rescue part may include transportation and insertion of rescue teams, transportation of victims and hoist operations.

SAR missions can take place in urban, suburban, rural or wilderness areas, and over open water. Each environment requires a certain set of aircrew skills for both the search component and the rescue component.

This article will focus on air and ground search operations rather than rescue. The typical SAR operation will almost always have a ground component and will have air support, if it is available and appropriate, and the weather permits. This raises the question about what is the appropriate role for an aircraft in SAR?

Depending on the aircraft and its equipment, this may include visual search, IR search, scene lighting, personnel and equipment transport, K-9 transport, attraction, area mapping, communications relay, video downlink, MEDEVAC and hoist or short haul operations.

In order to search effectively from the air, it is important to recognize potential problems. Weather is always an issue. The ability to see a concealed subject or other target and the ability to pick out the right subject is another. This is a real problem in urban areas. Locating a target on the ground requires good information, appropriate tasking, air to ground coordination and a precise set of aircrew skills.

The efficiency and effectiveness of the search mission may be dependent on positive answers to a series of questions, "Does the search manager know how to use aircraft appropriately? Does the aircrew know how to scan properly and how to fly effective search patterns? Are air to ground communications adequate and does the aircrew know how to work with ground teams? Does the aircrew have and can they read topographical maps or other maps the ground teams may be using?"

A person is very difficult to spot from the air unless they are actively attempting to be seen, so start with a complete subject profile. Why is the person missing? Are they actually lost and want to be found, will they hide to avoid being seen or are they not even aware of being lost? Examples in these three categories might include a lost hunter, a lost child, or an Alzheimer’s patient. The missing person may be a crime victim, so another person or a vehicle may be involved. Alzheimer’s patients sometimes leave in a vehicle and then abandon the vehicle and proceed on foot. Know your subject and know the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. Obtain a complete physical description of the person(s) and the vehicle. In a populated area, this is even more critical.

Plan the mission carefully. Planning elements are about the same for helicopters and fixed wing, but the helicopter has obvious advantages with slower speeds and the ability to hover. The search pattern and altitude will be determined by type of target(s), type of aircraft, number and experience of observers, observer position on the aircraft, number, and experience of observers, observer position on the aircraft, weather, nature of the terrain and the amount of ground cover.

To illustrate some of these issues, let’s take a typical SAR mission for a missing person. A six-year-old boy has wandered away from his home in a suburban neighborhood. The neighborhood quickly merges into farmlands and woods. It is daylight in good weather, and the helicopter crew consists of the pilot and the regular co-pilot/observer. The Incident Commander has given the crew a 7.5-minute topographical map with an outlined search area. The area is about two miles square, begins at the edge of the child’s neighborhood and includes rural roads, open fields, houses and other buildings, and heavy woods. Several ground teams will be searching select areas and deputies are patrolling the roads and interviewing area residents.

Job one is to accurately locate the search area. Plot the GPS coordinates of the corners and other features of the search area on the map and use the map to verify the terrain features when actually at those locations. Other navigational methods may be used but the GPS is the most accurate.

Next, determine search pattern, altitude, speed and track spacing. Parallel track is probably the most effective for missing persons. Altitude is determined by department policy, safety, terrain, ground cover and search visibility. Search visibility is the maximum distance that a target can be detected. 500 feet AGL may be a rule of thumb for missing persons. Speed should be 60 knots or less with a helicopter, minimum safe speed for a fixed wing.

Track spacing is determined by several factors, including search visibility. The U.S. Coast Guard recommends a one-quarter mile track spacing at 60 knots for missing person search using FLIR with the H60 Jayhawk. Track spacing for visual search is partially dependent on the number of observers. Remember, the pilot is not an observer. This does not mean the pilot will not look, but his first job is to fly the aircraft. In the case we are considering here, there is one observer sitting in the left front seat beside the pilot. His field of view is from the centerline of the aircraft left. The track must keep the search area on the observers left, and the track spacing must ensure the observers effective field of view overlaps slightly.

