Firing From An Aerial Platform

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For Alaska State Trooper Jeff Hall this would be the test of a lifetime of marksmanship training and shooting drills. The Vietnam combat vet of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade and his partner, Troy Duncan, were among a dozen lawmen deployed 100 miles west of Fairbanks to pursue a mass murderer. Near Manley Hot Springs, a family riding ATVs had chanced upon a man disposing of two bodies—instantly he killed all three and was dumping their bodies when two more people arrived. They died next. The killer, Michael Silka, a wilderness drifter, then killed a trapper to steal his boat, bringing the death toll to eight, and raced away

With Silka fleeing deep into the wilds, there was no time to waste. The Alaska troopers' tactical unit, the Special Emergency Response Team, put SWAT officers aboard two helicopters and two fixed-wings, searching rivers for the stolen boat. It was spotted beached on a tributary of the Zitziana River, 20 miles from the murder scene.

Hall's helicopter, a Bell Jet Ranger, was called in to provide cover while another chopper was to land a search team. As his Jet Ranger went into a treetop hover, Hall scanned carefully through his M16A1 open sights while

Coast Guard Aim
Aboard a hovering Coast Guard helicopter, 3 sniper takes aim with a Robar ,50-caliber rifle.

Duncan viewed using a 3x optic on his Ml6. Both had 20-round magazines loaded with tracers. Over their shoulders, the E Detachment commander, Capt. Don JLawrance, also looked into the overhanging branches below but couldn't see a thing except Silka's boat.

The helicopter pivoted, and . . . there he was, his rifle raised! Duncan, Hall, and Silka fired simultaneously, missing. They fired again. Duncan fell back, shot dead by Silka's 30.06, and Lawrance, too, was hit by bullet fragments. The helicopter shifted; Hall saw Silka drop a fresh round in his Ruger and raise it. Hall fired into the swirling foliage, his burst shooting dead perhaps the worst mass killer in Alaska's history.

Jeff told me that harrowing story while I was in Alaska instructing a police sniper course. It's an excellent example because it contains the basic elements found in most law enforcement sniper engagements from aircraft, the primary one being necessity—there was no reasonable option but to use an aerial platform. The New Orleans Howard Johnson's incident cited in Chapter 1 equally was a case of necessity, when lesser measures failed to neutralize the rooftop gunman, Jimmy Essex.

Another component, as found in the Alaska case, is where the aircraft is a pursuit or observation platform that bccomes a shooting platform, especially when the perpetrator fires at it. In 2004, Orange County, California, helicopter-borne deputies were searching for a dismounted gunman who'd shot two people near Irvine when the suspect, Jerry Larson, opened fire with a rifle, wounding the pilot. Their return lire killed Larson, effectively ending the incident.

The military approach to firing from an aircraft is that it's simply the best platform for

Aerial SniperClose Observation Trianing Training Lydd

but your aircraft and aircrew, too. And he's not contending with aircraft movement and vibration to steady his aim.

On the other hand, it has been my experience that most hostiles on the ground do not appreciate how clearly—and at considerable distance—they can be observed and engaged from the air, a big plus on your side.

A Marine sniper perched in its door, 3 U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter circles a ship in the Mediterranean during a vessel-boarding search-and-seizure exercise.

Continuing your realistic assessment, respect that when you're hovering close enough to engage your foe—unless you're overmatching with a dramatically more powerful weapon—he is within range to engage you. Your sound and visual signatures are unmistakable, your position lacks cover or concealment, and, if you're in orbit, you're flying a predictable flight pattern. Further, it's not just you that's vulnerable to counterfire,

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