National Police Air Service

Dr Simon Bennettflew with a Police Air Support Unit to witness first-hand the challenges faced, capabilities used and the skills imparted to police the streets of the United Kingdom.Kieron/AirTeamImages


Perspective is important when thinking about crime and political violence. Despite the dire predictions of politicians and commentators, the times in which we live are remarkably safe – and getting safer. As Johan Norberg, author of the 2016 book Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future, wrote in the September 11, 2016 edition of the Sunday Times: “Despite what we hear … poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history …. The risk that any individual will be exposed to war, die in a natural disaster, or be subjected to dictatorship has become smaller than in any other epoch”. Given recent terror attacks, there is a greater awareness of the threat of political violence. Yet the risk of being killed or maimed in a terror attack is small compared to the risk of being killed or maimed in, say, a road traffic accident (RTA).

According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: “In 2015, a total of 11,774 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 28,300 total deaths and more than 35,300 people injured”. According to theWorld Health Organisation, in 2013 around 1.25 million people were killed in RTAs. In 2013, over 1,800 died on Britain’s roads, and over 34,000 on America’s roads.

Of course, although interesting, such comparisons carry little weight with victims of crime. Domestic crime, crime against the person, the continuing threat to the Northern Ireland Peace Process posed by dissident Republicans and the threat of ISIS-inspired attacks on the UK mainland undermine public morale, harm the economy and cause hurt and anguish to victims, their relatives and friends (the ‘second-line victims of crime’).

Reductions in police numbers mean that resources must be used efficiently and effectively. Because of their ability to provide intelligence and direct assets for maximum effect, helicopters are a force-multiplier.

Aerial policing on a shrinking budget

As Ian Frain explained in his article on the origins and status of aerial policing, police helicopter operations in England and Wales are run by the National Police Air Service (NPAS).

Headquartered in Wakefield, NPAS is developing its capabilities by admixing rotary and fixedwing assets. Four fixed-wing Vulcan Air P68R twin-engine aircraft will supplement the existing rotary fleet of Eurocopter EC135 and EC145 aircraft. Additionally, the police can call upon the services of the 22nd Special Air Service Squadron (22 SAS). Ferried to major incidents by the blue-painted Dauphin helicopters of 658 Squadron, Army Air Corps, the job of 22 SAS is to work with the Police to contain and neutralise terror threats. During the recent attacks in London, readers may have read tabloid accounts of ‘Blue Thunder’ anti-terror helicopter operations. These accounts document the deployment of 658 Squadron Dauphins.

Like the forty-three police forces it serves, NPAS has had to tighten its belt. The 2015- 2016 NPAS Annual Report refers to “plans to deliver 14% budget savings” during “a period of huge change and development”. According to a November 30, 2017, BBC news report, since the inception of NPAS in 2012, the number of bases has been cut from 31 to 15, and the number of helicopters has been cut from 33 to 19 (although it should be noted that the remaining, upgraded, machines are highly capable). At the time of its launch, Policing Minister Damian Green MP claimed that the new national structure would see police helicopters “deployed faster” while reducing overall costs from around £63m to £48m a year. Green told the BBC: “Crime, or the need to search, doesn’t stop at county boundaries. It is … the speed of deployment that makes a difference …. There will be more helicopters available more of the time because you’ve got the resilience of having a national structure …. They will be deployed faster and there will be more aircraft available to do it, so people will get a better service …. This is a police-driven decision. They wanted a national air service because they knew they could provide a better service with this type of structure than the previous fragmented structure”. Brian Greenslade, of the Association of Police Authorities, shared Green’s optimism: “From catching criminals to ensuring the safety of crowds, helicopters and other means of air support are essential tools in the fight against crime, but they are costly and in some areas used infrequently …. This programme should ensure that forces retain the right capability to call on air support to protect the public whilst sharing its considerable costs”. However, not everyone subscribed to the official line. On October 1, 2012, one crewmember anonymously voiced his concerns about the new unified structure to a reporter. According to the BBC: “One police crew member … said lives would be ‘put at risk, or possibly lost’ because it would take too long to get to incidents …. He said the new service … was focused on cost rather than capability”. At the end of 2017, concerns were expressed that the improvements in service promised by the government had not materialised. In November 2017, HM Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), Mr Matthew Parr, expressed his concerns about:

