ON New Year’s Day the crew of the North Wales Police helicopter came to the rescue of a woman who had slipped and hurt her back while walking in snow and ice in Denbighshire.

The police helicopter was called in because the weather conditions meant that ambulance crews were unable to reach the woman.

The involvement of North Wales Police’s Air Operations Unit, which airlifted her to hospital, shows just how diverse their job can be.

Having watched numerous reality ‘cop’ shows in my time, whenever I saw the distinctive dark blue and yellow helicopter in the sky, I’d imagine that they were hot on the heels of an escaped convict.

Apparently, this is not (always) the case. As well as lending their services on incidents such as the one last week, the unit is charged with a wide range of tasks, from tracking down suspects to searching for missing people to simply making sure that no-one is vandalising your local school.

I met Inspector Steve Jones, who heads the Air Operations Unit, to find out more about its work.

“We have the ability to carry out the role of an air ambulance, we can convert the aircraft to carry a stretcher, which can be done in a matter of minutes, and support the Air Ambulance if they are committed on another task,” he explained.

“Just over half of what we do is searching, divided between criminal activity and missing people. With criminal activity, we can get there pretty rapidly and start using all our kit to good effect.

"The same with missing people – it could be missing children, walkers or people who have been threatening self harm.

"Between April and November, we were involved in 230 searches for missing people.

“We will either find them or clear large swathes of open area, which is where we come into our own. The helicopter can search a lot quicker than people on the ground and we can say with a high degree of certainty that they are not there and can redirect resources elsewhere.

“The number of times we found the person was 46 and clearing areas was 111. In the remainder of cases it was resolved before we got there. Criminal activity it is about the same number – from 201 searches we found or assisted in finding the offender or suspect on 145 occasions.

“A lot of our role is about public reassurance. We work closely with community beat managers to optimise our time in the air.

“A task will come in and we will go out and deal with it. When we are flying back to base, we will make the best use of that time –for example, Operation Gingerbread which is the protection of school premises during the holidays when they could be damaged.

“It is a multi-agency operation and, from liaising with CBMs, we know which schools in particular might be at risk. Coming back from Wrexham, we know that there are about half a dozen schools we can check and, with our computerised mapping system, we don’t even have to slow down. Image taking is another job that we do, such as evidence gathering to support prosecutions in court.”

The unit comprises 13 staff – nine police officers, who are all specially trained observers, and four pilots, all of whom happen to be ex-military.

The unit is able to provide air support ‘24/7’ and are available whenever they are needed.

From its Rhuddlan base, it can reach Wrexham in 11 minutes, Mold in just seven or eight minutes and the furthest reaches of the North Wales patch (such as Aberdovey on the coast) in about 20 minutes.

If they are called over the border (police forces in the North West have an agreement to support each other whenever necessary), they can be in Chester or Ellesmere Port in some 12 minutes.

The helicopter itself – A £4.3 million Eurocopter EC135 T1 – is an impressive piece of kit.

“Its basic function is as an aerial platform for us to look out from,“ Insp Jones said.
“You can see so much with the naked eye. The camera system is integrated into the aircraft and offers 360 degree views and there are a range of different lenses.

“It can be used as a CCTV camera in the air; the thermal imaging system can be used day or night – this time of year especially, if we were looking for a missing person in an open space, we would utilise that.

“We also have a super zoom lens so that we really home into what we are looking at and there is a PA system so that we can put out appropriate messages – a missing child on a beach for example; it might be appropriate to put out messages to help us find him.

“We have stabilised binoculars, night-vision goggles and there is also a searchlight, which is the equivalent of 15 million candle power.”

The distinctive colours of the aircraft are used so that it can be easily seen by other pilots.

Military training aircraft also use the same colour scheme, so you may recognise the dark blue and yellow, but it might not actually be the police helicopter.

For the past 16 years, since the Air Operations Unit was established, it has played a vital role in policing the region.

Its role is not just about chasing criminals, it is about supporting officers on the ground, searching for people – a square kilometre takes just 12 minutes for the helicopter to cover, compared with 450 officer hours on the ground – and also reassuring the public.

So next time you see the helicopter above you, it doesn’t necessarily mean there has been a daring prison break.