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Director of Tactical Flying and currently a police pilot for the San Diego Police Department

Originally published in AIRBEAT Magazine - Jan-Feb 2019

Looking back throughout the history of airborne law enforcement, many air support units started as a single pilot operation. Often, this was because in the early days many units were cobbled together on a literal wing and a prayer. Police officers who were pilots in their private life were used to fly surplus or donated aircraft to conduct airborne police missions. There was no budget to allocate additional officers to the air support “unit.” Infrared cameras were technologically limited and a very expensive luxury most agencies could not afford. Because of this, the standard operating procedure was to utilize a single officer/pilot in a helicopter or plane and ask them to fly overhead for an aerial perspective of a tactical scene. The pilot multi-tasked the dual role of Pilot in Command (PIC) and Tactical Flight Officer (TFO), watching the suspect while still flying the aircraft. Because it was the pilot using their eyes to see the suspect, often the only effective altitude was very low – 500’ AGL or lower.

As the operation grew and the usefulness of a helicopter was noted, the need for an “observer” to fly along with the pilot was realized. To accomplish this, the observer was temporarily pulled from the ranks of the duty shift to handle the police mission, while the pilot flew the aircraft. Unfortunately, the “pick of the night” observer received little to no training, and was simply told to sit and “observe.” The pilot would relay all the communications to the ground units while the observer, just…observed. Pilots were forced to handle the high majority of the workload.

The observer had zero proficiency, while the pilot, who was regularly flying the air support missions, at least knew the somewhat standard operating procedure of working with ground units. It’s not difficult to understand why pilots were hesitant to rely on the observer to work the mission and often took matters into their own hands. When all these factors - limited or no imager, non-proficient or non-existent TFO - were combined, the most effective way to be successful in the mission was to fly so the pilot could conduct the duties of the TFO.

Fortunately, advances in technology and equipment have created a game changer for aircrews. As camera, sensor technology and capability continue to rapidly increase, we can now take advantage of the ability to fly higher than our colleagues who were forced to stay lower and use their eyes or a searchlight to locate suspects. The infrared sensor of today has no problem operating at 1000’ AGL or higher. This technology now reduces or eliminates the need to force the pilot to handle the role of TFO and use their night vision goggles (NVG’s) to watch a suspect out the window for one reason – the proficient TFO can simply compensate for the increase in altitude by zooming the camera or imager in. With the press of a switch, the TFO can work the same scene at 1000’ AGL or higher and the pilot can climb and enjoy the luxuries of a higher altitude.

Surprisingly, this capability actually reduces pilot workload and allows for more tolerance in positioning. The workload is reduced because the pilot has more lateral room in the orbit to position the aircraft. More lateral room is available because the more altitude you have, a wider orbit can be tolerated, and the higher your airspeed can be.

At Tactical Flying we teach flying a tactical orbit of at least 800’ AGL, preferably 1000’ AGL; at 60-65KIAS, with a 20-35 degree gimbal angle and a 15 degree aircraft angle of bank. This profile is advantageous for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we believe it to be safer. Performing an autorotation from 1000’ above the ground is a much more comfortable option than attempting to perform one from 500’ AGL.

Speaking in generalities, in the event of an engine failure at only 500’ AGL, and assuming a 2000FPM descent in an autorotation, the ground will be reached in just 15 seconds - in a best-case scenario. The “best-case” scenario is one in which the engine failure is instantaneously recognized and immediate appropriate action is taken. In all likelihood, there might not be any warning of a failure with the exception of a low rotor horn. Because of that, it is going to take a few seconds or more to recognize and respond to the failure. At an altitude of only 500’ AGL you may only have a few seconds to enter the autorotation and identify your landing spot. But at 1000’ AGL, you may have double that time!

Secondly, the higher the altitude, the more room you have to work laterally throughout the orbit. At 500’ AGL, using a gimbal angle of between 20-35 degrees, the aircraft only has 295’ of lateral movement in either direction (See Image 1).

At 500’ AGL, using a gimbal angle of between 20-35 degrees, the aircraft only has 295’ of lateral movement in either direction

At 1000’ AGL, the helicopter has 591’ of lateral distance available to maintain the appropriate gimbal angle (Image 2). That’s a 100% increase in lateral movement around an orbit that is much more forgiving. Especially to newer pilots. Conversely, an orbit at 500’ AGL is forced into a tighter concentric circle due to the small lateral distance available before the gimbal angle is out of position.

