The A-Team

LAPD's Air Support Division tracks the bad guys

August 1, 2000

This is the city—Los Angeles, California. Four hundred and sixty-eight square miles of the worst automobile traffic and crime this side of Bangkok. The police department's annual budget is $1.5 billion and it employs more than nine thousand officers. Eighty of them—including reservists and trainees—are assigned to the Air Support Division, patrolling in helicopters and flying in some of the most congested and complex airspace in the United States. These are their stories.

Westwood, near the north edge of the Santa Monica Airport, 6:10 p.m.

A dozen black-and-white patrol cars and three K-9 dog teams have established a perimeter search in this residential neighborhood, looking for a burglary suspect believed to be fleeing through the backyards. Air 8, N213LA, is called in.

Police officer/pilot Angela Krieg, 37, responds at 110 knots and 1,100 feet, flying her turbine-powered Eurocopter A-Star 350B1 into a classic approach for a left-hand orbit; maximum torque and maximum airspeed, kicking in coordinated left pedal, then aft cyclic and down collective. "You come in as fast as you can to a call, then get on the bad guys tight, sector the safety zones, and compensate for winds."

She strives for smoothness, watching Technical Flight Officer (TFO) Mark Bolanos, 33, in the left seat beside her, making sure his head doesn't snap back too fast as she enters the pattern. Bolanos is already pumping surplus adrenaline, shifting his focus from the laminated Thomas Guide map cards on his lap to the scene below, and oblivious to Krieg's control inputs.

Krieg sets up for 60 kt and 500 feet agl, the minimum height-velocity envelope she needs if the engine dies and she has to "go into the street," the departmental euphemism for autorotation. Orbiting at speed also decreases the odds of taking sniper fire or being blinded by laser pointers or spotlights aimed by people with questionable intentions. In Krieg's mind she has already divided the perimeter into four quadrants. In L.A., the prevailing winds are usually out of the southwest, except when the Santa Anas blow, and then they come out of the northeast.

The Santa Anas are howling tonight. Two hours ago, at roll call, they were gusting at up to 38 kt across the rooftop helipad at Piper Tech, home of the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) Air Support Division (ASD). "It's going to be miserable up there tonight," warned the watch commander, Lt. Dwight Crosley. Aided by graphic tales of past passengers' digestive misfortunes on similar nights, thoughtfully told by several ASD pilots present, he successfully dissuaded a pair of beat cops from taking their scheduled ride-alongs.

After an hour of waiting, the winds abate to 22 kt, still a bit brisk for the Bell 206s and 407s, but no problem for the A-Star. Krieg and Bolanos launch. But even at this reduced wind strength, the usual survival math is irrelevant. If the A-Star fails on the wrong part of the orbit, there probably will not be enough time to spin 180 degrees into the wind. Then the only thing standing between Krieg, Bolanos, and cremation will be the wire-strike kits—two oversize serrated triangles affixed above the cockpit and below the nose that are designed to slice power lines—and the off-chance that they might make a field or a parking lot.

Krieg practices for this regularly, honing her autorotation skills. When an engine fails in a single-engine fixed-wing airplane, you pitch for best glide and pick a field. In a single-engine helicopter, you pitch down, let the slipstream build main rotor rpm, and flare. There is less time, less control, and the survival odds are worse. But at ASD they do them a tad different than in the civilian world. They do full autos, all the way to the ground. They do autos in out-of-ground-effect (OGE) hovers. And they do them at night. "It's just the type of flying we do," explains Krieg. "The training is so much better here."

ASD is currently in the process of converting to a single type of patrol helicopter—the Eurocopter AS350B2—from the three they currently fly, the AS350B1, Bell 407, and Bell 206B. (Special Weapons and Tactics—SWAT —has a UH-1H, and three surplus Army OH-58s are used by ASD for pilot training.) The 407s were acquired in 1997 to replace ancient and grounded Bell JetRangers that had acquired 32,000 hours each. Under the new equipment scheme, the A-Stars will be retired after 15,000 hours.

