Hamburg police choose EC 135 for fleet upgrade

 - October 5, 2006, 8:05 AM

At the end of last year, amid celebrations marking 40 years of flying police helicopters, the Hamburg police force took delivery of two new Eurocopter EC 135s to replace a pair of Bolkow BO 105s that had been flying with the city’s Police Helicopter Squadron for a quarter of a century. However, since then, tight budgets have provided the unit’s crews–all serving police officers–with few opportunities to demonstrate the significant advantages of the new type.

The squadron’s 11 members–four pilots, four “flight technicians” or observers, two civil mechanics and an office administrator–occupy a base on the perimeter of Hamburg’s international airport, near the Lufthansa repair center.

Gerd Weedermann, head of flight operations at Hamburg’s Landesbereitschaftpolizei Sechs (Federal Police Reaction Unit Six), explained that the unit was first established in 1962 in the aftermath of severe floods that inundated the low-lying areas spread throughout the region, killing more than 300 people.

The German army found it difficult to cope with the disaster and, at one point, pressed visiting U.S. NavyH-3s into service. The experience demonstrated to city leaders the limitations of their emergency services’ ability to deal with such catastrophes. “Two years later, in 1964, we were allocated two 10-year-old Bell 47Js. They turned out to be not particularly effective; they were slow and noisy and had no room to hang equipment. They were used mainly for traffic observation, but even that limited use helped build a case for continuing the service,” said Weedermann.

Making the Case for a Helicopter Fleet

“We kept the Bells going for six years, at which point we brought in two Alouette IIs.
They were more powerful and had greater endurance, but were similarly short on ‘real-estate.’ It was only when we upgraded to the twin-engine Bolkow BO 105, between 1979 and 1981, that we found the space and performance necessary to start mounting cameras, searchlights and so on. I also think we were already conscious that, especially for operations over urban areas, two engines were better than one.”

Such was the Bolkow’s effectiveness that, in 1987, the force added another aircraft to the fleet. Sadly, nine years later, one of them was destroyed in an accident that killed five people. The crew was conducting a search-and-rescue training exercise with an empty rescue basket underslung (the Bolkows didn’t have a winch) when for some reason it swung up and hit the main rotor.

“We reconstructed the event but never found out exactly how it happened,” said Weedermann. “As far as anyone could tell, everything was being carried out within limits. Our new EC 135s have provision for a hoist, although we still don’t actually have one.”

Since that incident, the unit has had to make do with two helicopters and two fewer crewmembers. As a result, whenever major maintenance is necessary, the service is immediately cut by 50 percent, and its customers–the city and water police forces– soon notice. At one time the fleet was reduced to one Bolkow for three months.

“Ideally,” said Weedermann, “we would like to have three helicopters once more but our budget is tightly controlled. And if the money was there, our first priority would be more equipment aboard the ones we already have.”

The new helicopters are outfitted with the usual panoply of role equipment: FLIR, searchlight, loudspeaker, radio altimeter, moving map and microwave downlink, plus gyro-stabilized binoculars and cameras for still and video image evidence. Fast-roping equipment is fitted to the ceiling and the helicopter routinely carries a machine-pistol. Unless it can point out and stay with an individual, say, the searchlight usually defers to the FLIR. Unfortunately, there is a fairly low level of sensor integration so, in a chase, for example, the flight engineer often finds himself under pressure, coordinating ground assets to a reference on the map while trying to keep the fugitive “in sight” on the monitor.

The increased payload and cabin space are significant. Both types were fitted with flight steps to enable them to carry, when required, a police SWAT team. On the EC 135, the wide sliding doors on each side each accommodate three team members. The Bolkow was limited to carrying three team members.

Protecting the Nation’s Waterways

The unit’s defined area of responsibility is relatively small and a helicopter can be on task within 10 minutes of call-out. However, much of its work is carried out in association with divisions of a significant water police force that monitors the major waterways–Hamburg is Germany’s busiest seaport–that link the Baltic Sea and North Sea.

Demand for access to the port of Hamburg–a gateway to northern Europe and the Baltic states that have recently joined the European Union–is healthy and growing year-by-year. The harbor itself lies down 30-odd miles of the River Elbe from the North Sea in the west, or the Kiel Canal from the Baltic in the northeast. Leaking or dumping oil in either waterway is prohibited–guilty parties are liable for the restoration costs in addition to a fine–and one of the helicopters makes weekly inspections along both stretches, looking for signs of leakage or contamination and ensuring that skippers are adhering to strict rules of the road.

The water police’s workload has also increased in the aftermath of 9/11. Since July 2004, all vessels bound for the U.S. have to be inspected before leaving port, and this has led to the establishment of many more control points in the harbor area. As a result, the service is fully stretched and Weedermann’s unit has taken on some of its duties.

“The rest of our routine work is divided between monitoring road traffic (particularly on Monday mornings and Friday evenings); responding to police requests for air support (while AIN was visiting the unit, one was scrambled in reaction to a bank robbery); crime scene photography and evidence gathering; and maintenance and training flights. Before we get airborne, we must have a flying order from headquarters. From our staff of four pilots, three male and one female, and four police flight engineers–who carry out the observer function–we routinely fly with one pilot and a multi-tasking flight engineer.”

All the aircrew are police officers first. If an opportunity should occur in the unit (cross-pollination with other squadrons is practically unknown), volunteers are sought and the successful applicant attends a ground-school course before starting flight training at one of several schools throughout Germany.

By 2008, the unit will have to amend its maintenance procedures to comply with new EASA regulations, and Weederman is unsure as to how their adoption will affect it. “Particularly if it involves taking on more people,” he says.

Funding is a perennial bugbear for Weedermann; new helicopters have to be paid for. “The police own the Eurocopters so, even though the operating costs are less than those for the Bolkows, we have capital repayments to make. We would like more equipment and more systems integration–you can see that our flight engineers have a lot on their plates–and an extra crewmember would make a big difference.” There is little likelihood of a winch appearing.

Increasing the Fleet’s Utility

The operational hours of the helicopters are also restricted, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., the same as for the Bolkows and not, he conceded, an ideal arrangement. “At least
the other police departments know when they can count on our support. We do fly outside those hours and can remain on scene after our evening deadline, if required, until we need to refuel.”

One shift works from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the other from noon to 7 p.m.; for most of the day, except during the two-hour lunchtime overlap, when only one of the helicopters is available. “I hope we will be allowed to extend our hours of operation, but it is a political decision.” Like his colleagues, Weedermann logs around 200 hours a year.

Coordination with neighboring provinces is good–Lower Saxony (to the south) has an MD 902/ Dauphin fleet and Mecklenburg (east) can field another two EC 135s. Schleswig-Holstein, to the north, has none and Hamburg has a contract to provide support to the area that borders Denmark. (German EMS provider DRF is allowed to send an air ambulance into the Scandinavian state regularly.)

The new helicopters have given the effectiveness of Hamburg’s air unit a real boost and, even though their performance is hardly stretched, Weedermann appreciates their performance and availability. “We have yet to see the figures for maintenance but expect them to be significantly lower than those for the Bolkows.” He had only one concern, which is linked to the absence of that rescue winch. “Although the activity means that the river and port hardly ever freeze over, there are several lakes in the area and, during the winter, we do get people falling through the ice.

“In the past, we carried out emergency water rescues by hovering close to the surface of the water and manhandling the survivor on board. In the Bolkow, that was a fairly routine maneuver because you knew the high tail rotor would be well clear of the lake. But with  its slightly nose-up hover attitude and relatively low tail, I would hesitate to do the same thing in the EC 135, especially if weather was making the surface a bit choppy.”