Scanning is a learned art. The human eye has a wide field of view, but a narrow field of focus. When looking for a small object on the ground, it is important to use proper scanning technique. The scanning pattern should be left to right, each scan parallel to the next. Forward movement is a function of the forward motion of the aircraft. Do not scan with a continuous motion; rather scan with a series of overlapping "snapshots." Momentarily focus on an area about the size of your fist extended out in front of you. Move to the next "snapshot" and focus.

Remember that movement and light are often picked up in the peripheral vision so be sure to focus on anything that is caught "out of the corner of the eye." Binoculars will be helpful in identifying targets but do not use them continuously since the field of vision is so limited.

Back to our example. Depending on conditions, the observer may see something that he is not quite able to identify as a person. It may be a flash of color, a piece of clothing, movement or other indicator. This is where air to ground coordination becomes important. If the aircrew and the ground team have radio communications and both have GPS, directing the team to the location of the sighting may be nothing more than giving GPS coordinates. Be sure to also carefully describe what was seen, the time, and a good description of the terrain features around the sighting. Distance and bearing from a road, building or other feature is helpful.

Vectoring a ground team without GPS aid is not difficult if a few simple rules are followed. First, give a magnetic bearing from the ground team to the target and an estimated distance. If you are hovering over the target, give the reciprocal of the heading shown on your compass. Second, be patient. You may fly at plus or minus100 mph, the ground team travels at plus or minus 2 mph. Monitor their progress and give course corrections as needed.

Aircraft are great attraction devices.

The missing child may hide from ground searchers, but come out to look at the aircraft flying overhead. The Alzheimer’s patient may ignore people nearby, but may look for the aircraft. The person looking up at you may just be curious, but may also be the missing subject.
If the search does not result in a find, the Incident Commander will want to know you estimated probability of detection (POD) for the search. There are a variety of POD charts available for air search, but use them only as a guide for planning, not for determining your actual POD. Actual POD is a very subjective value judgment.

There is a long list of factors that affect POD and each must be considered. These factors include:

  • search visibility

  • track spacing

  • sweep width

  • speed

  • altitude

  • wing configuration of the aircraft

  • atmospheric conditions

  • sun angle

  • terrain characteristics

  • target characteristics

The aircrew members are the biggest variable. These variables include training, experience, seat position, scanning technique, attention span, fatigue, distractions, turbulence and other factors.
The example given is only for one type of search and rescue mission. Electronic search, FLIR, NVG’s, night operations, disaster SAR and many other kinds of operations introduce additional challenges. Each variable requires training, experience and coordination with other mission elements to ensure that search and rescue operations are safe, effective and efficient. 

The Tactical & Practical Use Of Hoists

By David Markley

The Cessna 172 was flying too low for conditions when the civilian pilot headed the aircraft into a narrow canyon and quickly ran out of altitude, air speed and ideas. The resulting crash left one of the occupants seriously injured. One of the less injured crash victims hiked six miles to the closest phone and called for help. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Unit was summoned and arrived at the accident scene quickly. At the time, their helicopters were not hoist-equipped and relied on short haul to extract the victims out of areas where the helicopter couldn’t land.

The rescue proceeded according to plan and everything went well until the helicopter lifted the victim and paramedic for the flight out. The combination of rotor wash exaggerated by the narrow canyon walls put the victim and paramedic into an uncontrollable spin causing both to lose consciousness temporarily.

The events of that day didn’t cause the San Bernardino County Sheriff to immediately purchase a rescue hoist. However, it did cause a change in thinking that resulted in delivery of their first rescue hoist three years later. Recently, they bought a second hoist and now have two of their three helicopters hoist-equipped.

San Bernardino is just one of a growing number of law enforcement agencies that are equipping their helicopters with rescue hoists. This does not mean that rescue hoists are good and short haul is bad or unsafe. Rescues can be safely conducted with a short haul system, and under certain circumstances, some users may opt to short haul with the hoist itself. In other situations, the length of the hoist cable might be a limiting factor that would force the rescuers to use a long line to accomplish the rescue.

