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From Horses to Helicopters

Few images are as iconically Canadian as the Mountie on horseback in the red serge.


August 10, 2012
By James Marasa

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Few images are as iconically Canadian as the Mountie on horseback in the red serge. More than a century after the force’s formation as an entity for frontier justice, the tools of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have undergone some upgrades – the red serges have been stored and the horses stabled – but dig past the branding rooted in Canadian identity and we have one of the most progressive police forces in the world.

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In 75 years of aviation, the RCMP has adapted to an evolving scope of responsibility with newer aircraft such as the Eurocopter AS350 B. (Photo courtesy of RCMP) 


 

The First World War officially came to a close in 1918, solidifying a place for aircraft in combat. At that time, the first fledgling airlines were just getting off the ground, and the public had yet to embrace the airplane as the hallmark of transportation it is today. That being so, Commissioner of the RCMP, Aylesworth Bowen Perry, had seen enough to be convinced that the airplane could be a boon to law enforcement on the home front.

Perry recommended the formation of an Air Police service but government support failed to materialize. That vision however, was not in vain. Eighteen years later, four de Havilland Dragonfly bi-planes with blue fuselages and yellow wings joined the force and along with eight member-pilots, began a Canadian aviation legacy.

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Seventy-five years later, RCMP Air Services operates more than 30 aircraft, maintains 19 Air Sections and employs 150 people nationwide. Though much has changed, budgetary constraints have not. The National police force is being asked to do more with less. In that vein, a “Draganfly” of an outright different kind has taken to the skies.

Saskatoon-based Draganfly Innovations Inc. began a pilot program in conjunction with the RCMP in December 2010, supplying small, unmanned aerial vehicles for the purpose of photographing vehicle collision scenes. Using helicopters for routine operations such as aerial photography has proven to be expensive and time-consuming, potentially making the helicopter unavailable for higher-priority duties.

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Air 1 and its sister helicopter, Air 2, support a “patchwork” of local police forces in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
(Photo courtesy of FlightSource.ca)


 

Roger Thompson is the pilot supervisor for the Lower Mainland Traffic Safety Helicopter program based in Vancouver. Thompson has been with the operation, known commonly as “Air 1,” since it spooled up in 2006. Though he praises the EC-120’s capability in a wide range of missions, Thompson does not understate the unique value of the Draganflyer X6. “The UAV can hover 50 feet above the ground and take high-quality pictures . . . [without it] we would be destroying a scene, blowing stuff all over the place.” Weighing only one kilogram, the X6 can capture and clear a scene in less than 45 minutes.

Michael Toscano, president/CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, has stated that UAVs can operate at as little as 1/30th the cost of manned aircraft, citing operating expenses of as little as $50 per hour. At $33,000 per field-ready unit, one can’t really object to the Draganflyer’s price-point. Pioneering what some are calling sous-veillance, the RCMP has deployed this type of UAV to support not only collision reconstruction, but also search and rescue and crime-scene investigations.

In an attempt to model the success of drones in Afghanistan, UAVs of a more militaristic nature have been deployed with the United States Department of Homeland Security since 2005. RCMP Officer in Charge of Air Services Marion Lamothe explains that the possibility of using such drones for border patrol has been brought to the table.

“We looked into it,” he says, “but for the needs we have currently, we are not considering UAVs.” Lamothe explains that though smaller UAVs do have a niche use within the force, the core of the RCMP’s local helicopter fleets will remain intact to handle the wide range of missions with which Air Services is tasked.

The RCMP acquired its first helicopter, a Bell 212, in 1971. Though the Department of National Defence holds the primary responsibility for search and rescue, Lamothe points out that the RCMP usually receives the initial calls of missing persons on a detachment level and is often able to assist right on the spot. It has been said that the Mounties always get their man, but the concept has come to incorporate more than just catching bad guys. “You cannot beat a helicopter for search and rescue,” Lamothe says. “A helicopter can get as close as possible to the scene.” The RCMP maintains six of its 10 helicopters in British Columbia.

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Saskatoon-based Draganfly Innovations Inc. began a pilot program with the RCMP in December 2010, supplying small UAVs to photograph collision scenes. Weighing only one kilogram, the X6 can capture and clear a scene in less than 45 minutes.
(Photo courtesy of Draganfly Innovations Inc.)


