Police aviation in the United Kingdom

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Law enforcement
in the United Kingdom
Types of agency
Types of agent
Eurocopter EC 135 T2 providing law enforcement and medical assistance in the Bristol area.
A demonstration by Dyfed-Powys Police Air Support Unit helicopter in 2008.

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.

Police aviation in England and Wales was once a force-by-force, or forces working in partnership, organisation, however from April 2012 it gradually became centralised as the National Police Air Service.[1] The final force to join, the Metropolitan Police, joined in 2015.


In 1921, an R33 Airship was able to help the police in traffic control around the Epsom and Ascot horse-racing events.[2]

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[3] that was present on the day.[4][5]


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 and two officers (once if which acts as an observer). The pilot and observer sit up-front with eye contact with the ground. The observer, seated in the rear, is responsible for controlling the camera systems and recording images for evidence in court. The second police officer, next to the pilot, 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.[6]

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.[7]


In 2010, The Guardian reported police forces and government agencies across the UK are exploring the potential of unmanned drones for covert aerial surveillance, security, or emergency operations. They said at least four forces – Merseyside, Essex, Staffordshire and British Transport police – have bought or used microdrones. Microdrones can be fitted with video cameras, thermal imaging devices, radiation detectors, mobile-phone jammers and air sampling devices. Hovering at heights of around 60 metres, they are said by manufacturers to be virtually invisible from the ground. The costs of operating the drones are considerably less than operating helicopters.[8]


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.[6] Commonly fitted to the underside of the helicopter is a public address system, known as "Skyshout".[6]

When speaking to air traffic control police helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft use the callsign "NPAS" followed by a two digit number representing the base of the aircraft. At NPAS London, where three helicopters are based, the first helicopter to lift uses the first callsign, and any others to follow occupy the other.


  • On 15 May 1985, a Edgley Optica fixed-wing aircraft G-KATY crashed, killing two members of the Hampshire Constabulary.[9] The cause was suspected to be a stall: insufficient airspeed during a turn causing instability. The reason for the low speed was never established.[10]
  • 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.[11][12]
  • 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.[13]
  • 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.[14][15]
  • 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.[16][17]
  • 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.[18][19]
  • 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.[20]
  • On 8 June 2009, a Eurocopter EC135 helicopter G-WMAO operated by the West Midlands Police Air Operations Unit was destroyed by arsonists.[21] West Midlands Police took delivery of a new Eurocopter EC-135 helicopter G-POLA at the 2010 Farnborough Airshow.[22]
  • 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.[23][24] 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.[25]
  • 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.[26][27]
  • 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.[28]
  • 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.[29]

List of police aviation units[edit]

The following is a list of police aviation units in the UK and the forces or areas to which they are assigned.

Aviation Unit Forces served Police radio call-sign Air traffic call-sign Aircraft
National Police Air Service[30] Police forces in England and Wales NPAS XX

XX = 21, 16, 51, 13, 45, 31, 33, 43, 44, 22, 54, 61, 62, 63, 32, 15, 47

Police 40, Police 28, Police 09, Police 01, Police 42, Police 10, Police 06, Police 03, Police 04, Police 381, Police 382, Police 12, Police 22, Police 13, Police 151, Police 152, Police 19, Police 21, Police 24, Police 251, Police 252, Police 253, Police 08, Police 29, Police 32, Police 33, Police 35, Police 41, Police 43 EC 135,[31][32][33][34][35][36], EC 145
Police Service of Northern Ireland Air Support Unit Police Service of Northern Ireland Police 441, Police 442, Police 443, Scout 1 Police 441, Police 442, Police 443, Scout 1 EC 135,[37] EC145,[38] EC145,[39] Britten-Norman Defender's[40][41]
Police Scotland Air Support Unit Police Scotland SP70 Sierra Papa 70 EC 135[note 1][42]


  1. ^ Police Scotland helicopter G-SPAO was lost in the 2013 Glasgow helicopter crash

