By Sgt. Ernie Stephens | October 1, 2005
It’s happened again. On Aug. 6, another police helicopter took gunfire, resulting in serious injury to the pilot, Chris Holland ("N.M. Sheriff’s Helicopter Shot Down at Burglary Site," September 2005, page 12). His partner, Bernalillo County, N.M. Deputy Sheriff Ward Pfefferle was hit by shrapnel from the shot. A 29-year old former U.S. Marine Corps firearms instructor with combat experience has been charged with the shooting.
The first of about five times that someone has shot at me came when I was as a rookie patrol officer two weeks out of the police academy. (That was also the day I regretted choosing police work over engineering.) The last time was about two years ago, when a drive-by shooter fired at me and my partner as we stood near the helicopter. Between those incidents was the time I landed with a bullet hole I had not taken off with.
How often do we actually think about taking gunfire? Do we think of it everyday, or just when we hear that someone else has been fired upon? Do we get a little uncomfortable every time we takeoff, or just when we handle a call where gunplay is involved? When we do take fire, what do we do to protect our aircraft and crew?
The biggest problem with being shot at in an aircraft is not knowing that you are under fire. When my turn came, I didn’t know I had been shot at, let alone hit, until after I had landed. The post-flight discovery of the bullet hole was all the more chilling because we hadn’t taken any calls during that flight.
Make no mistake about it, I was glad the damage was relatively minor. After all, many shootings don’t come to the pilot’s attention until after an engine-out light has come on, or someone’s blood has begun to flow. By then, a whole new set of priorities has developed.
Consider the rock-and-a-hard-place situation that comes with a crewmember being struck by gunfire. Is the injured person the only one capable of flying the aircraft? If so, how much longer can he or she continue to pilot the ship? What if the pilot is fine, but someone else aboard is injured? Should the pilot land immediately (where the shooter may still be) or try to reach a hospital? After all, another bullet may have damaged a vital component, and the ship may not make it to a better place.
One of the things I told my first partner was that if I was incapacitated, he should try to reach the local Air Force base. Since he wasn’t a licensed pilot, and his skills were minimal, my logic was that the base had several hundred acres of aircraft-friendly space for a novice to land–or crash. It also had a considerable amount of fire and rescue equipment. (Besides, I also heard that the food at the base hospital was pretty good.)
As a practical matter, I try to do everything I can to avoid being fired upon. If I take a call involving firearms, I ask ground units to tell us if they hear gunfire, regardless of whether they think it is being directed at the helicopter or not. If gunfire is heard, all bets are off, and I’m probably going to exit the area completely, unless someone on the ground is in immediate danger.
So far, I have only had one incident where a ground officer has actually seen an individual shooting at my aircraft. Knowing where the shooter was relative to my position dictated my actions, which was to dump the collective and quickly escape the gunman’s line of sight and field of fire. Of course, this meant high-speed flight well outside of the favorable area of the height-velocity chart, but dodging bullets seemed a bit more important at the time.
For every pilot I have spoken to about taking live gunfire, I have received 10 opinions on how to deal with it. I’ve heard people say, "Fly toward the shooter, because it’s harder for a gunman to shoot up than laterally." I’ve heard that the aircraft should climb and zigzag away, because it will be harder to aim at it. Others have recommended diving and flying straight away, in order to open up the distance as quickly as possible.
For my money, a combat-hardened military helicopter pilot is the best person to consult regarding what to do when being fired upon. As good fortune would have it, I know one. He is Capt. Aaron Smith, a decorated instructor pilot in the U.S. Army Reserve who drove a CH-47 Chinook in the Iraq war. He is also a full-time police pilot in Prince George’s County, Md.
"If you take small arms fire, immediately turn away from the fire and toward an area of concealment," advised Smith. Paraphrasing the Army manual, he added, "Turn the helicopter to an oblique angle relative to the shooter, which will make the aircraft harder to aim at. You should also make turns of unequal magnitudes and intervals with small changes in altitude until the aircraft is masked or out of range." (Jet fighter pilots call that "jinking.")
My opinion is pretty basic. Considering the urban environment that my aircraft and flying skills find themselves in the most, I’m going to follow the Army’s advice, and exit the "kill zone" by "yanking and banking" my way down and away from my attacker, while keeping my senses tuned for signs of an injured crewmember or aircraft.
Now, with that said, I have one request for my readers. If I’m ever shot down, please bring this article and a red marking pen to my hospital room. I may just want to make some revisions.