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Durham’s Lofty Pursuits

"I enjoy coming to work every shift,” police constable (PC) Anthony Bowers, a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) with the Durham (Ont.) Police Service’s Air Support Unit, says with a smile.


March 12, 2010
By Mike Minnich

Topics

"I enjoy coming to work every shift,” police constable (PC) Anthony Bowers, a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) with the Durham (Ont.) Police Service’s Air Support Unit, says with a smile. “When we get involved with a pursuit, and you have to co-ordinate multiple ground units, keep the target on-camera and interact with our dispatcher and possibly neighbouring police forces…that’s a challenge that never gets stale.”

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Air-1 in flight. The Bell 206 Jet Ranger is budgeted for 1,000 flying hours per year using two full-time TFOs and contract pilots and maintenance. (Photo courtesy Durham Regional Police)


The Durham Police ASU marked its 10th year of operation in June 2009, having started off as a shared-aircraft experimental joint venture with the police service of neighbouring Regional Municipality of York (which also went on to establish its own autonomous air unit – today equipped with a Eurocopter EC120). In 2003, the Durham ASU shifted from leased to its own purchased equipment with the acquisition of a Bell 206 Jet Ranger.

Regarding flight crew, Durham’s ASU consists of two full-time police officers who function as the TFOs, while two civilian-contract commercial helicopter pilots handle the flying. The pilots are provided by Bolton, Ont.-based National Helicopters, which also handles all maintenance requirements for the Jet Ranger (which carries the designation “Air-1”). The aircraft and crews operate from the north ramp of Oshawa Airport, located about 55 km east of Toronto.

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TFO Leigh Schutt recalls his first pursuit clearly, as it happened during his initial training.


 

“In about 65 to 75 per cent of the calls that occur while we’re on duty, we’re the first police presence on-scene,” says PC Bowers, who in his younger years just after university completed the 100-hour commercial helicopter pilot course as a civilian, but never flew professionally. “We’re able to observe the location in question and give the officers in the cruisers at least a basic idea of the layout even before they get there. A typical patrol lasts from one-and-a-half to two hours, and, while we’re not at liberty to discuss our exact schedule, it’s no secret that we fly more at night than in daytime,” Bowers notes. “We operate on a basis of both planned missions and reactive missions, the latter where the dispatcher tells us to launch due to a specific situation that has been reported.”

Each TFO alternates between a “flying” week where he works 50 hours, and a “ground” week, where he works 30 hours. During the non-flying week, they handle administration and paperwork relating to their flight ops, as well as working in the police force’s audit department, where they audit call reports and handle case management for the entire police service, not just ASU-related activity).

Capturing Evidence
Air-1 is equipped with an L3 Communications Wescam 12DS-200 gyro-stabilized twin-lens infrared/daylight digital-video camera and a 30-million-candlepower NightSun searchlight. While the latter is useful at night for identifying vehicle colours or directing on-foot officers around a premises, it’s the infrared-camera system that’s the TFO’s primary tool. The camera is directed by a thumb controller in the cockpit near its screen, and has an extremely wide radius of action.

“If we see anything we want to preserve for evidence, we push a ‘record’ button, and the video feed is digitally recorded on a USB device,” PC Bowers explains. “We used to have a DVD recorder in the back of the helicopter, but it was cumbersome to land and then have to record from the hard drive to the DVD, so we determined it was easier to just record onto a USB thumb drive. We have a one-terabyte drive back in the office at the airport that we keep our calls on, and that constitutes our archives if we need to review anything. That one terabyte drive lasts about 18 months before we fill it and require another one.”

PC Leigh Schutt is the other TFO, and describes how Durham trains a tactical flight officer.

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TFO Anthony Bowers with the L3 Communications Wescam. “If we see anything we want to preserve for evidence, we push a ‘record’ button, and the video feed is digitally recorded on a USB device.” The camera has helped TFOs find everything from drunk drivers hiding in cornfields to extra-hot get-away cars and in-house grow ops.


 

“The initial training lasts two weeks,” he begins, “and starts with going over the equipment and the standard operating procedures while inside the helicopter on the ground. Then we proceed to doing the same activities while actually flying operationally. There’s also the one-week TFO course run by the US-based Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA), which is periodically offered in Canada . . . I did mine in Calgary. Further along, we’ve also taken the course on infrared-camera use offered by the Law Enforcement Thermographers Association, and there are various advanced TFO training modules offered by ALEA, as well.”

Memorable Pursuits
PC Schutt can easily describe the call that he’s found most memorable to date, since it occurred when he was still in his initial two-week training period!

“We had an impaired tractor-trailer driver – I think it was his second time involved in an incident like that – back in April 2008 who was forcing other cars off the road over on Regional Road 57, which is just a two-lane highway,” Schutt recalls. “He ditched the tractor-trailer in a farm, and then we started looking for him for about 30 minutes, but couldn’t see anything. Then I flipped over to the IR camera and noticed a heat source out in the middle of the field. He had buried himself in the corn and snow . . . you couldn’t see him with the naked eye . . . but we were able to vector the officers on the ground to him, and they made the arrest!”

PC Bowers’s most memorable pursuit to date began on a cold February night in 2009.

“Pilot Greg Hulme and I were just coming in to land when I happened to switch frequencies, and I heard about a robbery in progress where three guys had gone into a convenience store with knives and a shotgun, and their car was reportedly heading for the 401 (we found out later they were responsible for five such robberies in recent months). We flew parallel to the 401, and spotted a vehicle moving quite quickly through the lanes.

