By Ernie Stephens | July 1, 2008
Yes, I’m guilty, albeit unintentionally.
Even though most of my columns are intended for every member of a law enforcement helicopter crew, I have never written anything exclusively about the tactical flight officer (TFO). That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate these unsung heroes. I feel just the opposite. Having played the role of pilot and TFO, I learned firsthand that serving in the latter capacity is more demanding than flying (engine failures notwithstanding).
I came into police aviation as a helicopter pilot, so my primary focus was on getting to know my aircraft. Of course, that still included learning about the thermal imager, searchlight, digital downlink gear and all the other stuff. But I didn’t have to concern myself with the nasty little details of calibrating them in flight or becoming proficient in their use. My job as the pilot was to get my TFO where he needed to be and to make sure we didn’t hit the ground before intended.
I have been fortunate to share the cockpit with some truly talented TFOs, and have had the privilege of meeting many more. The best of the best share three qualities. First, they are great beat cops. Next, they live to catch bad guys. Third, they can do several things at once and do them all well.
That last aspect can’t be underappreciated. Being a TFO who has to multitask aboard a pitching and rolling helicopter requires the heart of a warrior, the stomach of a fighter pilot and the eye/hand coordination of a 15-year-old video-game enthusiast.
After years of watching Mike Brady-my former partner and one of the finest TFOs on the planet-I was keenly aware that his job was not easy. But it wasn’t until I had to break in some new pilots that I learned just how hard it was to be a TFO.
To train and assess new pilots, I would serve as their TFO for several weeks to help them learn the ropes of flying police missions. Keep in mind that prior to that, my physical interactions with a forward-looking infrared (flir), video camera, searchlight and moving map were while the aircraft was planted firmly on the ground. I knew the basics of how to work them — no more, no less.
My real education came the first time I actually had to be a TFO, as opposed to impersonating one in a training situation.
The excitement of getting my first opportunity to search for a fleeing felon quickly turned into a super-sized order of anxiety with a side of frustration. I was trying to get the flir to look where I wanted it to, struggling to figure out which ground units were which, and keying up on Washington National Airport’s tower frequency out of habit, instead of hitting the foot treadle for the police radio.
Then there was the whole air-sickness thing that can afflict any airman under the right combination of circumstances-a combination I managed to find during an erratic bank while staring deeply into the face of the flir monitor. Trust me when I tell you that I came dangerously close to redecorating the flight deck.
"How do TFOs do this day after day?" I mumbled to myself after the apprehension was made-an apprehension accomplished in spite of my abysmal debut as a TFO.
On a good day, the TFO is helping to scan for traffic, checking potential hot spots and enjoying the best front-seat view of any sworn person on the department. But as soon the dispatcher calls the helicopter using that "all-heck-is-breaking-loose" tone of voice, the juggling act begins.
Within seconds, the TFO will be dealing with a dozen people over the radio, at least one of whom will be screaming. He will be trying to keep one eye on the flir monitor and one on the ground, like a chess player scanning all the pieces on the board. He will also be dealing with the problem of having to consult a map so he can better arrange the perimeter, then trying to get back on the fleeing suspect before he disappears. Change the number of suspects from one to two, three or four, and it’s like the TFO is juggling an egg, a bowling ball and a buzzing chain saw.
Meanwhile, the pilot is doing pretty much what he always does — flying.
For me, the formula is simple: It isn’t a helicopter until the pilot lifts the machine into the air. But it isn’t a police helicopter until the TFO does everything else. And it’s that "everything else" part that makes them the real heroes of airborne law enforcement.
For those of you who are pilots with no TFO experience, take comfort in the knowledge that you got the relatively easy job.
For those ladies and gentlemen who make their living as tactical flight officers, my hat’s off to you all! You’re the ones who locate the lost children, spot the fleeing felons and put the light down on lone officers who have three stopped behind the shopping center. You are the unsung heroes, and I’m proud to know each and every one of you!