A police car screams past your office building and moments later you hear the clatter of helicopter blades. Looking out your window you crane your neck to spot a yellow and blue machine hovering a few hundred meters above you. It slowly circles around the same spot as other marked police vehicles pass in the same direction, through the red lights and on into the distance.
What exactly is happening though? This is something I always wondered before joining the job and indeed something I still wonder when I’m off duty and see the force helicopter, ‘Alpha Oscar One‘, buzzing overhead.
The helicopter itself is based at Birmingham Airport and is a Eurocopter EC–135P2i. Nerdy plane spotters like me will be absolutely thrilled to know that it has a top speed of 160 mph, a range of around 400 miles, can fly for three and a half hours and reach a ceiling of 10,000 ft. Stats aside, what might it be doing when you see it floating above?
The first situation, and probably the most common, in which the helicopter is deployed is when we have a suspect pinned down in a certain area and need someone with a bird’s eye view to help us locate him or her. Commonly this will be when we’ve pursued someone and have a reasonable containment of an area so that we’re able to say to the officers on board the helicopter, “The offender is hiding somewhere inside these woods, can you tell where he is?”.
The helicopter crew can then use their cameras and thermal imaging gear to pick out the suspect and direct our units on the ground towards his position and make the arrest. The capability of the crew to use body heat to track someone down means that the cover of darkness is denied to a suspect and the helicopter has a thirty million candlepower searchlight to help illuminate large areas so that we can see where we need to head. Oddly enough the helicopter is also equipped with a siren, presumably so it can warn slower helicopters to move aside and let it past as it makes its way towards incidents. Probably…
Aside searching, the helicopter is also invaluable to tracking high speed pursuits involving our traffic units. The evidence collected by the high definition video camera can be taken to court to help secure a conviction and as the crew are tracking the progress of the chase, can instruct other resources in the right direction so that they can help including telling officers when they might want to pull out the stinger and bring the pursuit to a conclusion by puncturing the offending vehicle’s tires.
Having a video camera means that the helicopter can be useful in all sorts of situations where an aerial view of an event might prove useful. Images can be beamed live to the control room and help senior officers make decisions about how to police football matches, public demonstrations and the like.
The rear of the helicopter provides a cargo space that can be quickly adapted to transport casualties from the scene of an accident to the nearest hospital. This is particularly useful at night as some of the air ambulances are not equipped with the necessary kit to enable them to land in built up areas during the hours of darkness.
Working with the helicopter can be quite exciting as not only can we see it and know that it’s there to help us, we can also hear it on our radio channel with the sound of the engine prominent in the background when the crew speak to us. It is a great resource that we can rely on when we require it and the psychological impact alone is often enough to get the criminal to come out with his hands up, knowing that his body heat will betray him and that’s it’s pointless to try and run.
P.S. You can find out more about Alpha Oscar One by visiting their website and can also follow them on Twitter by visiting their regularly updated profile, @WMP_Helicopter. They’ve also got a Twitpic account on which they’re publishing some of the photos the crew have taken from the air.