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Eyes in the Sky

It’s 1:30 a.m. The police radio crackles with a report of a burglary in progress, and the pair of peace officers immediately accelerates through the night to arrive on the scene. But there’s something special about this scenario: they’re in a helicopter flying at 1,500 feet above the city . . . and that gives them a speed, manoeuvrability and situational-awareness advantage that no squad car on the street can match. Within minutes, they’re over the scene, co-ordinating the response by police ground units.


February 23, 2010
By Mike Minnich

Topics

It’s 1:30 a.m. The police radio crackles with a report of a burglary in
progress, and the pair of peace officers immediately accelerates
through the night to arrive on the scene. But there’s something special
about this scenario: they’re in a helicopter flying at 1,500 feet above
the city . . . and that gives them a speed, manoeuvrability and
situational-awareness advantage that no squad car on the street can
match. Within minutes, they’re over the scene, co-ordinating the
response by police ground units.

Chopper-in-snow
Despite the fact that York Regional Police’s Air-2 serves a region that is 1,776 square kilometres, average response time is a little under four minutes.


(In one study conducted by the University of Southern California, it
was found that reducing police eyes-on-the-scene response time from
four minutes to two minutes can increase the apprehension rate of the
perpetrator[s] by 100 per cent. In similar research, the FBI found
that, if police arrive at the scene of an active crime within three
minutes, there’s a 90 per cent chance of apprehension.)

“To my knowledge, the first-ever regular use of a helicopter by a North
American police department was in New York City, starting back in
1947,” Don Chabali, a 40-year veteran of working with aerial law
enforcement as both a pilot and, particularly, in helicopter sales with
Hughes Aircraft and McDonnell Douglas, recalls in a telephone interview
from his Missouri home. “However, I don’t think they used it for the
kind of full-shift patrolling that police forces have developed in more
recent decades. That really started much later with a pilot project
called Sky Knight, which was done jointly through the Lakewood, Calif.,
police department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”

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The services of York Regional Police’s EC-120B, Air-2, are called upon an average of 1,500 times a year.  
new-air1--car
 
The Edmonton police force began helicopter operations in August 2001 with the purchase of its EC-120, dubbed “Air-1.”  
calgary-hawc2ec120airborne
 
Calgary’s HAWC-2 EC-120, purchased in 2005.
 
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Hughes Helicopters Inc.’s 1,000th turbine-powered 500D
helicopter was delivered to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department in California in the early 1980s.


 

Thanks to funding from a new U.S. Department of Justice entity called
the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, Lakewood was able to
acquire a Hughes 300B helicopter, equip it with a searchlight and
police-band radio, and begin ongoing, regularly scheduled patrols in
June 1966.

“The Sky Knight program was the brainchild of Hugh McDonald of the L.A.
County Sheriff’s Department,” Chabali recalls. “It ran for one year,
and at the end of it the statistics were impressive: of the four ‘Part
One’ – the most serious crime category – felonies that were documented,
robberies were down nine per cent, burglaries down 12.2 per cent,
larcenies had dropped 8.8 per cent and auto thefts were 9.8 per cent
lower.”

Following the Sky Knight success, Chabali – as a Hughes Aircraft sales
rep at the time – arranged with the chief of police of Kansas City, Mo.
(Clarence Kelley, who later became director of the FBI), to demonstrate
a helicopter patrol as part of the annual convention of the
International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was being held in
that city in the fall of 1967.

“Kelley was so impressed that he talked his Board of Police
Commissioners into funding a two-week trial, and myself and three other
pilots were sworn in as special peace officers to carry a full-time
policeman as an observer, running three eight-hour shifts a day,”
Chabali says. “The only special equipment was the addition of a
searchlight, which had been made by joining two DC-9 landing lights
together . . . no FLIR or GPS back in those days! You basically relied
on the Mark-One eyeball.”

