Police aviation in the United Kingdom
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Police aviation in United Kingdom provides the British police with an aerial support unit to assist them in pursuit, surveillance and tracking. The most common air support aircraft is the Eurocopter EC 135T, which is equipped with daytime and night vision video equipment, instrument flight rules systems and radio equipment to track suspects and liaise with officers on the ground.
While most aerial units operate helicopters, some forces also use of aeroplanes such as the Britten-Norman Defender. An aeroplane allows higher and quieter surveillance, making it less likely that suspects will become aware they are being watched. A light aircraft also allows for longer flying time and lower running costs.
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The large mural depicting the 1936 Battle of Cable Street public order incident on the side of St. George's Town Hall in the East End of London depicts the police autogyro overhead that was present on the day.
With scramble times of just four minutes for helicopters, or with standing patrols using fixed wing aircraft, aerial units are faster than ground units and can often be first on the scene to reported incidents.
Aerial units are often tasked to assist in vehicle pursuits. Air support allows ground units to disengage and follow from a discreet distance, hopefully making the pursuit less dangerous while still allowing ground units to be able to close in quickly as directed to apprehend suspects. Aerial surveillance also allows the police to anticipate the direction of the pursuit, and position ground units ahead of the suspect to block roads or deploy spike strips. Aerial units can also be used to efficiently locate missing persons.
Police helicopters can be crewed by three people; a civilian pilot, a police observer and rear police crew member. The pilot and observer sit up-front with eye contact with the ground. The observer is responsible for controlling the camera systems, and recording images for evidence in court. The rear police officer will assist in map-reading and strategic planning, allowing the pilot to concentrate on flying and the observer on camera control and visual reporting.
During an incident, ground and aerial units are able to communicate directly with each other, using the call sign of the unit.
Most police helicopters are fitted with a sphere shaped housing or pod usually under the nose of the aircraft the purpose of which is to support and stabilize two cameras using a gyroscope stabilization system. The two cameras are a standard “day camera” (a colour camera equipped with a powerful zoom lens) and a thermal imaging camera, which enables heat to be detected and is usually utilized during hours of darkness or in the search for persons in hiding. The cameras are normally connected to controls located in the cabin of the aircraft that allow the air observer to directly control them. They are also linked to a recording system and downlink system.
Force helicopters are usually equipped with a powerful “Nightsun” search light that is capable of illuminating a large area.
The Metropolitan Police Service has reportedly been secretly using Cessna aircraft for a number of years that have been fitted with surveillance equipment capable of intercepting mobile phone calls and listening-in on conversations.
A member of the crew, usually a police constable, occupies the rear seat of the helicopter. The primary purpose of this crew member is to relay critical information to police units that are on the ground. In the case of traffic pursuits, this crew member will provide a running commentary of the exact location of the suspect's car, utilising either paper maps or a computerised mapping and navigation system.
Police helicopters are usually fitted with radios capable of transmitting and receiving communications on their force's and other force's Airwave TETRA radio system. More recently, police helicopters have been fitted with a device that allows live video images to be transmitted directly to the force command centre by way of a downlink system. Commonly fitted to the underside of the helicopter is a public address system, known as “Skyshout”.
When speaking to air traffic control police helicopters and fixed wing aircraft use the callsign "Police" followed by a two digit number representing the police force. These numbers were originally based on a list of police forces in England & Wales in alphabetical order, followed by Northern Ireland, followed by Scotland. So "Police 01" was Avon & Somerset Police. Some police air units now cover more than one force; their number relates to one of the forces. For example "Police 01" is now used by the "Western Counties" unit which includes the Avon & Somerset force area. If the unit has more than one aircraft a third digit will be added to identify each aircraft.
- On 15 May 1985, a Edgley Optica fixed wing aircraft G-KATY crashed, killing two members of the Hampshire Constabulary. The cause was suspected to be a stall: insufficient airspeed during a turn causing instability. The reason for the low speed was never established.
