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Airborne and Climbing

May 4, 2010  By Mike Minnich

Each day, and, perhaps even more importantly, each night, police-operated helicopters are active across Canada, performing tasks ranging from aerial patrol and pursuit of suspect vehicles to searches for missing persons and marijuana grow-ops.

Each day, and, perhaps even more importantly, each night, police-operated helicopters are active across Canada, performing tasks ranging from aerial patrol and pursuit of suspect vehicles to searches for missing persons and marijuana grow-ops. And while a solid figure is tough to confirm, total Canadian police rotary-wing flying time is estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 hours per year.

Proactive, late-night aerial police operations in Edmonton
average about five hours per shift. (Photo courtesy of Edmonton Police Service)

Police use of helicopters in Canada dates back to 1973, when the RCMP acquired its first rotary-wing equipment. Today, seven law-enforcement organizations – the Mounties, the Ontario Provincial Police, Le Sûreté de Québec, the Calgary and Edmonton municipal forces, and two Ontario regional municipalities, York and Durham – are so equipped, and a fifth city, Winnipeg, is on the brink of implementation.

Staff-Sergeant Greg Lester, non-commissioned officer in charge of the RCMP’s London, Ont., Air Section, says a helicopter unit can play an essential role in curbing a variety of criminal activities. “Just about every RCMP helicopter unit has a different operating mandate, reflecting what’s appropriate to their geographical area as well as the sources of their funding,” Lester explains. “We operate two Eurocopter EC-120s in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia that perform traditional urban patrol work, whereas I know our helicopter in Kelowna, B.C., does a fair bit of transporting technicians to build or maintain radio-network repeater sites on mountaintops. Here in London, our primary mandates are border surveillance regarding smugglers of contraband, and also counter-terrorism activity.”


In addition to the two Vancouver-based EC-120s, the RCMP has one Eurocopter AStar B3 at each of its eight bases: Vancouver, Kamloops, Comox and Kelowna in B.C., plus Edmonton, London, Montreal and Moncton. Missions run a wide gamut, including urban patrolling, search and rescue, emergency medevac (usually only for police-action-related casualties – they do not compete with commercial air-ambulance services), transporting emergency response teams, border security patrols, crime-scene photography, support to special events or VIP visits.

“The funding of our mandates varies a lot, as well,” Lester says. “For example, with those three aircraft in Vancouver, the AStar is 70 per cent funded by the province and the rest by Ottawa, while the two EC-120s operate in support of about eight local police forces, and they are 100 per cent funded by those communities. On the other hand, here in London, we’re 100 per cent funded by the federal government.”

NVG Capability
A significant enhancement to the operational effectiveness of RCMP helicopters in recent years has been the acquisition and gradual incorporation of night-vision goggle (NVG) capability. “To the best of my knowledge, all our pilots are now NVG-qualified except for Kelowna and Kamloops,” Lester says. “At the locations like here in London where tactical flight officers (TFOs) are employed, we are having them NVG-qualified as well as the pilots. These goggles let the pilots extend operations into the really ‘dark-dark’ areas at night, such as in mountains. For the TFOs, this equipment is a good complement to the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera system for spotting activity on the ground.”

The standard mission equipment kit for RCMP helicopters (there may be minor variations) includes: a FLIR 7500 or 8500 unit, Aerocomputers LE-5000 moving map, BMS analog or converted MRC microwave data downlink, SX-16 Searchlamp, and Technisonic FM police radios.

Lester notes that the London detachment’s “national security” file brought them some interesting duty a few years back. “We were tasked to undertake surveillance on the ‘Toronto 18’ group of accused terrorist plotters,” he recalls. “Our aircraft was employed to both locate their training camp north of Orillia, and then keep an eye on any personnel in attendance there.”

Lightning Response
While the RCMP has had marked success with its airborne units nationwide, the Edmonton Police Service air unit has repeatedly proven its worth since it was established back in 2001. Equipped with a pair of Eurocopter EC-120B aircraft and budgeted for 1,500 flying hours annually, the Edmonton unit prides itself on its effectiveness in its response times. If a call comes in while a unit is airborne, response time averages just 90 seconds or less. “Our unit responds to more than 2,800 calls for service per year,” Staff Sgt. Chris Barbar says. “This includes safe aerial management of about 50 trackings of suspect vehicles on the ground, which avoids dangerous high-speed pursuits by patrol cars.”

The Flight Unit is credited with achieving the apprehension of approximately 350 suspects each year who would otherwise have escaped, Barbar adds. Both pilots and tactical flight officers are sworn police officers, while maintenance is contracted-out to the firm Novex Helitrades. The aircraft special equipment includes a Model 8500 FLIR, SX-16 Nightsun, a police-band radio package and an MRC-broadcast microwave downlink.

“Our nighttime flights total about five hours per shift, and are what we class as proactive, in that we are routinely airborne to patrol an area, as opposed to a reactive launch, which would be in response to a specific call for assistance,” he says. “Our reactive missions mostly happen during the daytime, and are maybe 10 per cent of our total flying hours per year.”

Looking ahead, Barbar expects things to remain steady as far as operations go for the next few years. The latest major development, he says, was the acquisition of the unit’s second helicopter in July 2009.

Expansion Mode
Airborne police operations in Edmonton continue to illustrate their value on a daily basis, and the same can be said for the aerial police unit in Alberta’s other major centre, Calgary. The airborne unit in Alberta’s largest city similarly operates a brace of EC-120s, which currently are budgeted for a maximum of 2,000 flying hours per year. And unlike the sworn officers serving as pilots in Edmonton, the pilots (and maintenance engineers) at this unit are salaried City of Calgary employees.