Once again, the incidence of many categories of crime dropped while the
helicopter was in use, and the next year (1968) saw Kansas City become
the first American municipality to begin full-time urban helicopter
patrols, with a trio of aircraft. As interest in this capability spread
around the United States, the practitioners joined with
helicopter-industry members in 1969-70 to form the Airborne Law
Enforcement Association (ALEA), now headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md.,
which remains the key professional group in this field (www.alea.org).
ALEA formed a Canadian chapter in 2004, although there’d been
individual Canadian members since the 1980s.

Most American police forces that operate helicopters prefer to take a
qualified, experienced (usually three to five years) police officer and
train him/her to be a pilot, rather than trying to turn a civilian
commercial pilot into a law officer. (This approach is less common in
Canada, as seen by the RCMP decision in 1999 that, from that point on,
they’d strictly hire civilian pilots to operate their fixed- and
rotary-wing aircraft, although a number of lawmen-turned-pilots still
remain from the earlier years.)

On the Canadian-policing scene, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
formed an air division as far back as 1937, but it exclusively employed
fixed-wing aircraft until 1973, when a Bell Twin Huey was acquired.
Provincial-level forces such as the Ontario Provincial Police (1974,
initially with single-engine Bell equipment, and then a pair of
Eurocopter S355F2R TwinStars since 1991) and Le Sûreté de Quebec
followed into the rotary-wing world. On the municipal level, while
Montreal operated a helicopter on general duties for several years
decades ago, that equipment was subsequently retired, and the first
real scheduled aerial-policing patrol operation was that of the Calgary
Police Service (CPS), beginning July 1995 and following some earlier
experiments accessing a local radio station’s Robinson R22
traffic-watch helo for special emergency situations.

“Calgary was the real pioneer among Canadian municipalities,” says Bob
Ough, of Peterborough, Ont., whose many years of flying and selling
helicopters has culminated in his present position as a marketing
manager with Eurocopter Canada. “Through a combination of a
public-subscription lottery, donations from local businesses, and
provincial support, they raised about $1.5 million and were able to
purchase a police-duty-configured McDonnell Douglas MD520N NOTAR
(no-tail-rotor technology) helicopter.”

“HAWC-1,” as the helo was designated (derived from the program that
solicited donations for the aircraft: Helicopter Air Watch for
Community Safety) flew its first operational patrol on July 18, 1995.
In January 1997, the force’s Air Services Unit was awarded the Air Crew
of the Year Award by the Helicopter Association International. The
effectiveness of HAWC-1 spurred local Calgarians to promote the idea –
subsequently approved by the police service and the police commission –
of another lottery to raise funds for a second helicopter.

This was a resounding success, with more than $1.8 million raised. In
due course, a Eurocopter EC-120 was purchased in 2005, and became,
naturally, HAWC-2. Around this time, a new hangar facility was built at
Calgary International Airport to house the CPS Air Services Unit. The
original HAWC-1 was sold in late 2006, and was replaced with a second
EC-120.

Up at sister Alberta metropolis Edmonton, the police force there began
helicopter operations in August 2001 with the purchase of “Air-1,” a
“gently used” (only 800 hours on the airframe) Eurocopter EC-120. (The
Edmonton Police Service had been operating a fixed-wing aircraft since
1980.) As with Calgary, the initial funds for this acquisition were
mostly raised by a lottery, corporate donations, and money from the
general public.

The EC-120 was equipped with a Mark-II FLIR (forward-looking infrared
sensor) and an SX-16 Nightsun spotlight. To date, Air-1 has logged
8,700 operational hours since August 2001, and is reportedly the
highest-airframe-time EC-120B in the world. The success of Air-1 has
led to the recent purchase of a second EC-120 (“Air-2,” of course). As
of September 2009, Air-1 was scheduled to fly every night, with a
maximum flight time of 1,500 hours per year authorized.

“On July 21, 2007, a very large fire destroyed many homes and a
condominium project in southwest Edmonton,” Staff Sgt. Dave Berry of
the Edmonton Police flight-ops section reports. “Air-1 took up the fire
chief as a passenger, which let him manage his firefighting re-sources
better than from the ground. As a result of this incident, the city’s
police and fire departments jointly purchased a Novanet
Communications/MRC digital microwave downlink system that will allow
the helicopter to make live broadcasts to our respective mobile command
posts in future similar situations.”

