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Client Name: Devon & Cornwall Air Operations Unit

The Force commenced a programme of Air Operations evaluation in 1979 for a six week period during the peak holiday months of July and August. The helicopter was available to the Force for three days a week over this period. An AS 350B was hired from MacAlpine Helicopters Limited flown under their AOC, piloted and maintained by them.

From this experiment it was realised that to be effective the helicopter had to be immediately available and that a considerable suppressed demand for helicopter operations existed within the Force. In 1980 and 1981 the experiment was extended to a nine-month period and in fact during the three month lay off the helicopter was recalled to the Force to assist on a number of occasions.

In 1982 the unit became fully operational with eight sergeant observers drawn from each of the traffic centres throughout the Force. The observers were attached to the unit for a period of seven days at a time one week in eight. The helicopter was hired from Colt Cars UK Limited and included the pilot, maintenance and fuel. One shift a day was worked from 0900 until 1700 although an informal system of call out was available.

Minimal role equipment was carried on the aircraft and night operations provided only a very limited capability. The introduction of Air Operations within the Force was controversial with many officers seeing it as an expensive toy based at Headquarters.

Studies were carried out to establish where best to locate the aircraft on a permanent basis and given the volume of work in the Eastern Force area and the central location of such resources as dogs and firearms teams allied to the difficulties with weather conditions at Plymouth throughout the winter months, it was decided to base the Air Operations Unit at Middlemoor.

As the successes of the unit mounted throughout the Force area, acceptance and understanding of Air Operations grew and it rapidly became an integral part of the Force assets. The eight traffic officers whilst serving back in division for seven weeks in eight also played an important part in spreading the message of the value of Air Operations.

In March 1984 the Traffic Officers were replaced by six other officers from different departments, but again word spread throughout the divisions of the Force.

In 1984 the Police Authority agreed to the purchase of a single engine AS350B Squirrel to be owned and operated by the Force in the private category with pilotage and maintenance contracted out. Police Aviation Services Limited supplied the pilotage and Field Aircraft Services at Exeter Airport carried out the maintenance. During this period the Force had become a focal point nationally for Air Operations. A number of Forces had sent representatives and Police Authority members to view the operation and gain a better understanding of the capabilities of aviation in policing.

The Force constructed Operations courses designed for middle management wishing to develop air support and observer training. The first of these was held in September 1985 and continued through until September 1991. The limitations of operating a single engine helicopter became rapidly apparent and studies were conducted on the procurement of a twin engine helicopter to increase both operational capability and safety.
Detailed studies identified the BO105 as being the best helicopter to meet the Force's needs. This involved not only the police role but increasing demand for casualty and medical evacuation operating in the rugged terrain existing within the Force area. The AS350B Squirrel was sold in November 1986 at a profit and a BO105 DBS4 was purchased in December 1986. This was the first stretched BO105 to be introduced into the United Kingdom. The unit still only operated on one shift a day, but as a private operation the pilot's hours were flexible and with an increasing number of call-outs at night, the nightsun SX16 search light was procured to assist in night operations.

In 1990 the Force acquired a flying pictures dual thermal imaging and video camera pod which was developed specifically for Force needs and proved a great advantage in both day and night operations. In October 1991, after a tendering process, the pilotage contract was awarded to Air Omega Limited and a two shift a day roster was introduced still under the private category. The Force was now operating with full time air observers, a unit inspector and its own maintenance organisation.

In 1992 the Home Office demonstrated the use of night vision goggles to the then Chief Constable, John Evans and he offered the use of the unit and its aircraft to assist the Home Office to progress the development of this equipment. In September 1993 the appointment of Unit Inspector was civilianised and a commercial pilot experienced in police aviation appointed as Air Operations Manager.

In April 1992 the Force was awarded its Police Air Operators Certificate and has been operating in accordance with this rather than the private category ever since.

In May 1994 the Force recruited officers from the rank of constable as full time Air Observers, a move which would see the removal of Sergeants from the Unit, except for one, who would take the role of Deputy Unit Executive Officer.

Late in July 1994 the Force used the Home Office framework agreement for the provision of pilotage and Police Aviation Services were awarded a five-year contract for the provision of pilots to the Force. In November 1994, keeping with its commitment to innovation and development the unit commenced an evaluation into the use of Night Vision Goggles, which had been purchased in 1992 with the help of funding from the Home Office.

The goggles are helmet mounted and allow both pilot and observer to see at night through miniature image intensifiers.

July 1998 saw the introduction of the BK117 into police service within the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, the Constabulary now being in its nineteenth year of air support operations. During this time we have seen the move from a light, single-engine helicopter with minimal equipment to the twin-engine, sophisticated aircraft of today. New equipment has greatly improved operational effectiveness and efficiency.

This is the first BK117 in the country and represents an enormous step forward due to its versatility in performing a wide variety of roles. It is equipped such that it has the ability to fly in poor weather conditions, and is capable of a transport role carrying a crew of two with up to nine passengers. In its normal operating role with crew of two - a pilot and a police observer, enough fuel can be carried for two and a half-hours of flying.

The Force area covers the whole of Devon and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The endurance of the BK117 is such that any part of the Force area can be reached with enough fuel to carry out tasks on scene. For example, it takes approximately forty-five minutes to fly from Exeter to Lands End, and a further fifteen minutes to reach the Isles of Scilly. North Devon and Plymouth are each around twenty minutes flying time from Exeter. A selection of configurations can be matched to operational tasks as required.

The role equipment specification on board the BK117 was set out by the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to allow full operation by a crew of two. At the heart of this concept is a moving map/mission management system. This system not only shows the aircraft's position relative to an incident, but also highlights nearest street names and even house numbers on a large screen positioned in front of the police air observer.

In addition to both aircraft and role equipment upgrades, personnel on the unit have also been put through their paces. All pilots successfully achieved qualifications in Flight Instrument Rules, providing the only police aircraft with this capability and all police observers have received training from West Country Ambulance Trust. This training has led to all officers gaining the qualification of Co-Responder. This will enable observers who are first to arrive at the scene to provide effective and possibly life saving support prior to medical personnel arriving.

The unit is still based at Force headquarters but now has operational sites at Plymouth, Camborne and RNAS Culdrose. These sites are of the utmost importance in allowing the aircraft to position to pre determined sites throughout the Force area. The result being a more effective and efficient resource to ground based units, simply by being able to get to the scene quicker when airborne assistance is required.

The unit continues to develop, not only within the Force, but also alongside all other units within the Southwest region, working closely to establish common training standards and a professional supply of well trained observers into the role. Devon and Cornwall now regularly contributes to this regional approach by hosting basic air observer courses.

So with a keen eye on the advances in technology and an up to date approach to new training initiatives, the unit continues to evolve as a valuable policing tool in today's society.


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