The Victoria Police Air Wing provides 24/7 coverage to a wide range of police and search and rescue incidents across the Australian state of Victoria. In June 2020, the unit acquired three Leonardo AW139 7000kg-version helicopters and one King Air 350ER fixed-wing aircraft. The helicopters are leased from StarFlight Victoria, which manages all maintenance and logistics. Starflight Victoria also employ engineers and support staff who work full time at the unit's Essendon Fields facility. The King Air is leased from Skytraders, which manage the fixed wing pilots and maintain the aircraft.
The unit consists of a number of sworn helicopter pilots, contracted fixed-wing pilots and a chief pilot who is qualified to fly both aircraft. The pilots work closely with tactical flight officers (TFOs) who are experienced and specialised police officers.
Fixed-wing vs rotary-wing mission profiles
“The King Air 350ER fixed wing greatly enhances Victoria Police’s air capability,” said Rob Rogel, Chief Pilot, “as it can travel up to six hours without the need to stop and refuel. It is predominately used to monitor pursuits and search for outstanding offenders or stolen vehicles.” Like the AW139 helicopter, the fixed-wing aircraft is also used to provide public safety and security during major events, assist with high-risk search operations and fly specialist units to regional areas during critical incidents. “Using aircraft to transport units like the Special Operations Group, Dog Squad and Search and Rescue Squad helps our regional police greatly, as specialized police can be there to assist them in a matter of minutes,” said Rogel. “The AW139 helicopters are also equipped with a winch – a Goodrich Hoist, which allows TFOs to rescue missing, trapped or injured persons on land or in water.”
Crew profile – experience counts
Victoria Police Air Wing pilots are required to have a minimum 2,000 hours’ experience, with 1,500 of those as pilot in command. They also must hold a Multi Engine Command Instrument Rating, Low Level Rating, Night Visual Flight Rules Rating and preferably a Night Vision Imaging System (NVIS). A current type rating on the types flown is also welcomed. The average flight time for one of the current pilots is around 5,000 hours, which goes to show that once pilots are in, they seem to enjoy their role!
Victoria Police Air Wing pilots are required to have minimum 2,000 hours’ experience, with 1,500 of those as pilot in command
The Victoria Police Air Wing also employs a number of tactical flight officers. “The AW139 helicopter operates with two TFOs on board, one in the front left and one in the rear, and the fixed-wing aircraft functions with two TFOs in the rear at mission consoles,” explained Rogel. TFOs are experienced police officers and undergo rigorous water, navigation, and flight training during the selection process. TFOs are qualified in winching, tactical operations, search and rescue and NVIS.
Regular training keeps skills sharp
“Our crews train regularly to maintain and develop their skills,” said Rogel. This includes search and rescue exercises, which involves land/water winch scenarios both aided and unaided, and tactical training, which involves specialist units. Training is conducted both day and night and encompasses all terrain types to ensure officers are well equipped and ready to respond when actual incidents occur.
Working in crowded airspace
Victoria Police Air Wing helicopters are often deployed to search for offenders who have fled from crime scenes on foot or in cars. In terms of flight risk assessment, drones in Australia are limited to 400 feet, so thankfully, the crews have yet to encounter any issues with them in terms of near misses. “When responding to an incident that the media helicopter is attending, we will talk on a common frequency and agree on an operating height that avoids conflict,” said Rogel. “The media is very supportive and understand the need to give us the space required to safely perform our role. The helicopters are also fitted with Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems II, which gives us great situational awareness. The King Air generally spends most of its time at altitude in controlled airspace.”
The Victoria Police Air Wing is not only responsible for crime-related tasks, but also plays an important role in search and rescue operations, covering a variety of conditions and climates
Unique geographical challenges
Victoria has a population of over 6.7 million people, comprises approximately 227,000 kms2, and has everything from deserts to snowfields, so for the crews, there is no doubt that it’s an interesting place to work, as no day is ever the same. The Victoria Police Air Wing is not only responsible for crime-related tasks, but also plays an important role in search and rescue operations, covering a variety of conditions and climates. This includes Bass Strait; a 250-km-wide by 500-km-long stretch of water bordering Tasmania. It’s a notoriously rough area primarily due to its lack of depth and strong Southern Ocean wind conditions, which can result in search and rescue incidents. The Air Wing is also called to assist Tasmanian police at times due to the unit’s close proximity and plentiful resources.
Working to the future
The Victoria Police Air Wing previously had a partnership with Ambulance Victoria to operate the air medical retrieval service in the state; the partnership came to an end in 2017 after 30 years sharing a Dauphin helicopter. “Since then, we have both revolutionized our air response and transitioned away from the Dauphin aircraft,” said Rogel. “We do share a purpose-built facility at Essendon Fields and sometimes work together on joint rescue operations. Having separate aircraft that are built to our individual needs allows us to focus on our areas of expertise and provide a world-class emergency air response to the Victorian community.”
Fleet renewal is an ongoing challenge for aerial law enforcement units, but the AW139s only arrived a couple of years ago, at the commencement of a 10-year contract. “Before replacing our previous fleet in 2020, we spent a lot of time developing our function and performance specification,” explained Rogel. “We felt it was important to fully understand it so we’d be able to cater for our current and future needs. Cabin configurations were mocked up, ergonomic assessments undertaken, and mission systems developed. Where possible, we used proven and supported solutions such as the Churchill mapping system. What we have ended up with is a custom setup that is very specific to what we require, so we are confident it will serve us well during the 10-year contract.”