Aviation Tactical Flight Officer

In the last ten years, the airborne law enforcement aircraft has undergone tremendous changes. In both aviation equipment and police equipment, police aviators from only about 15-20 years ago would simply marvel at contemporary airborne law enforcement aircraft.

The law enforcement aircraft of yesterday was usually a crew of two, the pilot and either another pilot or a police officer perhaps assigned part-time to work the night sun and perhaps binoculars. This police officer usually had some airborne experience in the military or worked at an airport when he was in college. In short, hardly a sound way to select officers for a demanding assignment. The pilots usually had less than flattering names for their counterparts and they were often simply know as observers. The training usually consisted of a quick orientation by a pilot and then on the job training during actual missions. The real progressive agencies had thermal imaging equipment which was the latest and greatest airborne technology available.

Today's Tactical Flight Officer

Fast forward to today and the flight officer is commonly known as the Tactical Flight Officer (TFO). On the police side of the house, the TFO is responsible for quite a mix of cutting edge technologies and radios. The law enforcement aircraft of today is still usually equipped with a searchlight and thermal imaging system. In addition, most law enforcement aircraft now have moving maps systems, extensive computerized databases that can be accessed in flight and microwave downlink systems. Many airborne law enforcement crews also now extensively use night vision goggles.

Consider all the information a tactical flight officer must manage during a night time vehicle pursuit. In addition to calling out the vehicles location, direction of travel, potential safety considerations, the TFO of today is often tasked with recording the event with the camera side of the thermal imager. While keeping one eye on the stolen vehicle, they are also watching the moving map for street locations, especially if the pursuit goes into neighboring, often unfamiliar jurisdictions. While keeping up with the vehicle and streets, there are usually two or more police radios buzzing asking a million questions about the pursuit.

Many other missions are also quite demanding and workload intensive. If additional crew and/or passengers are aboard, it is often the TFO that interacts to complete the mission. For example, if a crime scene photographer is on-board to take photos of a scene, the TFO must coordinate to make sure the photographer gets what is needed and does not get sick in the process! If the mission consists of transmitting images to ground commanders a command center, or sometimes both, the TFO must provide the requested shots while usually being asked to provide several shots of different locations all at once.

All the police duties must be completed and the TFO must always maintain and provide attention to his or primary duty; safety of flight. Yes, even with all the responsibilities of the police side of an aircraft mission, the TFO must always look for conflicting aircraft such as news media following the pursuit and obstacles such as towers and wires.

Selection and Training

Most agencies have a formalized selection process for TFOs. Among the usual criteria that are considered are work record, sick record, evaluations, commendations and supervisory recommendations. Any flying experience is considered however many successful TFOs have limited or no prior aviation experience.

The training also has become much more structured and organized. The training can be extensive with formal classroom and in-flight training to learn how to manage and use all the technology and resources available. The newly assigned TFO must learn quite a bit about a sometimes completely strange environment known as the airborne law enforcement cockpit. They must learn to speak aviation with such terms and abbreviations as TCAS, TAWS, transponders, safety management systems and autorotation to name just a few. Although every agency has different requirements, many training programs from start to a fully qualified TFO can take anywhere from six months to a year. This does not include any additional even-more-specialized training that a TFO might need. If the agency does multi-mission work such as medevac hoisting or airborne use of force, the TFO has additional training. The medevac aircraft and ground ambulance may share many similarities but the cramped space and noise usually takes some getting used to. If airborne use of force is a mission, the TFO must qualify and maintain proficiency on their particular weapons.

Once fully mission qualified, there is constant recurrency training. As with most technologies, equipment and capabilities change rapidly and the TFO is expected to keep up with any changes and/or mew mission equipment that becomes available.

It has been said that a law enforcement aircraft is just an aircraft until a properly trained TFO makes it a true law enforcement aircraft. Operating in such a demanding environment requires all the same skills as a good ground officer:

  • the ability to think quickly
  • apply good tactics and common sense
  • manage multiple sources of information
  • effectively accomplish all their tasks without compromising safety

The British have recognized the intensive workload and responsibilities of the airborne law enforcement aircraft and require, by law, a crew of three: a pilot, a mission commander to work the police radios and a tactical flight officer to work the police equipment. They have the luxury of an additional crew member to get the job done!