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A Career Policing London’s Skies

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | March 1, 2013

Inspector Phil Whitelaw has been a policeman with the Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom since 1972. At the end of 2012 he retired from the position of Unit Executive Officer (UEO) and Accountable Manager (AM) of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Air Support Unit (ASU), a unit he has been associated with since February 1994.

The ASU base at Lippitts Hill, Essex, is located to the north of London and just within the M25 motorway that circles the nation’s capital. Lippitts Hill was originally an anti-aircraft site in World War I but transformed into a prisoner of war camp housing Germans and Italians during the World War II until 1948. After another spell as an anti-aircraft center it became Metropolitan Police property in the early 1960s with helicopter operations starting in 1967.

Metropolitan Police formed ASU in 1980 with Bell 222A helicopters. In 1993 the force transitioned to AS355N Squirrels although operating out of Redhill, then Fairoaks, both in Surrey. The Eurocopter EC145s arrived in July 2007 at around £5 million per aircraft including role equipment.


The aviation support unit operates with 48 personnel, comprising three sergeants, 18 police constables, four aircraft engineers, one avionics engineer, 11 pilots and other staff including those who man the control room. All of the pilots are ex-military, mostly Royal Navy but also Army Air Corps. Whitelaw half jokes about the difference between the pilots: “the Army love to clip hedges while the Navy like flying in conditions worse than today [the airfield was windswept with virtually 100 percent low grey cloud when we met].

Inspector Philip Whitelaw. 

His annual budget has been a steady £7 million per annum but in recent years the increasing fuel costs as well as the financial rate of exchange with the Euro (regarding ongoing support from Eurocopter) have had an effect on ASU operations. Flying hours have recently been reduced from 3,300 per annum to 3,000 in order to remain within the unit’s budget.

The unit is the first in the UK to operate the Eurocopter EC145, with an average at a little over 275 hours per month (although this will reduce to around 260) and support not only the Metropolitan Police but other emergency services including the London Fire Brigade, London Ambulance Service and Marine Coastguard, as well as other government agencies.

During his time at the MPSASU, Whitelaw has been involved in all aspects of police aviation from phasing out the Bell 222Aa, to introducing the Eurocopter AS355Ns and then finally the current three EC145s (callsigns India 99, India 98 and India 97). He has worked to increase the capability of the unit and has successfully made the case for increasing the number of police observers from six to 18 officers and from four to 11 pilots—all of whom are now directly employed rather than being contract based.

“Part of the business case for buying these aircraft was to identify the number of hours. We spoke to our European colleagues in France, Germany and Switzerland (Rega) to get a feel for what we had to do,” said Whitelaw.

“We had been flying the Squirrel from 1993 and in 2004 were given an indication that we could change,” he continued. “Initially we were thinking in terms of a light twin such as an EC135 or an MD902 Explorer and we looked at some of the roles we had to do. We tried to look ahead in 2004 and we saw the counter-terrorism (CT) as a future major requirement. The EC145 was the only medium twin that came within our budget.”

Whitelaw said that during the completion of the aircraft the police laid down a requirement that they should be able to remove all the police role equipment within 15 minutes, “so we can go from a fully spec’d aircraft to a flying transit van in a quarter of an hour, which made McAlpines [the Eurocopter agency at the time before Eurocopter bought 100 percent of the company in November 2007] at the time work quite hard. We had bought the Squirrels from them initially so we had a working relationship with them.”

Each aircraft has an L-3 Wescam MX-15 sensor pod which houses a gyro-stabilized color “day” camera and a thermal imaging camera. Images are viewed real-time as well as recorded and can be digitally downlinked to commanders and other units on the ground. “The standard searchlight is being used far less due to the quality of the thermal image,” he added “We also now have moving maps where once we relied on an A-Z paper book of London. So now we punch in the postcode before taking off and the aircraft flies directly to our mission. It is a big time-saver. We used to do 2.3 tasks per hour and now we are well over three per hour.” He explained that there were also benefits to police units on the ground. “They are getting us on a downlinked map display as well. We have mobile systems that we put in vehicles, sometimes accompanied by ASU officers, and ground commanders are more able to make tactical decisions based on the pictures that they are getting from the aircraft. We first saw this during the Notting Hill Carnival a few years ago and it was very effective. It looked like a full-on crush situation on the ground, but from the air we could see there were holes and the situation was manageable.”