Krieg has been with ASD for 11 years and flies them all. In her opinion, autorotating the A-Star requires a higher skill level. "The [Bell 206B] JetRangers are a lot more forgiving in autorotations than either the 407s or the A-Stars. You can get lower in the JetRangers because of their high-inertia rotor systems." But the A-Star offers better payload, ergonomics, and speed, and ASD already has considerable experience with the five B1s they operate—not all of it happy.

In 1991 LAPD pilot Gary Howe and TFO Randy Campe were killed when their A-Star crashed into a vacant lot after Howe took evasive action to avoid hitting a school. The resulting fire killed a furniture salesman standing 100 yards away. ASD's B1s were grounded for six weeks during the post-crash investigation that focused on a suspected problem with the engine.

Overall, however, ASD has an excellent safety record and has been accident free for more than 140,000 hours, well above the national average for helicopter operators.

The history, the variables, and the training, all run through Krieg's mind as we orbit in search of the burglar. N213LA glides through its orbits. TFO Bolanos fires up the forward-looking infrared (FLIR—a sensor that delineates heat, clearly showing where the bad guys are hiding) and communicates with the various ground units via dedicated police department frequencies. Bolanos has two immediate goals. First, keep the K-9 units from going "back-to-back" against each other through the yards, thus making them susceptible to cross fire. Second, "We want to keep our eyes on the high ground—roofs, trees, and utility poles—and make sure the suspects do not get above the patrol units." A collateral benefit is to use the helicopter to intimidate the suspect, "keeping him bedded down until the K-9 units can find him." Meanwhile Krieg is scanning her landing zones and the horizon and monitoring the frequency and the traffic at Santa Monica Municipal Airport. Given its position and altitude, Air 8 is a midair magnet. Add a couple of omnipresent television news copters 150 feet above, and there is a real chance of tangled metal stew. A party line—123.02 MHz—is used to keep everyone, police and television crews, apprised of each other's positions. But inside Air 8, with all the cross-chatter, the intercom is practically useless. When on station, Krieg and Bolanos often communicate with each other through a series of abrupt and effective hand signals to indicate such things as forward, lower, or the need to fly a tighter pattern.

Air 8 orbits the scene for 45 minutes. One bad guy is already in custody, and the search continues for burglar number two. As the sun sets behind the Santa Monica Mountains, Krieg and Bolanos explain their craft and the daily dance between pilot and TFO, other aircrews, and ground units.

Both Krieg and Bolanos, like all ASD officers, began their careers with LAPD in the street, not in the air. Constantly during the discussions they stress that they are police officers first and flight officers second. Five years of fieldwork is required before an officer can apply for ASD. A pilot must have a private pilot certificate and 100 hours.

Krieg had a head start. Her father was a Boeing 747 captain for United Airlines and, with his encouragement, Krieg soloed in a hot air balloon at age 14 and entered balloon races with him. She received her private pilot certificate in 1984, the same year she joined LAPD. While she racked up good street time in L.A.'s worst neighborhoods—the notorious Rampart Division, Southeast, and Watts—she also built her pilot ratings, accumulating commercial, helicopter, instrument, ATP, CFI, and multiengine credentials.

She joined ASD as a TFO and worked as one for six months before entering its pilot training program. (Because of a current shortage of TFOs, Krieg still spends about 15 percent of her time working as one.) ASD's typical pilot training program takes six months (but because of Krieg's previous experience she completed it in three). New pilots get recurrent checkrides at 30, 60, and 90 days, and every six months thereafter. They are trained in the OH-58s. After they graduate they must log 500 hours in the 206s before they can transition into the A-Star.

TFO Mark "The Jackal" Bolanos is a 12-year LAPD veteran. Prior to joining ASD two years ago, he worked as a police academy instructor and in the antigang unit. Bolanos is quietly taking flight training. Most TFOs will eventually make pilot if they choose. The time is particularily good now; ASD is experiencing its biggest turnover in five years as Vietnam-era pilots, those with 25 to 30 years in the unit, retire.

