Public Service

Law Enforcement Notebook

By Frank Lombardi | February 1, 2009

Human Factors in Airborne Law Enforcement

When we examine human factors, we study anatomical, physiological and psychological aspects of our working environment in an effort to minimize error and optimize safety, comfort and efficiency. The use of a helicopter for public safety provides a special circumstance. At any given time, one may find a pilot, a policeman, a paramedic or even a fireman working together in an environment (the cockpit/cabin) that is tolerant of very little error. To raise the bar even higher, one may find all those varied professional duties being carried out by one person. For reasons such as this, each flight is jam-packed with lessons in human factors, and we will examine a few important examples here as we strive to avoid error-producing conditions.

To beat these systems one must plan backward from the objective to the starting point.


Many law enforcement aviation units operate 24/7/365. A large percentage of missions are flown between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 a.m., when performance can be degraded due to fatigue. Fatigue can be insidious, and is a leading causal factor for errors of all types. The only remedy is proper rest.

When a call is dispatched, the urgency can usually be heard over the radio. We can go from a very relaxed mental state to a "scramble" mode within seconds. The desire to minimize response time, especially if the mission has life-saving potential, leaves the opportunity for critical preflight and startup items to be overlooked. Some organizations operate multiple airframe types, increasing the likelihood of confusing procedures or limitations. We must discipline ourselves to slow down, use a checklist, and be pilots first, officers second when we strap on a helicopter. Being professional emergency responders, we are predisposed to have a certain amount of heroism. The desire to accomplish the mission must always be weighed against safety factors such as crew readiness, aircraft suitability, and weather minimums, regardless of the nature of the call.

In few other flying jobs is there such a unique interaction between flying and non-flying individuals. The people who request the use of the helicopter generally have little knowledge as to the governmental and physical laws that define and limit its use. Overhead a scene, we are usually on multiple radios swapping between pilot lingo and cop lingo as we speak to both Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the personnel on the ground. Emergency personnel and ATC often have conflicting requests. I’d swear, fleeing subjects always seem to know how to hide right under the approach path to an active runway, just when ATC is requesting that the aircrew keep the approach path clear! We must have good air-to-ground communication, practice good crew resource management amongst ourselves, and maintain our situational awareness through the confusion.

There are many ways, in fact, that we can lose situational awareness. Advances in flight control and handling qualities promise to reduce much of the demands on aircrews by automating the balancing act of helicopter flying. Yet, the gadgetry that fills the cockpit of a police helicopter can be daunting, and can end up being a black hole for your attention. I’d be lying if I said I was never caught up looking across the cockpit to help my partner troubleshoot a finicky moving map or to aid in identifying a blip on the infrared camera. Keeping your eyes outside the cockpit does not guarantee a safe flight. Ask any police officer and they will tell you how easy it is to get caught up in a vehicle or foot pursuit and get tunnel vision. It’s no different from our airborne vantage point. Most law enforcement missions are flown in close proximity to the ground. Obstacles and wires are ever-present, and we often find ourselves dipping in and out of the height-velocity diagram — definitely not the ideal place to lose situational awareness. Good tactical flight officer (TFO) training and cockpit discipline can reduce the potential for task saturation and mitigate this potentially dangerous situation.

If the mission includes landing at a "secured" scene, your head needs to be on a swivel. Landing a helicopter anywhere other than an airport is guaranteed to bring out spectators. The wind from spinning rotors can throw debris into people’s eyes or up through the rotor system. People wear loose clothing or hats, which can cause a hazard under the spinning rotors. On more than one occasion I’ve tackled someone as they instinctively chased their baseball cap right towards the spinning tail rotor. For all these reasons and more, the copilot should get out of the aircraft at the scene, limit the number of people who approach the aircraft, monitor their actions, and always stay in communication with fellow crewmembers.

As trained aviators, we are experts in our airborne systems, procedures and tactics. Yet, as professional responders to emergencies, our expertise involves a completely different set of procedures and tactics. Being aware of our own capabilities and limitations when incorporating the two sets is one of the best ways we can maintain our margin of safety.

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