Whenever you hear the distinctive whirr of rotor blades, look skywards and there’s every chance it will be Senior Police Pilot Andy Shanks behind the controls of the NPAS (National Police Air Service) helicopter.
With more than 8,500 pilot hours under his belt, Andy is one of the most experienced police flyers in the country.
Every year Andy and his NPAS colleagues based at Birmingham Airport play a vital ‘eye in the sky’ monitoring role in the arrest of hundreds of crime suspects trying to evade capture on the ground. And they are also crucial whenever officers are searching for missing or vulnerable people.
In our latest WMPeople feature Andy discusses his career, on-board technology advances (no more A to Z’s!) and apologises to any residents (and WMP colleagues) he may have disturbed at night!
How long have you been a police helicopter pilot?
I started with Police Aviation Services in 1995 before becoming a WMP pilot in 2007 − and from last October we became part of the National Police Air Service (NPAS). We’re still based at Birmingham Airport, though, so are on standby 24-7 to respond to incidents in the West Midlands and neighbouring forces.
So you don’t just cover the West Midlands?
No − under the NPAS agreement we cover Warwickshire, West Mercia and Staffordshire as well. We fly a Eurocopter EC-135P2+ which is the most advanced light twin helicopter in the world and has a top speed of more than 250km per hour so we can reach all our coverage areas in a matter of minutes. And it’s pretty hard for criminals to outrun us!
You must have seen some incredible advances in technology during your near two decades as a police pilot?
Both the aircraft equipment and specialised police technology on board have developed at the same pace as technology has advanced in the average home. We have a HD camera that can zoom in on number plates from 2,000ft and a night-time, thermal imaging camera capable of picking out hedgehogs or small birds from a similar height! Criminals on the run at night may believe the cover of darkness gives them a hiding place advantage − but they are lit up like Christmas trees thanks to our thermal cameras!
We also have a rather ‘Gucci’ moving map system that’s a far cry from the A to Z’s and Ordnance Survey maps we used when I started − but we always keep traditional maps close at hand just in case there are any technology glitches.
We have a 30-million candlepower search light − which basically means it’s as bright as 30 million candles − to scan the ground when searching, and an 850-watt ‘sky-shout’ PA system to broadcast clear messages from the helicopter to the ground.
Helping pin down criminals from the skies must be a satisfying job; are there any jobs or pursuits you’ve been particularly proud of?
Lots! Every year we assist with the arrest of hundreds of suspects who were trying to evade capture and also help locate man missing or vulnerable people.
The job that’s given me the most satisfaction was air-lifting a young woman to hospital who’d been seriously hurt in a car crash on the M42 at the M6 Toll junction. It was whilst the Toll road was under construction. Hospital staff said her prognosis wasn’t looking good… but she went on to make a full recovery.
What got you into flying − was it always with career aims or initially a hobby?
I used to be what’s colloquially referred to as an Army Brat! That is, my father was in the army. I spent a fair bit of time on airbases around the world and wanted to be a helicopter pilot since I was about seven or eight. I was very lucky that it all worked out.
I started flying as an Army Aircrewman observer in 1979. I passed the Army Pilot’s Course in 1984 and I got my civilian professional licence five years later.
I really enjoy flying and until recently was involved with flying Air cadets at RASF Cosford using light aircraft. The main difference between flying an aeroplane and a helicopter is that a plane has to land then stop, but a helicopter has to stop then land! As long as you have that bit sorted the rest just falls into place…
How many hours a year are you airborne in the police helicopter?
The Birmingham based aircraft is airborne for up to 1400 hours a year; there are five pilots based at the unit so we fly for about 250 to 350 hours per year
What would you say to people who complain that the police helicopter has kept them awake at night?!
Firstly… sorry! The aircraft we now have is one of the quietest in its class… but I appreciate its noise level is a rather subjective matter, especially in the middle of the night. We try to minimise noise by flying as high as permitted by air traffic control or weather constraints and minimising the time on task. However, when we seem to be hovering or flying around in circles over the same area that is generally because we are on a task, which is most likely to be looking for offenders who are perhaps hiding in gardens or searching for vulnerable missing persons. All I can do is ask people for their understanding… we’re helping in the fight against crime and keeping them safe so hopefully they’ll accept a very rare noise disturbance from us.
Do you ‘patrol’ from the skies as such, like a patrol car would on the ground, or are you always responding to incidents?
Not normally, some operations we are tasked to involve an element of ’patrolling’ but most of the time we respond to a specific, emerging incident.
How long does it take to qualify as a helicopter pilot? What advice would you give to any youngsters keen to pursue it as a career?
It depends on where you do your training. The pilot’s course I did in the military lasted for a year; there was then about three months of probationary flying before I was trusted to fly with passengers!
Do you consider it a dangerous profession?
Not at all! I’m far too chicken to do anything dangerous. Our aim is to make the flight as boring and uneventful as possible. The organisation is and always has been very safety conscious. We have strict weather limits that dictate the minimum visibility and lowest cloud-base we can operate in. The aircraft are maintained to a very high standard and checked carefully by the pilot in the morning check and after every flight. The pilots are tested for their ability to fly the aircraft safely and competently and manage emergency situations such as engine failure and hydraulic failure every six months, and undergo operational tests every year. We have quite in-depth examinations with an aviation medical examiner every 6 or 12 months depending on age. On top of that there are plenty of other ground based requirements that all pilots must pass satisfactorily!
What do you enjoy about the role?
The travel to exotic locations and (oh sorry, wrong job)! Seriously though I still get a kick whenever I see an offender detained, especially burglars, even more especially if an AD unit was involved!
Can you ever grow bored of being a helicopter pilot as you could do with other day jobs?
I haven’t got bored yet…
Name: Andy Shanks
Home: Near Stratford-on-Avon
Children: One grown up child, now a teacher in Yorkshire
Hobbies: Cycling, motorcycling… and coming to work!
For latest updates on our force helicopter follow them @NPASBirmingham.