October 15, 2007 By Andrea Kwasnik and Drew McCarthy
OPP Airborne protecting the province
For most Canadians, the beginning of the workweek is almost certain to be predictable and routine: an early morning meeting, sifting through e-mails, a quick trip to Tim Hortons. It’s no different for the helicopter pilots of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) airborne unit. But any similarities – and predictability – quickly end there.
Consider the following scenario: by midday Monday, the OPP helicopter pilots have set off to begin a search-and-rescue operation for a missing child who has wandered off from a remote camping ground in northern Ontario; later in the week they are involved in an airborne surveillance and backup mission regarding a land dispute protest near the shores of Lake Erie; the following week begins with a drug/grow-op surveillance mission in northeastern Ontario.
No two days – or weeks – are the same for the crew of the OPP helicopter unit, which makes their job both exciting and demanding. However, one of the greatest challenges they face is dealing with the vastness and diversity of Ontario, a factor that is often underestimated.
Ontario is the second-largest province in Canada. It comprises 1,076,395 sq km, of which 158,654 sq km are inland water. Ontario’s population is concentrated in southern Ontario, home to Toronto, one of the most vibrant and densely populated cities in North America. In contrast, however, Ontario is also home to Polar Bear Provincial Park, an isolated wilderness park in the far north of Ontario on the western shore where James Bay meets Hudson Bay. There are many northern communities that are isolated in the remote areas of the province, and it is part of the OPP mandate to help the police agencies serve these communities.
As Sergeant Scott Ross, a veteran pilot with the OPP detachment in Orillia points out, the distance from Windsor to Red Lake in Ontario is comparable to the distance from Toronto to Orlando. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so whatever challenges come their way, they must be ready to respond quickly.
The Aviation Services Section of the OPP first acquired helicopters in 1974 – two Bell Jet Rangers. In 1990, the fleet was replaced with two Eurocopter AS355F2 Twin Star helicopters, which are used today and are strategically located at bases in Orillia, (alongside the OPP General Headquarters) and Sudbury. The OPP also operates a Pilatus PC-12 out of Thunder Bay.
Between the Orillia and Sudbury bases, there are five helicopter pilots (all of whom are also police officers), and two aircraft maintenance engineers, who together are responsible for the operation, maintenance and control of the fleet. The pilots have numerous decades of experience between them, the majority of them having logged more than 20 years of service. They are quick to point out that although they find their work rewarding and they are proud of what they do, the success of their missions is a team effort between central command and the various units they work with, and they simply play a role as part of a bigger team with the same goals.
Used for Day/Night VFR operations, the efficacy of the twin-engine Twin Star has been proven time and time again over the last 17 years. Staff Sergeant John Crate, Unit Manager, says their decision to purchase the Twin Stars was based on the fact that they fit perfectly with their mission profile. Primarily used for SAR and visual and electronic surveillance, the AS355F2s perform well in their varied and numerous roles which include: drug eradication; support to emergency response teams and tactical rescue units; prisoner escort; and assistance to ground-based personnel. The extra redundancy and safety that the twin engines provide is a vital component due to the nature of the terrain they cover.
The main focus of the OPP airborne unit is the search and rescue of lost citizens, which represents approximately 50% of their work and involves about 150 searches annually. Quite often this includes searching for children who are missing, elderly people with dementia who have become disoriented and wandered off, boaters, campers, and hunters who have lost their bearings, and snowmobilers and snowshoers who have gone astray in rugged terrain and unforgiving conditions.
At 120 knots and three hours flying time, the crew can cover approximately 360 nm before refueling. When flying on large-scale manhunts or missing persons cases, the appropriately registered C-FOPP and C-FOPS occasionally work in tandem, and because of the vastness of the province, must plan out their fuel stops carefully. They often rely on the fuel “caches” consisting of drums provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources that are strategically located in the north, sometimes in places such as remote fields.
Because of the sensitive nature of the SAR operations, particularly when dealing with children or the elderly where dangers such as hypothermia can quickly set in, minimizing search time is critical. Detecting body heat, the FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera that protrudes from the bottom of their aircraft becomes an important aid in their search efforts. However, it works better at night (where temperature differentials are greater), and it doesn’t assist them when searching in a well-canopied forest. This is just one example of where their work in conjunction with the OPP canine unit is invaluable (see sidebar on page 26 – Dogs and Choppers). One thing is clear from talking with the officers from both the helicopter and canine units – they share a mutual respect for each other’s work and they depend on their teamwork to successfully get the job done.
When HELICOPTERS spoke with Commissioner Julian Fantino recently about the merits of helicopter use in police work, he commented: “The helicopter is really a force multiplier. Because of its viewing platform and its ability to communicate down to the front-line officers (it) is really a much more efficient and more effective deployment of people.”