As noted earlier, the trailblazer in the use of rotary-wing equipment
by a police force in Canada was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The
initial 1973-purchased Bell 212 was stationed in St. John’s, N.L., in
support of ‘B’ Division (and even today, the RCMP operates the only
police-controlled helicopter east of Quebec . . . none of Atlantic
Canada’s municipal forces have any).

In 1979 it was decided that more – but smaller – helicopters could do
the job better, so the 212 was traded-in as part of the acquisition of
a Bell 206B JetRanger and a 206L1 Long Ranger, providing better
coverage for the same operating cost. Over the ensuing years, more 206s
were acquired, and a series of helo bases were established right across
Canada (currently, they consist of Moncton, N.B., St. Hubert, Que.,
London, Ont., Edmonton, Alta., and Vancouver, Comox, Kamloops and
Kelowna, B.C.).

Since much of RCMP helicopter activity involves searches over rural
terrain, gear such as FLIR pods, searchlights, microwave-communication
downlinks and GPS mapping systems were often added to the Bell 206,
adding weight, diminishing cabin space, and degrading flight
performance. As a result, in the late 1990s a search for a replacement
aircraft was launched, and ultimately a fly-off between the Bell 407
and Eurocopter AStar B3 resulted in the latter product being selected
in 1998.

In 2002, the Mounties also got into the aerial urban patrolling
business in a significant way for the Greater Vancouver Regional
District, in response to a rash of serious crimes, stolen vehicles… and
resulting high-speed pursuits. A helo with a low noise profile was
needed, and the research and assessment process again led to
Eurocopter, with the EC-120 model purchased. (Two such aircraft now
operate over the GVRD.)

Two other urban areas with active helicopter programs are found just
outside Toronto in southern Ontario: Durham Region and York Region.
Durham’s Air Support Unit was stood up in June 1999 as a six-month
pilot project in conjunction with the York Region police. The Bell 206
JetRanger was given the callsign “Air-1,” and quickly proved its value
in everything from co-ordinating vehicle pursuits to locating hidden
fields of marijuana.

In 2003, Durham Region purchased a newer-model JetRanger, which was
kitted-out with a 30-million-candlepower Nightsun, a Wescam L3 M12
DS200 thermal-imaging camera, a mobile data-terminal laptop computer
for communications and mapping, and a hard drive and DVD burner to
capture video evidence. Air-1 currently averages 800 to 1,000 hours of
flying time annually, and the achievements of its crews
(civilian-contract pilots and uniformed tactical flight officers) have
run the gamut from spotting escaping suspects at night – and vectoring
officers on the ground to make the apprehension – to once uncovering a
50,000-plant marijuana-growing operation with a $30-million street
value.

In neighbouring York Region, an Enstrom 480 began operations in 2000,
dubbed “Air-2.” Once again, the value of having a helicopter was
proven, and in October 2002 the Enstrom was traded in for a new
Eurocopter EC-120B, which offered more speed and payload as well as
less noise – the latter always a concern to residents on the ground.

Along with the now-standard suite of tactical radios, a spotlight, and
thermal-imaging and recording capability, Air-2 has recently been
equipped with an Avalex AMS7100 moving-map system. Since July 2003, the
aircraft has been based at Buttonville Airport, just to the northeast
of metropolitan Toronto.

A backgrounder prepared by York Regional Police sums up how valuable these rotary-wing eyes in the sky are:

“The services of Air-2 are called upon an average of 1,500 times a
year, arriving first on the scene for approximately half of those
calls. Despite the fact that Air-2 serves a region that is 1,776 square
kilometres, average response time is a little under four minutes. In
2008, total hours flown was about 1,000, during which 94 arrests were
made and 30 missing people were located.”

While there are currently just four municipalities in Canada that
operate their own helicopters, reports indicate that Winnipeg may
shortly become the fifth. The 37-year history of police helicopters in
Canada surely has many more chapters yet to be written.


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