Royal Canadian Mounted Police

RCMP Air Services adds new capabilities to save lives

By Paul Northcott

Operations

The H145 Airbus helicopter has strengthened rescue capabilities and is a recent addition to RCMP Air Services’ fleet.
Image by RCMP

December 14, 2023

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In August 2022, an RCMP Air Services crew used its H145 Airbus helicopter to rescue a missing hiker in a remote area north of Coquitlam, B.C. — an operation that would have taken much longer on the ground. Using state-of-the-art aircraft like the H145 to rescue people faster and keep officers safe is part of RCMP Air Services' 85-year tradition, and evolution.

"The H145 saved hours of searching," says Corporal Curtis Brassington, an experienced tactical-flight officer with more than 8,000 hours of flight time. "If search and rescue deployed a 10-person team and the RCMP assigned two members, we likely saved at least 60 person hours, which could easily double or triple depending on how long it would take to find them."

Aircraft and expert personnel

Established in 1937 with just four aircraft, air services now operate 31 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft — airplanes and helicopters respectively — at 19 air bases across Canada. It comprises 180 personnel including pilots, aircraft-maintenance engineers, tactical-flight officers (TFOs), and flight co-ordinators who help move and safeguard internationally protected persons, transport prisoners, and provide support to remote communities.

"Our assets are extremely useful to aid search and rescue of lost individuals, such as hikers, or to support our ground-surveillance teams," says Mark Penney, Director General of RCMP Air Services. "Having an eye in the sky can also allow ground-pursuit units to back away to a safe distance while continuing to track a suspect."

He says adding the H145 Airbus helicopter to its fleet in 2019, and strengthening surveillance capabilities, are improving air services' ability to rescue people and deploy officers in emergency situations while also supporting day-to-day police operations and national security.

Help from high up

Based in Langley, British Columbia, the H145 helicopter can support RCMP operations over 90 per cent of the province, day or night. It can transport Emergency Response Teams almost anywhere they need to go, and assist with missing-persons and search-and-rescue investigations.

Special Constable Andrew Tuck, assistant chief pilot at air services, says the H145 is well suited for the extremely challenging manoeuvre of lifting and lowering personnel. It also provides simplified computerized displays for the pilot, longer-range cameras, and night-vision capability.

"The aircraft's onboard computer system makes it easier to fly," says Tuck. "You don't have to focus solely on holding altitude. There's an opportunity to focus on multiple tasks to get the job done."

The pilot's primary responsibility is to fly the aircraft safely and put it in a position where the tactical-flight officer can see what's on the ground. "With the H145, we can now insert ourselves into the most remote areas," says Brassington.

The most common task of a tactical-flight officers is to locate and follow suspects or victims, and guide ground units to them when appropriate. The officer operates equipment such as the camera, searchlight and hoist, and communicates with ground units via radio.

As well, tactical-flight officers have been trained as hoist and rope-down (or fast-rope) arm operators so they can deploy Emergency Response Team officers in any type of terrain while also using the hoist to extract people in a variety of conditions. The officers received their initial hoist training in October 2021 and are working to expand the training to maintain a sustainable number of qualified hoist operators and rescue specialists.

High-altitude surveillance

RCMP Air Services also employs surveillance personnel who work across the country watching over world leaders, supporting RCMP criminal investigations, and protecting Canadian borders against smugglers.

James Robilliard is a high-altitude surveillance specialist with the RCMP based in London, Ontario. He's one of the few personnel who operates the RCMP's latest generation of surveillance equipment that's essential for assisting with high-risk takedowns often involving officers on the ground.

He says his role is to provide the support necessary to accomplish the goals of the ground team. "By virtue of our vantage point, we can see a very large area around the things or persons of interest and as a result, keep eyes on much more territory than could be accomplished by several times as many ground-based personnel," says Robilliard. That means providing the ability to alert officers about additional potential targets that ground-based personnel are not aware of.

He adds that surveillance crews are no longer limited to daytime operations in either urban or rural areas. "We have added a second infrared imaging system that's a useful extension to what we can do in low light and full daylight. It simply adds another option to our imaging and detection capabilities."

Robilliard says that the quality of those images allows the crew to put more distance between the target and the surveillance aircraft to avoid detection.

Future improvements

Penney says there are many ways he'd like to further improve and modernize. That includes continuing to replace aging aircraft, upgrading surveillance cameras, and increasing the number of pilots, tactical-flight officers, and aircraft-maintenance engineers.

He also sees a role for remotely piloted aircraft, or drones. Larger, long-range drones could be an effective solution to provide ongoing surveillance for urban or rural patrol and border integrity," says Penney. "Air Services will be well positioned to provide the RCMP with leadership in this area of new technology in the future."

RCMP Air Services through the years

  • 1918: First discussions take place about establishing RCMP Air Services
  • 1930s: RCMP uses RCAF pilots to combat coastal smuggling
  • 1937: RCMP Air Services is established with 4 aircraft and 8 officers
  • 1939: RCMP aircraft deploy to war effort
  • 1946: Air Services reforms post-war and continues to expand
  • 1962: 18 RCMP aircraft are based across Canada
  • 1966: One plane is purchased for the sole use of the Crime Detection Laboratory in Regina
  • 1970: Air Services transports Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to the Northwest Territories
  • 1971: First RCMP helicopter is acquired

RCMP Air Services at a glance

  • 31 aircraft: nine rotary-wing, 22 fixed-wing
  • 19 air bases across Canada
  • About 5,000 missions conducted annually
  • 17,000 flight hours per year
  • 180 personnel, including pilots, aircraft-maintenance engineers, tactical-flight officers and flight co-ordinators

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