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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Policing at 220 Knots

By Ernie Stephens

You’re sitting in the hangar “fat, dumb and happy,” as my boss used to say, when you hear the sound that sends chills through your entire body every single time. It’s that terrified cry for back-up coming over the radio that signals something is so wrong, the officer on the other end can’t even pretend to be calm. Within minutes, you’re en route with the collective yanked up into your armpit.

From 20 miles away, you’re straining to see red and blue flashing lights, so you can better zero-in on what has to be all hell breaking loose. And when you hear the next car arrive on the scene and yell, “keep ‘em coming,” you want to squeeze even more knots out of your ship. You’ve been just a hair below the red line since climb-out, and it still feels like you’re crawling.

Sometimes your best speed is enough to make a positive impact on the incident you were called to. Other times, it isn’t. And the farther away the call is, the more critical the aircraft’s speed becomes.

I thought about the frustration of feeling like my helicopter was never going fast enough last year when I had the opportunity to fly the AgustaWestland AW609 Tilt Rotor, a sleek, civilian take on the military’s Boeing V-22 Osprey. I also thought about it in the spring of 2012, when I got the equally exciting chance to fly the Airbus (formerly Eurocopter) X3, a hybrid helicopter that looks like an AS365 Dauphin with a pair of constant-speed turboprops on stubby wings. Both designs are being developed to give the civilian flying community the maneuverability of a helicopter and the speed of a twin-turboprop airplane in one package.

My question while flying them was this: “Is airborne law enforcement ready for an aircraft that retains the maneuverability of our beloved helicopters, while giving us the sprinting speeds of a turbine airplane?”

It’s easy to say yes when you consider the scenario I gave above. Who doesn’t want more available giddy-up when things get crazy? And it becomes even easier to want hybrid speeds when you consider what’s happening in England and Wales.

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that the National Police Air Service, the agency that provides air support to England and Wales from its 20 bases, will likely see a quarter of those outposts permanently closed due to budgetary problems. Of course, the reason any agency opens multiple bases is to cut an aircrew’s response time to its areas of responsibility - the aviation version of putting a “cop on every corner.” But more bases also means more operating expenses.

So, would the advantage of flying a hybrid aircraft be the ability to run less bases, because a 220-knot hybrid can cover more territory faster from less launch sites than a 120-knot helicopter can from more? Or is it better to keep those “cops” on every corner by maintaining multiple hangars?

Of course, that depends on the cost to purchase, operate, maintain and staff a hybrid flying from one base, compared to the cost of running conventional helicopters out of multiple bases. And just how much will it cost to purchase, operate, maintain and staff a hybrid? The only thing we have to go on as of this writing is what the V-22 costs. But that’s not a fair comparison, because at 33,000 pounds, the Osprey is a huge ship with a huge sticker price of $72 million. The Lear Jet-size AW609 and Dauphin-size X3 would cost far less than the V-22, but you can bet they’ll still be more expensive than anything parked in a police hangar today, considering the complexity of their designs.

So, we’re back again with the same math problem that has plagued police aviation since the 1970s when agencies had to decide between keeping their Bell 47s, or upgrading to the more expensive Jet Ranger: How much is more efficiency and effectiveness worth in a business where the public’s safety often hangs on what first responders have to work with?

For now, I see the hybrid as something agencies with huge territories to cover will want to look into, but something impractical for the urban police unit, at least in the hybrids’ infancy. For the in-between agencies, it could be a close call, dollar-wise. But I like the idea that new, speedier options are on the horizon for air support.

Related: Police News 

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