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Helicopter program a success despite mechanical problems: police

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It’s a big-ticket item that’s captured much of the public interest, but has yet to have a website documenting its activities.

Winnipeg Police Service Chief Keith McCaskill said the police helicopter had a successful first year of operations, despite engine problems that kept it grounded for a total of 27 days last year.

Videos of arrests involving the helicopter were launched through YouTube Thursday, and police said a website outlining the copter’s activities was under consideration.

"The ideal at the end of the day would be having a specific website, everybody can go to it, see everything about the helicopter, we update it all the time, that’s what we’re moving toward," said McCaskill, who was at a press conference chronicling the helicopter’s activities. Thursday morning, Winnipeg Police Service released its report on the helicopter's first year of operations.

The report shows the aircraft attended 1,780 incidents between February and December 2011, including 189 break-and-enters, 135 reports of a suspicious person and 109 traffic stops. The report said the helicopter's presence was "essential" to the outcome of several calls, and helped lead to 127 arrests. While the aircraft flew a total of 976.5 hours in its first year, it was grounded for a total of 18 days due to weather and 27 days due to unscheduled maintenance. Insp. Mike Herman said the helicopter costs an average of about $35,000 per month for costs like fuel and insurance, an amount that didn’t include officers’ salaries.

Herman couldn’t say the number of calls the helicopter has responded to this year.

The report said the helicopter's engine oil needed to be flushed due to contamination last March, the engine was swapped the following month, and removed and reinstalled in July. In September the engine was swapped again due to metal contamination, and removed and reinstalled. Air1 flew just 48.8 hours in March 2011, and 47.5 hours in July 2011.

The monthly average in 2011 was 81.3 flight hours.

Police data show Air1 was involved in two out of 29 pursuits in 2011. In 27 other cases, the helicopter was not involved, including five instances where the duration of the pursuit was brief, six cases where Air1 was grounded, and 13 instances when it was off-duty.

Three other pursuits occurred in January 2011, before the police helicopter was in operation.

The report said the presence of Air1 was recognized as an "operational success" and helped lead to 127 arrests, including the arrest of man who fled with a gun, and a man involved in a downtown carjacking.

"Anecdotal reports throughout the year confirm that the attendance of Air1 can indirectly influence criminal activity -- essentially where the presence of the helicopter was perceived to prevent or suppress crime -- although crime prevention is impossible to measure," the report said. Previously released Winnipeg Police Service data show the aircraft spent more time on the ground than in the air in early 2012 due to maintenance issues and a pilot-staffing shortage.

The helicopter flew an average of 43.1 hours per month between January and March 2012, down from an average of 75.8 hours a month during the same time period last year. A police spokeswoman said in a statement some of the 2011 flying hours include training, as the helicopter did not start its full operation until February. Colin Craig, director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for Manitoba, said it would be helpful if the report compared the chopper with those in other cities.


Updated on Thursday, June 28, 2012 at 12:11 PM CDT: adds photo

4:56 PM: updates with complete writethru

4:59 PM: adds video

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