By Ernie Stephens | February 1, 2007
A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, I WAS at a small gathering and ran into the sergeant of a local SWAT team.
What with him being a counter-sniper and me being a pilot, we started talking about the feasibility of shooting from a police helicopter. I suggested that we talk about the practicality of this rather than the feasibility.
Mike said he had read an article written by some officers out west who were training SWAT members to deliver accurate fire from an aircraft. I haven’t seen all of the articles or studies, but I’ve seen a few, and sat in on a seminar dealing with the subject at the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn.’s (ALEA) annual conference back in 2004. (For the record, the authors of the articles I read, and the presenters of the ALEA workshop I attended, were pretty smart people.)
I knew my agency would never go along with shooting at a threat from a helicopter, but when I got back from ALEA that year, I still wanted to give it a try, at least in experimental mode.
I wanted to take one of our counter-snipers up in the helicopter and set him up to fire on some paper targets to see if it was both feasible and practical to snipe someone from the air. I met with Sergeant Watson, my police agency’s best counter-sniper, for a trial run. In fact, he brought his entire counter-sniper team out to participate.
Without wasting a lot of time talking about crosswind components, projectile velocities, and all of that stuff, what happened was kind of worrisome. Some of the best shots in the state were in the back of a fairly stable helicopter and had a hard time getting rounds to find the kill zone of a stationary paper target. Meanwhile, if the paper target had been armed, my ship and I would have been hanging out there sucking up rounds. As each shooter took his turn, I kept trying to envision a scenario in which we would use such a tactic. The vibration of the aircraft kept the officers from getting off a good shot when they were in tight, and backing them off from the threat amplified the amount of aircraft movement with which they had to deal.
Someone once told me that an airborne assault would have to be done on the move and the counter-sniper would have to lay down automatic weapon fire instead of using the "one shot, one kill" method. I can’t buy that either. Having been shot at and shot up myself gave me a lot of respect for the bad guy who was finally due for a lucky shot on a moving target.
It was suggested that a stealthy approach would give the armed aircraft the advantage, but in spite of the quiet technology incorporated by some helicopters these days, I’m not convinced that a helicopter could sneak up on anyone and stabilize itself long enough to give an officer a clean shot. Of course, if the criminal in question has fallen asleep, or otherwise drifted off into unconsciousness, why are we shooting at him?
After spending a tank of jet fuel and a good part of the afternoon, my verdict back then — as now — was pretty simple: If the target was posing such a significant danger that a commander would send a counter-sniper up to neutralize him, a gun is probably involved. If a gun is involved and we’re in a position to fire upon him from the helicopter, he’s probably in a position to shoot back. I’m all for doing my duty and I’ve stuck my neck out for the public good more times than I’d care to remember, but I don’t like those odds.
A couple of side issues came up during our tests, too. The first was dealing with the report of the weapon and the second was maintaining communication with the counter-sniper.
With regard to the noise, my foamy earplugs and helmet did little to protect my hearing from the noise of the sniper rifle, and my head was pounding in short order. That wasn’t a deal breaker, but it created some issues with my ability to hear the air traffic control radio.
As for communicating with the counter-sniper, the flight crew could talk to him, but once he was locked down on the target, he couldn’t work the push-to-talk switch to respond to our questions or give us information on where he needed to be. Putting his headset on VOX would result in a ringing in our ears when the gun went off.
I’m told that the issue of ejected bullet casings flying all over the place is commonly dealt with by attaching a specially made bag to the weapon. Our guys didn’t have one, so I told them to catch each casing by hand and put them someplace safe while we were airborne.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve checked, so I’ll ask you, the readers: Do you know of any instances where deadly force has been successfully delivered from a police helicopter? If so, what were the circumstances?
For now, I’m sticking with my position that firing from an aircraft is more dangerous than getting the heck out of the line of fire. Give me a fully-armed AH-64 Apache and I’ll rethink my position.
Ernie Stephens holds a masters degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He was chief pilot for a major U.S. county police department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.