- On 24 January 1990, a Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter G-EYEI covering for the unavailable Strathclyde Police MBB Bo 105 helicopter crashed in a snow storm at Eastwood Toll, Giffnock, Glasgow. One police officer observer was killed, the pilot and two other police officer observers survived.
- On 9 October 1998, a Eurocopter AS355 Twin Squirrel helicopter G-EMAU operated by the East Midlands Air Support Unit crashed shortly after take off from its base at Sulby, near Welford in Northamptonshire. One police officer observer was killed, the pilot and one other police officer observer survived the accident.
- On 21 April 2000, a Eurocopter AS355 Twin Squirrel helicopter G-SAEW operated by South and East Wales Air Support Unit suffered a tail rotor failure whilst operating over Cardiff and crash landed on the roof of a house in the Coryton area of the city. The crew of three and the family living in the house escaped unhurt.
- On 25 December 2001, a Agusta A109 helicopter G-DPPH operated by Dyfed-Powys Air Support Unit crash landed near Cross Hands in Carmarthenshire when both engines stopped due to fuel starvation. The fuel starvation resulted from a defective fuel pump and incorrect measures taken to manage cross feeding arrangements between the fuel tanks fitted to the helicopter. The civilian pilot and one of two police officer observers on board escaped with minor injuries, the second police officer observer was unharmed.
- On 17 February 2002, a Eurocopter EC135 T1 helicopter G-SPAU operated by Strathclyde Police crashed in a field at Muirkirk, East Ayrshire whilst searching for a possible missing child. The cause of the accident was not positively identified by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. The three crew survived the accident with a range of non life threatening injuries.
- On 30 April 2009, a Eurocopter EC135 helicopter G-SURY operated by Surrey Police Air Support Unit was damaged by vandals. An axe was used to smash five windows.
- On 8 June 2009, a Eurocopter EC135 helicopter G-WMAO operated by the West Midlands Police Air Operations Unit was destroyed by arsonists. West Midlands Police took delivery of a new Eurocopter EC-135 helicopter G-POLA at the 2010 Farnborough Airshow.
- On 10 October 2009, a Eurocopter EC135 helicopter G-WXII operated by Merseyside Police Air Support Group was damaged on the ground at its base of RAF Woodvale. It was believed the purpose of the attack was to disable the police helicopter whilst a serious crime was carried out elsewhere. One police vehicle was destroyed in the pursuit and three people were arrested in connection with the attack. The aircraft was targeted for a second time on 17 May 2010, when masked intruders broke into RAF Woodvale and attempted to set the aircraft alight, the intruders were stopped due to the security improvements put in place after the first incident but some minor damage occurred to the helicopter. It was again believed that this was an attempt to disable the aircraft whilst a serious crime was carried out elsewhere.
- On 28 October 2010, a Eurocopter AS355 helicopter G-SEWP on lease to the Police Service of Northern Ireland crashed whilst approaching a hill top landing site. The helicopter was being used to transport officers and equipment to the site of another helicopter crash which had occurred on 23 October 2010. The four on board (three police officers and one pilot) survived with minor injuries but the aircraft was destroyed.
- On 13 July 2011, a Britten-Norman Islander fixed wing aircraft G-BSWR operated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland touched down short of the runway at Belfast International Airport, making contact with the runway approach lights. Damage was discovered after landing to the right hand side of the fuselage, propeller and nose cone. The crew were uninjured.
- On 29 November 2013, a Eurocopter EC135 T2+ helicopter G-SPAO operated by the Police Scotland Air Support Unit crashed into the roof of The Clutha Vaults pub in Glasgow City Centre. The three crew (comprising two police officer observers and one pilot) were killed along with seven people on the ground.
List of police aviation units
The following is a list of police aviation units in the UK and the forces or areas to which they are assigned.
- Police Scotland helicopter G-SPAO was lost in the 2013 Glasgow helicopter crash
The following forces have no full-time police aviation cover, although most will hire in aircraft when required.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Police helicopters in the United Kingdom.|
- UK Emergency Aviation Police Helicopter Information & Gallery