An air force to be reckoned with
CREATED TO HUNT ARMED ROBBERS, NSW POLICE’S AIR WING TURNS 40
POLICE pilot Matt Stanton has clocked up thousand of hours inside helicopter cockpits.
He has tracked armed criminals leaping over backyard fences and desperate drivers veering in and out of traffic in a bid to shake the police cars on their tails.
From the air, he has called out the names of missing people over the helicopter’s PA system and watched strangers come out of their homes and join the search.
But after 11 years with the NSW Police Force Aviation Command, there is one job in particular that sticks out in his mind.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the helicopter,” Mr Stanton recalled of the incident, during an interview commemorating the air wing’s 40th anniversary.
It was July, 2009 and PolAir had been helping with the search for backpacker Jamie Neale, who had been missing in rugged bushland in the Blue Mountains for 10 days.
By day 11, police informed Mr Neale’s father, Richard Cass, that the chance of finding his 19-year-old son alive was slim.
Mr Cass then boarded a flight back home to the United Kingdom. His flight was still on the tarmac at Sydney International Airport when an officer entered the plane to tell him his son had just walked out of the bush after 12 days missing.
“(Mr Cass) had basically buried
his son, he put a memorial plaque in the Blue Mountains and said his goodbyes,” Mr Stanton recalled.
At the directive of the then-NSW Police Commissioner, PolAir picked up Mr Cass from Sydney Airport and flew him to Katoomba Hospital to see his son.
“He was sitting on a British Airways flight to fly home and they held the plane at the gate,” Mr Stanton recalled.
“He was in tears the whole way. “You can imagine thinking your child is dead and buried and then he turns up alive.”
Averaging about seven flights per day in the past 12 months, the air wing has become the go-to resource in the force when time — and access — is critical.
The NSW Police Force Air Command has come a long way since its creation in 1979, when it had one helicopter — a Bell 206B Jet Ranger III — base at Sydney Airport.
NSW Police was the first police force in the Commonwealth to operate its own plane — the Nemesis in 1946,
But a rise in armed robberies in the late 70s forced the state government to consider choppers as a crime-fighting tool.
Today, the Aviation Command, commonly known by cops and crooks as PolAir, boasts five helicopters and three fixed wing aircraft with a team of 70 staff.
It can be revealed four new pilots will join the ranks next month with recruitment under way for another five by the end of the year.
The boost will coincide with PolAir moving into its new base at Bankstown Airport and the delivery of three new helicopters, worth $48 million and to replace three existing aircraft, late next year.
Keeping up with modern technology, the air wing now also controls NSW Police Force’s fleet of drones although officers from the Rescue Squad are still responsible for operating the drones.
PolAir has the ability to be airborne within two minutes of receiving a call for assistance with search and rescue operations making up the bulk of the work last year.
The helicopters’ high definition video cameras and forward looking infra red (FLIR) are some of their best assets.
The technology helps them clearly track cars during high-speed chases and footage can be live streamed back to police headquarters.
“If you get involved and get sight of a vehicle in a pursuit, you have a 93 per cent success rate,” Aviation commander Superintendent Matthew Appleton said.
Supt Appleton recalled a police pursuit in Fairfield where PolAir 3 spotted one of the offender’s throwing a sawn-off shotgun into the bush.
“(On FLIR) you could see this thing flying through the air clear as a bell,” he said. “But none of us would have seen it if it wasn’t for PolAir.”
The Cessnas are often deployed for longer trips to country areas, but they are also used for their clandestine abilities in higher altitude surveillance operations.
Chief pilot Salli-Ann Ward and Matt Stanton, head of helicopter operations. Picture: Sam Ruttyn A PolAir helicopter flies along the Sydney coastline.
A PolAir unit conducts search and rescue training off Wanda Beach ( above) and on patrol, day and night over the city and bush (left, below). The original NSW Police choppers PolAir 1, 2 and 3.