Flying With Air 1
by Dave Brown
Winnipeg looks different from two thousand feet up. Everything is clean. Streets align, traffic flows smoothly and trees carpet the city. But back on the ground, it is business as usual for Winnipeg Police Service. We’re on our third call of the night, and we’ve only been in the air for ten minutes.
Blue Line Magazine is flying the night shift with Winnipeg’s newest crime-fighting tool, a Eurocopter EC120. It is an eye-opening experience in more ways than one, and I wish every citizen of Winnipeg could see what I saw that night.
Helicopters are expensive. They cost a lot to acquire, equip, operate and maintain. They are also some of the most complex mechanisms mankind has ever invented; a collection of precisely machined parts that slide, spin, pitch, and rotate; all tied together by one very large nut at the top of the rotor mast, appropriately referred to as the “Jesus” nut.
Are they worth the cost and the complexity? Well, we were all just a little too busy on the inside of Air 1 to even think about that or reflect on the fact that the nut is likely named for the last words out of your mouth if it ever comes undone in midair. We thread our way across the runways of Winnipeg airport in an impressive display of cooperation between us and Air Traffic Control and arrive on the scene of our next call in seconds.
The Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) Air 1 is a Eurocopter Canada EC120, call letters C-GAOL. Ideally suited to this mission, it is one of the quietest helicopters ever made; even quieter than airliners on approach to Winnipeg airport. Much of its stealth comes from its use of composite main rotor blades plus a shrouded Fenestron tail rotor. At normal mission height, it is difficult to detect by the sound unless one is directly underneath … and for criminals who don’t want the police finding them, below is not likely where it is looking anyway.
The gyroscopically stabilized Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera can swivel 360 degrees, at a rate as fast as 140 degrees per second. It contains a high-definition camera, plus thermal imagery technology so sensitive that it can pick up fresh footprints in the grass or detect which car was just dumped in a parking lot by its heat signature. A video downlink can provide live aerial feeds to police or fire supervisors on the ground and the Nightsun spotlight can light up a yard from a mile away. The five-seat helicopter also includes a rearview monitor so back-seat passengers such as yours truly can follow the action on the same readout as the Tactical Flight Officer in the left seat up front.
No one knows for certain why helicopters are traditionally flown from the right seat, when fixed-wing aircraft all have the pilot in command on the left. Some say the left seat was the preferred perch of Igor Sikorsky who trained many of the earliest helicopter pilots to fly in the 1940s, but there is no arguing that both front seats are busy places on this night aloft with Air 1. The pilot on the right is flying the aircraft, talking on the intercom, monitoring the police radios, and staying in constant contact with air traffic controllers. The Tactical Flight Officer on the left is communicating with dispatch and ground units, monitoring camera readouts, scanning outside the aircraft, and, incidentally, constantly updating your friendly Blue Line Magazine correspondent in the back seat.
Our first major call of the night was for shots fired, and we were flying a pattern around the suspect house within a minute of receiving the call. The FLIR was able to scan for possible suspects while patrol officers and the Tactical Support Unit secured the area. Once ground officers had eyes on all four corners of the house, we had to move on to a pursuit in progress. I doubt that a single suspect in that house knew they were being watched so closely from blocks away and a thousand feet up.
Unlike in movies, the Nightsun searchlight is actually used rarely because it gives away that important element of surprise. (There were a couple of times though, that a quick flick of the Nightsun above a high-risk traffic stop was enough to keep things calm and safe for all.)
But half the city away, we were urgently needed for a high-speed pursuit. In another example of cooperation between Air 1 and Air Traffic Control, we cut straight across the Winnipeg airport and were above the pursuit in two minutes.
During a pursuit, Air 1 has priority over all other air traffic in the Winnipeg Control Zone except for emergency or medevac flights, but this is rarely requested or needed. Air Traffic Control simply routed us directly above a landing 737 so skillfully that all the drama was happening below us that night.
There is absolutely nothing exciting or entertaining about a real high-speed pursuit. It is dangerous and potentially fatal to so many people, and it was heart-stopping to see the crazy chances that driver was taking as he raced through the middle of the city. Once we were over top of the pursuit, ground units were immediately called off.
Not suspecting that his every move was being tracked, the driver thankfully reduced his speed once he saw the patrol units back down but he still continued to race through red lights and stop sign without stopping. I shudder to think what would have happened had anyone been in those intersections as this idiot blasted through, missing cars and pedestrians by inches. This was not television; those were my family, friends and neighbours down there on those streets, any of whom would have been killed instantly at those speeds.
