Products, Public Service, Regulatory

Looking Inward

By Joe West | July 1, 2005

After 50 years of patrolling Germany's borders, the Bundesgrenzschutz may soon take on responsibility for policing that nation's interior as well.

If you were to ask a group of pilots to list the largest civilian operators flying within Europe, it is unlikely that many will come up with the German Federal Border Guard--a force that operates more than 100 helicopters, all on the German civil register.

The Federal Border Guard Aviation Group (or Die Bundesgrenzschutz (BGS) Fliegergruppe) came into being in 1951 as a border protection force facing the threat from the Soviet Union. It is not a military force and comes under the direction of Interior Minister Otto Schily. After the collapse of the USSR, the BGS had to find new roles. Since 1990, along with border protection of the federal territory, these have ranged from railway police duties and aviation security to disaster relief and aid to federal Institutions such as Bundes Kriminalamt (German FBI).

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The aviation group is additionally tasked to provide much of the transportation for VIPs such as the Federal Chancellor and foreign heads of state, plus international disaster assistance and hospital emergency medical services (HEMS). Recent excursions involved sending aircraft to the Mozambique floods of 2000, plus three Pumas equipped with Bambi buckets to France and Portugal in 2003 for firefighting.

The BGS is responsible for the 4486 km. (2,787 mi.) land border with its nine neighboring countries plus 700 km. (435 mi.) of sea border and 2,150 km. (1336 mi.) of coastline. One of the most effective tools to aid the commander in meeting this task is the BGS Aviation Group. The group's helicopters are divided between five flying squadrons (Fliegerstaffel) located throughout Germany with a headquarters element based at Sankt Augustin.

Early Days

BGS flying operations started in 1955 with Hiller 12Bs, followed the next year by Bell 47s. In 1962 the aviation group added the SA318 Allouette II, followed in 1968 by UH1Ds. Bolkow 105s were purchased for HEMS work in 1971 and still operate, but are being phased out. Since the late 1990s the force has been engaged in modernizing and rationalizing its aircraft inventory and now has a very potent state of the art aviation unit.

With one current exception, the BGS uses equipment supplied by Eurocopter or one of its original companies. The exception is the continuing usage of the Bell 212. Ten of these are in the inventory, with eight usually used for police missions and two used in the Baltic for HEMS and SAR missions. The other major troop carrying aircraft consist of 11 SA330 Pumas and three AS332 Super Pumas. The SA330s are being cut from the inventory while the original Super Puma purchase of three aircraft will be enhanced to 20 by 2009. Five aircraft will be bought from Bristow and a further five from CHC. A further three used aircraft will be purchased along with four new ones for a total of 20.

The BGS has ordered 15 EC155Bs, of which 14 have been delivered. A further five will be purchased by 2011 to give a fleet of 20. These are used in the passenger role, carrying up to 13 passengers, and as a surveillance platform. They can also be equipped with an external rescue hoist in an SAR role. For surveillance they are equipped with a Wescam thermal imaging camera and a Spectrolab SX 16 searchlight.

The contract for the original purchase specified an anti-icing system. However the EC155 with an anti-icing system could not fulfil the operational demand. So the BGS shifted the requirement for all-weather operations to the Super Puma fleet. Consequently, an additional contract was agreed with Eurocopter which means that the BGS will have a fleet of 20 EC155 (without anti-icing) and a fleet of 20 Super Pumas (fully de-iced) in the near future.

A total of 24 and a half of the versatile EC135 have been delivered to the BGS, with half of the 25th aircraft funded by and shared with the Berlin Police. They are used for surveillance in the light observation helicopter role and may well take over from the SA318 in the training role. Each squadron has a quick fit HEMS kit for the EC135 should it be required to back up the BO105 or in the event of an emergency.

Training is still carried out on the old but still reliable SA318C (Alouette II). BGS originally had 32 Alouettes but are now down to 11, with the last one due to be cut from the inventory by the end of 2007.