Based at General Headquarters (GHQ) of the OPP in Orillia alongside the Aviation Services Section, Commissioner Fantino is the highest ranking officer in the Ontario Provincial Police and a long-time proponent of helicopter use in police work. Adds Fantino, “with a perspective from the air, you get a much broader appreciation of the issues.”
The modern technology on board the Twin Stars allows the crew to capitalize on this unique vantage point. Tools of the trade include the previously mentioned FLIR cameras that were purchased in 2004 thanks to financial assistance (just under $1 million) received from the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) under their SAR New Initiatives Fund (NIF).
Each helicopter also has a Nightsun SX16 searchlight that will light up an area the size of a football field, along with a digital video downlink system (procured via NIF assistance) that allows the crew to transmit images and data in real time to ground-based units, enabling them to make tactical decisions about the deployment of people. In addition to these tools, the OPP has also chosen the ITT Night Vision Goggles to complement its arsenal, which it hopes to acquire and be operational by this fall.
Drug eradication is another key mandate for the helicopter unit. Each year in September and October, the OPP airborne team leases an additional helicopter from a civilian company and heads out to work with local drug enforcement units on the OPP drug/grow-op detection campaign. As related by the officers, Ontario-grown marijuana is considered to be very high quality, with a mature plant having a street value of approximately $1,000. Therefore, the eradication of one thousand plants can mean as much as $1 million out of the pockets of the drug dealers. Not only that, because of its high quality, if the marijuana plants make their way across the border, they are typically traded for such things as cocaine, crack and guns, which takes the seriousness and importance of their mission to another level.
According to the pilots, it is not hard to spot the marijuana plants when flying about 800 feet above the ground. The fluorescent green plants – unlike anything else that is grown naturally in Ontario – are a dead giveaway.
Ontario is filled with a network of 400 highways (a shared jurisdiction between the OPP and other regional forces) and other major routes. Although the OPP does not perform random patrolling for erratic driving and speeding on a regular basis, it does lend a hand when needed. As Commissioner Fantino points out, “Unlike municipal policing, we don’t do random patrols ….we are very much directed in the things that we do.” On holiday long weekends, when traditionally an increased number of driving and boating fatalities occur, the OPP helicopter unit lends their valuable support to the marine overview and highway patrolling from the air – looking for high-end driving offences and communicating them down to the units on the ground and water.
This support also extends to other police agencies engaged in various tactical and emergency response missions, and to the military. Comments Fantino, “As part of the OPP provincial mandate we spend a lot of our time helping other police agencies, especially those that are more isolated in the remote areas of the province.” When called upon, the OPP helicopter units work in conjunction with the Canadian Armed Forces Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) out of Trenton. Referred to as “tasking,” the search-and-rescue mission will be the primary responsibility of the RCC, and a secondary role will be assigned to the OPP helicopter unit.
Public awareness and education is a key component for any airborne law enforcement agency in Canada. Since the pilots of the helicopter units have seen first-hand the dangers associated with people getting lost in unfamiliar settings, they are quite happy to do their part to educate the public on safety awareness. As part of their public education campaign, the pilots give hangar tours on a weekly basis, mainly to schoolchildren who are taught safety awareness and survival skills. The message is clear and simple, says Sergeant Dan Mulligan, another veteran pilot at the unit: Stay put, “hug a tree” and wait…the OPP canine and helicopter units are on their way.
Since April to November is the “busy season” for the unit where they are on call 24/7, much of the police training is done during the rest of the year. This year the OPP in Orillia hosted the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) Tactical Flight Officer Course which marked the first time the seminar was held outside of the US. The training course was designed to provide both Canadian and US aircrew members the tactical skills necessary to successfully support ground units engaged in a variety of law-enforcement missions. They also participate annually in the ALEA Canadian regional safety seminar, which will be hosted by the RCMP Vancouver Air Section this fall.
The week has successfully ended for the crew of the OPP helicopter units. Success for them has a broad definition, but it most certainly includes doing their part for a great team of people who help every day in achieving the OPP’s mandate to keep Ontarians safer.
And it is the special combination of the technology and the people that make it operationally possible for the OPP helicopter unit to provide this level of service to the people of Ontario, at the times when they need it the most.
• SAR (approximately 50% of all helicopter missions are of a search and rescue nature)
• Surveillance (electronic, video, thermal imaging, visual)
• Drug eradication (visual, thermal imaging)
• Support of Specialized Units (K-9, Tactical, Emergency Response, Divers etc.)
• Public demonstrations
• Transportation of Personnel (routine transport, remote location transport)
• Prisoner escorts
• Photography (Video, Still, FLIR, Wescam)
• High speed pursuits
• Search and containment of escapees
• Major events (Communication and Observation Platform)
• Regional traffic/crime initiatives
• Evidence searches