Police aviation is the use of rotary-wing aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft, nonrigid-wing aircraft or lighter-than-air 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. 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 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 Fixed-wing aircraft have generally been replaced by more versatile rotary-wing aircraft since the late 1940s.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.
In 1921, the British airship R33 was used to help the police with traffic control around horse racing events at Epsom and Ascot.
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, that was present during the incident, overhead.
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. The Groen Hawk 4 autogyro was used during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
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.
Police forces sometimes use military surplus rotary-wing aircraft, such as the Bell UH-1 Huey. Some policing organisations, such as the Policía Federal in Mexico, acquire new military rotary-wing aircraft such as the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. However, most buy civilian rotary-wing aircraft directly from major aircraft companies or lease them from specialty suppliers.
Some police air units also use fixed-wing aircraft, which allow higher and quieter surveillance, 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. The use of fixed-wing aircraft also allows for longer flying times and incurs lower running costs. Fixed-wing aircraft are also used to transport prisoners, with the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (nicknamed "Con Air") 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. Light-sport aircraft and powered parachutes 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 as an alternative to rotary-wing aircraft. The Britten-Norman Defender is used by the Greater Manchester Police, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Síochána. The FBI deployed one Britten-Norman Defender for electronic aerial surveillance at the Branch Davidian compound during the Waco siege in 1993. 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.
Police blimps were used to patrol the sky during the 2004 Republican National Convention, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. 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. 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.
Police in some areas have started using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for surveillance operations. Unmanned aerial vehicles come in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing types. Australia
Victoria Police Air Wing
Air Police (Austria)
Air Vigilance Service
Cyprus Police Aviation Unit
Hong Kong Government Flying Service
Iranian Police Aviation
Garda Air Support Unit
Macedonian police helicopter unit
Royal Malaysian Police Air Wing Unit
Dienst Luchtvaartpolitie (Police Aviation Service)
Philippine National Police Aviation Security Group
General Inspectorate of Aviation (Romania)
Serbian police helicopter unit
South African Police Service Air Wing
National Airborne Service Corps
Babcock Mission Critical Services Onshore
Bond Air Services
Central Counties Air Operations Unit
Cleveland Air Operations Unit
East Midlands Air Support Unit
Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit
National Police Air Service
North East Air Support Unit
North Midlands Helicopter Support Unit
South and East Wales Air Support Unit
South East Air Support Unit
Sussex Police Air Operations Unit
Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System
LAPD Air Support Division
Chiltern Air Support Unit
Western Counties Air Operations Unit
Piirivalvelennusalk (Border Guard Flight Squadron)
Air Maritime Exploration Squadron Guardia di Finanza
CBP Office of Air and Marine
Italian Coast Guard Air Service
Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron