What inspired you to want to fly for the National Police Air Service?
It really has been my dream job and something I have always aspired to do. I have been flying with the police for close to 2 years and have thoroughly enjoyed the challenges and the dynamic nature of the role in protecting public safety. The flying is very ‘hands on’, the helicopters that we fly (the EC135 and EC145) are incredibly maneuverable, and it’s great to work together as a crew to achieve results.
What has been the most memorable experience within your job?
Every day is different.
Whilst we might launch on one particular task, by the time we’re airborne, the task might change and we get diverted to a higher priority job, such as searching for a vulnerable missing person or tracking a pursuit. For me, the most memorable and rewarding jobs are those where our direct intervention has resulted in a successful outcome, for example when we have located a distressed person who may not be spotted in time from the ground, and either ‘land on’ to render aid, or direct officers on the ground to provide help. Motorcycle or moped pursuits around built-up areas also make for memorable flights, owing to the nimbleness and small size of the bikes.
What are some of the challenges of operating a helicopter in London?
One of the major challenges is the diverse range and number of airspace users that we share the skies of London with. Whilst the pandemic significantly reduced the amount of traffic operating in airspace around London, more private and sightseeing helicopters are flying again, and the amount of traffic in and out of Heathrow and London City is increasing.
Maintaining good situational awareness and a good look-out is key to ensure safe separation between other traffic. When operating very close to Heathrow Airport, we can usually fit in with their arriving and departing aircraft without causing too much disruption but we do have the ability to upgrade the flight to Category A priority, which may lead to a temporary cessation of flights at the airport
Flying over an urban area also introduces challenges. Construction cranes are abundant and new skyscrapers are popping up across the city that the crew needs to be aware of, especially when the weather isn’t quite so nice.
Urban flying also introduces other operational challenges; the camera systems fitted to the helicopter offer a fantastic overview and are a valuable asset to the teams on the ground when there is a clear line of sight. But in some of the narrow, densely populated areas of cities, it calls upon on the high-level skills and training of the tactical flight officers, coordinating with the pilot to keep our targets in view, and often means the helicopter has to almost be directly on top, looking straight down the ‘canyon’ caused by the buildings on either side.
A dynamic pursuit can be a moment of ‘high workload’, as we may be monitoring up to 4 police radios and 2 air traffic control radios whilst maintaining visual reference with the target, and safely maneuvering the helicopter so the camera lens has a good image (and is not blocked by the skids).
What sorts of jobs do you do most often?
Regular tasks involve searching for suspects who have made off from police but are contained and potentially within a known area. Using a combination of thermal imagery and a zoomed camera, large open areas, back gardens, rooftops, railway lines, and other inaccessible areas can be searched far quicker by helicopter than by officers on the ground.
This capability is also often used to search for high-risk missing persons, where we are provided with a clothing and physical description.
The helicopter is often deployed to provide an overview to the police control room during times of public demonstrations or major sporting events. Earlier this year I had the rather surreal experience of watching England lose on a penalty shoot-out in the European football cup through the window, looking down on Wembley stadium!
Police helis rarely appear visible to other helicopters ADS-B traffic systems, why the lack of conspicuity?
Police helicopters operate mode S transponders just like any other civil aircraft and thus will be picked up by other aircraft TCAS systems, however, the information is not displayed on tracking websites, such as Flight Radar 24. Most of our flying occurs within the Heathrow or London City control zone, so we are under a ‘radar control service’, and our movements in this airspace are coordinated to ensure safe separation. We use a grid system based on the A-Z map to communicate to ATC whereabouts in London we want to fly.
How would you be able to find a moving getaway car amongst hundreds of cars in a scene?
Before the mission commander (the police officer sitting in the back of the helicopter) accepts a tasking, they make sure that enough information is available to make the flight worthwhile. In the case of a car pursuit, or vehicle ‘follow’, we are usually provided with the make, model, and distinguishing features, and sometimes number plate details. If there is a police unit already behind the vehicle, we can get updates on the location that we can track on our onboard mapping system, which links to the camera and points it in the right direction.
Once we have the vehicle located on the camera, we can confirm the registration or description matches the information provided and the backseat mission commander can take over commentary, allowing the cars behind to fall back. The commander can then instruct on where other vehicles should go, to cover various exits and nearby roads, or to deploy vehicle-disabling devices, such as the ‘stinger’, to bring a pursuit to a safe conclusion and minimise risk to the general public. It is surprising just how often a speeding vehicle is detected by just looking out the window. Your eye usually picks out much faster relative movement.
Do you always take off full fuel and what happens if you are low on fuel at a critical moment?
We fly a number of slightly different helicopters, and with the variety of ‘mission equipment’ that may be installed and atmospheric conditions (for example on a hot summers day), the helicopter may not have the ‘out of ground effect’ performance to hover in one spot for an extended period if it is loaded with full fuel tanks. As such, we usually fuel to a standard load, less than the maximum. Maintaining a sufficient fuel reserve is absolutely critical, irrespective of the tasking, and we have strict minimum land on fuel amounts for both day and night operations. We often make use of the number of landing sites available around London, such as Battersea, Elstree, and Biggin Hill, depending on which is closer, and thus maximising our time ‘on scene’. A backup helicopter and crew is usually available, so if continuous cover is required, the two aircraft perform a handover process so there is continuity of camera picture and evidence that may be broadcast to the control room.
What advice would you give to aspiring helicopter pilots?
The career path for helicopter pilots is not always as clear-cut as per the airline world, but the reward is an incredibly interesting and diverse job that gives the opportunity to see the world from a truly unique perspective, and the challenge is most certainly worth it. My advice to pilots would be to do as much research as possible before starting out on this journey, take the time to go and visit local flight schools, helicopter operators, and network with other pilots, as it gives you a chance to understand the employment opportunities once you obtain your commercial license, and make contacts within the industry. Whilst you might have a dream role, be it flying HEMS, Police, SAR, etc, be prepared that you may need to first gain experience in other aspects of the industry, be it flying tours, working off-shore, or performing flight instruction, all of which provides valuable experience and will hone your flying and decision-making skills.
With special thanks to Andrew Brandt and the rest of the National Police Air Service team for helping make this happen.