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "New plans for a national police air service". Association of Chief Police Officers. 26 October 2010. Archived from the original on 4 January 2013. Retrieved 5 January 2012. 
  2. ^ R33 - G F A A G 1916–1921 : Early Life
  3. ^ "The Battle of Cable Street mural, Shadwell - London Mural Preservation Society". Retrieved 2012-04-19. 
  4. ^ "The working life of Museum of London: How the East Was Won". Retrieved 2012-04-19. 
  5. ^ ""British fascism and the measures taken against it by the British State, p4" by David Botsford" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-04-19. 
  6. ^ a b c "About the helicopter". Western County Air Operations Unit. 2004. 
  7. ^ "Met Police spends millions of pounds on secret aircraft". Retrieved 2012-05-17. 
  8. ^ "Unmanned drones may be used in police surveillance". The Guardian. 24 September 2010. Retrieved 14 September 2014. 
  9. ^ Hampshire Council Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ Flight International 30 August 1986, p.54.
  11. ^ "Police helicopter crashes after clipping city flats. Copter 'was waving about and then it disappeared'". Glasgow Herald. 25 January 1990. 
  12. ^ "Police widow to sue chief constable over helicopter crash". Glasgow Herald. 30 June 1990. 
  13. ^ "Eurocopter AS355N Ecureuil II, G-EMAU, 9 Oct 1998 at approximately 2305 hours", Bulletins, Air Accidents Investigation Branch, April 1999, retrieved 1 December 2013 
  14. ^ "Rotor failure caused helicopter crash". BBC News. BBC. 25 April 2000. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  15. ^ "Aerospatiale (Eurocopter) AS355F2, G-SAEW", Bulletins, Air Accidents Investigation Branch, January 2001, retrieved 1 December 2013 
  16. ^ "Crashed helicopter under scrutiny". BBC News. 27 December 2001. 
  17. ^ "Agusta A190E, G-DPPH, 25 December 2001", Bulletins, Air Accidents Investigation Branch, February 2003, retrieved 1 December 2013 
  18. ^ "Police helicopter crash 'miracle'". BBC News. BBC. 18 February 2002. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  19. ^ "Eurocopter EC135T1, G-SPAU", Bulletins, Air Accidents Investigation Branch, August 2003, retrieved 30 November 2013 
  20. ^ "Vandals attack police helicopter". BBC News. 14 May 2009. Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  21. ^ "Arson attack on police helicopter". BBC News. BBC. 8 June 2009. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  22. ^ "west midlands police ready to take off with new chopper". Birmingham Mail. July 2010. 
  23. ^ "Police pursue helicopter vandals". BBC News. 10 October 2009. Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  24. ^ "LAW ENFORCEMENT". Police Aviation News (163): 9. November 2009. 
  25. ^ Siddle, John (18 May 2010). "Merseyside Police helicopter attack foiled for second time". Liverpool Echo. Trinity Mirror. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  26. ^ "Two helicopter crash scenes under investigation". BBC News. 29 October 2010. 
  27. ^ "AS355F2 Twin Squirrel, G-SEWP, 06-11", Bulletins, Air Accidents Investigation Branch, June 2011, retrieved 1 December 2013 
  28. ^ "BN2T Islander, G-BSWR, 02-12", Bulletins, Air Accidents Investigation Branch, February 2012, retrieved 8 April 2012 
  29. ^ "Glasgow helicopter crash: Eight dead at Clutha pub". BBC News. BBC. 30 November 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  30. ^ http://www.acpo.presscentre.com/Press-Releases/National-Police-Air-Service-is-launched-1a8.aspx
  31. ^ "Air Operations". West Midlands Police. Retrieved 14 March 2009. 
  32. ^ "Photos: Eurocopter EC-135T-1 Aircraft Pictures". Airliners.net. 2004-08-07. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  33. ^ "photo". Airliners.net. 2005-02-27. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  34. ^ "Photos: Eurocopter EC-135T-2 Aircraft Pictures". Airliners.net. 2006-05-28. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  35. ^ "Welcom". Western Counties Air Operations Unit. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  36. ^ "Photos: Eurocopter EC-135T-1 Aircraft Pictures". Airliners.net. 2006-11-12. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  37. ^ "Photos: Eurocopter EC-135T-2 Aircraft Pictures". Airliners.net. 2006-09-04. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  38. ^ "Police Service of Northern Ireland new helicopter". Police Service of Northern Ireland. 2010-03-07. Retrieved 2011-03-06. 
  39. ^ "GINFO Search Results". CAA. 2015-08-05. Retrieved 2015-08-05. 
  40. ^ "UK Emergency Aviation - UK & Ireland Police Helicopter Operations N-Z". Retrieved 2012-05-16. 
  41. ^ "GINFO Search Results". Retrieved 2015-08-05. 
  42. ^ "'Photos: Eurocopter EC-135T-2 Aircraft Pictures". Airliners.net. 2007-09-11. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  43. ^ "UK_Police_Aviation_Operations_Summary" (PDF). 

External links[edit]