Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Soaring with the HAWCS

March 26, 2012  By Peter Pigott

It wouldn’t be a stretch to label Kevin Brookwell (Insp. Retd.) a law enforcement visionary.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to label Kevin Brookwell (Insp. Retd.) a law enforcement visionary.

On April 11, 2005, Lisa Stinson presented the keys to the CPS’s second helicopter, the first of Calgary’s EC120s (HAWC2). (Photo courtesy of HAWCs)


Brookwell is the manager in charge of strategic communications for the Calgary Police Service (CPS) Office of the Chief, but in 1992, as a sergeant, Brookwell was researching the use of rotary-winged aircraft to support police operations. At the time, no other police agency in Canada used helicopters to support ground-based patrol units. But today, the Helicopter Air Watch for Community Safety (HAWCS) is a key part of the policing unit.

So, how did it all begin? “On the evening of Oct. 7, 1993,” Brookwell said, “a prolific offender was active in the Calgary area. He was also operating a stolen vehicle and had been involved in a number of pursuits with CPS units before those pursuits were called off for safety reasons. He was picked up again shortly before midnight and police vehicles began closing in on him. The offender made a turn southbound onto Deerfoot Trail and accelerated to 160 kilometres per hour. At the same time, Constable Rick Sonnenberg exited his patrol unit and was in the process of laying a spike belt as the offender approached. As he tried to avoid the spike belt the driver turned toward Sonnenberg and struck him at full speed. Sonnenberg died instantly.”


A number of studies have been
done on policing which state that one helicopter is worth approximately 14 police cars. (Photo courtesy of HAWCs)


Later, when Brookwell met Rick’s sister Lisa Stinson, “it was clear she loved her brother very much – and she was very proud of him. But she also wanted answers as to what could be done to prevent this from happening again.” Stinson wondered if a helicopter might have prevented her brother’s death. She outlined her plans to establish the Const. Rick Sonnenberg Memorial Society to raise funds to purchase a helicopter for the CPS.

“Lisa created the acronym HAWCS for ‘Helicopter Air Watch for Community Safety,’” Brookwell said. The Society then reached out to the citizens of Calgary for funding to purchase a CPS helicopter. “There was a tremendous amount of support,” he said. Booths were set up at malls in the Calgary area and sales were brisk for T-shirts, pins and other Society paraphernalia. In 1994, the Society and HAWCS launched the “Sky’s The Limit” Home Lottery and sales soared. With provincial community investment funding and support from corporate businesses in Calgary and anonymous philanthropists, the $1.5 million goal was reached in November 1994.”

In the months that followed, Brookwell put together the original HAWCS operational team, which was a unit sergeant (himself), a chief pilot, a chief engineer, a line pilot and three CPS officers rotating through the shifts as tactical flight officers. A MD520N helicopter was purchased, retrofitted with police equipment. On June 30, 1995, Lisa Stinson and the Society’s board of directors, presented the keys of “HAWC1” to then chief of police Gerry Borbridge. The helicopter was airborne on its first operational patrol flight on July 18, 1995.

“The 520 served us well for many years,” said Brookwell, “and I have a lot of great memories sitting in the right seat of the old girl. However, we began having a few issues with service and parts availability. At the same time, Eurocopter had come out with the EC120 and the enclosed fenestron tail system.”

In 2004, a second Home Lottery was hosted, more than $1.8 million dollars was raised and on April 11, 2005, Stinson presented the keys to the CPS’s second helicopter, the first of Calgary’s EC120s (HAWC2), to then chief of police Jack Beaton. Today, the Air Services Unit has two EC120s, five pilots, two ground crew engineers, three full-time tactical flight officers, and five part-time flight officers who also spend time of the street.

Calgary’s helicopters are like a police car in the air. They are tied into the police radio network and dispatched much like a patrol car. (Photo courtesy of HAWCs)


On the HAWCS hangar floor at the Calgary base, Helicopters’ Peter Pigott spoke with chief pilot Cameron Dutnall and tactical flight officer constable James Partridge.

Helicopters: What is the role of HAWCS? I’m guessing that you don’t chase criminals down the street like in the movies?
Dutnall: What it boils down to is officer safety. A number of studies have been done on policing that state that one helicopter is worth approximately 14 police cars just because of its point of view. It is the tactical advantage of being in the air – you see where the police units are and whether or not they are set up properly and you can assist with that.  The bad guy might be hiding – you don’t know if he is armed or not but we can scan ahead using our camera – and call, “Hey, watch out there’s a hot spot around the corner.” Most of the time, the bad guys don’t even know we’re there.

Helicopters: Are you both pilots as well as police officers?
Dutnall: I am not a police officer and wasn’t trained as one. My background was the military where I flew and instructed on Twin Hueys, Griffons and then Cormorants in SAR role. I came to HAWCS after that and have been here for just over four years.

Helicopters: Is that the usual path? Some cities train their police officers to be pilots.
Dutnall: Calgary is different from, for instance, Edmonton where we have high-time civilian pilots available. Edmonton has several high-time pilots within their police force and has been able to take advantage of that fact.

Helicopters: If he doesn’t fly the helicopter, what does the tactical officer do?
Partridge: The voice of the guys on the ground is the police officer in the aircraft – and the pilots keep us safe up in the air. It’s one guy flying, one guy doing the policing.

Helicopters: Why a helicopter? For a city as spread out as Calgary, why not a spotter plane? It’s cheaper, faster and it would cover more ground.
Dutnall: A helicopter is far more versatile. We can land – not that we have had to land, although there is that possibility – and because of its speed and manoeuvrability, we can stay lower. Think of us like a police car in the air. We are tied into the police radio network and dispatched much like a patrol car. Air Traffic Control gives us clearance to be in a specific area at a certain time. We get our piece of airspace and if we want to go to a different piece we request permission to do so.