 At 1000’ AGL, the helicopter has 591’ of lateral distance available to maintain the appropriate gimbal angle

The advantages of flying a higher tactical orbit are substantial. For the pilot, indicated airspeed can be increased (more on this later), workload is reduced, and the ability to enter and establish an autorotation, and locate a potential landing site is increased.

1000’ vs 800’ vs 500’

For the pilot flying at 500’ AGL, maintaining an effective gimbal angle for the TFO while maintaining a speed at or near a recommended autorotation speed forces the aircraft into a steeper angle of bank which in turn greatly increases the rotation speed around the tactical environment. Both of these factors increase the pilot’s workload. I can tell you from experience, an orbit at 1000’ AGL is almost peaceful. My workload is low because I have more room to move laterally, and although my indicated airspeed is higher, the wider orbit makes it feel relaxed. The reduced workload doesn’t fatigue me as quickly, my plate is freed up to have full attention on air traffic, aircraft health, positioning, and even help out the TFO if needed.

Although I prefer to fly at 1000’AGL, there are times that due to weather or airspace restrictions, I’m forced to operate closer to 500’AGL. At that altitude, I have to slow to 40-45KIAS to give the TFO enough time to search the tactical environment. Depending on the environment below me (one with limited emergency landing sites), I may keep a higher airspeed and advise the TFO that we will be dealing with a faster orbit. They know that I need the higher airspeed to give me the ability to enter an autorotation and stretch the glide in case of emergency.

At a lower AGL, my workload as a pilot is higher, I am spring loaded for an engine failure, and constantly picking my emergency landing spot throughout the orbit. Working like this is fatiguing! As soon as able, I climb back to 1000’AGL and my workload decreases.

From the TFO’s standpoint, a tactical orbit at 1000’ versus 500’ is much more tolerable. Although the aircrafts airspeed is higher, the rate of turn around the orbit feels much slower and appears much slower on the TFO monitor. This is because the orbit is wider (due to the increased lateral maneuvering distance). A slower orbit gives the TFO more time to conduct a thorough search and interpret heat sources. The aircrew now maximizes their time on station, because the TFO has time to effectively search instead of making multiple, fast, ineffective passes over the same area.

From a safety standpoint, the aircrew now minimizes their risk and exposure over a scene, because the TFO can do their job more effectively in overall less time. This is a better option compared to a poor search that takes longer at a lower altitude with higher exposure to risk.

If we go higher, how does the pilot see the scene?

Great question. This is where the benefit of the technological advances of todays infrared imager comes in. An imager is infinitely better at seeing suspects in the dark then our night vision goggles or eyeballs will ever be. Even when searching for a suspect with a searchlight, a well-tuned infrared image in the hands of a proficient TFO is superior. Plus, this tactic keeps the suspect guessing whether or not we actually see them because a searchlight puts them in the “spotlight” when they are found. The spotlight “tips our hand.” It gives away where we are looking and lets a suspect know when we see them. The infrared imager keeps the suspect guessing while we quietly move K9 units and additional officers into containment positions for apprehension.

The difficulty in adopting this strategy is pilots need to position the aircraft based on what the TFO is looking at. This requires proficient and well trained TFO’s and practice. By incorporating the TFO’s video screen into their instrument scan pilots can position the aircraft around the tactical environment using a similar method to navigating an instrument approach for landing. Just as pilots scan a GPS for an instrument approach, they can position the aircraft by quickly scanning the display of the TFO screen and making adjustments based on gimbal angles (20-35 degrees) in relation to the tactical environment. These should be quick glances. The FAA recommends spending no more than 4-5 seconds viewing the instrument panel during your “scan.”

The instrument scan technique prevents pilots from being too focused on the tactical environment below and frees them up to do what is most important, be responsible for the safety of the aircraft. By using the FAA recommended collision avoidance scanning techniques, today’s advanced equipment, proficient and well-trained TFO’s and good crew resource management, we greatly improve our safety margins while still maintaining a high level of effectiveness.

Aviation safety should always be prioritized over the mission!