The driver finally dumped the car and bailed out on foot. Air 1 followed every step and even noted that our brave hero abandoned his girlfriend as he ran away. (Yes, the camera is sensitive enough to discern gender.)
As ground units moved in to arrest, all I could think about was how close so many people came to being killed that night. If I was that driver’s lawyer and I saw the footage, I would immediately quit the case, go home and hug my kids very tightly.
But it was just another successful outcome for Air 1 in supporting the officers and the citizens on the ground and we moved on to the next call.
“This was not television; those were my family, friends and neighbours down there on those streets, any one of whom would have been killed instantly at those speeds.”Flight Operations
At the time of this article, the WPS Flight Operations Unit has a civilian Chief Pilot, a civilian line pilot and a police line pilot. All pilots are trained at Canadian Helicopters in Penticton B.C. and the Chief Pilot recently attended a safety seminar hosted by the Peel Regional Police and facilitated by the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA.)
There are currently three police Tactical Flight Officers, all of whom are certified on the operation of the FLIR and most have received further training from ALEA.
In 2013, Patrol Sergeant Ken Zushman, was the Unit Supervisor in charge of the Flight Operations Unit. He was also one of the many people instrumental in getting Blue Line Magazine into the back seat for two night shifts in the spring of 2013.
Zushman detailed the objectives for the Flight Operations Unit:
- Respond to crimes in progress for containment and investigation
- Conduct infrared searches for suspects and evidence
- Co-ordinate ground responses
- Track suspect vehicles during pursuits
- Illuminate crime scenes, collision scenes, vehicle stops, search areas, disturbances, and foot pursuits
- Conduct aerial searches for missing or lost persons
- Conduct aerial reconnaissance and photography of crime scenes, traffic collisions, high-risk incidents or remote areas
- Act as aerial platform for emergency services for major fires, environmental disasters and other major incidents
- Assist in the rapid deployment of Canine Unit members
The WPS Flight Operations Unit operates out of space leased from the 17 Wing, Canadian Forces Winnipeg. They provide secure office and hanger space; helped develop the Flight Operations Unit Safety Management System (SMS) and the policies, procedures and practices that have become an integrated part of the day-to-day operations. Unit leaders regularly attend Wing Safety meetings and Canadian Forces has offered candidate spots on their safety course.
Safety is a culture. Your Blue Line Magazine correspondent received a complete and detailed safety briefing each time before the engines were even started, and as a pilot, I could highly respect the detail and professionalism of everyone, from the support on the ground, to the crews in the air, their Canadian Forces hosts and the air traffic controllers.
Helicopters cost a lot of money. The citizens who pay those costs want to see results. They need to see those expenses justified. They want numbers. They want headlines.
But police helicopters are not about headlines; they are about NOT generating headlines. When was the last time you opened up a newspaper and read, “Nobody got hurt last night.”
“There is absolutely nothing exciting or entertaining about a real high-speed pursuit. It is dangerous and potentially fatal…”
One of the most important things I learned on patrol with Air 1 is that police helicopters are often not about big headlines or exciting news footage; they are about fast response times, good police work and supporting officers on the ground. They are about efficient use of resources and having that eye in the sky that keeps officers safe when needed, and freeing up ground units to respond to calls elsewhere when not needed.
To the officer who suddenly needs backup, the most comforting sounds in the world are the sirens arriving in the distance and the beat of helicopter blades overhead.
Citizens don’t get to see the near-misses that never make the paper. They don’t read about the reduction in pursuits, the increased safety for officers, the reduced liability or the ability to free up police resources quicker. They don’t understand how immediate apprehension of a criminal is better than months of investigation.
As Zushman says, “You can’t put a dollar figure on what this helicopter has done for our community. You can’t say it has solved this many crimes, saved the taxpayers this amount of money or saved this many lives.”
With Air 1 in the skies over Winnipeg, there may not be a lot of headlines but there will be a lot more arrests, more officers will make it home safe at the end of their shifts and there will be less need to wake up a family in the middle of them night to inform them that a loved one has died in an accident involving a fleeing criminal.
If citizens need statistics to justify the costs, perhaps the most telling statistic of all comes from the WPS Patrol Sergeant in charge of the Flight Operations Unit. Zushman simply states, “Progressive police agencies immediately see the value in a helicopter. Almost every agency that has successfully implemented helicopters into their operations now has two of them.”