Why do police helicopters always fly in circles while news helicopter hover in one spot? Is it to avoid criminals opening fire at them, or is it because there is a difference between the two types of helicopters?

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    $\begingroup$ Same question: Why do police helicopters fly in circles instead of hovering?. However, I agree with others that police helicopters can just hover. I have seen them just floating above a point during street protests. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Energizer777 It's amazing how many people who don't know what they are talking about comment with authority. One of the answers in that question includes "auto-rotate were the rotors spin in the other directions". $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is just a comment because I have no references, but it seems to me like there's a strong advantage to being on the move because it is harder to dodge the helecopter's lights if they are constantly changing angles. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ News copters want to deliver a stationary image whenever possible as it's what they want to show viewers. The police don't care about that. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ I've never seen news helicopters hovering... @GdD I don't think stationary images has any relevance, as all news choppers I have seen have a stabilized camera which produces very steady images under most conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 2:06

4 Answers 4


Police helicopters don't always fly in circles. I've often seen my local police helicopter hovering. There are a few reasons you might have seen police helicopters flying in circles:-

  1. Not all types of helicopter can hover out of ground effect. It might be that the police helicopters in your area can't hover at the heights they work at, with the weight of their usual equipment.
  2. Helicopters are safer if they're moving forwards than hovering. In the event of an engine failure, they can autorotate to land safely, but they need to have some airspeed to be able to do this. The required airspeed depends on height (see the chart in the linked question), so if your news helicopters are usually operated higher up than police helicopters, they may be able to hover safely. (This is quite likely, as police aircraft are exempt from the 500 ft rule and the 1000 ft rule, while news helicopters are not.)
  3. Police helicopters often circle to search an area for a fugitive or casualty using thermal imaging cameras. News helicopters tend to either follow a vehicle or hover to get a steady camera shot of a news event.
  • $\begingroup$ I also believe there is a risk of vortex effect that makes one lose all lift suddenly when hovering (in no wind situation). $\endgroup$
    – v.oddou
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ @v.oddou Vortex ring state doesn't just happen randomly in a hover. It can be caused by descending too fast with too little horizontal velocity, or by extreme downdrafts. See aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/16108/… $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ Could you give an example for a helicopter that is not able to hover? $\endgroup$
    – bogl
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ @bogl Could you ask that as a new question? That way anyone can answer and you'll probably get some illustrated examples. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DanHulme Helicopters are not subject to the 500 ft rule, please see FAR 91.119. News helicopters can circle or hover just as low as an LE helicopter. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 16:22

There is little difference between the helicopters used by news crews and police. It is their operation that differs.

  • Flying instead of hovering helps minimize the chance of getting shot. There has been incidents when law enforcement helicopters have been shot down.

  • Forward flight (at low speed) uses less power compared to hover. This reduces the engine load and increases the time spent over target.

  • Police helicopters fly pretty low compared to the news helicopters. Hovering for long periods can result in one settling in their own downwash. In this case, the altitude can help news helicopters to gain forward momentum to get out of this. As this option is not available to police helicopters, it is better for them to fly in circles.

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    $\begingroup$ There have also been laser pen incidents, too many to mention a specific one. $\endgroup$
    – user3773
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ Would another possible issue be a desire to avoid making viewers dizzy? $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ @supercat: I suspect that is the actual answer. The question is backwards: flying forward is safer and more fuel-efficient than hovering out of ground effect, so the question should rather be: why would a news helicopter not do that? BTW: I don't know how feasible it is to use a helicopter as a sniper platform (outside of Hollywood, that is), but in that case, they'd probably be hovering, too. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ From what i know USCG use helicopter as firing platform (not to accuracy of sniper though). $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ Hovering for long periods can result in one settling in their own downwash - no it can't. In order to settle with power, you must be descending and if you're descending, you are not hovering. You can hover until the fuel runs out, you get cramp or the next person needing the helicopter starts waving their arms in strange patterns. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 17:46

Often the police helicopter is out looking for the target. A circle is a search pattern. News typically has a known target they just need a shot of.


Police helicopters search, follow, and chase things. You need to be moving to do this. News media don't do those things.


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