Winnipeg looks different from two thousand feet up. Everything is clean. Streets align neatly, traffic flows smoothly and green trees carpet the city. Back on the ground though it is business as usual for the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS). 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.
Helicopters are expensive, costing a lot to acquire, equip, operate and maintain. They are also some of the most complex flying mechanisms man has ever invented; a collection of precisely machined parts that move, spin, pitch or rotate; all tied together by one very large bolt at the top of the rotor mast, appropriately referred to as the "Jesus bolt."
Are they worth the cost and 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 bolt is likely named for the last words you will ever say if it comes undone in midair.
We thread our way across the runways of Winnipeg airport in an impressive, skillful, high-speed dance of cooperation with Winnipeg Air Traffic Control, and arrive over scenes in seconds.
The WPS Air-1 (call letters C-GAOL) is ideally suited to the mission. One of the quietest helicopters made, it makes less noise than many of the aircraft on approach to Winnipeg airport. Sporting composite main rotor blades and a shrouded Fenestron tail rotor, it is difficult to detect by sound at normal mission height unless you are right underneath it – and by the time that happens, it will be far too late for criminals trying to avoid police.
The gyroscopically stabilized thermal imaging camera can swivel 360 degrees, at a rate as fast as 140 degrees per second. Its high-definition camera and imagery technology is 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.
The pilot, who sits on the right, flies, talks on the intercom, monitors police radios and stays in constant contact with air traffic controllers. The tactical flight officer (left seat) communicates with dispatch and ground units, monitors camera readouts, scans outside the aircraft and, incidentally, constantly updates visiting correspondents in the back seat.
Our first major call of the night was for shots fired and we flew a pattern around the suspect house within a minute of receiving the call. The thermal imaging camera 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 moved 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 the movies, the Nightsun is rarely used because it gives away that important element of surprise. (There were a couple of times though, that a quick flick of the powerful light above a high-risk traffic stop was enough to keep things calm and safe for all.)
We were urgently needed for the high-speed pursuit so, in another example of cooperation between Air-1 and air traffic control, we cut straight across the airport and arrived in just two minutes.
Air-1 actually has priority over all other traffic except for emergencies or medevac during pursuits but has yet to ever request that priority. In fact, air traffic control so skillfully routed us directly over a landing 737, without the slightest bit of drama, that I completely missed the entire thing. I was focused on the pursuit unfolding below and admiring how expertly the tactical flight officer kept the thermal imaging camera locked on the suspect vehicle the whole time.
There is absolutely nothing exciting or entertaining about a real high-speed pursuit in progress. Dangerous and potentially fatal to so many people, it was heart-stopping to see the crazy chances that insane driver took as he raced through the middle of the city. Ground units were immediately called off once we arrived above.
Not suspecting that his every move was being tracked, the driver thankfully backed off a little but continued to race through red lights and stop sign without slowing. I shudder to think what would have happened had anyone been in the intersections as this idiot blasted through, missing cars and pedestrians by inches. This wasn't television; my family, friends and neighbours are on those streets and 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 for the 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 saw the footage, I would immediately quit the case, go home and tightly hug my kids – but it was just another successful outcome for Air-1 in supporting the officers and citizens on the ground and we moved on to the next call.
At the time of this article, WPS Flight Operations Unit had a civilian chief pilot and a police and civilian line pilot, all trained at Canadian Helicopters in Penticton B.C. The chief pilot recently attended a safety seminar hosted by Peel Regional Police and conducted by the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA.)
There are currently three police tactical flight officers, all certified to operate the thermal imaging camera. Most have received further training from ALEA.
The flight operations unit is supervised by patrol sergeant Ken Zushman, one of the many people instrumental in arranging my spot in the back seat for two night shifts.
Zushman detailed the unit's objectives:
respond to crimes in progress for aerial containment and investigation;
conduct infrared searches for suspects and evidence;
co-ordinate ground responses;
track suspect vehicles during police 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; and
assist in the rapid deployment of canine unit members.
The unit operates out of space leased from Canadian Forces (CF) 17 Wing Winnipeg, which provides far more than just secure office and hanger space; it helped develop the unit's safety management system (SMS) and the policies, procedures and practices that have become an integrated part of day-to-day operations. Unit leaders regularly attend wing safety meetings and the CF has offered candidates spots on its safety course.
Safety is a culture. I received a complete and detailed safety briefing each trip before the engines were even started and as a trained pilot, I could highly respect the detail and professionalism of everyone, from ground support and air crews to the CF hosts and air traffic controllers.
One of the most important things I learned is that police helicopters are not about generating big headlines or exciting news footage; they are about fast response times, good police work, efficient use of resources and supporting officers on the ground. Having that eye in the sky keeps officers safe and frees up units to respond to other calls.
One of the most comforting sounds in the world to a police officer needing backup is the sound of sirens in the distance. For Winnipeg officers, 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 you hear, "Is Air-1 available?"
With the support of several levels of government, cooperation from the CF, skillful assistance from air traffic control and a dedicated flight operations unit, the WPS 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 buy and operate and the citizens who pay those costs want to see those expenses justified with numbers and headlines. My flights made it clear that police helicopters are far more than statistics and car chase reports on the evening news.
Citizens don't get to see the near-misses that never make the paper. They don't read about the reduction in pursuits, increased officer safety, reduced liability or being able to more quickly free up police resources. They don't understand how immediately apprehending a criminal is far better than months of investigation. They don't relate to the fact that Air-1 was dispatched 3,445 times, attended 2,688 calls and was the first unit on scene 1,987 times during its 984 flight hours last year.
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 was 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 many more arrests and officers making it safely home and fewer families awoken in the middle of the night with news a loved one has died in a tragic incident.
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; It recognized the advantages right away. If citizens need statistics to justify the costs, perhaps the most telling number of all come from Zushman.
"Every police agency that successfully implemented helicopters into its operations now has two of them."