Police aviation

Police aviation is the use of aircraft in police operations. Police services commonly use aircraft for traffic control, ground support, search and rescue, high-speed car pursuits, observation, air patrol and control of large-scale public events and/or public order incidents. They may employ rotary-wing aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft, nonrigid-wing aircraft or lighter-than-air aircraft. In some major cities, police rotary-wing aircraft are also used as air transportation for personnel belonging to SWAT-style units. In large, sparsely populated areas, fixed-wing aircraft are sometimes used to transport personnel and equipment.


The first police aviation department was established in New York City[1] in 1919 with two fixed-wing aircraft. Fixed-wing aircraft have generally been replaced by more versatile rotary-wing aircraft since the late 1940s. However, fixed-wing aircraft are still used in some missions, such as border patrol, as their higher speed and greater operating altitude allow larger areas to be covered.[1]

In 1921, the British airship R33 was used to help the police with traffic control around horse racing events at Epsom and Ascot.[2]

A large mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall in the East End of London depicting the 1936 Battle of Cable Street public order incident includes the police autogyro,[3] that was present during the incident, overhead.[4][5]

Rotary-wing aircraft

The most common form of police rotary-wing aircraft is the helicopter, but other types of rotary-wing aircraft such as autogyros are also used.[6][7][8] The Groen Hawk 4 autogyro was used during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.[9]

Police rotary-wing aircraft are normally equipped with special equipment, including night vision, FLIR, surveillance cameras, radar, special radio systems and engines, loudspeaker systems, tear gas dispensers, searchlights, winches and winch cables, flashing light beacons, police rescue equipment and special seating. Weapons are not usually attached to the aircraft. Police rotary-wing aircraft are sometimes equipped to perform multiple functions, or are designed so that equipment can be changed quickly when required for divergent roles. For example, a rotary-wing aircraft could be used for search-and-rescue, and then as an air ambulance.[10]

Police forces sometimes use military surplus rotary-wing aircraft, such as the Bell UH-1 Huey.[11] Some policing organisations, such as the Policía Federal in Mexico, acquire new military rotary-wing aircraft such as the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.[12] However, most buy civilian rotary-wing aircraft directly from major aircraft companies[13] or lease them from specialty suppliers.[14]

Fixed-wing and nonrigid-wing aircraft

Some police air units also use fixed-wing aircraft, which allow higher and quieter surveillance,[1] making it less likely that suspects will become aware they are being watched. A few police air units, such as the Northern Territory Police in Australia, use only fixed-wing aircraft.[15][16] The use of fixed-wing aircraft also allows for longer flying times and incurs lower running costs.[17] Fixed-wing aircraft are also used to transport prisoners,[1] with the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (nicknamed "Con Air")[18] perhaps being the largest example of this use. Fixed-wing aircraft are also used to provide regular police patrols in remote communities and to transport investigators to remote crime scenes.[16][17] Light-sport aircraft[19] and powered parachutes[20][21][22] can sometimes be used to provide a cost-effective replacement for helicopters in the observation platform role.

The Edgley Optica was a British fixed-wing aircraft built for observation use and was used by the Hampshire Constabulary[23] as an alternative to rotary-wing aircraft.[24] The Britten-Norman Defender is used by the Greater Manchester Police,[25] the Police Service of Northern Ireland[26] and the Garda Síochána.[25] The FBI deployed one Britten-Norman Defender for electronic aerial surveillance at the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco siege in 1993.[27] In Greater London, the Metropolitan Police Service has, for a number of years, reportedly been secretly using Cessna aircraft that have been fitted with surveillance equipment capable of intercepting mobile telephone calls and listening in on conversations.[28]

Lighter-than-air aircraft

Police blimps were used to patrol the sky during the 2004 Republican National Convention,[29] the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.[30] The blimp Santos-Dumont, named for Alberto Santos-Dumont, operates in the Caribbean for the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad & Tobago (SAUTT), providing security surveillance. During April 2009, this blimp provided aerial surveillance of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain.[31] Greater Manchester Police began trial operations of a blimp in 2010 to provide surveillance for major events, which would be a cheaper alternative to the use of a helicopter in the long term. However, the blimp was only used on 18 occasions because of weather-related operational problems.[32]

Unmanned aerial vehicles

Police in some areas have started using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for surveillance operations.[33][34][35] Unmanned aerial vehicles come in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing types.

