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

Originally published in AIRBEAT Magazine - May-June 2019

I often notice the Pilot/Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) divide as I travel throughout the country at flight trainings and seminars. At the beginning of workshops, Pilots will cluster together in one part of the room, while TFOs group into another. On a regular basis, Tactical Flight Officers will introduce themselves as, “just a TFO,” almost with some embarrassment. Very rarely does someone in an air support unit proudly and confidently identify solely with that position. ”

I understand there are a number of variables that affect this, the primary being that TFOs are usually junior members of an air support unit who have not worked their way through the ranks to become a Pilot. In such cases, the Pilot may be a longer tenured employee in the unit — perhaps even a TFO trainer — who can recount the occasions where they have had to take on extra responsibility when the TFO has faltered. Regardless of the actual reasons, there still exists an unspoken cultural divide between Pilots and TFOs that hearkens back to the days of the “Observer.” However, it’s an archaic consideration that overlooks the compelling, yet cooperative, distinctions between these two positions.

To all TFOs: You are not “JUST” a TFO! You are a specialist, so long as you consider yourself to be one. You have a responsibility, to yourself and to others, to be expertly proficient in your role. You must be someone who lives and breathes the mission and wants to be the best at what you do. Not just for you, but for the benefit of the ground resources, your unit, your department, your industry, and your family. Proficiency as a TFO not only establishes credibility and rapport with your partner in the aircraft, but it undeniably makes for a safer and more effective mission.

As a TFO, we cannot be cavalier or half-hearted in our role if we are to be accepted as an integral part of a law enforcement air crew.

As a Pilot, we cannot continue to look at TFOs as an inferior or lower ranked position. The TFO is what elevates our aircraft from civilian operation to law enforcement.

Gone (thankfully) are the days of the “Observer.” Today’s TFO should be well-trained, well-equipped, and selected through an intensive interview process from the ranks of highly qualified officers. A proficient TFO will spend countless hours studying thermal imager technology and reviewing incident videos, while seamlessly mastering complex mapping systems and multi-channel radios. They are confident in their decision making, will quickly and concisely communicate with ground units, and can adapt and respond to dangerous, rapidly-evolving, and infinitely dynamic environments. They are line-level officers making command-level decisions. They are leaders amongst their peers, both on the ground and in the sky.

The TFO and the Pilot have two very different areas of responsibility, and cannot objectively be ranked in importance. While the TFO is primarily responsible for the coordination of ground resources, and the PILOT is primarily responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft, the two positions can back each other up in a good crew resource management model. As a general rule, the TFO and Pilot should be able to operate independently without relying on the other. That said, each mission is unique and requires both TFOs and Pilots to adapt and provide assistance to one another when needed.

At Tactical Flying, we teach the following fundamental: “Workload always shifts to the Pilot.” So, as a TFO becomes task saturated, the task overload shifts to the Pilot, ultimately affecting safety in flight. The higher a Pilot’s workload, the greater the chances of distractions, mistakes, and potentially catastrophic incidents.

As an example, let’s take a theoretical, but common, mission scenario:

· FLIR search for a shooting suspect
· Night time, good VFR conditions
· Experienced, rested L/E Pilot
· No aircraft issues

If the TFO in this scenario is proficient with their skills and equipment, what do you think the Pilot’s workload level is? Low? High?

The workload for the Pilot in this scenario is most likely pretty low, because neither the weather nor the aircraft is of concern, and the TFO is competently performing as expected. Although the mission has a high sense of urgency, the extensive skill level of the TFO means the Pilot has no need to take on additional tasks. The Pilot can focus on their primary responsibility of aircraft safety.

Let’s take the same scenario and change only the TFO’s capability. All other factors remain the same. For whatever reason, the TFO is struggling to work the mission. Perhaps it is their first day, or maybe they have simply neglected to continue practicing their skills. As a result, the probability of success in the mission begins to wane.

Relative to the pilot, what is most likely going to occur? We all know the typical air support unit officer is “Type-A,” and will not let the mission flounder. As such, the Pilot is likely going to recognize the risk of failure, and voluntarily increase their workload to compensate for the TFO’s shortcomings. Even with the Pilot’s assistance, the chance for a successful mission has significantly decreased. Perhaps more detrimental, though, is the Pilot’s inability to focus all their attention on the safety of the flight.

Imagine, then, a worst-case scenario where the Pilot’s workload is heavy, and the TFO’s proficiency is less than desirable.

· FLIR Search for Officer Involved Shooting (OIS) suspect
· Night time – Marginal VFR
· Low time L/E Pilot
· Fuel will be an issue soon
· Pilot handling L/E communications
· Unlit, rural environment

What do you think the Pilot’s workload is now? Most likely very high, especially as a low time Pilot. They are fully task saturated with aircraft safety items (fuel, weather, environment), and are now adding TFO tasks to their workload in a very important, high-priority mission. The chance of making a mistake with significant consequences has increased for all parties involved.

As a proficient TFO, your ability to do the job reduces Pilot workload, allowing them to focus on their primary responsibility of aircraft safety. You MUST be, or strive to be as soon as possible, completely proficient with your thermal imager, communication, and mapping systems. Time should be spent in between radio calls practicing with your imager, exploring the map menus and radio frequencies, or conducting simulated missions such as vehicle follows or suspect foot pursuits. Downtime on the ground should be spent watching recorded mission videos or reviewing your geographic area of responsibility.

Without question, the role of Tactical Flight Officer is one of the most rewarding jobs in law enforcement. This is a real-life job with real-life consequences that cannot be taken lightly. We have an incredible amount of technology and training to use against increasingly intelligent suspects, and we need to be masters of our craft to keep the tactical advantage in the hands of law enforcement. At some point, you will find yourself being the sole person in the universe with “eyes on” the suspect. As a lieutenant once told me, “It is completely unacceptable to lose sight of that suspect.” Will it happen? Yes, but we must strive to avoid it at all costs.

The real point I want to drive home — and a main focus at Tactical Flying — is the importance of a PROFICIENT TFO. The TFO must recognize the critical significance of their position and treat it with the utmost seriousness. You as the TFO have an important role in the success and safety of the mission, both on the ground and in the air. You are an integral part of the law enforcement aircrew, and a key factor in the safety of the aircraft based on your ability, or inability, to do the job.

So, if you count yourself among those who are “just” a TFO: be proud, be confident, and be really, really GOOD.

Fly safe, be safe.