Response times. According to HMIC, there were wide variations in response times, from 10.5 minutes for a helicopter to arrive on scene in London, to over an hour in Cumbria Cost. According to HMIC, since 2009 the cost of flight hours had more than doubled, from £1,335 in 2009 to £2,820 in 2016-2017 Client satisfaction. Mr Parr claimed that satisfaction levels amongst the forty-three police forces served by NPAS were falling. He told the press: “If we go on as we are I think we’ll get chief constables and PCCs [police crime commissioners] increasingly dissatisfied with the service”. Parr claimed NPAS required “urgent … and …wide-ranging reform” Compensatory initiatives. Mr Parr noted that some forces were investing in their own drone units. In a joint initiative, Surrey and Sussex Police had spent £300,000 on five unmanned aircraft, while Durham Constabulary had purchased a drone for £1,450.

Inevitably, politicians and the media picked up on Mr Parr’s comments. One MP raised the matter of response times in Parliament. The December 13, 2017 edition of the North West Evening Mail ran the headline: “Cumbria police helicopters failing to tackle crime due to slow response rate …. More than 40 per cent of call-outs last year were cancelled because the incidents were already over, a watchdog has found”. The North West Evening Mail noted: “One unnamed city force reported that the number of pursuits [in their area] had more than tripled, from 100 in 2014 to 336 in 2016, due in part to a ‘criminal perception that the police no longer had ready access to helicopter support’”. Such data suggests a link between the availability of aerial surveillance and criminals’ proclivity to commit crime. Lancashire’s PCC, Mr Clive Grunshaw, claimed the report “raise[d] serious questions” about service levels. “There are clear inconsistencies in service and cost which means that Lancashire is not getting value-for-money from this national service ….

I will be working with other areas to ensure a fairer national picture for our police forces, but here in Lancashire we continue to explore the use of drones alongside partners in the Fire and Rescue Service” Grunshaw told the December 5 edition of the Lancashire Post. Despite the negativity of some of his comments, Parr commended the “high levels of skill, dedication and commitment” of NPAS personnel.

Police helicopter operations – theory

Studies into the effectiveness of police helicopter operations have produced contradictory findings. A literature review undertaken by the Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC) in 2001 found “no data to substantiate claims that helicopter use suppresses rates of crime”. A CPRC study of police helicopter operations in London, Ontario, showed that while helicopter patrols improved the efficiency and effectiveness of policing (tasks were completed more quickly with more criminals being apprehended), they had “no suppression effects on rates of crime”. The CPRC also found that while police officers were “highly positive” about aerial support, London’s residents were no more than “somewhat supportive”. Reported in the Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis in 1978, an experimental study conducted in Nashville found the opposite: “The helicopter patrolled one city zone from 09:00 to 17:00 hours for two twelve-day periods. Each twelve-day period was separated by a baseline period in which only normal patrol-car levels were maintained. Significantly reduced burglary levels during the intervention periods [were observed]”. The study also claimed that the “marginal costs of the helicopter intervention were exceeded by all estimates of benefits”.

A paper published jointly by the University of South Carolina’s College of Criminal Justice and the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology argued that police helicopter operations should be subject to highfidelity cost-benefit analysis and operational evaluation. The authors noted: “There are … trade-offs that one must consider in assessing the potential costs and benefits of a police department using helicopters …. The implementation and operation of helicopters is expensive, especially for departments under tight budgetary constraints”.

Alun Morris Jones/AirTeamImages

Police helicopter operations – practice

Despite the contradictory evidence, there is no doubting that aerial support has the potential to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of UK policing. And, as this author can confirm from his time with the NPAS, there is no doubting the professionalism and commitment of the service’s personnel.

