• The city of Los Angeles covers 1,290 km2 (468 sq mi) cradled in a basin between the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley to the east. To cover the law enforcement needs of such a vast region, the Los Angeles Police Department need just one type of helicopter: the H125.

From their start in 1869, the Los Angeles municipal police have grown to become one of the biggest policing institutions in the United States. Approximately 10,000 officers and more than 3,000 civilians work to ensure the safety of Los Angeles’ 3.8 million residents.

The force’s motto is the famous “to protect and to serve,” known from numerous film and television series featuring the LAPD and the City of Angels. From scenes of the distinctive black-and-white cruisers in high-speed chases, the agency and its officers are at once mythic and very real in the popular imagination. Its sheer size and influence has also allowed the department to bring change to the country as a whole: the nation’s first policewoman was accepted into the LAPD, and the agency was the first to establish a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team.

Divided into six principal services, the LAPD’s airborne law enforcement program is the Air Support Division (ASD). Their mission: to lend aerial support to ground-based officers, contribute to the safety of agents and residents, reduce the incidence and fear of crime, and perform surveillance and photo flights. Fourteen H125 helicopters comprise the fleet, and are equipped with a spotlight, thermal imaging and moving map systems. In a typical day that might see the fleet on between 16 and 20 patrol flights, two H125 are dedicated full-time to active surveillance.

Pilot David Swanson describes the division’s work as one of proactively searching suspicious zones, watching and intervening in criminal areas, and responding to calls. The team, he says, also works a lot of the time for traffic enforcement by keeping watch and stepping in when necessary. Suspicious activity is called into the ground agents.

Forty-nine pilots and 25 members of tactical teams – all officer grade – comprise the unit, headed by Captain Alfonso Lopez. Their activities consist primarily of their regular duties under ASTRO (Air Support to Regular Operations). Based at Hooper heliport, the unit also maintains the LAPD’s Special Flights Section (SFS) which, since its start in 1976, has provided critical support in detective and undercover operations, narcotics investigations, and seizure of contraband.

“The mission is the same, only the vehicle has changed.” Such is the dictum at the ASD, where its fleets of H125s might be considered patrol cars in flight. With ample power reserves and a small body able to negotiate urban confines, the H125 has allowed the LAPD to invest in a single aircraft type for the long term. “It’s a very good tool for work in law enforcement,” says LAPD chief pilot Kevin Gallagher. “It can transport all necessary equipment like the thermal imaging system and the cameras. It’s very powerful and flexible, which lets us manage an array of missions like patrol, surveillance, transportation and drop-off of tactical teams, and the deployment of aerial teams of elite shooters.”

The need for crack shots is the domain of the LAPD’s SWAT team, who are called in for missions requiring a coordinated response, such as barricade/hostage incidents or situations involving a suspect considered to be a significant threat to public safety. “When we’re called for an operation that has a criminal or dangerous element,” Gallagher says. “The H125 serves as a shooting platform for the SWAT team.”

“The principal differences,” he adds, comparing the H125 to the ASD’s fleet of earlier aircraft, “Are the power, payload, cockpit configuration and its ability to support the equipment for missions. The H125 is superior in each of these areas.”