Despite all the technological advances in aviation, weather is still a critical element that directly affects all types of flying. Any passenger that has flown the commercial airlines during a snowstorm or when thunderstorms are in the area can attest to the fact that bad weather almost always results in delays. The same holds true for law enforcement aviation. Although new helicopters are being developed and delivered with highly advanced navigation equipment and systems such as autopilots, weather can play havoc with law enforcement aviation operations.
The Air Traffic Control System
The Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control System (ATC) does a remarkable job of moving airlines, corporate aircraft and general aviation aircraft across the skies of the United States safety and effectively each and every day, in almost all types of weather. Why can an airliner go from New York to Los Angeles in certain weather conditions, while the police helicopter is grounded by it?
When flying in poor weather, any aircraft flying must operate under instrument flight rules (IFR) and follow set procedures, using current and highly accurate navigation charts. These flights are conducted along routes that are "flight checked" by the FAA. The tests are conducted using sophisticated test equipment and real aircraft. The flight check tests insure accuracy and safety. When an aircraft flies an "instrument approach" to a specific airport, it is using an "instrument approach procedure' that has been developed, tested and monitored by the FAA using a thorough and complex set of rules and procedures. The allowed altitudes are carefully examined to allow for any obstructions and to insure the aircraft will descend and land safely.
Most police airborne operations are conducted under visual flight rules (VFR). Visual flight rules allow the aircraft to operate as long at the pilot can maintain visual ground contact and see for a certain distance. Currently, visual flight rules are 1000 feet ceiling and visibility three miles. To further complicate the picture, helicopters are given certain allowances, because of their agility and ability to operate lower and slower than airplanes. In certain circumstances, helicopters may be allowed to operate under VFR in conditions less than 1000 feet ceiling and three mile visibility.
The Weather Factors
Ask any pilot what kind of weather keeps them awake at night, and they will always mention thunderstorms and icing. The largest aircraft in the sky, including the Boeing 747 and the massive U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy, can be knocked out of the sky by a severe thunderstorm or severe icing. A senior airline pilot that routinely flew the 747 was once asked for his strategy when he encounters icing. His answer was simple; "Get out of it." In short, take action now to get out of the icing encounter. If a ground unit requests an airborne asset and thunderstorms are in the area or the possibility of icing or icing conditions exist, it is a fair bet to say that the airborne asset will be unable to respond. Other factors that could impair response are local dense fog and heavy rain. Finally, not all pilots are alike. A particular pilot might feel comfortable and safe responding in certain weather, while the next pilot might decide the weather is not safe. It often is a result of training and experience.
Will a police aviation unit push the envelope when it is an urgent call such as "police officer in danger?" Well, it is safe to say that most police pilots share the same sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that ground officers share. Their desire to help when a police officer is in trouble is very strong, perhaps almost overwhelming. The desire to help is so strong that it can influence their decisions and impair their judgment. In order to counter this urgency, many agencies have developed "hard" weather minimums that, regardless of a pilot's experience, they cannot even attempt to respond if the weather conditions are at or below these minimums. Some agencies have even implemented a strategy taken from the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) community. For years, the HEMS community has experienced a less-than-desirable safety record. Some studies of these accidents found a link between a flight crew's willingness to respond and the nature of the call. The studies found that a flight crew would push the limits for certain emotional calls, such as those involving children or police officers. In an effort to take the emotion out of the decision, the flight crew is asked if they could perform a flight under the current weather conditions without being given any other information. The decision to respond is made by objective and experienced thinking and decision making.
The decision to respond is always made in the best interest of safety. A police pilot's decision to respond or not is always based on their training and experience. Rest assured, if needed, and it is possible to fly safely, the airborne asset will be there!