Unmarked helicopters, hovering...
May 30, 2011 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Need help with a story point, involving creative ways in which a cahracter might locate and track an unregistered helicopter, after having viewed it flying overhead.

I'm trying to brainstorm ways that the hero (who is a helicopter pilot himself) might be able to track and locate the unmarked helicopter he's just witnessed attempt to gun him down. For what it's worth, the story takes place in the Middle East, and involves a terrorist group with access to an unmarked helicopter.

Some things to keep in mind:

--The character has had no physical access to the helicopter, so he couldn't put a tracking device on it

--The helicopter can have subtly distinctive markings, just not a tail number

--The character would be working with the police of that country, but not necessarily the military or government (for story reasons.)

I know only what wikipedia can tell me about helicopters. Are there any restrictions (such as specific fueling stations for specific kinds of choppers, acceptable flight patterns, etc) that the hero might be able to use to narrow things down and pinpoint this particular vehicle? After he does that, would the country's version of the FAA be able to track it? It's important that he be able to follow it to its next location.

Or is this completely impossible? Thanks very much for any help on this matter.
posted by np312 to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
What if the hero tracked the helicopter through some sort of specialty service provider. Perhaps the subtle markings lead him to a place specializing in painting planes or helicopters. Or maybe he can talk to other non-military helicopter pilots that might have noticed it, e.g., the people who do medi-flights or the traffic reports. Perhaps he tracks the pilot through the country's licensing procedure... maybe someone who once had a very specific high-end license that has allowed his/her credentials to expire, presumably because the hours flying the badguys' chopper can't be recorded.
posted by carmicha at 11:29 AM on May 30, 2011

If it's possible, maybe the helicopter is a distinctive model...rare/ and or old? Locals might know who owns it, or maybe he can bribe the local authorities to find out who owned it at one time...the character could track down the previous owner perhaps, and follow the trail that way.
posted by virginia_clemm at 11:36 AM on May 30, 2011

Not sure what rules apply in the middle east region you are writing about, but if it takes place somewhat close to a major airport, then air traffic control would likely keep track of the helicopter as a navigation hazard through radar, even if the terrorists don't check in by radio.
posted by Cironian at 11:57 AM on May 30, 2011

posted by funnyinternetmemereference at 12:01 PM on May 30, 2011

There's a lot of YouTube videos of "unmarked helicopter". Is your character a social media type? Would he look at Flickr or other photo sharing sites?

Any terrorists who are using a very distinctive copter might be sort of inept. Most people who want to shoot someone would chose a copter than looks like lots of others.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:26 PM on May 30, 2011

Best answer: Depends on the level of rule you are talking about but most countries have specific flight patterns and areas in which aircraft can fly. If the helicopter is trying to go relatively unnoticed, it would probably adhere to those paths in order to avoid a radar detection leading to jet scrambling. Flying though a very hilly area with a lot of crevices and peaks, the pilot on the ground could probably make some kind of assumptions regarding a general radius within which the pilot would need to land to refuel.

Police could use local informants to get information about helicopter landings - maybe from a drug smuggling ring?

I don't think every helicopter could have a railgun mounted on it. That would definitely narrow down the type of helicopter and make it easier to find the exact model. Maybe he could track down the bullet casings used?
posted by eytanb at 1:03 PM on May 30, 2011

Best answer: Ahhhh... finally my commercial pilot's license is good again for something.

1. In most countries, aircraft are required to have a transponder. No transponder means that an aircraft flying around will be quickly spotted and "pulled over" at the nearest landing.

2. Many countries require a mode S transponder. Many mose S transponders have Traffic Information Service which reports identifying information about the aircraft (such as ID number) or transponder itself that can be traced to an aircraft.

3. A device similar to this one can read mode s Traffic Information Service information

All you have to do in your story is plausibly set up somewhere that the helicopter had been registered in a country that requires Mose S.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 3:32 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

that's 'mode s' ... arrrgh
posted by Poet_Lariat at 3:33 PM on May 30, 2011

Best answer: I was going to suggest the inverse of what Poet is suggesting. Given that the helicopter is operating so as to remain hidden, perhaps it needs to stay out of radar detection. Perhaps your hero could learn where the ground clutter and radar shadows are located for any nearby installations to determine the areas to which the helicopter must limit its operations. For bonus points, perhaps your terrorists do use a registered number, transponder etc. for other operations and the distinctive 'marking' is that it has been concealed by some removable method.
posted by meinvt at 4:07 PM on May 30, 2011

Best answer: He could trace it by the supply side. If it's a turbine helo it's run on jet fuel, and not a lot of people buy or transport jet fuel.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:29 PM on May 30, 2011

Not at all snarky, but the logical extension of other suggestions: shoot some video with a cell phone and post it on a heli enthusiasts' site. Ask for help. Hell, have him post it to AskMe!
posted by SPrintF at 7:38 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is your protagonist handy with a gun himself? Perhaps he would be potentially be able to shoot down the heli himself with the right gun, or for his own reasons, prefer to not shoot it down and choose instead to track it with possibly a rifle-sized or handheld tracker launching device?

Or to follow Poet's lead - some pseudo-science with the Transponders where there are radio/air traffic control towers read transponder signatures and this heli is unique because it has no transponder/signature so it could then be tracked by local law enforcement types by it hitting towers and not bouncing back the signal - thereby triangulating the area where it is heading/landing?
posted by emjay at 12:46 PM on May 31, 2011

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