 

Curtis Brassington is the tactical flight officer (TFO) supervisor with Air 1 in Vancouver. Brassington recounts that in late April, Air 1 was called to assist North Shore Rescue with locating an overdue hiker in the mountains north of Vancouver. With dusk falling and poor weather hovering in the valleys, North Shore Rescue was not aware of the status of the hiker, yet it had yet to determine whether or not to dispatch its ground-based search teams in what would be very challenging conditions. Air 1, employing night-vision goggles and the helicopter’s infrared sensor, was able to locate the hiker in the dark. “We could tell that the hiker had built a fire and was in no imminent danger,” Brassington says. “North Shore Rescue was able to send teams in at daylight.”

Air 1 and its sister helicopter, Air 2, are funded by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) as part of the Provincial Police Service Agreement. Though the RCMP operates the helicopters, they function as an integrated unit within the Fraser Valley. Air 1 routinely liaises with what Brassington calls a “patchwork” of police forces in the Lower Mainland, which include Vancouver, Delta, New Westminster and Abbotsford, as well as the local detachments of the RCMP itself. Calls are prioritized by importance and proximity of the helicopter with no particular agency carrying greater weight than any other. “It’s triage,” says Thompson.

Thompson and Brassington have refined the way they do business since their start in 2006.  “We were pretty much on our own to figure out how to do this,” says Thompson, a civilian pilot who came from a commercial helicopter background that began in Saskatchewan and took him to Vancouver Island Helicopters before joining Air Services.

Brassington, who began as a general-duty member with the Langley detachment of the RCMP, joined Air 1 on the same day as Thompson. “On our first call, we were able to help the dog catch the guy,” he says. “We had a report of a stolen vehicle . . .  we picked it up and were able follow it discreetly until plain-clothed units moved in.”

Since then, Air 1 has been assisting units on the ground with the bigger picture. “We can help establish perimeters, especially at night,” says Thompson. “During the day, the eyeball and map are our best tools, but with night-vision goggles, we can do a lot at night.”

Though operating in the congested airspace of the Lower Mainland presents its special challenges, Thompson commends the service provided by air traffic controllers in giving Air 1 priority to manoeuvre through YVR’s busy approaches, as it is often required to do. “If we can get there soon enough, we can usually catch the guy.”

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The RCMP uses helicopters for a variety of missions including search and rescue. Six of Air Service’s 10 helicopters are based in British Columbia. (Photo courtesy of FlightSource.ca)


 

“Cars being driven dangerously are essentially weapons,” adds Brassington. He explains that following stolen cars or dangerous drivers is “very easy” using the helicopter. In doing so, they can assist officers with tasks such as setting up spike belts ahead of fleeing vehicles.

A challenge that has been well publicized of late is that of ground-based laser strikes on helicopters. In addition to some significant events in Canada (one recent event forced the Durham Police Helicopter to land and caused the TFO to receive precautionary medical treatment), the FAA reported 2,800 events of lasers pointed at aircraft in 2010.

“People have no idea of the damage (lasers) can cause,” says Thompson. Youth and alcohol are believed to play a significant role, though Brassington recalls a particular event where a 50-year-old man pointed a laser at the police helicopter because he didn’t like the noise of the chopper buzzing around his neighbourhood. Though the possibility of shielding the aircraft from laser strikes has been considered, both Thompson and Brassington advocate that the most effective mitigation is avoidance.

In 75 years of aviation, the RCMP has adapted to an evolving scope of responsibility with newer aircraft. Lamothe explains that despite the inherent risks facing the aircraft, pilots and TFOs, flying in the RCMP has become much safer in the past 30 years. “The avionics are considerably more advanced,” he says. “We have better means of communication and tracking.”

However, with such advances in technology, Lamothe emphasizes that there is a more intense requirement for training. Part of Lamothe’s mandate in overseeing the air section is ensuring that each individual in Air Services is properly trained to do his or her job. It’s a challenge that has existed since the first bi-planes lifted off at Downsview and will be ever-present as the demands on law enforcement agencies change. Thompson and Brassington both see a need for additional aircraft to expand their force’s ability to keep the public safe. And while they may not be as iconic as the red serges, RCMP aircraft and the people who fly them will continue to play a lead role on that front.

On Sept. 13, RCMP Air Services will be hosting an open house for RCMP personnel and partner agencies. Events will include a memorial ceremony for RCMP Air Services members who have lost their lives while on duty since 1937.

Sizing Up the Roster
The RCMP has 19 Air Sections and currently employs 150 people throughout the country, including 78 pilots and 49 aircraft maintenance engineers and avionics technicians. The Air Services fleet includes the following fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft:

  • three Cessna Caravans
  • two de Havilland Twin Otters
  • two Eurocopter EC-120 Bs
  • eight Eurocopter AS350 B3s
  • 15 Pilatus PC-12s
  • one Piaggo Avanti P180
  • 10 Cessnas


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