Imagine trying to push one of the hairs on your arm in a particular direction -- while you're spinning.

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This article was published 25/2/2011 (4109 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Look up... the heat is on

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Look up... the heat is on

Imagine trying to push one of the hairs on your arm in a particular direction -- while you're spinning.

That type of precision is what Const. Nick Paulet says is required to manipulate a hand controller inside the police helicopter as it hovers over downtown Winnipeg.

The small controller in Paulet's hands guides two cameras that are the key to the $3.5-million investment in this EC-120B Hummingbird. The cameras provide police with what they've heralded as their eye in the sky on crime.

For Paulet, who's in the aircraft as the tactical flight officer, next to line pilot Renee Brindeau, that means balancing a variety of tasks so he can convey what he sees from the sky to those on the ground.

Const. Nick Paulet and Pilot Renee Brindeau fly Air 1, the WPS helicopter above the city.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Const. Nick Paulet and Pilot Renee Brindeau fly Air 1, the WPS helicopter above the city.

With his hands, Paulet must not only use the hand controller to guide two cameras on the helicopter, but he also must manipulate a foot pedal to communicate with police dispatchers.

On his headset, he can talk with Brindeau, who has her hands full piloting the aircraft as it circles nimbly around Portage and Main.

"The most important piece of equipment on there for policing is the thermal-imaging camera," Paulet says after the flight returns to 17 Wing, where the Winnipeg Police Service flight operations unit and the single-engine turbine helicopter are based. The thermal-imaging camera picks up differentiation in heat -- even in the dark -- so officers can pick up details on the ground.

"Particularly with the thermal, the image requires constant input in order to get a good picture that you can interpret to get good information from to make a decision," he says.

"Are you looking at a guy? Are you looking at a compost heap? Or what are you looking at?"

Paulet said that means learning to adjust the sensitive hand controller carefully.

"You're spinning, and your target's moving. You're constantly fighting to keep that target in the centre," he says.

Although the five-seat helicopter can hit speeds of more than 200 km/h, onboard personnel can still make out details of what's happening on the ground.

While some landmarks stick out -- a Winnipeg Transit bus lumbering on a downtown street, Thunderbird House on Higgins Avenue and the Salter Street rooftop sign that says "Welcome to the North End" -- Paulet said specialized technology provides an overlay that lets him know exactly what street the helicopter is zeroing in on, right down to a home's street address.

Right now, the winter weather means there is less foliage on the ground and better visibility from above. Come spring, there may be silvery lines of water to trace. Paulet said the helicopter could help identify flooding problems and assist in providing security to residential areas that have been evacuated.

"We can't replace some of the things the officers on the ground can do... (but) now it may take two officers to do that job instead of 15," he says.

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca