How did you first get involved in aerial policing?
I joined the police in 1995 and completed tours in response policing, support unit and armed response before being very fortunate to be offered a police air observer course in 2004. Police Scotland was created in 2013 with the amalgamation of eight Scottish forces, and our force back then was Strathclyde Police – the only force in Scotland to operate a police helicopter. The unit was recruiting ‘relief’ air observers. Believe it or not, I was sitting in a briefing room with two colleagues and we were ‘volunteered’ for air observer training by the Sergeant because we were in his line of sight at that moment!
What are your responsibilities with the Air Support Unit?
I have been lucky enough to hold three roles within the Air Support Unit spanning 18 years. Constable, Sergeant and now Inspector – The Boss. My main responsibility is to ensure that the unit is an effective police resource and that all our air assets continue to deliver the best possible service to support local policing across Scotland. I am designated Unit Executive Officer and my responsibilities include managing the day-to-day running of the unit, having an oversight of all air observer training, tasking and coordinating of air assets for spontaneous and pre-planned tasking and making sure that the aircraft are deployed appropriately. As the single point of contact with our helicopter service provider, I liaise with the contractor to ensure that a number of aspects of the contract are fulfilled.
I am also the Police Scotland Accountable Manager for remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) operations, which we have been using operationally since 2019.
How do you navigate the relationship with the civilian contractor that provides the pilot, the helicopter, the facilities and equipment?
Since the establishment of the Air Support Unit in 1992, the police helicopter has been provided by a civilian contractor. While that contractor is providing a service, our approach has always been a ‘one unit’ mentality. Regardless of an individual’s role or who they work for, they are part of a special team. Many of the employees are ex-military and bring with them bags of knowledge and experience. We are now the only police force in the UK that uses this type of service provision. The contractor provides the aircraft, pilots, engineers, hangar facilities and office accommodation, and takes responsibility for all maintenance, aircraft certification, compliance with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), pilot training and certification etc. For me as a manager, this is really straightforward and allows me to focus on the policing aspect without worrying about, for example, ordering helicopter parts or arranging a pilot’s operator proficiency check.
What types of aircraft does the Air Support Unit utilize and what are their benefits for the special operations that they perform?
We have the ability to deploy both aircraft simultaneously to support major operations/events
We operate an Airbus H135 T3 as our primary aircraft, and this is complimented by an EC135 T2+ as the back-up helicopter. We generally only operate one helicopter at a time, however we have the ability to deploy both simultaneously to support major operations/events and continue to respond to business as usual demand – for example, we deployed both helicopters during the policing operation for the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2022.
The H135 T3 has been in service since late 2016 and was one of the first T3s to be operated in the police role. The most notable differences over the T2 are increased endurance, overall performance and reduced noise level, which is really important when operating over urban areas in the wee small hours! With a standard police payload and crew of three (pilot and two police officers), the T3 offers an endurance of approximately 2 hours 20 minutes.
Both helicopters are configured and certified for using night vision goggles, which enhances flight safety at night when flying around Scotland. As our base is located on the River Clyde in Glasgow, both our helicopters are fitted with an emergency float system on low skids.
What kind of specialist equipment does a police helicopter have that differentiates it from other aircraft, and how does the equipment help you in your activities?
The police helicopter carries an array of specialist police role equipment. Our payload configuration is fixed and gives us the optimum use of the role equipment for a variety of police tasks. Carried just above the front starboard skid assembly is the L3 WESCAM MX-10. This is a compact multi-sensor, multi-spectral imaging system. The thermal imaging sensor is invaluable for searching at night-time or in cooler conditions. Crucially, its small size and low weight make it ideal for police air operations. The MX-10 is intuitive and easy to use and is linked to other mission equipment.
Any imagery from the MX-10 can be ‘downlinked’ to our control rooms via an antenna. This gives the controller a live feed of the incident from the helicopter providing enhanced situational awareness.
Attached at the front port skid assembly is a powerful light – a Trakka Beam – we don’t actually search with this light. Instead, we use it to illuminate large areas at night, identify persons or objects of interest, and assist during night-time landings where there is no ground lighting.
Both helicopters are configured and certified for using night vision goggles, which enhances flight safety at night
At the heart of our police role equipment is the AIMS Mission Management System. This integrates our MX-10 camera by geo-spatially overlaying this output onto the moving map. It provides augmented reality functionality by overlaying tactical data and street information on the video window, and essentially reduces the cognitive burden of the air observer performing the navigator role, by not having to cross refer to an alternative mapping system.
All our police air observers are trained to use the role equipment to its fullest, ensuring that the crew has maximum effectiveness on task.
How many police crew are onboard for any given mission and what are their roles?
As mentioned, a standard police aircrew configuration is one pilot (front right seat), one police air observer (front left seat) and one police air observer in the rear right hand side seat. The front observer operates the MX-10 camera and the rear observer operates the AIMS system, and handles navigation and communications with police area control rooms.
What scenarios are Police Scotland’s Air Support Unit mostly called out for? And what are the most challenging operations that you have to manage?
The majority of the unit’s tasking relates to missing person enquiries. On average we will be assisting with three to four missing person enquiries per day across Scotland. Missing person tasking can range from an immediate search to preserve life to sadly looking for a body after some weeks or months have passed.
The police helicopter conducted 370 missing person searches last year.
As well as missing person searches, the unit provides critical response to threat-to-life incidents; rapid transport of personnel and equipment to remote or inaccessible locations; vehicle pursuits and suspect person follows; firearms and public order incidents; crime scene aerial imagery; post-incident investigation; and supporting local policing initiatives. Our air assets provide police commanders with crucial situational awareness during the policing of large scale or major events, such as football matches via a downlink facility.
Mental health is one of the major public health challenges in Scotland and this has a significant impact on policing
How has aerial policing changed since you joined the unit?
Ninety per cent of the work carried out by the Air Support Unit in Scotland is in relation to missing persons. Mental health is one of the major public health challenges in Scotland and this has a significant impact on policing. As such, much of our work directly relates to this.
What does the future hold for you and the Air Support Unit?
Demand for air support remains constant, however, as drone technology evolves at pace, we hope to embrace that technology to the fullest and increase or use of drones across Scotland. Drones will never replace the police helicopter, which remains our primary air asset, however, drones definitely have a role to play in police aviation and they bring unique and cost-effective operational benefit.