Inside the LAPD’s elite airborne unit

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(Originally published in the Palisades Post online, January 3, 2013, by staff writer Reza Gostar)

 

Negotiating traffic on Sunset Boulevard and PCH may be challenging for police officers on the ground, but not for officers piloting the airborne units of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division (ASD).

These elite helicopter units have become legendary not only in movies like ‘Blue Thunder’ and ‘Terminator 2,’ but also on the streets where they are often referred to as ‘ghetto birds’ by the criminals they chase.

Somewhere over southeast L.A. on December 20, LAPD Pilot David Swanson is flying a AStar B-2 helicopter to the scene of a potential robbery. The victim’s neighbor has spotted the two suspects, Swanson tells a Palisadian-Post reporter who is along for the ride.

Tactical Flight Officer Renee Muro, a veteran LAPD officer and one of only seven women in the ASD, is listening to several police radios simultaneously as she coordinates the response. In less than four minutes, the helicopter arrives at its destination and, down below, neighbors are peeking out of their homes to see what all the commotion is about.

Swanson keeps the helicopter at 600 to 700 feet in elevation as he circles the perimeter. This is standard practice for LAPD helicopter pilots, who avoid hovering in one place. They keep the aircraft moving because in case of an emergency, such as a malfunction, there needs to be enough wind speed built up for the blades so the pilot can attempt to land. News media helicopters fly 500 feet above the police to avoid interfering with any activity.

On the streets below, the scene is chaotic. Curious neighbors have started to come out of their homes, adding to the number of bodies visible by air. Suddenly, Muro, who is not using binoculars, spots two pairs of sneakers underneath one of the home’s overhangs and quickly coordinates with the officers on the ground. Within minutes, the two suspected robbers are placed in custody.

Not three minutes go by before Muro picks up another call over the radio’this time a gunshot victim. The helicopter is again the first to arrive and quickly directs the first responders to the victim.

‘This is a known gang and drug area,’ Swanson says, adding that it is unlikely that any witnesses will come forward. After he and Muro canvas the perimeter, the calls begin to slow and the helicopter sweeps over congested freeways to Venice, and then to Pacific Palisades.

‘I landed there once when I had engine trouble,’ says Swanson, pointing down to the Field of Dreams at the Palisades Recreation Center. He was one of the units that responded to a burglary call at a home on Alma Real Drive last August. (The Post ran a photo of the downed helicopter.)

Established in 1956 by a group of Korean War veterans, the ASD units are in the air 20 hours a day patrolling L.A.’s 470-plus square miles of steel, chaparral and concrete landscapes. ‘We try to be as proactive as we can,’ said Lt. Phillip Smith, assistant commanding officer.

‘The helicopters get up to 140-150 miles per hour,’ Smith said. ‘If I leave the deck here [at the LAPD Hopper heliport near Union Station] and get a call way out in Chatsworth, it’s probably going to take me seven or eight minutes but that can still seem like forever when you have an officer screaming for help.’

Separated by the Santa Monica Mountains, there are two police helicopters patrolling at any given time. One works the San Fernando Valley and the other handles everything south of the Cahuenga Pass, Smith said, noting that rapid response is the reason why the helicopters remain in constant flight.

‘We are a force multiplier’that’s really what we do,’ Smith said. ‘We do the job of between six and eight police cars out there. ‘

Smith said that ASD helicopters are able to quickly determine if indeed there was a crime and whether or not additional units are needed. ‘Our big thing is getting to the scene and offering some security, and painting a visual picture for the officers responding.’

The Air Support Division, which averages more than 300 police car pursuit calls a year, currently operates 19 helicopters, including 14 Eurocopter Astar B-2s, four Bell Jet Rangers, and one recently acquired Bell Uh-1H (Huey) that is replacing an older one that retired about four years ago. The Huey is used by the division’s special flights section for special operations, which involve such missions as rapelling Special Weapons and Tactics officers onto the tops of buildings and other operational activities, Smith said.

The ASD staff and personnel include 35 police officer pilots, 10 sergeants who are pilots, three lieutenant pilots, 28 tactical flight officers, which totals to about 100 staff members, counting civilian employees and support staff. Some officers serve as both tactical flight officers (TFOs) and pilots, Smith said. However, all of the TFO and pilots have to serve as regular patrol officers for at least five years before being considered for a position in the elite division.

How effective is the ASD? Of the 51,000-plus incidents that the ASD responded to last year, ‘probably 16,000 times we were the first on scene,’ said Smith, who moonlights for the security firm ACS in the Palisades once a week.

Many aspects of the ASD’s missions are classified, such as their special radiological equipment (which can be used to detect terrorist activity), monitoring for environmental dangers, and high-altitude surveillance flights, which involve multimillion-dollar cameras and other equipment.”

The helicopters are also equipped with the famous ‘Nightsun’ spotlight, which is linked to the helicopter’s 360-degree infrared camera system that is mounted underneath the aircraft. During night patrols, the spotlight can be activated to track the camera’s position, which is remotely controlled by the tactical flight officer inside the helicopter.

However, the officers themselves are the most valuable aspect of the arsenal. Accumulating thousands of hours of flight time a year (about 18,000 hours in 2011), the ASD pilots are some of the most experienced aviators in the world. Subsequently, the ASD trains multiple other agencies from around the country, including foreign allied military units in their use of special police tactics, especially the ‘Nightsun’ spotlight. The instruction room is located on the aircraft carrier-size heliport on top of the Piper Technical Center in downtown.

Yet, despite all the technical gadgetry and their elite status as one of the largest and most sophisticated airborne law enforcement forces in the nation, the ASD’s humble motto exemplifies their commitment and attitude to the job: ‘The mission is the same, only the vehicle has changed.’

 

About jesswaid

Currently, I write police procedural novels with the stories taking place in Hollywood during the early 1960s; a period when I was a street cop there. I've moved to Mexico to be closer to my hobby of studying Mexican history. My friend and fellow author, Professor Michael Hogan, is my mentor. I am planning to write a three-part epic story that takes place in the mid-nineteenth century. What has inspired me was hearing about Los Ninos Heroes, martyrs of the Battle of Chapultepec. Also, my father was born in Concordia, Mexico and knowing his family history is an added incentive.

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