As law enforcement aviators, we often bring a double doom aspect to our missions. Not only are we very aware of the ugliness that can happen on the law enforcement side, we also have the aviation side to consider. When responding to a shots fired call we are thinking both about the possibility of being shot at, but we also must consider the aviation dangers. Most agencies send their pilots to very intense factory training schools at which pilots train for the very serious side of aviation. When everything goes wrong and the ground is rushing up fast. Unfortunately, danger seems to arrive when we least expect it.
Missouri Highway Patrol Aviation Line of Duty Death
On October 15, 2010, Sergeant Joe Schuengel of the Missouri Highway Patrol was killed in a helicopter crash while returning to the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in one of the Missouri Highway Patrol's traffic enforcement helicopters. He had dropped off several other troopers and was returning to the airport when the Bell 206B helicopter experienced a probable mechanical failure. It is believed he was able to maneuver the aircraft to avoid nearby houses before crashing into a residential street on Horseshoe Ridge Road. Residents and responding officers immediately responded to the scene, but Sergeant Schuengel had been killed on impact. Sergeant Schuengel had served with the Missouri State Highway Patrol for 17 years. By all accounts, Sergeant Schuengel was a terrific Trooper and excellent pilot. It is very likely his superior piloting skills saved persons on the ground from injury or death. He left behind a mother and three sisters.
Sgt. Schuengel had just concluded a routine speeding enforcement assignment and was returning to base. Certainly, Sgt Schuengel had been involved in more dangerous and extreme situations both as a trooper and a pilot. If asked to rate the speed enforcement assignment in terms of danger Sgt. Schuengel would likely have stated it was not dangerous at all. Yet, in this most routine of situations, we lost another law enforcement officer.
Unfortunately, danger doesn't allow us to pick and choose when it will appear. In the Pacific Northwest early year, four officers were ambushed and killed while starting their shifts at a local coffee shop. The challenge for us in both law enforcement and aviation is to keep our awareness razor sharp.
Keeping the Edge
As law enforcement officers and pilots how do we keep the routine from dulling our awareness edge? Although the training divisions, bosses and memos always remind us to stay vigilant and sharp, how can we make it more practical and useful? Perhaps simply playing the what if game when working together can help to make awareness more real. Next time you get together with a few fellow officers for a cup of joe or at a restaurant, perhaps take just a few minutes to ponder what if? What if the person that just walked in took out a gun? Make a game of it: ask your partner, "what was the writing on that guys shirt that just walked by?" Even in a routine situation, it will certainly raise awareness.
In law enforcement aviation, flight instructors often use the same technique. Just when a pilot is up to his elbows in the mission, the instructor will pose a what if? What would you do now if the engine quit? What would you do if you lost hydraulics?
The Ultimate Goal
It really does not matter if we do our jobs in a car, boat, horse or aircraft. We must all realize that routine does not equal safe and things can change in a split second. The very routine can be very dangerous and we always must be ready and prepared to deal with it. The world of police work and flying share much in common. Both require extensive training. In both fields experience is a wonderful teacher.
Perhaps Harry Reasoner should have added police officers into his thoughts on helicopter pilots. Mr. Reasoner wrote an article on why airplane pilots and helicopter pilots are different. "That's why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant, extroverts. And helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to." wrote Mr. Reasoner. That might be the best way to keep the mind sharp. We all know if something bad has not happened it is about to.