The airborne unit in Calgary operates EC-120s, which currently are budgeted for a maximum of 2,000 flying hours per year.
(Photo by Mark McWhirter)

“We’re almost a 24/7 operation,” says Sgt. Michelle Cave.“[We’re] flying both patrol and response flights. We’re not on a specific schedule and don’t always launch at the same time, so the bad guys can’t make any assumptions about where we might be, and when. I’d say our mission profile across a given year is split about 50-50 between those two categories of mission.”

The Calgary Eurocopters are mission-customized with a Wescam Sonoma L3 infrared camera, a Paravion mapping system (both of these pieces of kit are recently acquired upgrades), a Spectrolab searchlight, and a range of specialized communications equipment from Motorola, Garmin, Bendix King, and Skytrac, plus a satellite phone. The EC-120s are fundamentally seen as patrol and quick-reaction search and vehicle-pursuit assets, and are not assigned medevac, SAR, SWAT-insertion or other more exotic tasks.

“In the past two years, we’ve expanded our program by adding part-time tactical flight officers, which has allowed us to fly more hours per day and week,” Sgt. Cave notes. “Our flying hours have also been increased to 2,000 per year versus 1,500, and that has certainly resulted in improved statistics regarding apprehensions and criminal charges.” Looking ahead, Cave says their unit hopes to increase their pilot, TFO and engineering staffing in 2012, and, if the budget for the expansion is approved, an increase in annual flying hours will come, as well.

“The value of our airborne patrols is indisputable,” Sgt. Cave says. “In 50 per cent of our emergency calls, a helicopter is the first on
the scene. Last year, we were a significant factor in the apprehension of 434 persons that resulted in 825 criminal charges. If we are actively involved in a call, we calculate that 99 per cent of the time there will be an apprehension. Road pursuits are almost unheard of now in Calgary, since it’s so much safer and more effective to track a vehicle from the air.”

Cave says they’ve even had instances of on-foot fleeing suspects stopping, raising their hands, and surrendering to the circling helicopter – with no ground officers yet on the scene!

Patrolling York Region
Aerial police successes are not exclusive to the western provinces. In York Region, a sprawling urban-rural mix just north of Toronto, the municipality has one Eurocopter EC-120B on patrol duties that amount to approximately four flight hours per shift, up to a budgeted maximum of 900 hours annually.

The Region of York’s single policing helicopter, a Eurocopter EC-120B, flies a maximum of 900 hours annually.
(Photo courtesy of York Regional Police)

“However, we usually exceed that yearly maximum by 50 to 100 hours due to extended searches on missing-person calls,” Const Dave Saunders, a tactical flight officer with the York Regional Police Air Support Unit, reports. “Our core function is support of officers on the ground, using everything from our dual-sensor thermal camera to the ‘Mark-One eyeball.’ ”

“Last year, we responded to 1,581 calls for service, and in 540 of those situations our helicopter was the first police presence on-scene,” says Sgt. Rob O’Quinn. “Our average response time of 3.55 minutes was an improvement over the 3.98-minute average in 2008. Also, in 2009 our Air Support Unit found or located 107 persons – that includes both fleeing criminal suspects as well as lost or missing citizens – and was credited with an ‘assist’ in another 46 cases.”

York’s aircraft is dubbed “Air-2” (“Air-1” was their earlier aircraft, an Enstrom 480, which was traded in for the Eurocopter), and is equipped with an L3-Sonoma M12-650 dual-sensor infrared camera; an SX-16 spotlight; an Avalex Mapping System and two Avalex 12-inch monitors (in front and rear seats); an Avidyne Traffic Advisory System; and a suite of police radios.

“Our equipment-upgrade program is an ongoing process,” Saunders says. “Funding for capital projects has come from a combination of the police budget, community support, the York Regional Police Appreciation Dinner, and income from civil-assets forfeiture. In the last couple years, this support has resulted in our upgraded thermal camera, the mapping system, the traffic advisory system, and a new video recorder.” A significant operational enhancement is on the horizon with the planned acquisition of a full night-vision-goggle capability in the near future.

The pilots and maintenance engineer for Air-2 are contracted from National Helicopters, with the pilots fully dedicated to the Air Support Unit function. York Region is currently conducting a mandatory re-tendering of that contract, which will end with the winning bidder receiving a two-year agreement.

A New Beginning
Just as the RCMP and other Canadian cities have benefited from the use of aerial policing units, the city of Winnipeg is poised to join the fray. After extensive research and debate, the City of Winnipeg is on the brink of committing to the acquisition of a helicopter for police patrol duties. The $3.5-million project was given a green light by the city council’s Executive Policy Committee in December, and on March 24, the provincial government’s new budget announced $1.3 million in support for the unit’s operating expenses (this is expected to become an ongoing annual subsidy).

The RCMP patrols the skies with two EC-120s.
(Photo by Douglas Noblet)

“The bid evaluation for this aircraft is currently underway, and a decision is expected imminently,” says Det.-Sgt. Dave Dalal. “Once a decision on what aircraft type to purchase – and from whom – is made, there will be about a three-month period required to acquire and install the mission-specific equipment.

“No decision has yet been made as to where the aircraft will be based, but we do know individual civilian commercial rotary-wing pilots will be hired to fly it, and we are projecting a maximum of 1,000 flying hours a year. Our TFO training will be modelled after that in Edmonton and Calgary, and we’re hoping we can make arrangements for some of those experienced individuals to assist us in bringing our tactical flight officers up to speed.”

As the initiatives of the aerial policing forces nationwide demonstrate, it’s getting harder and harder to be a successful criminal in Canada these days.


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