Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Air patrol: so far, so good

Police helicopter on 1,000-hour target

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Winnipeg's new police helicopter, which took off earlier this year after a swirl of turbulent debate, has been quietly going about its business since then.

The goal is to have the chopper aloft for 1,000 hours a year -- an average of 85 hours a month -- and the police service says it will reach that mark this year despite two shutdowns. One of those was routine; one was a surprise.

The helicopter was unexpectedly grounded in March, its second full month of operation, when its engine had to be replaced, according to edited documents obtained by the Free Press under a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request.

The helicopter -- its radio call sign is AIR 1, but it doesn't yet have a name -- was also in its hangar for 12 days in July when it was stripped down for its mandatory 500 flight-hour inspection. It has only recently returned to the sky over Winnipeg.

"We've had a number of issues," flight operations unit Insp. Mike Herman said, explaining the sudden engine change.

The problem with the helicopter's motor -- metal particles were found in its components in March -- required a complete engine swap, Herman said.

"In essence, what we did is pull the engine and put a new engine in," he said, adding the work was covered under warranty and will not push up the helicopter's annual $1.3-million operating cost, which is paid by the Manitoba government. The company responsible for the engine, Turbomeca, flushed the original engine and has returned it to the city. The original engine had only several test hours on it when bought by Winnipeg police as part of Mayor Sam Katz's push to get tougher on crime.

Details of the engine reinstallation and other maintenance work are contained in the edited flight records for the helicopter supplied by the police service under the FOI request. All aircraft require strict record-keeping under federal law. The documents say four flight days were lost in March and three in April because of the engine reinstallation.

The $3.5-million Eurocopter EC120-B Colibri helicopter was purchased last year by the police service and although it was bought as used, it was essentially a brand-new aircraft as it had been completely retrofitted for the demands of police work. Its equipment includes a Nightsun spotlight, a thermal-imaging camera, police radios, a public address system, a GPS mapping system and a video downlink system that allows the helicopter to transmit live aerial video to police or fire department supervisors on the ground.

Herman said the unexpected engine swap was an example of the maintenance rigours of police helicopters.

"In this industry, you have lifelong maintenance on this machine all the time," he said. "This is nothing out of the ordinary.

"The average person doesn't understand the aviation industry and what it takes to keep a helicopter in the air. We kind of relate it to buying a car, and it's very different from that."

The documents, which include flight records and monthly reports for the helicopter's first six months of operation -- specific dates of flights have been redacted by police for operational reasons -- show despite the engine problem, the helicopter and its crew are on track to meet the goal of 1,000 operational flight hours per year.

"We're comfortable with where we're at this point after seven months in," Herman said.

For instance, in May the helicopter flew 29 times, with its longest flight being 6.8 hours and the shortest about 40 minutes.

In the same month, the helicopter logged 85.4 flights hours and responded to 194 incidents, often being the first unit 'on scene' and credited with aiding in 14 arrests.

Its first full month of operation was in February, when it logged almost 85 hours air time and its crew responded to 119 incidents to support officers on the ground. Those calls, detailed in the monthly reports, included gun calls, domestic disputes, traffic stops and assisting the Winnipeg Fire Department with its spotlight as firefighters dealt with a car fire.

But in March, the number of hours in the air dropped to just under 50 and it handled only 73 incidents.

In April, AIR 1 logged more than 87 hours and responded to 184 incidents, including helping out in the spring flood flight by videotaping the city's rivers for emergency planners. It was also dispatched to help officers on the ground disperse dozens of unruly concert-goers at an event at the Winnipeg Convention Centre.

Herman said the helicopter has demonstrated that when it's in action, police commanders have more discretion with how they deploy police units on the ground.

"They (the helicopter crew) sometimes will make a determination and be able to cancel units attending, which saves our resources to be deployed elsewhere, which is one of our goals -- almost like a force-multiplier," Herman said.

An example is a brawl outside a bar at night. The helicopter will show up first and determine it to be a negative call.

"A lot of resources on the ground get deployed just for safety because you really don't know what to expect, and the helicopter can quickly say that's negative."

In other cases of fights or brawls, the helicopter has shown up first and beamed its bright spotlight on those below. The fight stops and everyone scatters.

