HAWCS: Calgary's Eye in the Sky

These are exciting times for the Calgary Police Service’s Air Services Unit
Mark McWhirter
July 09, 2007
By Mark McWhirter
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.

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.

Tragedy struck 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The Calgary 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.

Since its 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 training.

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 budget constraints.

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 experience.

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.

The 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 crime-fighting tools.

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.

HAWC 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.

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