We are on board the eye in the sky

THREE years ago Suffolk's police helicopter first took to the skies, reporter Liz Hearnshaw joined its crew for a bird's eye view of its role in Operation Liberate, the force's new crackdown on violence.

THREE years ago Suffolk's police helicopter first took to the skies, reporter Liz Hearnshaw joined its crew for a bird's eye view of its role in Operation Liberate, the force's new crackdown on violence.

CRUISING 1,000ft above our towns, villages and countryside at speeds of 140mph, the county's police helicopter is every criminals' worst nightmare.

For while burglars, car thieves and vandals can sometimes run and hide from officers on the ground, there is no escape from Suffolk's multi-million pound eye in the sky.

Capable of reading a car number plate or even describing an offender's shoes from massive altitudes, the EC135 machine can gather essential evidence without a criminal even realising they have been seen.

Since its launch in October 2000, the £2.5million helicopter has saved the lives of numerous vulnerable people who have gone missing from their homes, and has led to success in scores of prosecutions.

The credentials of the Air Operations Unit are strong. In the minds of many, the technology and its crew act as the ultimate in CCTV to catch criminals who may otherwise slip through the net.

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But to the dedicated team behind the controls, the helicopter is like any other tool within the constabulary's armoury – no more or less important than a pocket book or baton.

"This is no glamorous piece of kit staffed by a special group of people. The helicopter is, in effect, an area car in the sky, working with the rest of Suffolk Constabulary's team to provide a service to the county," said Sgt Ady Powell, who has supervised the Air Operations Unit since May.

"The helicopter has a whole multitude of uses, from taking part in vehicle pursuits and gathering evidence to helping pre-plan cover for any big event. All of the operations we undertake are equally as important as each other.

"Searching for vulnerable people is also a very big part of our world, and something with which we have a good record. We can clear big, open areas very quickly and with much more ease than officers on the ground. It is one aspect of our work which gives us immense job satisfaction."

The twin-engine helicopter is crewed by a pilot and two air observers, and can reach Suffolk's furthest extremities in just 17 minutes from its base central to the county at Wattisham Airfield.

It can search one square mile of ground in just 12 minutes – a task which would take one officer around 450 hours to complete on foot.

And crucial to this ability is the state-of-the-art technology on board, such as a high power video camera and thermal imaging system, computerised maps and a stretcher to carry casualties.

And as I discovered during a shift with the team on Friday night, the helicopter's strong searchlight is also essential, effectively illuminating the ground to assist officers through its deterrent effect. This capability alone will prove its worth during the force's latest clampdown on late-night violence in Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket and Stowmarket.

"We will be flying proactively throughout Operation Liberate, to initially act as a deterrent," said Pc James Rogers, who has been with the Air Operations Unit since its launch three years ago.

"But very often, we find our presence overhead has a calming influence and is good for dispersing crowds of people."

On a clear day, those on board can see as far as the nation's capital from their vantage point in the sky, and even during a pitch-black autumn night, the views I witnessed from the helicopter were impressive, with the thermal imaging camera showing detail indiscernible to the naked eye.

For in snowy conditions, I was told, this equipment will even pick up traces of heat left in the footprints of an offender, running away from a scene of crime through a white-covered field.

"From a normal operating height of 1,000ft, we can provide officers on the ground with a good description of anyone, from their hair colour to their shoes," added Pc Rogers. "At night, all we would see is a white image picking up body heat, but we can switch the day camera and searchlight on at the same time to get more of an idea about clothing.

"But the human factor is also important. Three pairs of eyes looking out for anything can really add to the technology we use."

Although the expense of establishing the Air Operations Unit has, in the past, sparked controversy, the man-hours, lives and court costs it has saved, by providing indisputable evidence to judge and jury, more than compensate.

"People ask us if we can justify the cost, but all you have to do is look at the lives which have been saved since we have been operational," said Pc Nigel Tompsett, a trained air observer. "It is a question of balancing expense against effectiveness and efficiency, and the helicopter is such a useful tool that I can never see a day when it is done away with."

Safety is a top priority for the crew of the EC135, who are fed up-to-the minute weather information direct from the Met Office regarding cloud, winds and fog, and abide by Civil Aviation Authority rules, adapted for the police, stipulating minimum altitudes to which the helicopter can drop.

"The camera and its zoom capability negate the need for us to go any lower than is absolutely necessary," added Sgt Powell. "We also have to consider the residents of Suffolk, as low-flying can create noise and disturbance for people.

"But safety is obviously of importance. The presence of the helicopter during a high-speed pursuit, for example, will allow police vehicles on the ground to back off to a safer speed, protecting both the officer driving and the public.

"And the criminals will never outrun a helicopter, however fast they drive."

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