What is that Helicopter Doing Circling Overhead?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

It seems like it's always chopper season in San Jose with frequent queries about what that helicopter is doing overhead and the answer is simple, it depends.  In the Bay Area, helicopters are typically used for Police and Fire-Rescue but we do have military airfields and news helicopters as well.  Furthermore over recent months, many private busine

What Helicopter is it?

The first thing you need to do to answer this question is to figure out which helicopter it is, and there are a surprising number of helicopters to choose from as you can see in the gallery.

If it's a new helicopter, its likely doing reporting on traffic or a major event, CalFire is likely working a wire or scouting for threats, commuter helicopters are likely shuttling people, air ambulances are likely clearing a landing zone for patient extraction or transport, and law enforcement are likely conducting a police operation of one sort or another.

Why Helicopters?

Like Los Angeles, the city of San Jose is unusually large geographically. San Jose alone has a population of over 1 million people in a 180 square-mile area and 2.400 miles of roadway. It sprawls from Alviso in the north down to Coyote in the south, an impressive amount of area for the SJPD to cover.  If you look at the city borders, you'll see that they aren't clean boundaries, in fact in some areas neighbors literally alternate jurisdictions as you go down the street.  

In addition to a lot of mutual aid agreements with surrounding agencies, Bay Area law enforcement deploy a lot of other tools to help protect and patrol the communities they serve. One of the many tools both the SJPD and the Santa Clara County Sheriffs department use are helicopters, and as such most of the time when people ask the question "why is there a helicopter hovering overhead" it's a result of police activity.  

The helicopter can move much faster than ground units, especially to the remote areas of San Jose.  They can direct patrol cars and officers on foot. They have a powerful spotlight, a video camera, and an infrared night-vision camera to find hiding suspects or lost people in the dark. Public address system to communicate with people on the ground. The spotlight and cameras are automatically aimed at a specified location as the copter circles.

Why is it Hovering?

If the helicopter is actually hovering in place, it is likely taking off or landing, probably at a local hospital,  but if there isn't one near you, it may be a medical call and they are using a nearby field or vacant lot.  They may hover for a period of time while a landing zone is secured. 

When providing air support, the law enforcement helicopters rarely hover in place, it's not to make it difficult for someone to shoot at the birds, it's because law enforcement helicopters get lower than others (sometimes down to a high-rise height of 1,500 feet) so the officers inside can see what's going on. This, however, is dangerous. In the event of engine failure, a helicopter would have no momentum to glide to a crash landing. News choppers are so much higher that they don't face this problem. To generate some air speed, police helos keep moving, circling overhead.

Why is it Here So Much?

To many, it may seem like the frequency of helicopters has increased, and to some extent it has; in 2018 the SJPD replaced Air2 with Air3. The new $5.2 million chopper is the third for SJPD and has the horsepower to support other uses beyond pursuing suspects and backing up officers. It also can assist with rescue operations from cliff sides as well as conduct water drops on wildfires.

Air2 was operational about two days a week as it neared retirement as a result of costly maintenance and the need for repairs, additionally it was in imminent need of a new engine that was going to set back the city about $500,000. SJPD expects to run the new air support unit full-time now that it has been broken in, and there's plenty for them to do.  

What do the Helicopters do?

Generally police department air units provide the following services:

5. Traffic stops. If there's a chopper up and nothing else is going on, they may deploy to an ongoing traffic stop to simply provide assistance to officers on the ground and remind people that there are also eyes in the sky. 

4. Property crimes. Last year air units in Los Angeles air support units used infrared search technology in suspect searches 1000 times, which is more than twice a day.  While no-where near as common in the Bay Area, the right tools in the right place allow officers to apprehend criminals.

3. Perimeters. This duty probably accounts for much of your annoyance. Law enforcement helicopters are especially well positioned to help cops on the ground set up dragnets for an array of suspects – alleged burglars, gangsters who run from officers, robbers on the loose. Air units usually take command of these situations and order badges down below to take strategic positions in your neighborhood. This, unfortunately for you, can be quite a production.

2. Pursuits. Anticipating that a chase is about to break out because they just pulled behind a stolen car or wanted suspect, ground units may radio for air support. Most of the time, these things end with the vehicle pulling over. Sometimes, though, a suspect will drive so hard that the ground units back off. But virtually no car can beat a helicopter, so the pursuit carries on from the skies.

1. Violent crimes in progress. Homicides, armed robberies, kidnappings, sex crimes – you get the picture. Having a helicopter in the air can help officers on the ground look for a fleeing suspect vehicle quickly and effectively. 

But What's Going on Outside?

Finding out specifically what the police are doing can be a little tricky now-a-days.  In March 2020, SJPD moved to encrypted communications for officer safety and the confidentiality of secretive information as well as the private information of citizensIt is not uncommon for criminals to use police scanners – many of which are available online for free as smartphone applications which turns your phone into a scanner – to monitor police activity and warn them of a police response to their crime.  While generally it's best to stay away from police activity and to shelter inside, if there is a police officer on the street, you can always ask them politely what's going on. 

But It's Disturbing Me!

Regarding helicopter noise, police and fire-rescue aircraft are exempt from most of the laws governing the "noise pollution" as well as flight restrictions federal laws put in place. While the use of helicopters can be disruptive, especially to uninvolved neighbors, their usage is fairly limited, especially when compared to other municipalities.  To that end, complaints about their disruptiveness and noise aren't being ignored, but the police department think that catching bad guys is more important than your aural comfort.

So What Should I Do?

So, what do you do when the air support unit is overhead?  The safest thing to do is to shelter in place, if you can safely take your pets inside, do so.  Lock your doors and windows and turn on the TV.  Listen for any instructions that may be given over the PA system and if they are directed at you, follow them.  Typically, you'll know if youre expected to do something so if they aren't there for you, they are probably telling you to go inside where its safe.  If during an event you have someone jumping fences into or out of your back yard, call the police. 

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