List of police aviation units

 Costa Rica
 Hong Kong
 North Macedonia
 South Africa
 United Kingdom
 United States

Disbanded police aviation units

 United Kingdom

Border guards and customs services

 United States

Maritime law enforcement agencies


 United States

See also


  1. Lt. Kenneth J. Solosky (January 3, 2003). "Fixed Wing Aircraft in Law Enforcement". Lawofficer.com. Archived from the original on January 30, 2013. Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  2. "R33 - G F A A G 1916- 1921 : Early Life". The Airship Heritage Trust. Retrieved June 30, 2012.
  3. "The Battle of Cable Street mural, Shadwell". London Mural Preservation Society. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  4. Museum staff (October 4, 2011). "How the East was won". The working life of Museum of London. Museum of London. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  5. David Botsford (1998). British fascism and the measures taken against it by the British State (PDF). Libertarian Alliance. p. 4. ISBN 1-85637-397-5. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  6. "Tomball Police Equipped with Gyroplane". Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  7. "Flying the Police Aircraft of the Future". Wired.com. 2011-09-13. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  8. "Police Aviation News April 2011 p4" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  9. "Olympic Security Aided by Groen Brothers' Hawk". Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  10. "allAfrica.com: Namibia: Air Wing to Cost Police Million". Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  11. "Photo of the UH-1H at the Airliners.net". Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  12. "Police Aviation News February 2011 p7" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  13. "AgustaWestland Awarded Contract by the Maryland State Police Aviation Command". Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  14. "UK Emergency Aviation - Aircraft Providers & Maintenance - Bond Air Services". Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  15. "Police Aviation News February 2011 p2" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  16. "Pilatus Aircraft Enthusiasts - NT Police". Archived from the original on 2012-03-20. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  17. "Airplanes are still a vital tool in law enforcement". Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  18. "Con Air: America's High-Flying Paddy Wagon". Usmarshals.gov. 2004-06-03. Archived from the original on 2012-02-07. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  19. Paur, Jason (2011-09-08). "California Sheriff Adds Light Sport Airplane To Fleet - Autopia - Wired.com". Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  20. "Powered Parachute". Riponpd.org. Archived from the original on 2012-07-29. Retrieved 2012-04-21.
  21. "Paragliders Give Cops an Eye in the Sky". Retrieved 2012-04-21.
  22. "Powered Parachute takes crime-fighting to new heights". Archived from the original on 2012-01-17. Retrieved 2012-04-21.
  23. "No cause found for Optica crash". Flight International. 30 August 1986. p. 54. Retrieved 2012-04-16.
  24. "About the Hampshire Police Air Support Unit at Lee on Solent". Archived from the original on 2012-03-29. Retrieved 2012-04-20.
  25. "UK Emergency Aviation - UK & Ireland Police Helicopter Operations A-M". Retrieved 2012-04-16.
  26. "UK Emergency Aviation - UK & Ireland Police Helicopter Operations N-Z". Retrieved 2012-04-16.
  27. FBI brings out secret electronics weapons as Waco siege drags on, by James Adams. The Sunday Times, p. 23, 21 March 1993
  28. Lewis, Jason; Blackmore, Andy (2011-10-29). "Met Police spends millions of pounds on secret aircraft". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  29. "Authorities are planning to employ a corporate blimp as an alternative intelligence gathering tool during next week's Republican National Convention in New York City". CNN. 2004-08-30. Archived from the original on 2011-08-11. Retrieved 2012-04-16.
  30. Lowry, N (June 2004), "Benign eye in the sky", Lloyd’s List Magazine, pp. 29–33
  31. Chamoff, L (April 17, 2009), "Greenwich Firm's Blimp to Keep Eye on Summit in Trinidad", Stamford Advocate / Greenwich Time
  32. "GMP's £80,000 police spy blimp is grounded - by the Manchester weather". Manchester Evening News. 11 November 2010.
  33. "New Police Drone Near Houston Could Carry Weapons". Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  34. Hull, Liz (2010-02-11). "Drone makes first UK arrest". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 2012-04-17.
  35. Bennett, Brian (2011-12-10). "Police employ Predator drone spy planes on home front". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-04-17.
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