Germany has a mature HEMS infrastructure, funded by private insurance companies. In many countries the idea of a police force providing ambulance service would be beyond comprehension. Until recently the German Air Force operated two bases, but one was handed to the BGS who, in turn, had to hand some of its bases to private contractors. They are now left with a total of 15 bases spread around the country. HEMS aircraft fly with a crew of pilot, doctor and paramedic. The pilots are all BGS police officers and, amazingly, they carry guns. However the philosophical argument is that the pilots should be armed since they are serving police officers.

Approximately 180 of the 700 personnel serving in the five BSG squadrons are pilots, all of whom had been serving police officers and volunteered for flight training. Once selected, pilot candidates embark on an in-house training course which lasts for about 15 months, during which time they manage to fly just short of 200 hr. on the Alouette and EC135, graduating with a Commercial Pilot's licence with a twin-engine rating. Following their assignment to one of the five squadrons. they return to flight school for a 40-week course in instrument flying to earn an Air Transport Pilot Helicopter Licence. Most pilots have several type ratings on their licences and those who fly the larger transport types go to simulators in Sweden, Switzerland and France to continue their training and carry out their checks. Currently the BGS does not have its own simulators. The BGS has been conducting flights with Night-Vision-Googles since 1983 and train not only their own pilots but also some Sate Police and the Finnish Frontier guard and Slovenian Police.

Maintenance and Safety

Routine maintenance is done at squadron level, with higher level maintenance done at the engineering facility at Sankt Augustin. Major engineering checks on the Pumas and Super Pumas are carried out in Stavanger in Norway by the CHC subsidiary Astec. Heavy maintenance on smaller types is also contracted out within Europe.

The BGS has always been interested in flight safety. In 2001 it purchased 25 EADS Hellas systems, an obstacle warning system for the detection of wires and other low level dangers. Hellas fulfils the original BGS specification made in 1997, but this specification does not meet current requirements. The major problem is the warning area is too large and Hellas comes up with too many spurious warnings. In other words, the system works too well and steps are being taken to redefine the obstacle definitions and reprogram the software. EADS has now done all this and additional test flights are being performed to fine tune the system.

Based alongside the aviation squadron at Sankt Augustin, and part of BGS, is the Grenze Schutze Gruppe 9 (GSG-9) anti-terrorist group. This is the secretive special unit founded by Colonel Ulrich Wegener in 1972 after the events at the Munich Olympics.

GSG-9 is divided into a headquarters unit, three support units and three operational units, each with five special operations troops known as SET (Spezialeinsatztrupp). Depending on the operational unit, the officers also specialize as snipers, combat divers or parachutist. All the officers are volunteers and must have three years BGS or other police service. They undergo nine months training in basic and then specialized techniques.

One of the most recent GSG-9 incidents involved storming a building in Frankfurt/Main to capture a group of extremists who were planning to blow up a large part of the French city of Strasbourg. Their reputation is worldwide, and in March this year a team took part in the World SWAT Challenge in Las Vegas against 18 teams from the United States, Canada and Jordan, and won all seven competitions. They train intensively for helicopter operations with the BGS aviation group as well as with the normal state police forces. Among their specialities are fast roping, parachuting onto buildings and firing from moving helicopters.

Legislation is now going through the German Parliament to change the BGS into the German Federal Police (Bundes Polizei). This has passed the legislative requirements and is expected to be enacted this summer. Surprisingly the first major challenge for the new police force may not be one of terrorism but sport. Next year Germany is to host the Football World Cup, an event that occurs every four years and involves 32 nations. Depending on who qualifies, it could well be that the cream of the world's football hooligans will try to enter Germany to fight among themselves and create chaos. This will mean extra work for all the police forces, but in particular for the surveillance and troop carrying skills of the BGS aviation squadrons.

Meanwhile the BGS aviation unit is already changing their helicopters from military green to police blue. There is no doubt that squadrons throughout Germany will meet all the challenges thrown at them with all the professionalism that has developed over the last 50 years.

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