The following is the cover article for the 2013 August/September issue of Blue Line Law Enforcement Magazine

Flying with Air 1
by Dave Brown

Winnipeg looks different from two thousand feet up. Everything is clean. Streets align neatly, traffic flows smoothly and green 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 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 man has ever invented to fly; a collection of precisely machined parts that move, spin, pitch or 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 skillful high-speed dance of cooperation between us and Air Traffic Control, and we arrive on scene 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 made and is even quieter than most of the aircraft on approach to Winnipeg airport. It uses composite main rotor blades and a shrouded Fenestron tail rotor. At normal mission height, it is difficult to detect by the sound unless one is right underneath it … and for the criminals who don’t want the police looking at them, directly underneath 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 speeding 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 rear view 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 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 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 powerful 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.

Except for emergency or medevac flights, Air 1 actually has priority over all other traffic while in the middle of a pursuit, but has yet to ever request that priority. In fact, Air Traffic Control so skillfully routed us directly over top of a landing 737 without the slightest bit of drama that I completely missed the entire thing; I was so focused on the pursuit unfolding below. Plus I was admiring how expertly the Tactical Flight Officer kept the FLIR locked on the suspect vehicle the whole time.

There is absolutely nothing exciting or entertaining about a real high-speed pursuit in progress. It is dangerous and potentially fatal to so many people, and it was heart-stopping to see the crazy chances that insane 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 backed down the speed but continued to race through red lights and stop sign without slowing. 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 one of whom would have been killed instantly at those speeds.

The driver finally dumped the car in a driveway and bailed out across backyards on foot. Air 1 followed his every step and even noted that our brave hero abandoned his girlfriend as he ran away. (Yes, the camera is that sensitive.)

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.

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.

Unit Supervisor is Ken Zushman, Patrol Sergeant in charge of the Flight Operations Unit, who was also one of the many people instrumental in getting Blue Line into the back seat for two night shifts.

Zushman detailed the objectives for the Flight Operations Unit:

The WPS Flight Operations Unit operates out of space leased from the Canadian Forces. 17 Wing Winnipeg provided far more than just secure office and hanger space; they 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 correspondent received a complete and detailed safety briefing each time before the engines were even started, and as a trained 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.

One of the most important things I learned on patrol with Air 1 is that police helicopters are 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 free up unnecessary units to respond to calls elsewhere when not needed.

After all, to the police officer who needs backup, some of the most comforting sounds in the world are the sounds of sirens arriving in the distance. To officers in Winnipeg, one could also add, the comforting beat of triple Eurocopter blades overhead.

It wasn’t that many years ago that many police agencies didn’t have full-time canine units. At that time, it was common to hear on the radio, “Is a canine unit available?”

Now in Winnipeg it is, “Is Air 1 available?” With the support of several levels of government, cooperation from the Canadian Forces, skillful assistance from Air Traffic Control and a dedicated Flight Operations Unit, the Winnipeg Police Service would like to answer that question more and more often with, “Yes. Air 1 is on scene.”

The problem is that helicopters cost a lot of money to acquire and operate, and the citizens who pay those costs want to see those expenses justified. Citizens want numbers. They want to see headlines.

But flying with Air 1 showed me that police helicopters are far more than numbers and statistics.

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. They don’t relate to the fact that in 984 flight hours in 2012, Air 1 was dispatched 3445 times, attended 2688 calls and was the first unit on scene 1987 times.

Taxpayers may not understand that police helicopters are not about headlines and statistics; they are about lack of headlines. After all, when was the last time you opened up a newspaper and read, “Nobody got hurt last night.”

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 those 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 a tragic accident.

In a few years, police helicopters will be considered as necessary and useful as two-way radios and canine units. No one has to tell that to Winnipeg Police right now. They recognized the advantages right away.

If citizens need statistics to justify the costs, perhaps the most telling statistic of all comes from Ken Zushman, Patrol Sergeant in charge of the WPS Flight Operations Unit, who simply states, “Every police agency that successfully implemented helicopters into its operations, now has two of them.”