By Joe West | July 1, 2008
The United Kingdom is a small country, but it does have big ideas when it comes to police helicopters.
The nation’s 60 million people live in a country of 93 million sq mi. That compares in size with the U.S. state of Michigan (with a bit more than 10 million residents) and is one-third that of Texas (with more than 23.5 million).
To cover this area, England and Wales have 43 police forces, Scotland has eight and Northern Ireland one. Most have their own air support units, usually consisting of one aircraft. The force in the forefront of policing from the air is undoubtedly London’s Metropolitan (Met) Police.
The Met first took to the air in 1921, when it borrowed an airship to keep an eye on the crowd at Britain’s major horse racing event, "The Derby." Later it experimented with balloons, autogyros and fixed-wing aircraft. In 1967, it joined with several other forces and the British Army to train policemen as observers in Bell Helicopter 47 Sioux (then used as reconnaissance aircraft). This led to the Met hiring helicopters as required until 1980, when it bought its own Bell 222s.
Initially, it contracted pilots from major helicopter companies. Now, like its engineers (or mechanics), they are directly employed. By 1996, the Bells were replaced by Eurocopter AS355N Twin Squirrels, which were significantly quieter and equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and tracking equipment.
As the requirement for policing became more complex, particularly after September 11, 2001, the Met thought it should upgrade its capability and decided to jump a generation and go for a larger and more mission-capable helicopter. It chose the EC145. Thus, on July 4, 2007, it took delivery of three at its Lippits Hill base to the northwest of London.
The Air Support Unit operates from this old anti-aircraft site, which was used in both world wars. In World War II, it was home for a time to the 184th AAA Gun Battalion of the U.S. Army, which was there for a time defending London. It later was used to hold German and Italian prisoners of war. From this base, a helicopter can be flying above the furthest of London’s 10 million inhabitants within 15 min.
The EC145, also known as the BK117C2, is powered by two Turbomeca Arriel 1E2s that give it a fast cruise speed of 135 kt and an endurance of up to 3.5 hr. The Met fly it with one pilot. He is assisted by two police observers who man the advanced police communications suite. It is fitted with a digital, four-axis autopilot, which gives it a single pilot IFR capability. It is at present flown VFR, though some of the pilots do have instrument ratings.
One of the observers sits next to the pilot while the other one sits behind and is in effect the tactical controller. They manage the systems, which include a Wescam MX-15 electro-optical sensor, Spectrolab Nightsun SX-16, a SkyQuest touch-screen management system and Gigawave digital downlink and uplink (plus the ability to monitor four police radio channels and two ATC channels). The control suite was designed in house by one of the observers.
There is space for a further three officers to sit in the back. This includes a facility for a senior commander to control an operation utilizing his own screen and radios. The rear observer’s workstation can be removed in 15 min, thus providing space for additional officers in the main cabin (with tactical control devolved to the officer in the copilot’s seat).
I visited the unit and met Deputy Chief Pilot Nick West and the executive officer, Inspector Phillip Whitelaw, who showed me around and introduced some of the roughly 50 people who work there (of which 11 pilots, 21 observers and 10 engineering staff make up the bulk). I went flying over central London with pilot Paul Darnley and observers Steve Chard and Terry White, who demonstrated the amazing capabilities of this aircraft. The workload for the observers is high, but the touch-screen visual displays make life easier. It is impressive to see a house address punched into the computer and watch the camera turn towards it and eventually zoom in on the house.
I also got time to speak to Superintendent Julia Pendry, the senior officer in charge of dogs, boats and planes, and asked her where the future lies with these expensive helicopters. She sees them moving forward in areas such as winching firearms teams onto rooftops and carrying specialist teams, including dogs, to incidents both criminal and terrorist. She said she believes that, having invested millions of pounds on new aircraft, they must evolve tactics to defeat London’s criminals. With the 2012 Olympics coming to London, we can be sure that the three aircraft will be flying more than the 3,300 hr they are now achieving annually.