By Capt. Ed Van Winkle, District Commander, Gainesville (Fla.) Police Dept. and Aviation Unit Commander | July 1, 2005
One department’s assessment of airborne use of force offers tips on the pros and cons of adopting this law-enforcement tactic.
There has been much discussion in the last several years about airborne use of force by law enforcement agencies. Advocates say agencies should develop the skills needed to deploy deadly force from helicopters, since it is just a matter of time until another major terror attack occurs.
Detractors say there are inherent risks that make shooting from helicopters extremely unsafe and necessary only in special circumstances.
Regardless of your opinion, it is clear law enforcement agencies are not blessed with the ability to predict the type of critical incidents they may be called upon to handle, or when those incidents will occur. It is therefore critical for law enforcement agencies with aviation units to develop training and procedures for airborne use of force.
In planning for deploying rifles from our OH-6 helicopter, we first looked to the experiences of other agencies. We then worked with our pilots and an experiencd SWAT sniper to train for live fire from our helicopter. The purpose of this article is to share our experiences with our first live fire training exercise.
Safety was the main concern, and was addressed on four levels: general safety while in and around the aircraft, safety of the shooter while attached to the aircraft, safety issues related to the carrying and firing of the rifle and safety of operating the aircraft in the training environment.
A designated safety officer observed all activity from the ground and remained in constant contact with the pilots during each exercise.
General safety considerations were reviewed with all personnel. Proper approach to the aircraft was discussed, as well as the placement of ground safety personnel and a photographer. The shooter was secured to the helicopter by our rappel master with a length of safety rope and two carabiners. One carabiner was attached to the rear of the shooter’s rappelling harness and the second to a hard point inside the aircraft cabin.
The shooter sat in the rear seat and leaned out against the tension of the harness and strap for stability, wearing a headset for communication with the flight crew and goggles for eye protection.
It was clear that the rifle posed the most serious threat to the aircraft during the training exercise. The shooter we selected had extensive rifle experience from the Marine Corps and as a SWAT Team sniper, as well as experience firing from helicopters. We stressed that the rifle should always be pointed parallel with the floor of the aircraft or below, but never at the main rotors, any part of the aircraft hull, or any member of the crew.
As the shooting drills progressed, handling the rifle while seated in the aircraft became easier for the shooter.
Several steps were taken with the rifle to ensure the safety of the helicopter. A ballistic nylon brass catcher was attached to the rifle to catch the expended brass, since it could cause serious problems if it were to strike the main rotor or tail rotor. The rifle was attached to the shooter both with a standard rifle sling and a safety line fashioned out of parachute cord. This ensured that the rifle remained attached to the shooter at all times.
Another important safety consideration was the 200-yd. firearms range we were using. There were 20-ft. high berms on all four sides, but with ample room for maneuvering the helicopter.
However, the range also had several potential obstacles, such as high trees around the perimeter and telephone poles with steel cables used to support moving targets. Since the aircraft had to be flown at different angles to facilitate shooting, a significant amount of concentration was needed by the pilot.
Everything from .50 cal. rifles to 9mm submachine guns have been used by law enforcement agencies to shoot from helicopters. We chose to deploy an AR-15A3, a .223 cal. variant of the AR-15, for our first attempt at shooting from the air. The primary reason for selecting the AR-15A3 was the ballistics of the round. Even at distances beyond 100 yards, the .223 round still penetrates and fragments to create a significant, permanent wound cavity. This increases the chances of neutralizing the suspect quickly. The AR-15A3 is also very controllable. Larger caliber bolt-action rifles do not provide the ability to fire quick follow-up shots, and they are heavier and more difficult to control in a small helicopter. Smaller 9mm submachine guns, such as the H&K MP5, are easy for the shooter to handle, but the 9mm round does not produce significant, permanent wound cavities when compared to the .223 round.
