Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More time idle than in the air for police chopper

Better staffing will improve record: chief

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Winnipeg's police helicopter has spent more time on the ground than in the air this year due to a shortage of trained pilots.

On Monday, Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill gave members of council's protection and community services committee an update on the helicopter following recent reports the aircraft has been grounded due to maintenance issues and a pilot-staffing shortage.

McCaskill said staffing has been a problem and police have only had one full-time pilot flying the helicopter for the past three weeks. A total of three pilots have left in recent months due to medical and family issues, he said.

McCaskill said a second pilot has been hired but won't be fully trained to fly the aircraft until early June. Police are still looking to hire a chief pilot.

McCaskill said the helicopter needs three full-time pilots to be fully operational, and pilot shortages have hampered their ability to fly.

Winnipeg Police Service data show 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.

"There's obviously an impact," McCaskill said. "If you've got less pilots, there's going to be an issue because you're in the air less."

The update on the WPS's newest crime-fighting tool comes as police work to finish a report on the helicopter's first year of operations. The aircraft was initially touted as a way to free up police cruisers by doing aerial patrols.

The annual report is expected to be complete in June or July, police said.

The city and province have a deal to fund the helicopter until December 2013. At that point, a review of the operation is to take place.

McCaskill said the police service has to work to justify the spending and iron out any problems, as it cost $3.5 million to purchase the helicopter and costs $1 million to operate it every year.

Justice Minister Andrew Swan was unavailable on Monday, but provincial cabinet spokeswoman Jodee Mason said in an email statement the minister is confident police will work to rectify the situation and ensure staff is available to operate the helicopter.

Coun. Thomas Steen (Elmwood) said he was pleased to hear police have hired a local pilot and the aircraft assisted with more than 1,700 incidents last year.

Two of the three pilots who left returned home to their families in Western Canada.

"It's going to take time," Steen said. "Now they're getting local pilots and I think that's going to be a good thing."

McCaskill maintains the helicopter is still an effective policing tool. He said the helicopter has helped spot things officers can't see on the ground, and arrests have been much quicker.

"For a police service the size of ours, it's an exceptional tool," he said. "Obviously, the more it's in the air, the better."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

How often the police helicopter has taken flight since 2011:

2011

Anticipated flying hours: 1,000

Actual flying hours: 976

Number of incidents: 1,780

Number of assisted arrests: 127

January to March 2012

Flying hours: 129

Number of incidents: 288

Number of assisted arrests: 20

-- source: Winnipeg Police Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2012 B2

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