Bolanos stresses the diplomacy required to effectively communicate with ground units and dispatchers. "You never want to tell them what to do, but sometimes you guide them. You tell them that there's a door open in the back of the building, there's a Rottweiler loose in the backyard, that sort of thing. It's a fine balance. You're trying to help them work the call, but you never say, ‘I think you guys should do this.'"

Bolanos navigates and works the law-support systems, the multifrequency Wulfsburg police radio, the electronic binoculars, the FLIR, the 30-million-candlepower "Night Sun" searchlight, and the 400-watt public-address system. As the burglary perimeter drags on, he'd like to be able to announce, "Come out in one minute or we'll release the dogs" over the loudspeakers. Krieg seconds the thought: "Perimeters are a lot more fun when you see the guy running."

Bolanos also serves as the triage officer. It is not uncommon for him to redirect Krieg several times during a single response run as calls of increasing urgency come over the radio. When an ASD unit is not specifically dispatched, it is free to prowl over hot spots, follow LoJack signals in search of stolen cars, or respond to any general police call where it thinks it could be helpful.

ASD almost always has at least one helicopter in the air, 24/7. The norm on the night shift is three.

The second burglary suspect may or may not be down there, but it doesn't matter. Because of the Santa Anas, Air 8 is the only ship in the air at present, and a call crackles across the radio that stops the conversation cold: "Officer needs assistance." Krieg instinctively breaks orbit and heads for the call before Bolanos can grab his laminated map pages.

Hours earlier an enterprising citizen had taken a hollowed-out grenade into a small shopping mall near Maple and Jefferson streets, ostensibly to persuade a debtor to pay up. The police were summoned; the citizen declined to drop the live-appearing grenade, so the police fatally shot him. Since then, tensions in the immediate area have been high. Now a traffic stop nearby has gone bad, with another upstanding citizen whose dog was menacing a patrol officer. The misdirected canine is no match for 9 mm ammunition. By the time Air 8 arrives over the scene the excitement is over. The A-Star's presence is virtually ignored by the crowd below.

LAPD has operated aircraft since the 1930s and helicopters since the 1950s. But the department didn't begin deploying them in a true patrol fashion until 1971, and when it did the results were dramatic—the criminal apprehension rate increased by 30 percent, and the average airborne call response time was slashed to 90 seconds.

LAPD's own studies show that crime increases by 50 percent in areas where helicopters are withdrawn, according to Keith Johnson, a 20-year ASD veteran. Today, ASD responds to more than 40,000 calls a year, is involved in 8,000 to 10,000 felony arrests, and half of the 500 to 600 vehicle pursuits each year. One helicopter is said to do the work of four patrol cars. The A-Star has direct operating costs of about $300 an hour. During a typical 2.2-hour patrol it will drink 40 gallons of Jet-A. Expensive no doubt, but not when put into context. ASD allows the LAPD to operate with 25- to 30 percent fewer police officers per 1,000 residents than are required in other big cities. That works out to a savings of more than $200 million per year. The value of LAPD's increased effectiveness thanks to ASD is in many ways incalculable. Even distressed general aviation pilots have benefited.

In 1997, a CFI and a student were flying out of Van Nuys on a starless night when their single-engine trainer lost power. An ASD helicopter overheard the distress call and used its Night Sun to guide the airplane to a successful off-airport landing.

On this Santa Ana-blown Saturday night Krieg and Bolanos will handle a variety of routine calls—none of which would make particularly good television—no hostage barricades or high-speed car chases down the freeway. "After a while, the nights and the calls all blur together," says Krieg.

The shift ends and Air 8 is cleared to land back at Piper Tech. As it descends through downtown L.A.'s glass canyon, a particularly juicy call comes in over the radio. There has been a shooting in the 77th District. Multiple victims are down. Probably the only excitement all night. Air 10 will handle that call. Bolanos just shakes his head. "Welcome to crime in the big city."

Mark Huber is a marketing executive and an occasional contributor to Pilot. He lives and flies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.