Safety & Training
HAWCS: Calgary’s Eye in the Sky
July 9, 2007 By Mark McWhirter
Calgary’s Helicopter Air Watch for Community Safety program began as a research project in 1992. Although the project was found to be highly successful, it was deemed too expensive to operate given the Calgary Police Service budget. The project was temporarily put aside until such an operation would become financially feasible.
These are exciting times for the Calgary Police Service’s Air Services
Unit. Last year marked a decade of continuous service for Canada’s
first municipal police helicopter, and today the unit is preparing to
put a second helicopter into operation.
Helicopter Air Watch for Community Safety program began as a research
project in 1992. Although the project was found to be highly
successful, it was deemed too expensive to operate given the Calgary
Police Service budget. The project was temporarily put aside until such
an operation would become financially feasible.
the Calgary Police Service on Oct. 8, 1993 when Constable Rick
Sonnenberg was killed in the line of duty while trying to stop a stolen
vehicle. Lisa Barrett, the fallen officer’s sister, stepped forward to
establish a memorial fund to purchase a police helicopter. The
Constable Rick Sonnenberg Memorial Society raised $1.8 million and
purchased an MD 520N helicopter. On June 30, 1995 the society
officially presented HAWC 1 to the Air Services Unit.
primary objective of HAWC 1 is to respond to situations where a life is
at risk or a crime is in progress. The helicopter has proven
particularly effective in responding to vehicle pursuits because it
minimizes the risk to civilians and officers. The helicopter provides
realtime information on road conditions and upcoming traffic to
officers on the ground from a unique aerial perspective.
addition to its regular policing duties, HAWC 1 is often showcased at
various community events in the Calgary area. The Calgary Fire
Department and Calgary Police Service have an agreement that allows
HAWC 1 to be used in any situation where it can be of assistance. The
Calgary Fire Department purchased a Bambi Bucket to deal with local
grass fires, which was donated to HAWC 1. The helicopter is often
called for assistance in search-and-rescue roles on the Bow River and
has saved many lives in the process.
HAWC 1 patrols the city
seven days a week and is on call 24 hours a day. In its 10 years of
service, HAWC 1 has responded to over 35,000 calls, with an average
response time of less than two minutes. The helicopter serves as a
highly visible form of crime deterrence by circling overhead of
high-crime areas, either with the spotlight on (overt), or off to
maintain secrecy (covert).
The MD 520N is a small helicopter
that is well suited to police service. It provides a stable platform
for deploying officers and is adaptable to many different
configurations. At the time of purchase, the MD 520N was one of the
quietest helicopters available – an asset for police service. The NOTAR
system cuts down on noise complaints from citizens.
Police Service has equipped its helicopter with a variety of
crime-fighting and prevention tools. A Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun
searchlight allows the tactical flight officer to illuminate open
areas, or focus on a fleeing suspect. A Wescam 16DS-A infrared camera
is able to detect radiant heat sources or hotspots in the dead of
night. HAWC 1 is also equipped with police and fire radios to
communicate with ground personnel in any situation.
inception, the Air Services Unit has grown to include four tactical
flight officers, four pilots and two engineers as full-time staff –
another three tactical flight officers work on a part-time basis.
Civilian pilots are employed, but tactical flight officers must have at
least three years of Calgary Police Service tenure before they can
apply to become a member of the Air Services Unit. Applicants must
undergo a physical, complete an interview and pass the required
The two full-time engineers are responsible for all
day-to-day maintenance including airframe and engine as well as repairs
to the attached police equipment.
As with any other rotary-wing
operator, the Calgary Police Service faces challenges in the daily
operation of HAWC 1. In addition to the standard industry hurdles of
rising fuel and insurance costs, it also faces human resource and
As the first municipal police force in
Canada to look to acquiring a helicopter, the Calgary Police Service
went south for inspiration and logistical assistance. The Calgary model
was constructed from the best attributes of various US police
operations – particularly those in California.
But the HAWC 1
model is unique and tailored to Calgary’s needs. The Calgary Police
Service has become a valuable resource to other Canadian municipalities
with helicopter operations or looking to start one. In the past 10
years, it has amassed a working knowledge of the helicopter industry
through the valuable experience gained from operations. The Airborne
Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) is a US-based organization that
unites the airborne policing community. Calgary detective Mike ter
Kuile, Canadian regional director, calls ALEA “a nucleus of knowledge.”
It allows agencies to learn from each other and benefit from their
ALEA has proved to be a valuable resource for HAWC 1
by providing the latest techniques and tactics. All pilots and tactical
flight officers are sent annually to attend ALEA briefings and
recurrent training. The ability to network with their peers and the
professional development gained from ALEA has aided the continued
success of HAWC 1 and its crew.
Calgary’s citizens are strong
supporters of HAWC 1 and the community safety that it provides. After
patrolling Calgary’s skies for over 10 years, HAWC 1 is nearing a need
for extensive maintenance. To avoid not having a lapse in aerial
policing, the HAWC 2 lottery was started as a one-time event to address
the need for a second helicopter. In partnership with the Rick
Sonnenberg Memorial Society, the Calgary Police Service was able to
raise over $1 million for the purchase of a second helicopter.
Eurocopter’s Colibri EC-120 was selected to complement the existing MD
520N. The EC-120 has grown in popularity with police forces around the
world and has become the premier rotary-wing law enforcement platform.
The EC-120 is already operated by the Edmonton Police Service, the RCMP
in Vancouver, and the York Regional Police in Ontario.
EC-120 boasts modern technology and a strong support system from
Eurocopter Canada. It is as quiet as the existing helicopter; although
each aircraft has its own unique noise signature, both generate fewer
noise complaints than conventional tail rotor-equipped aircraft. The
EC-120 is larger than the MD 520N and will be fitted with updated
The Air Services Unit will soon move into
a new hangar at the southeast corner of Calgary International Airport.
The new facility will offer increased space for the second helicopter.
1 could not operate without the great community support that it has
earned. It has proven highly effective during its first decade of
service, and the operation will certainly continue to excel with the
addition of HAWC 2. The EC-120 was delivered in November and should be
ready for police operation by this spring.