“I put the IR camera on it, and noted that the engine was really hot, indicating that it’d been driven faster than normal – the heat signature was much higher than all the other vehicles in the vicinity – and he was driving erratically, so we started following the car through Oshawa, through Whitby, and through Ajax,” Bowers continues. “At some point, they saw a police cruiser somewhat behind them (although it didn’t have its flashers on), and we saw the suspects throw some items out of one window of the car.

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Pilot and 13,000-hour veteran Bruce Buck gets Air-1 ready to launch. “Jet Rangers are at the lower end of the maintenance-intensity range for helicopters, I’d say, so our aircraft is not down for maintenance unexpectedly very much.”


 

“We radioed the officers in that cruiser to back off, and we kept monitoring the suspects for about 90 minutes. They sideswiped two cars on the 401 during this ‘non-pursuit’, then ended-up crashing into a bus shelter on Avenue Road in Toronto. Three guys got out and started running. Two of them burst into a house from the rear basement window, where a kid was working on a computer downstairs. They grabbed him, ran upstairs and demanded the keys to the family vehicle from the parents, holding a knife to the boy’s throat.

“By that point, we’d vectored Durham Emergency Task Force officers to that area, and they were literally going in the door to that house as the mother came running out, screaming for help,” he concludes. “So, they arrested the two of them that night, and the third guy turned himself in the next day. Those kinds of calls are what keep me eager to come into work each day!”

They are also the kinds of calls that show the unique attributes the airborne option brings to the table. In both cases apprehension would have been unlikely, or more dangerous, without the helicopter.

Staying Airworthy
Keeping Air-1 as available as possible for such duty requires careful scheduling of maintenance, as the other contracted pilot, Bruce Buck – a 13,000-flying-hour veteran – explains.

“Jet Rangers are at the lower end of the maintenance-intensity range for helicopters, I’d say, so our aircraft is not down for maintenance unexpectedly very much. There are required inspections of varying thoroughness every 100, 200 and 300 hours, then you drop back to a 100-hour check again, then a 200, then there’s a 600-hour inspection that also incorporates the 300-hour checklist. Next, the cycle proceeds to another 100, a 200, and then a fairly major 1,200-hour inspection, which can take up to five days,” he explains.

If there’s an unexpected maintenance grounding, Durham has a reciprocal agreement with York Regional Police whereby the latter will provide their helicopter and crews to cover off Durham’s requirements, and Durham will do the same for York. Currently, Durham’s Air Support Unit is budgeted for a maximum of 1,000 flying hours annually.

A key element in letting a police helicopter function effectively, of course, is the communications system.

 “We use digital radios, and have one of the best systems out there . . . there are not many scanners that can pick up our transmissions,” he notes. “It’s basically a cellphone signal that we’re talking over. We also have a standard cellphone on board as well, and that can be handy when we get involved in a pursuit. We can speak to any police service in the GTA, and we can all coordinate on the same frequency, if we’re crossing jurisdictions during a pursuit and need to get Toronto Police, the OPP or whoever involved.”

Among the ongoing activities of the Air-1 crews are daytime reconnaissance flights to detect marijuana crops within Durham Region. Each year they bring multiple finds, some of them quite high-value.

“In the summer, we do a lot of daytime flying looking for marijuana groves hidden inside other crops,” PC Bowers reports. “In 2009, we located $6 million worth of plants, and $8 million worth in 2008. One summer we found $40 million worth . . . $30 million of that was in a single seven-acre field.”

And pot growers can’t hide from Air-1 by using “grow houses”, either: the camera’s infrared sensor can locate indoor grow ops thanks to such buildings’ peculiar heat signature.

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Durham’s Jet Ranger is equipped with both NightSun searchlight and L3 Communications Wescam 12DS-200 gyro-stabilized twin-lens infrared/daylight digital-video camera. The latter is particularly useful.


 

Tour of Duty
While the Durham Police Air Support Unit is fairly young and decidedly small in numbers, there’s still a well-thought-out personnel-management system in place for the uniformed members. The maximum tour of duty an individual TFO can serve is five years, and this goes hand in hand with a training plan that sees qualified volunteers from elsewhere on the force first become trained to fill in for the full-time TFOs when they’re ill or on vacation, and then ultimately have the opportunity to apply for a full-time position when a vacancy does occur.

“A TFO can opt to ask for other duties sooner than the five-year mark if for some reason they feel they’re just not as effective in the aircrew position as they once were, but there is definitely a policy that reflects the need for TFO duty to be seen as just one component in a police officer’s career, and not the totality of it,” PC Schutt says.

“At any point in time, we have several volunteer part-time TFOs trained-up and ready to fill in for Anthony or myself as required, and it’s from that pool that our future full-time TFOs will usually be selected.”

While TFOs don’t receive “flight pay” per se, the rigours of flying combined with the need to be on-call at pretty well any time of the day or night for emergency situations translates into the TFOs being given “detective constable” status, and that means an eight per cent increase in pay compared to their squad-car-based brethren.

In the end, though, it’s not the money, flying or the flight suit and wings they can wear that is the core appeal for these TFOs. It’s being able to make a unique and valuable contribution to law enforcement in their community.

“Following a suspect vehicle from 1200 feet in the air is a lot safer for all concerned than attempting a high-speed pursuit on the highway with patrol cars,” PC Bowers points out. “Our Air Unit cannot totally eliminate such situations, but the ability to literally see the ‘big picture’ during robbery pursuits, drunk-driver incidents, stolen vehicle investigations, and so forth – and immediately update the ground units with vital data – provides a level of professional satisfaction that makes every day on the job rewarding.”

This is part 2 in our series on airborne law enforcement. We continue next issue with a round-up of airborne operations across Canada and the benefits they are bringing their communities.


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