Besides patrolling over the city, the helicopter has been used for special enforcement projects, including going after snowmobilers last winter who were illegally riding within city limits, assisting the task force investigating murdered and missing women and checking for illegal racers on Sunday's cruise night. The helicopter was also used at special events, including the Winnipeg Police Service's half marathon and the 17 Wing Air Force Run.

The documents released by the police service also show how quickly AIR 1 responds to calls; in most incidents, it appears overhead within minutes, if not seconds.

The flight crew has been hit more than once by someone on the ground with a laser pointer. The first time was in late February when the helicopter was hit with a green laser from outside a social hall. No one was arrested.

A second incident happened in March near the airport when someone flashed an LED light at AIR 1 as it was preparing to land. Despite a search, no one was arrested.

In March, a 26-year-old man was charged with assault with a weapon after he allegedly aimed a laser pointer at the helicopter from a Toronto Street address.

Herman said the unit has to do more work telling Winnipeggers about the role the helicopter now plays in public safety. To date, there has been only a handful of media releases and one video showing the high-speed chase of a motorcycle. The most notable release was in late June, when the helicopter was involved in the arrest near Portage la Prairie of a man who allegedly abducted a 16-year-old girl from the city and stole a number of vehicles.

"We recognize, obviously, that all our operations are going to be examined and scrutinized for value," Herman said. "For the expense of this resource, do the citizens get a good value for the amount of cost it takes? When you start examining all the operations that the helicopter has been involved in, you do see incidents where, if the helicopter wasn't there, we absolutely would not have made that arrest."

What also complicates more information being publicly released about the helicopter's operations is the risk of jeopardizing prosecutions.

"We don't speak publicly about our tactics," Herman said. "But we recognize the importance of getting as much of the information about the flight unit out to the public as we can. Hopefully in the future, we will have a more regular reporting process in place. I think the public is interested in what our operations are. Ultimately, we want to give stuff back to the public."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

 

AIR 1 by the numbers

$3.5 million — cost of helicopter paid by city

$1.3 million — annual cost of operating the helicopter paid by province

1 chief pilot on staff with flight operations unit

2 civilian pilots under contract to fly helicopter

1 police officer currently being trained to fly helicopter to replace one of the civilian pilots, likely next

4 tactical flight officers, all police officers, to operate spotlight, thermal-imaging cameras and other equipment

1 patrol sergeant who does administrative work at hangar

1 staff sergeant who oversees unit

1 inspector who also oversees the unit and other units

 

What's in a name?

Its radio call sign is AIR 1, but that's not its name.

"People always call it AIR 1, but AIR 1 is not the name of the helicopter. It's just a radio call sign," Flight Operations Unit Insp. Mike Herman said.

It's aircraft registration is C-GAOL, which is not totally by accident. Gaol is the British spelling of jail.

"A lot of people are wondering did we go out and pay more for a vanity registration," Herman said. "The answer is, 'No'. When it was being registered we had a couple of options. We didn't go and seek that out. It was one of the options. We selected it."

The aircraft is a Eurocopter EC120-B Colibri. Colibri means 'hummingbird' in French, a reference to the Fenestron tail rotor which is designed to reduce noise.

The police service is actively seeking corporate sponsorship for the helicopter with the goal of selecting an official name.

 

Noise complaints

Under a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request, the Free Press asked for all noise complaints filed by Winnipeggers concerning the helicopter in its first six months of operation.

Eight have been made to date and three were provided under the FOI request. Names and other details that could identify the complainant, police officers, civilian staff and nature of the incident were removed by the police service.

All complaints are investigated by the flight operations unit to see if they were actually in the air at the time the complaint was made. If the times match, commanding officers will contact the complainant.

"When we talk to those people and explain that we were there and that we were investigating something serious and that we were helping their neighbour, people are understanding," Herman said.

 

Monthly totals February - May 2011

 

Incidents

Arrests

Flight hours

Flying days
lost to weather

Flying days lost
to maintenance

February

119

20

84.5

1

0

March

73

12

48.9

2

4

April

184

18

87.2

2

3

May

194

14

85.4

2

0

Totals

570

64

400.2

7

7

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2011 A6

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