In the past police aviation crews would use a paper street map, a police radio, a searchlight and a pair of binoculars in order to carry out their assignments. Crews would navigate to calls by flying to a major intersection near the scene and then flying to the call by counting streets or more commonly looking for the flashing lights of the ground units. Once on sight, they would visually search a particular area with the searchlight or binoculars. In spite of the low-tech approach, police aviators did an amazingly effective job and very quickly airborne law enforcement was recognized as an excellent resource for the police community and was able to perform a wide range of missions.
Today in the modern and advanced cockpit, when a flight crew receives an assignment, they can enter the address into their "moving map" system and instantly be given a heading to fly and the time it will take to fly to the selected address. The crew can select from various configurations and select a street map or aviation map. The can see what airspace they will fly through and plan their route accordingly. Once on scene, they can use various tools such as forward looking infra-red, night vision goggles, microwave down-linking equipment and searchlights.
Night vision goggles are rapidly emerging in the civil helicopter market. Long used by military aviators, the same advantages gained by our military can now be enjoyed by police pilots. The night vision goggle or NVG, greatly enhances safety. Although commonly thought to allow a pilot to "see in the dark", NVGs actually amplify ambient light. The safety advantage comes from a pilot being better able to see potential threats such as wires and trees. The police advantage comes from a flight crew being better able to see a suspect or missing person.
The electronic or moving map has also given police aviators a distinct advantage. Not only can the rapidly fly to a scene, they can better support and direct ground units involved in foot pursuits or vehicle pursuits by knowing the exact location. Electronic maps can also be linked to thermal imagers, cameras and searchlights, showing the flight crew the exact location that the device is looking; this helps tremendously in situational awareness for both ground units and the flight crew. In microwave downlink operations, the flight crew can select a "split map" showing the camera image and a street map indicating the precise location where the camera is pointed. This is a particularly valuable for ground commanders that might be watching on ground based receivers. They know instantly what location the camera is pointed and what location is being shown.
Thermal imaging technology has had the greatest impact for police aviation. Now thought of as "must have" equipment, the ability of the thermal imager to detect heat has literally captured thousands of suspects and located numerous missing persons.
In the latest search and rescue aircraft, the pilots can select "auto-hover" during a rescue operation. With the assistance of Doppler radar and a radar altimeter, the aircraft can maintain a precise position over rough seas, and will adapt to rising waves and currents all without the help or assistance of the pilot.
Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!