PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Portland Police Bureau has an eye in the sky that many may not realize is there.
The Air Support Unit uses fixed-wing aircraft to provide tactical support for high-speed pursuits, foot chases, SWAT standoffs and more.
Police officers on the ground heavily rely on an officer from above. Serving as a co-pilot, the tactical flight officer has just a matter of seconds to relay information to officers below.
“We have a unique perspective,” said Sgt. Josh Goldschmidt, the chief pilot for PPB Air Support Unit. “We can see things that officers on the ground can’t see.”
They must also describe dangerous situations.
“Anything we can do to shave the advantage from a safety standpoint in the officer’s favor, that’s what we’re going to try and do,” Goldschmidt said.
Goldschmidt said the PPB Air Support Unit has proven to be effective.
“We want to catch people who need to be off the street,” he said. “This is a tool that allows us to do that in cases we otherwise wouldn’t be able to catch them.”
One case that relied on the Air Support Unit involved a Clackamas County deputy being shot.
“…the subject ran off into this mile-high mountain of thorn bushes,” Goldschmidt said. “We’re talking about acres and acres of a person armed with a gun, potentially hiding in there. For officers on the ground that would have been a really, really dangerous ground search.”
With the help of the tactical flight officer, the hiding suspect was found within 2 minutes and was taken into custody safely.
In the last few years, PPB said they’ve found that more people are running from law enforcement.
“It feels like people run because they think, ‘They’re not going to chase me,'” Goldschmidt said. “But if the airplane is up it becomes a moot point, we don’t have to chase them on the ground.”
Even with the advantage of a bird’s eye view, tactical flight officers worry about officers on the ground.
“I’m in my 25th year of law enforcement and I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen to my coworkers and my friends,” Goldschmidt said. “It’s a big part of why I do this. I want to make sure that those guys go home to their families at the end of the day.”
He said going home after a successful mission, keeping fellow officers safe and catching elusive criminals, is beyond rewarding.
“I’m proud to have been a part of it,” he said. “And I can’t wait to get back in the airplane and go do it again.”
Other police agencies have air support teams, but what makes Portland’s different is using fixed-wing aircraft instead of helicopters. PPB has two aircraft that rotate out. When one is down for maintenance, the other is up and running.
Goldschmidt said other agencies do great work with helicopters, but they’re loud, hard to get community support for and cost much more.
Tactical flight officers have to be confident, good communicators and skilled with technology.
“In the end, the people who are most effective as tactical flight officers are the ones who can communicate effectively, are just really good police officers when they’re on the ground and figure out how to translate their experiences on the ground into helping their fellow officers from the air,” Goldschmidt said.
Knowing lives are on the line is crushing pressure, plus managing all the gear and disseminating the correct information in a spinning airplane can be overwhelming.
If you want the job, your testing starts on the ground, where you must prove your spatial and geographical knowledge.
Our Elise Haas got to see what it’s like to sit in the hot seat. She went through the same three weeks of testing with other tactical flight officer candidates. She took multiple aerial map and street grid tests. Then she took two separate flight tests, maneuvering the camera and practicing calling out a subject’s movements on the ground.