Where Eagle dares
Chasing bad guys from the cockpit of a helicopter… Is this the best job in policing? It’s certainly one of the most technologically advanced. Kelly Quill takes to the skies with the Police Air Support Unit’s Eagle helicopter crew.
Sergeant Colin “Waka” Ware is in no doubt that he and the Eagle chopper team do have the best job in policing – pursuing fleeing drivers, tracking thieves, working on search and rescue and crowd control operations – all from a vantage point in the sky.
They are “addicted to catching crooks” and they love helping other police units on the ground.
Despite no increase in their annual flying hours in several years, the eight-man team has been able to maintain an attendance rate of more than 3500 incidents a year.
The Air Support Unit: from left, Sergeant Colin Ware, Senior Constable Mark Lendrum, Senior Constable Barry Gallagher, Constable Mark Jamieson, Constable Philip Savill, former crew member Senior Constable Jeffrey Gibson, Senior Constable Michael Collins. (Absent, Constable Shane Geayley). Photo: SUZY McNABB
Operating in the wider Auckland region since 1998, Eagle achieves a target location success rate of 45-50 per cent.
Technology plays a crucial role. At any one time, the two crew members on board (along with an experienced civilian pilot) might be communicating with Police comms and monitoring “chatter” on multiple radio frequencies, checking a number plate on an iPad, using image-stabilising gyro binoculars, looking up a target’s location on the mapping system, using night-vision goggles and operating the “forward-looking infrared” (FLIR) camera.
The camera’s heat-detecting capability can reveal information unseen by the human eye, such as how recently a car has been driven, and allows the operator to determine the body language of people running through a dark park, assessing whether they’re running from something or just out for a run.
The FLIR camera was particularly helpful earlier this year when officers were dealing with a spate of drivers fleeing police by driving on the wrong side of Auckland’s motorways.
The tactic has become popular because offenders know that, in the interests of public safety, police are unlikely to follow them.
When a patrol car is forced to abandon such a pursuit, Eagle can follow, discreetly, providing detailed information to ground staff, including the vehicle’s number plate, speed, location and, in the right conditions, descriptions of the occupants.
“We usually find that once they think they’re no longer being followed, drivers will slow to a safer speed and head to the nearest exit,” Colin says. “From there, we can direct ground staff to the driver’s location, and they can take them into custody.”
High-definition footage of the offending, provided by the chopper crew, is difficult to dispute, saving time and money in the court process.
FLIR cameras save lives too. Earlier this year, Eagle was called on to help find a man who decided to go for a night-time dip in Auckland’s Mission Bay, fully clothed, after having a few drinks. Despite being unable to see the man’s body below the surface (the camera is not quite that clever), the crew could clearly see a bright spot bobbing about 100 metres offshore. It was the man’s head; he was just beginning to tire and the Eagle crew were able to direct ground staff, who’d accessed a boat, to pull him out of the water.
Aside from the technology on board, the mere presence of Eagle flying overhead can be a deterrent to criminals, Colin says, especially when used in locations where people aren’t used to the sight of the Police chopper. The first couple of times they provided traffic and crowd control support during the Hamilton V8 car racing, catching opportunistic burglars was “almost too easy”.
“One group of burglars escaping through a reserve were so fascinated by us circling above them, they just stood there watching us until a ground unit arrived and picked them up. I almost felt sorry for them.”
Being up in the air, the crews are usually distanced from the armed and violent offenders they help track down, but, if the situation calls for immediate assistance, they will try to land and help out ground staff.
During callouts involving search and rescue, missing persons or suicides, the Eagle crew are sometimes the only staff available and will land to assess the appropriate response, whether coronial, medical or criminal.
Of course, the crew don’t spend all their time in the air. They have a fixed allowance of 1800 hours a year, which equates to about three hours each shift. Faced with an increasing number of callouts over the past 10 years, Colin finds that managing the allotted hours can be tough. “We can’t attend every callout. We have to consider the response time to get there, whether there is a sufficient risk to life and what additional level of service we can provide that can’t be provided by another unit.”
So, while there are many requests for assistance from around the country, only 1 to 2 per cent of Eagle’s work is outside the Auckland region.
When they’re not in the air, the crew are training, monitoring intel from three districts, doing paperwork and cutting video footage for evidential purposes.
I, in the sky
The night I went out with the Eagle crew it was drizzly, which kept many Aucklanders indoors. That was good in a way because I’d been warned I could be dropped off if they needed to head to an important job, especially if they had to pick up a dog team.
The quiet night allowed for a good demonstration of the equipment. It was amazing how quickly they could sift through and interpret so much information, searching for “needles in a haystack”.
With so much going on in the cockpit and the helicopter constantly, but gently, changing direction, it’s little wonder that new relievers or ride-alongs like me can get a little green around the gills.
Quite suddenly, I was taking deep breaths and hoping I wasn’t going to embarrass myself. I had been so interested in what the crew were doing, trying to spot something out of place, that the nausea took me by surprise.
Fortunately, letting a bit more fresh air into the cockpit and advice to look out at the horizon worked a treat. – KELLY QUILL
What not to do
NZ Police maintains a clear separation of duties between the civilian helicopter pilot and police crew.
The pilot looks after the safety of the aircraft, while the crew focus on policing.
In contrast, United States police air support crew train as pilots, which can blur the line between duties. A few years ago, a US police chopper pilot, flying at an altitude of just 600 feet (182 metres) to keep clear of other air traffic, was pursuing an armed suspect in an aggravated robbery. The pilot took the chopper in close enough to shoot at the offender, who returned fire with a sawn-off shotgun. The chopper, damaged in the shootout, had to make an emergency landing in an industrial area.
The Kiwi crew flies at 1000 feet or higher, coming in low only when necessary and if it is safe to do so. Flying at a higher altitude also allows more discreet tracking and gives Eagle the element of surprise.
In another example of poor decision-making, a US police officer who was piloting a police helicopter thought it was appropriate to land in a car park because it was time for his morning tea doughnut.
Police in the Canadian city of Winnipeg were forced to apologise last month after a lewd and explicit conversation about sex was broadcast from the loudspeakers of a police helicopter to a neighbourhood below. Officers on a routine night-time helicopter patrol inadvertently activated the aircraft’s public address system while they were having a private conversation.
Meanwhile, in London, the Metropolitan Police’s chopper crew were under investigation last month for using their surveillance camera to photograph comedian Michael McIntyre and then posting the picture on Twitter.