Whitelaw with a handheld digital and
encoded downlink receiver.

Whitelaw explained that the digital video downlink from the helicopter operates over line of sight and can be sent to handheld or mobile receivers on the ground. The video feeds are encoded for security and allow senior officers on the ground, usually Bronze commanders, to make real-time decisions.

Surveillance and safety are both important factors in police operations and the sensor turret has made the policing by ground police officers safer. “There is no call for police to go on rooftops anymore, or to go and search railway lines. When I was a young officer the railways would turn the power off for a search, but they don’t do that anymore unless in extreme circumstances. So foot patrols have to clear the line while the rails are still live. But we can now do that for them in most cases.”

Another recent capability involves roping from helicopters. “We now have permission to fly policemen who can rope from aircraft, the only force in the UK that can do so. We had negotiations with the Department for Transport (DfT) and other agencies and we have been training for two years. It became a tactic at the beginning of 2012. Two of our guys went to the army to learn the specialization, so it is now a tactic that is available. The Army also proved to be a valuable source of information when the role of the EC145s was being planned. “We once spent a week in Belfast finding out how the Army managed their surveillance tasks; how they positioned a helicopter over the city and stayed in overwatch. Every quarter we conduct some work with the military—they use our pictures into their command center.”

When asked if senior managers value more highly now the role that air support plays, Whitelaw points to the ongoing formation of the National Police Air Service (NPAS). “In London we used to be a bolt on to an operation. When the weather closes down we have to stop operations. But today we have advisers on the ground and fiber optic link—you can downlink to fixed and mobile sites so we are now fairly integrated and that is appreciated, although it has been a lot of hard work.”

The idea is that with the formation of NPAS there will be a rationalization in the number of helicopters but no reduction in the service. NPAS should help to regulate operations. “There are a lot of areas of policing that could be nationalized, perhaps firearms being the closest as they have a national strategy and a national firearms manual that everyone operates to. We don’t have that in the ASUs. But it is a difficult area to bring together as they are finding out.”

Personally, he continued, “I don’t think the police authorities have been engaged early enough, but there are always politics surrounding every issue. They have tried to keep everyone happy, but there are 43 chief police constables involved who are, in effect, 43 fiefdoms—and policemen like to be in control.”

The difference in size between forces has been an area of contention. “Some forces are smaller than some boroughs. Whitelaw argues that not everybody and task needs a helicopter. “Light fixed-wing can do what a lot that a helicopter does other than land. There will be a lot of opportunities over the next five years at NPAS builds, however, and when the operations of some European helicopter operators are examined—such as Rega in Switzerland—we are perhaps 10 years behind where we should be.”

The direction that NPAS has decided on is to decrease the number of aircraft from 33 to 24 [with three in reserve—although the starting number of ASU helicopters was 30]. There is some concern that this cut is too many, too fast. Whitelaw observes: “My difficulty is why somebody in the middle of Dartmoor deserves the same response time [20 minutes] as someone in the middle of Leeds. There are circles drawn on the map rather than looking at the demand profile. Hertfordshire lost their aircraft because the circles overlapped too much.”

Eurocopter EC145 in flight showing role equipment including
the L-3 Wescam MX-15 turret.

But the benefits of NPAS are plain to see. “It is similar in size to a big civil operator with 24 aircraft, three spares and 200-plus people so it should collectively be able to get economies from the manufacturers and fuel suppliers, among other areas.” NPAS officials have already announced an expectation of saving around £15 million per year.

The real changes will begin on Jan. 1, 2014, when NPAS will decide how these aircraft will be used and where they will be located. “Our future plans at MPSASU focused on a half life upgrade of the EC145 including a four-axis auto pilot, FADEC and a Fenestron tail, depending on the cost. We were also interested in Honeywell’s Skyforce, a mission management system for sensor equipped aircraft—it looks good.”

Sometimes what you listen to on the radio is different to the air picture. You could mix and match with the emergency services—heavy equipment to move the fire brigade around and smaller aircraft for other search and rescue.

The maintenance hangar at Lippitts Hill.

Finally, when asked about the potential onset of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Whitelaw said that although they have been discussed, particularly before the Olympic Games in 2012, there is still a safety issue. “Unmanned will come. The worry is still if it comes down and injures or kills someone. One initial option might involve policing the English Channel so if it comes down, it would be unlucky to hit a vessel.”

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