The progression of training was similar to other law enforcement training. We began by conducting static drills. The shooter and aircrew were safely secured in the aircraft with the engine off. The blades were placed so that the shooter would have an idea of the tip path plane.
After getting comfortable with the position of the aircraft and the angles involved, one string of five shots was fired. This allowed the shooter to become comfortable with the position of the rifle and gave the aircrew a feel for the effects of the fired rounds.
We then progressed to fluid drills. The engine was operating with the helicopter on the ground with rotors turning. Shooting from this position added more distractions for the shooter, in addition to further conditioning the aircrew to the firing of rounds in close proximity to the cockpit. One string of seven shots was fired from this position.
With the aircrew and shooter comfortable with the fluid drills, dynamic training began with the helicopter lifting off the ground into a hover. Hovering demonstrated the shooter’s difficulty in maintaining a consistent sight picture. The shots fired from a hover and with the aircraft moving were done in 5-10 round strings.
We later learned that it would have been easier to count our hits on the target if the shooter had fired the same number of rounds each time.
Once we began shooting from the moving aircraft, the training progressed more quickly. We shot with the aircraft moving in several directions and from different angles. We also had the shooter fire from both sides of the aircraft. After several attempts, the shooter found that forward movement of the helicopter was helpful in providing some stability and a more consistent sight picture, as compared to hovering.
The shooter fired from two primary directions: straight toward the target and perpendicular to the target (across the range).
Each direction of flight had its own tactical advantages and disadvantages. Moving perpendicular to the target minimized the exposure of the aircraft to the potential threat, but made it somewhat difficult for the shooter to maintain a good sight picture. Moving toward the target made it easier for the shooter to maintain a clear sight picture, but it exposed the aircraft to the threat for a longer period of time. It became apparent that both methods should be practiced so that the shooter can engage a threat using either method.
The accuracy was surprisingly good for our first attempt. All shots were fired approximately 75 yd. from the target. Overall, 64 percent of our shots resulted in hits on the target, which sounds like a low percentage until one considers that we had not done any actual training prior to conducting this exercise and were experimenting with several positions.
One of the biggest considerations for the shooter was the movement of the aircraft. Even relatively insignificant movements of the aircraft resulted in very significant movements of the sight picture. Since the shooter was only using the AR-15A3’s iron sights, we decided to try red-dot sights during our next training session to increase accuracy.
There were several challenges for the pilot during our live fire training drills. Maintaining focus on flying the aircraft was more difficult with the added distraction of rifle fire in the vicinity of the cockpit. Using the tactical flight officer (TFO) to act as the communications link between the shooter and the flight crew was useful in minimizing distractions to the pilot.
The demands of positioning the shooter in proper relationship to the target was also a concern, since the shooter’s position in the aircraft and wind direction required the pilot to fly at slower airspeeds in a crosswind. This could be particularly challenging if the situation required the pilot to fly with a tailwind at slow airspeeds. Due to the configuration of the firearms range (high berms on all sides), settling with power was a potential problem. Our approaches into the shooting area were steep with low airspeed, primarily when setting up to maneuver straight toward the target. Airspeeds were higher when moving perpendicular to the target.
Our first try at airborne use of force was successful and gave us a lot to work on for our next attempt. We decided to stick with two directions of movement, straight toward the target and perpendicular, since each one offered specific advantages.
We also decided to try electronic sights on the rifle in hopes that it would improve the shooter’s sight picture and enhance his ability to get on target. It was clear that regular training will be required to maintain the level of proficiency needed to properly deploy rifles from the helicopter in an actual operation. It was also clear that the few hours we spent developing this training were well worth the effort and will improve our training when we eventually offer it to all of our SWAT Team snipers.
Capt. Ed Van Winkle is a District Commander for the Gainesville Police Dept. in Gainesville, Fla., where he is a 17-year veteran. He spent 12 years as a member, Team Leader and Commander of the Gainesville Police Dept. SWAT Team. Van Winkle is an experienced tactical trainer and currently the Aviation Unit Commander. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.