Interview: Tab Burnett, pilot for the Alaska Department of Public Safety
Mandy Langfield spoke to Tab Burnett, pilot for Alaska’s Department of Public Safety (DPS), about the unique challenges he faces flying in some of the most severe weather the northern US has to offer
For how long have you been a pilot with the Alaska DPS, and what made you want to join the division initially?
I have been with DPS just over three years. I was a military pilot for 24 years, flying diverse missions worldwide, and the DPS mission reflects the same commitment and dedication to service that I had in the military.
What kind of missions are the most challenging from a flying point of view?
Every mission brings its own set of challenges, but search and rescue (SAR) is by far the most challenging due to the technical requirements and unknown conditions. We provide SAR coverage throughout the entire State of Alaska, over mountainous, overwater, glacier, and arctic desert terrain.
Weather conditions can make Alaska an unforgiving state in which to operate. Do you need any specific training/skills before flying helicopters in the state?
All of our civilian helicopter pilots are Commercial Instrument rated aviators, holding either Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and/or Certified Flight Instructor Instrument (CFII) certification. Every pilot attends an Initial H125 transition at Airbus Helicopters, and we have an annual recurrency requirement at Airbus as well.
What advice would you give to a pilot seeking to become involved in airborne law enforcement?
That depends on the program; some require turbine time, and others do not. Focus your energy on what you want to fly and work towards building time in that type of aircraft. Utility operators will take lower time pilots and that can be valuable training and a stepping stone to get the dream job.
In my case, the military provided years of flight training and a diverse experience.
The best part of this job is the autonomy that our leadership provides pilots and crews in the accomplishment of the mission
Flight risk assessments are always unique to each operator; what are the unique risks you face flying missions in Alaska?
The biggest risk is weather! Due to the limited infrastructure, weather reporting is generally speculative in nature. The mountainous terrain coupled with the coastal plain, as well as glacial activity, cause severe swings in weather patterns very quickly. The limited reporting stations throughout the state provide a vague depiction of weather conditions. The State of Alaska has a fairly robust weather camera system that allows real-time automated observations but, again, this changes rapidly.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The best part of this job is the autonomy that our leadership provides pilots and crews in the accomplishment of the mission. The Pilot in Command (PIC) works with our Tactical Flight Officers to analyze the mission and determine the safest, most efficient process to meet mission goals. Our operational decisions are supported and we are never scrutinized or questioned if a mission is declined due to excessive risk or hazardous weather conditions.
Are you trained on all the different helicopter types in the fleet?
I am Airbus-trained as a pilot and am trained in in post maintenance check flight procedures on the H125 and an SFAR 73 CFI for the Robinson R44 helicopter.
Could you describe a typical day on the job?
Days are never typical, but generally, a day might look like this:
- Showtime – TBD on mission request.
- Weather analysis for the area within one fuel load.
- Local Notams – check, Flight Risk Assessment – completed.
- Preflight as necessary.
- Update brief with Tactical Flight Officer, prioritizing mission requests: SAR, Drug Surveillance, Investigation, Avalanche Support, Airborne Surveillance, Patrol, Welfare Check, Body Recovery.
- Determine mission equipment requirements based on mission request: Utility Basket, Thermal Imaging System, Extra fuel bladders, Sling Load rigging equipment.
- Conduct scheduled mission support or stand ready for SAR request.
- Debrief mission, download and organize imaging data captured during the flight.