The short haul incident presented above is only meant to illustrate some of the factors that need to be considered when equipping a search and rescue helicopter. If the above described rescue had been performed with a hoist, a tag line could have been attached, and the violent rotation the rescuer and victim experienced could have been avoided.

Another advantage of the hoist is the ability to get both rescuer and victim into the helicopter without landing, thereby saving valuable time when rescuing the seriously injured. This becomes more of a factor when the closest available landing spot is more than a few hundred feet away. The advantage isn’t just limited to rough terrain. A traffic accident on a grid-locked highway or a boat far from shore are also hoist only applications that get the victim and rescuer in the helicopter quickly and on the way to a hospital.

In addition to added safety on certain types of rescues and the overall savings of time, hoist rescues are technically easier for the entire crew. A hoist allows the operator to control the up and down motion of the hook. In some cases, the hoist operator can manipulate the forward, aft, left and right movements of the helicopter through the autopilot with a four-way control on the hoist control pendant. In a short haul situation, the pilot is responsible for all six movements and must rely on commands from the helicopter crew chief while his head is inside the cockpit monitoring gauges. Both scenarios require internal and external visual observations as well as communication between the pilot and crew chief. The availability of a hoist simply makes accuracy easier.

While search and rescue is without question the most widespread use for rescue hoists, the war on drugs is another application being adopted by multiple agencies. Insertions and extractions of law enforcement personnel into areas of difficult access for purposes of marijuana or cocaine eradication are becoming more prevalent. The accessibility of places where plants for drug manufacture are grown is usually remote and difficult to reach without helicopters. This is especially true in the jungles of South America where the thickness of the vegetation makes helicopter landings impossible and the distance to the drug growing sites from bases of operation makes a hoist an absolute must.

The war on drugs isn’t the only non-search and rescue application for rescue hoist insertions and extractions. Police canine units have been using rescue hoists for years to insert and extract both dog and handler into remote locations. Special Weapons and Tactics Teams are starting to qualify personnel on rescue hoists as part of their training. For most SWAT Teams, fast-roping in and short haul out are still the preferred insert and extraction method. However, the post 9-11 environment is prompting a growing number of law enforcement agencies to look ahead and be prepared for a terrorist scenario nobody ever anticipated.

One scenario that comes to mind is the insertion of heavily armed SWAT officers wearing bulky bio-terrorism or hazardous material suits. Fast-roping requires a high level of physical fitness in the best of conditions. The necessity of a heavy protective suit is going to make the situation more difficult and potentially unsafe. If a hoist insertion were practical in terms of officer safety, it would certainly be worth considering.

Life cycle cost, designated missions, and helicopter limitations are usually the factors that determine if a law enforcement agency invests in a rescue hoist. In some areas, the military, fire department or even a contract service may have responsibility for search and rescue missions. In today’s environment, this means that interagency coordination is essential, and every agency that might be involved in a joint response should have their personnel trained on all the equipment that could potentially be used in an emergency situation.

This is especially important if a hoist is involved. A living example of this is San Diego County where the fire department has the only hoist-equipped on call helicopter in the county. The San Diego Police Department SWAT team is working with the San Diego Fire Department to get their personnel trained in the event a hoist insertion or extraction becomes necessary.

Perhaps a more important consideration when deciding whether or not to invest in a hoist is acceptable risk. If your mission is rescuing people in distress, the potential risk of an accident is always going to be present and negligence may not be a contributing factor.

In the litigious society we live in today, it is always prudent to ask if you are making use of the safest technology available. 


By Jon Goldin

Any law enforcement aviation unit is only as good as its maintenance. If helicopters aren’t in service, they are of no use while sitting in a hangar. Aviation units have either their own in-house mechanics or contract out for their maintenance, likely being worked on by civilian technicians. That isn’t the case with the New York Police Department. Every mechanic working on NYPD fleet of helicopters is a sworn, gun-carrying member of the department. That’s because they perform dual functions within the unit.