Helicopters: Given the variety of helicopters available, why the EC120?
Dutnall: Well, it meets our needs very well as far as a patrol aircraft goes and it’s the quietest helicopter on the market. It’s important to maintain a quiet aircraft. We don’t want the citizens of Calgary disturbed at night by flying over them. But it’s also reassuring for the police officers to hear us coming to assist them at a crime scene. And the bad guys to hear us, too. If an officer has pulled someone over at a traffic stop – say he’s a gang member that has some sort of weapon – if he hears a police helicopter up top, maybe he will think twice about doing anything.

Helicopters: What is the greatest misconception that people have about you guys flying around?
Partridge: We essentially provide frontline support, which is surveillance, the tracking of stolen vehicles, finding a guy who has just robbed a bank – using our eyes out the window with binoculars or the thermal imager. But people believe that we land and arrest the bad guys and throw them in the back. We rarely ever land – I’m not getting out and handcuffing anyone and throwing them in back. We direct police officers to the scene. This platform is a patrol machine to support the police operation. We’re not going to be picking up bodies – there’s no physical room in the helicopter anyway, there’s so much kit jammed in.

Helicopters: But there must be noise complaints – especially when you’re out at night?
Dutnall: There were a lot of noise complaints when the unit began in 1995, but they’re almost gone now. I think that now people understand that when we make a noise at 3 a.m – it’s not because we want to wake you up but because someone’s hijacked a car down the road or lit something on fire or broken into a shed.

Helicopters: Are you ever confused with the traffic helicopters?
Dutnall: Some citizens do get us confused with the traffic helicopters and they assume it’s HAWCS, but their R-44s are a lot noisier than ours. We have agreements with them and with NAV Canada about airspace – lets them do their job and us ours.

Helicopters: Do you get called out a lot for search and rescue?
Dutnall: We do some SAR, but that is not our focus – not that we don’t assist if we have to. Last year, there were some kids floating down the Bow River on rafts – they didn’t show up that night, so it was our night shift that went searching down the river for them. The kids were on shore and had lit a fire. It was HAWCS that found them and directed police units to them. We get requests from the RCMP to assist in outlying communities – or sometimes we get permission from the City of Calgary to follow a bad guy and we will stick with him until we hand over to the RCMP or to its conclusion.

Some citizens do get confused by
the traffic helicopters and they assume it’s HAWCS, but R-44s are a lot noisier.
(Photo courtesy of HAWCs)


Helicopters: What’s a typical day for HAWCS?
Dutnall: We have a day shift as well as a night shift – about 22-hour coverage of Calgary. There’s an overlap so one helicopter can hand over to the other for the next shift. When one is down for maintenance or inspection, we have the other one so it’s continuous coverage. We typically operate over the city, especially the built-up area at 1,000 feet according to the Transport Canada regulations. We can go lower but don’t – with the camera optics that we have we don’t need to. The Calgary Police Operations centre is in constant contact with us. The image we see on the camera the Operations centre sees as well.

We had a good example last year, when there was a call about a home invasion and the helicopter showed up, observed and recorded the bad guys leaving the home – there were shots fired and the police arrived. Those guys were taken into custody because the helicopter was there. That’s the other aspect of police officer safety – the helicopter can get there quicker than a patrol car. We get there in time to see the bad guys and then say to the patrol car on the ground, “your bad guys are over there.”

Helicopters: Isn’t this Chinook country with the Bow valley acting as a natural wind tunnel? How does that affect HAWCS?
Dutnall: Our speed is subject to the wind but we can usually get up to 300 km/h. This year, we’ve had a hard time with winds. It’s been very windy in Calgary for whatever reason – the winds that we have had – some were over 30-40 knots, not that the helicopter can’t handle it. But its very difficult to see images on the camera. Plus, it’s uncomfortable for the crew – it gets quite fatiguing. But if a call warrants it we can get airborne and monitor. We do have weather limits as per the Canadian Aviation Regulations.

Helicopters: Most of the crimes must occur at night – in the dark. What do you do then?
Partridge: Of course, at night the eyes don’t see anything, which is why we have the Nitesun, which has 30-million-candle-watt power. But 90 per cent of what we do at night is aided by three pieces of kit – two sets of night vision goggles and the turret which holds a daylight video camera, a thermal imaging camera which is an M12 TS650 and a laser pointer. But the primary asset is thermal imaging. We’ve got an infrared sensor that picks up warm bodies, objects and vehicles, a daylight sensor and a laser illuminator designator. The imagery that is captured on there is instantly on the monitor at Operations.

Helicopters: How do you know who the bad guys are?
Partridge: Well, if it’s happening late at night and they’re hiding under a deck – chances are these are the bad guys. Once we get an address where a home invasion is taking place, we rotate into the area. The ARS (Augmented Reality System) onboard overlays the street and address information of a map over a real-time video image. So, where ever the camera is pointed, the ARS draws the streets and address information over the video.

Helicopters: What is the future for HAWCS? Can the machine be utilized for other operations?
Dutnall: For what we use the EC120, it does a very good job but as to its ability to expand its operational envelope, there’s really nothing left. As to the future for HAWCS – there are no thoughts of expansion right now. Until the Calgary police decide they want to have a bigger mission profile, this is what it is going to be.
Expansion or not, HAWCS is an extremely effective policing tool, more than exceeding the collective visions of Kevin Brookwell and Lisa Stinson.


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