Attacks of this magnitude to airborne law enforcement aircraft are thankfully rare. Earlier this year, a Virginia State Police helicopter was struck by seven rounds from a high powered rifle during a search for a perpetrator that had killed eight persons. Fortunately there were no injuries; however a shot did penetrate the helicopters fuel tank forcing it to land. Ironically, the pilot, Sgt. Don Childs, was a former military pilot and had previously been in combat. Childs admitted that when he took a job flying the state's MedFlight helicopter, he didn't expect to face the threat of small-arms fire very often. Sgt Childs realizes he was very lucky. "I have never been in an aircraft, whether in the military or civilian, where the aircraft itself took that many rounds," he said.
In a confidential federal case, an agency's fixed wing was fired upon by persons on the ground. All shots missed. However, all ground threats do not come from the barrel of a gun. Reports of laser attacks of aircraft are continuing to increase, as well as attacks by fireworks. "Just as we preach that complacency kills in the street, airborne law enforcement crews can be no less complacent in the air," remarked one long-time police aviation instructor. "Just because you are not smack in the middle of the action in no way guarantees safety or means you are not in danger," he continued.
Airborne flight crews must contend with the aviation dangers as well as those specific law enforcement threats. The same mindset that applies to responding ground officers must be applied to the aviation response. What is the history of the neighborhood we are responding to? Is it a high activity area with a lot of guns? Has intelligence indicated that drug gangs are heavily armed? What has become abundantly clear is that the more powerful firearms threats that are faced by ground officers are every bit a threat to law enforcement aircraft.
Airborne law enforcement crews must recognize that they are another marked, responding unit and can be an inviting target. This is especially true if the ground units have excellent cover and concealment. The gunman does not see any potential targets on the ground and then a law enforcement aircraft flies by.
No mater what our assignment, the danger is always present. It is our job to remain vigilant and alert and consider all threats to make it home at the end of the day.