During the Autumn of 2017, following a programme of interviews with pilots, tactical flight officers (TFOs), base managers and dispatchers, the author observed several operational sorties from the rear left-hand seat. Although familiar with the flight decks of numerous fixed-wing types, these were his first helicopter sorties. Aspects that impressed the author included:

a. The quality of team working

The author was impressed by the quality of crewmembers’ crew resource management (CRM) skills under duress. Stressors include the necessity to respond as rapidly as possible to tasking, operating in uncontrolled airspace, working through the circadian low,irregular meals, witnessing acts of violence or destruction (such as the August 2011 English Riots), bearing witness to personal tragedy (for example, a person under a train), awareness that helicopter units have come under fire (as happened during the English Riots, for example) and that the Eurocopter offers no ballistic protection, the inevitable noise and vibration, and the likelihood of being retasked in flight. In the opinion of the author, the NPAS model of multi-profession CRM training, that sees pilots and TFOs learning and practicing CRM together, improves team working. Between tasks everyone congregated in the hangar’s accommodation block – a series of interconnected portacabins that contained an operations room, crew room, base commander’s office, pilot’s office, kitchen, toilet, shower and changing room. The author was struck by the camaraderie and good humour of the TFOs and pilots, even when frustrated, tired and hungry.

Derek Pedley/AirTeamImages

b. Pilots’ and tactical flight officers’ capacity for circumspection

The author was interested to understand how pilots and TFOs coped with the inevitable frustrations and disappointments of police work, such as not being able to locate a missing person, not being able to prevent a suicide, having to abandon a mission because of inclement weather or fuel-state and not being able to directly help members of the public or colleagues in jeopardy. Interviewees’ invariably responded that they had come to terms with such frustrations. One TFO put it this way: “You get frustrated. You get quite colourful in your language sometimes. It winds you up. But you think ‘There’s nothing you can do’. You have got to try and keep focused …. You have got to be a bit stoic and say: ‘We’ll get them next time’ …. You kind of pacify yourself that way. You think of all the times you have made a difference. You always get them [the criminals] in the end.

Because they will always do it again. And you get them eventually. They [the criminals] don’t know what else to do”. Another TFO observed: “There is pressure … you have to call and say ‘Sorry, we can’t come because of the weather’. It can be frustrating for [ground units]. You can hear it in their voices.

Particularly if it is a vulnerable missing person, or someone has been sighted in the river. You can’t do it. You have to detach yourself from it”. A third TFO said: “You don’t beat yourself up”. It occurred to the author that there is a positive correlation between a crewmember’s functional efficiency and her/his ability to remain detached from the things she/he sees.

c. TFOs’ skill-levels

The Eurocopter’s advanced sensor and communications-fit makes big demands of the TFOs. Front and rear-seat TFOs must demonstrate high-quality motor, cognitive and communications skills, including the ability to multi-task under conditions of physical and psychological stress. On-board tasks include:

- communicating concurrently with crewmembers and ground units

- monitoring the video picture acquired by the camera operator (the front-seat TFO)

- using the database-supported mapping system

- questioning the pilot to maintain an accurate picture of environmental threats (such as bad weather) and the helicopter’s fuel-state, in support of mission-planning.

Good situation-awareness ensures that resources are used to best effect.

The author was impressed by individual crewmembers’ resilience, stamina and appetite for the job.

d. Pilots’ skill-levels

Many NPAS pilots flew helicopters in the UK armed forces. Familiar with nap-of-the-earth flying, they flew the Eurocopter in the most effective manner possible, while bearing in mind the NPAS safety-first dictum. Safety was uppermost in everyone’s mind. As one TFO put it: “We operate [a system whereby] ‘if one person is not happy, we are all not happy’.

None of the pilots would say ‘Well I’m happy.

You should be going along with me’ …. the way we operate is, if one person is not happy, we are all not happy”.

e. The capabilities of the equipment

The author was impressed by the stability of the EC135 platform, even in adverse weather. The camera produced moving and still images of the highest quality over large distances, under all conditions.

In conclusion, there is no doubting the professionalism and commitment of those involved with the NPAS, from pilots and TFOs to dispatchers and engineers. Through training and practice, personnel and machinery segue to create a formidable capability. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to square the circle of doing more with less. Writing in the March, 2017 edition of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies’ Newsletter, a West Yorkshire Police employee noted how the new fifteen-base model “… achieved an approximate saving of 14% of the current budget, in addition to the 23% originally saved from nationalising police air support”. One interpretation HM Inspector of Constabulary’s comments, and comments provoked by Mr Parr’s intervention, is that the NPAS is underresourced. Another is that the fifteen-base model delivers an uneven service.