I have had the privilege to work with police officers and staff for over 13 years now. They come from various policing backgrounds and with varying levels of aviation experience. However, throughout that cadre, there is one underlying trait that shines through – altruism – but, putting others before yourself is not the sole trait needed to be an effective tactical flight officer (TFO).
Training up a TFO
It’s not just about putting a police officer into an aircraft; it is about putting the aviation into the police officer. Culturally, policing and aviation have both parallel and opposing views.
A police officer will have come from a very rigid command structure and, at times, a physically and mentally over-demanding one! It is a system that does not manage human performance limitations to the robust levels found within aviation.
However, both are rule and process based. For instance, I found it odd that newly qualified police officers struggled to utilize – our operations manual-endorsed – power naps during our roster patterns. When a new pilot asks the police officer why, the answer is: “It is an absolute no in normal policing.” So rather than managing fatigue, officers fight the effects. When asked, during crew resource management (CRM) training, if any had driven at high speed on Blues whilst being very tired, they largely replied: “Yes.” Whereas in commercial aviation circles, the use of flight time limitations (FTL) and flight duty periods (FDP) are fundamental in ensuring crews do not push past human performance limitations. In policing, if the skipper says that you are staying, you are staying – even if you have been at work for well over 12 hours.
Often, response policing will mean single crewing, lower than minimum numbers in an area. It is an operational necessity as commanders find resources in policing are thin and the calls for action continue to arrive. There is no let up and their altruism shines through as they bend over backwards under challenging conditions to provide the best service possible to their communities.
Limitations and rest
This also happens in police aviation, but there is a safety break – the pilot. Namely, the legal limits imposed on pilots and the training that the whole crew gets to manage any threats and errors they may encounter.
The crew’s workload can vary from sedate to overwhelming in seconds
The cultural change is more than just the points mentioned, but they highlight one of the biggest hurdles during the transitional phase from police officer to TFO.
The crew’s workload can vary from sedate to overwhelming in seconds. A routine search turns into a high-speed pursuit or life-threatening situation, the mission equipment starts failing and all four radio channels are alive with chatter. This situation is not extraordinary, it is ordinary. Managing the tactical situation, police radios, crew communications and hazard reporting all come with the job. But how can we identify those who can manage these challenges? Not just manage but have the spare capacity to think tactically and aviate.
The innate talent to operate as an airborne police officer is not enough alone, they need to couple this with the ability to operate and think as a technical crew member.
So how do we identify, select and train these talented individuals as cost-effectively and reliably as possible?
When I started as a police pilot, the police observers / TFOs were selected by a panel following a process something akin to an interview, a local skills assessment phase, and possibly a flight test. Over the years, this approach has had varied results and fundamentally relied on key characters to set the bar at the right level and the failure rate has, at times, been inconsistent. In one case the whole course of five officers failed. Latterly, as training methodologies improved, the failure rates on the courses have reduced to become negligible.
What has changed? Clearly in the intervening 13 years, technology has and continues to keep on developing at break-neck speed. The days of paper maps, stabilised binoculars and stopwatches to measure the speed of vehicles passing two known points have long gone.
The use of flight time limitations and flight duty periods are fundamental in ensuring crews do not push past human performance limitations
The modern police aircraft will undoubtedly have a plethora of electronic tablets, mission systems, sensor turrets and downlinks – it will be able to access 4G data, police logs and aviation information. They will also have the ability, in some cases, to blend vision sensors, utilize night vision imaging systems (NVIS), superimpose street names on video images etc, all aiding the crew to operate as efficiently and safely as possible.
But as complex machines develop, key skills can diminish. At the start of my police flying career, the rear TFO was talking the camera operator onto the target, now they just press send and the turret points to the waypoint. This increase in workload coupled with other factors like the initial use of NVIS and being unable to speak to the ground operator because of network architecture has both to be managed and recognized by the aircrew member and others in the aircraft. This adds another aspect to the transition into aviation that needs to be trained.
Challenging authority, for some, is difficult – how does a newly qualified TFO tell a very senior pilot that they are trying too hard to get through bad weather? Or telling a gold firearms commander the aircraft is leaving the scene because of duty time? This requires the utilization of CRM skills and developed assertiveness to effectively, safely, respectfully and in a timely manner communicate with all. A police constable, after all, is not taught to tell a force incident manager (inspector grade or higher): ‘No, I can’t do that,’ but in aviation they need to be prepared to do so.
These circumstances require more than just a police officer, they require a police officer (or staff member) who can operate a complex mission system and mission sensors whilst monitoring and utilizing up to four police radio channels and, at times, coordinating with air traffic to provide tactical and strategic aviation support to other emergency service units and headquarters. As I typed this out, I knew I had read something similar elsewhere – it didn’t take long to find it.
Reducing failure rates
The latest Royal Air Force Advert for Weapons System Operators (WSOp) from April 2023 stated: “A WSOp (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) [is] responsible for the manipulation of complex sensor suites and communications equipment to derive tactical and strategic intelligence to support the war fighter and military commanders.”
Embracing new training technologies supported by astute training methodologies will allow crews to keep on top of the ever-improving workload-sapping stream of information
This parallel is not without reason. I know the National Police Air Service (NPAS) as part of a review of training and selection explored enhancing the selection process through aptitude testing. Again, not surprising considering most of the organization's pilots have military backgrounds and this selection process is a fundamental step in any military aviator’s journey. The employment of a process like computer based aptitude testing (CBAT) implemented by NPAS, has vastly reduced failure rates at the flying stages of training. I do not have the return on investment (RoI) figures to share, but the results at the front end are very noticeable – with the caliber of individuals joining bases being very capable, easier to train and quicker to develop key skills.
Selection processes alone are not the silver bullet. Embracing new training technologies supported by astute training methodologies will allow crews to keep on top of the ever-improving workload-sapping stream of information. Picking the right ones will be key, ones that allow the crew to develop their technical knowledge and muscle memory. Part task trainers, flight simulation devices and augmented/virtual reality are useful, but they need to deliver something the crews can use.
A great friend of mine once said about training: “If the crews can’t take it to the jet, what is the point in training it?”