The recent incident, in which a gunman shot at and struck a Virginia State Police helicopter illustrates the threat posed to airborne law enforcement aircraft by ground based threats. The helicopter being, piloted by Sgt. Don Childs, was struck by seven rounds from a high powered rifle. The shots came while Childs was attempting to help police locate Christopher Speight, who authorities believe killed eight people last month in a deadly rampage in Appomattox County.
In the heat of the moment, Childs said, he initially didn't realize the helicopter had been hit. "I heard two loud bangs, and I wasn't sure if it was a mechanical problem or I had actually been shot," Childs said. When he heard the two bangs, Childs said, instinct took over. "Immediately, looking at the systems, everything seemed to be OK, but I smelled something," Childs said. So despite his desire to return to division headquarters, not far from the scene, Childs made a quick landing in a field.
Checking out the exterior of the helicopter, he noticed the fuel tank had been hit by one of the rounds. In all, seven shots hit the helicopter, damaging the underbelly, the fuel tank and one of the rotors, Childs said. "I have never been in an aircraft, whether in the military or civilian, where the aircraft itself took that many rounds," he said. Two of the bullets, he said, could easily have taken his life if they had been inches in a different direction. Although the aircraft was not directly "downed" by gunfire, Sgt. Childs made a prudent decision to land and evaluate the damage before something catastrophic happened. A former military pilot, Childs never dreamed that he would take hits in the civilian world. "Without a doubt, divine intervention helped saved my day," remarked Childs.
There are numerous ground based threats that pose a danger to aircraft. The threats range from Man Portable Air Defense systems (MAN Pads), fireworks, rifles, handguns and lasers. "There really is quite an array of weapons that can be used against us," commented Police Officer Larry King of the Newark (NJ) Police Aviation Unit. "In addition to aircraft emergencies, we must always be aware of these external threats."
Although MAN Pads have been used in a variety of attacks against aircraft in other countries, they thankfully have not yet made it to the United States. The most common type of MANPAD is a heat-seeking type that requires an operator to fire the weapon at the intended aircraft. "The MANPAD requires some training and they are expensive, so it will not be in the hands of kids in a park," noted one law enforcement source. There is concern because a large number of MAN Pads are unaccounted for, and they have already been used in attacks by many of the well-known terrorist organizations. All patrol officers should always be alert to this threat and realize the threat does not always exist right near an airport.
Small arms fire such as rifles and handguns also pose a threat. Sometimes, an aircrew might not know they have been hit. A major east coast city had one of their aircraft struck by a round while flying around the city on a routine mission. The damage was discovered on a routine maintenance inspection. "We have no idea if the aircraft was an intended target or if it was struck by a random round," commented a unit Lieutenant. "In any case, we are grateful that no one was injured and the aircraft suffered no major damage." As a very general rule, if an aircrew finds themselves in a situation that might result in small arms being used against the aircraft, they should fly fast and low. Ground cover such as trees, buildings etc provide cover and the speed prevents a shooter from getting a good look at the aircraft.
Fireworks pose their own dangers. During the July 4th holiday, many aircraft report being targeted by fireworks. The NYPD Aviation is often called to investigate reports of fireworks being shot at airliners as they approach the major metropolitan airports airport. The fireworks are generally small and do not have any "explosive" qualities so the danger of real damage to an aircraft is small. Obviously, there is always risk and law enforcement must always respond swiftly to these reports.
By far, the fastest growing threat to law enforcement aircraft are lasers. In recent years and especially in recent months the incidence of an aircraft being hit by a laser has increased dramatically. There have been some reports of pilot injuries but fortunately there have been no reports that these injuries have affected the ability to control an aircraft. Fortunately, prosecutors and judges have realized the grave danger posed by these lasers and are imposing more severe penalties. In just the past few months, several individuals have been sentenced to federal jail time for laser offenses.
Patrol officers can help prevent or reduce the potential for ground based threats by taking a proactive and aggressive approach to any of these types of calls, especially if it is thought that aircraft are being targeted. If ground units believe there is the possibility of a weapon being used at a scene, relay this information to the responding airborne unit so that they can develop their own tactics and strategies for dealing with that threat.
Although the idea of flight crews strapping on Kevlar vests as part of their safety equipment is remote, if there are many more incidents like in Virginia that might just become a reality!