I once had the honor of talking to a former World War II fighter pilot assigned to the famous 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the only unit that never lost an escorted aircraft to enemy attack. The gentleman regaled me with the story of one of his most memorable missions.
He said he and his group were homebound with a flight of bombers under escort when a speck was spotted in the distance. Much to the pilots’ surprise, that figure closed in with blinding speed and blew past their group before anyone could get a decent shot at it. They had just had their first encounter with a German Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational turbojet fighter ever deployed.
Back at their base, the members of 332nd did not engage in their usual, lighthearted banter. Instead, I was told, the airmen sat quietly in the debriefing room as they recalled the way that Me 262 had thumbed its nose at their P-51 Mustangs. The silence was finally broken when a pilot gave voice to the question on all of their minds. “What are we supposed to do against one of those?”
That is now the question police pilots—and all pilots, for that matter—are asking when it comes to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Just what is a pilot supposed to do with a UAS when it closes in on his or her aircraft’s “personal space?”
In the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of UAS in dangerous proximity to police helicopters. In late August, a Los Angeles Police Department crew was conducting a search when a quadcopter approached its aircraft, causing the pilot to take evasive action. The good news is that there were no injuries, and the police were able to spot the operator. Ground units were guided in and put the habeas grabus on the man and his toy. (He was released, but the district attorney is considering charges.)
First of all, I say the charging documents should start with two counts of assaulting a police officer, followed closely by hindering a police officer (or whatever California calls it when someone intentionally interferes with a law enforcement officer in his official capacity). While those documents are prepared, I hope the FAA will be putting the finishing touches on its own set of charges.
As you know, the FAA has imposed a few light-weight rules on hobby and commercial UAS operations with the intent of preventing interference with manned aircraft. But let’s face it, we’ve seen how often the laws governing the possession of firearms are violated. So I’m not counting on regulations effectively (emphasis on “effectively”) controlling UAS anytime during this millennium, especially if they continue to be so easy to get and operate.
Meanwhile, what can a flight crew do to avoid exchanging paint with a UAS that’s either inadvertently buzzing them or being steered toward them with malice aforethought?
Of course, the first response is the one that comes naturally: yank and bank. After all, any radio-controlled helicopter that can reach the patrol altitude of a police helicopter will be big enough to cause some real damage.
But I would also suggest that the initial evasive maneuver might not be enough to protect your helicopter, considering the capabilities of a UAS equipped with a video camera that sends real-time images to the operator. In the hands of a person who is willing to sacrifice his or her toy, it could conceivably be used as a steerable weapon, allowing its owner to employ the camera as a sighting mechanism to assist staying on target. That means the police pilot will have to continue executing evasive maneuvers to keep the low-tech, surface-to-air weapon from scoring a hit.
For now, I think the most common issue will be the UAS hobbyist innocently trying to get a look at whatever the police helicopter is looking at or trying to get a close-up look at the helicopter itself. Still, the steadily increasing presence of UAS at the same altitudes used for patrols and searches poses a real danger. Crews need to add this threat to their scans.
Let’s just say that there is a close encounter with a UAS. Should the crew exit and remain clear of the area or try to reacquire the machine in the hopes of following it to its owner? To that, I can only say that some planning on how to respond is in order, the same way crews need a plan to deal with gunfire and laser attacks.
And no, you can’t mount an M230 chain gun to your ship.