From the first days in 1929 when the NYPD took to the air, police officers have always been turning the wrenches on department aircraft. However, the mechanics of today have a far more expanded role than their predecessors. In addition to their duties in keeping the fleet of seven helicopters (three Jet Rangers, one Long Ranger and three Bell 412s) maintained, they are all certified as crew-chiefs.

The maintenance side of the house for NYPD’s aviation unit consists of a lieutenant director of maintenance, two sergeants, four detectives and 12 police officers. Mechanics, like the pilots, work 24 hours, seven days a week. That alone provides an added measure of safety few units can fall back on. If a helicopter is returning from a mission at 3 a.m. and a chip light begins to flicker, it can be checked immediately upon returning to the base. This can be diagnosed as a quick fix or the aircraft can be removed from service. By having a mechanic available, a more prudent decision regarding a maintenance safety issue can be made.

To be considered for a mechanic’s position in the Aviation Unit, a candidate must hold a minimum of an A & P rating. Many of the applicants have training from the military or from commercial operators. Once accepted, they begin one year of hands-on training with senior mechanics. Following that, they are sent to Bell factory maintenance training school for the Jet Ranger.

As they progress, they are sent back for factory training in the Long Ranger and, finally, the 412. In addition to Bell school, they receive factory training in power plants from both Pratt and Whitney and Rolls-Royce.

Progressive training is an ongoing process. Each year, mechanics are sent to different schools to learn advanced repairs such as electrical, autopilot, overhaul and composite repair. Those that hold their commercial helicopter rating are also sent to test pilot school.

A mechanic always flies with a pilot when an aircraft comes out of a hundred-hour inspection and performs a power assurance test. Lt. Robert Kikel, Director of Maintenance, explains that all inspections are done in-house, as is most of the repair work. The exceptions to this are avionics, radios and engines. One of the ways to keep accountability high is the assignment of a secondary responsibility to each mechanic. This ranges from supervision of the tool or parts room to maintaining and updating the unit’s library of manuals.

What really sets the NYPD mechanics apart from their civilian counterparts is their role as crewchiefs. One mechanic per shift is assigned the primary duty of crewchief to make sure the aircraft is prepared for whatever mission it may be called into action for. The crewchief manages all operations in the rear cabin of the 412s, which can include everything from operating the hoist to securing a landing zone. All mechanics are certified EMTs, and a new task was added to their plate after 9/11, that of a gunner. While it is unlikely that a crewchief will ever have to take a shot from a helicopter, it was determined that it was better to be prepared if the need arose.

During the midnight shift, there are at least two mechanics on duty: one to serve as a crewchief and the other to perform daily inspections on the duty aircraft for that night. Generally, the Nightsun and FLIR equipment are installed, removed and operated by the mechanics as needed. 
Flight hours have increased in the last year, putting a greater demand on the mechanics to keep aircraft available for the pilots. In the spring of 2004, significant changes will be occurring for the aviation unit. The replacement of the patrol helicopters will begin when the first of four Agusta A119 Koalas arrives. This means Agusta factory school in Philadelphia for all the mechanics, as well as the pilots.

Aviation Unit Commander Deputy Inspector Joseph Gallucci attributes the unit’s excellent safety record to a combination of the men who fly the aircraft and the men who service them. "We certainly wouldn’t be able to provide the kind of service we do daily if it weren’t for the commitment of the mechanics who are on top of their game," Gallucci said.

A pilot puts his life in the hands of the men who maintain the aircraft he flies. That’s an awesome responsibility in itself. When you add the fact that a police helicopter is often called upon to assist the officers on the ground, or literally pull someone out of a fatal situation, that responsibility increases significantly. If the helicopter is not available when called on, lives may very well be at stake.