October 2014. Just landed from the second flight of the shift. So far it’s searches for one missing person, one motorbike that failed to stop for officers, possible poachers in fields following the sound of gunshots (probably fireworks!), one drink driver located hiding in bushes having run from his crashed car and an abandoned attempt due to low cloud to get to Pendle Hill to help search for 2 drunk males who went for a midnight stroll and got lost. All pretty standard stuff really. Now time to take a breath, have a cup of tea, wait for the next call and reflect on my first year having completed training to become the newest Tactical Flight Officer to join the team at the Warton based aircraft of the National Police Air Service (NPAS).
Rewind nearly 2 years back to December 2012. The only two specialist roles I wanted to do in the Police was to be a Police Dog Handler or, as it was known then, an Observer on the Air Support Unit. Having recently suffered the disappointment of a failed attempt to become a Dog Handler the application form was released to become a TFO as it was now known. The post, along with a lot of others in the police, was always thought to be ‘dead men’s shoes’ but it is different now. NPAS had been created. A national service with a national recruitment process. I submitted my form – nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought! And 8 months later following a rigorous selection process I was in, I had a start date.
September 2013. I bid my farewells to my old team and went to the Fire Service Training College at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire for 3 weeks of intense training, both theory and practical. I met with 11 fellow newbie’s from all over England and Wales from varying backgrounds in the police and together we embarked on our new path. The views when flying were stunning but there was no time to enjoy the sights. Conveniently on every flight the electronic mapping system failed meaning we had to navigate the traditional way using paper charts! 3 weeks later the course was complete and I had passed along with 10 others. Sadly one person didn’t make it and two have since left the role deciding it’s not for them. I was then posted to my base of choice, NPAS Warton stationed at BAe Systems, Warton, near Preston.
October 2013. Following the weekend off I had my first tour of duty on the Monday – a night shift! And so began a 12 week local procedures course. I was nervous but had some confidence in the fact that I was on home territory. I knew where most of the major towns and road networks were, how hard could it be? How wrong was I! The first week or two, having completed both day and night shifts, really left me mentally exhausted. I had completely underestimated how intense it would be in the aircraft, there’s just so much to think about. There’s listening to and liaising with officers and control rooms on up to 4 different radio channels that need changing as you fly around the region, listening to 2 air traffic control channels, navigating including avoiding obstacles and restricted or controlled air space, directing the camera operator what to look at to name but a few.
Training was hard. Again electronic mapping systems ‘failed’ and I quickly realised that not only did I have to familiarise myself with Lancashire but also Merseyside and Greater Manchester and there’s always the potential to go Cumbria, Cheshire, North Wales and West Yorkshire. Initially we would lift out of Warton and the pilot wouldn’t go anywhere until I told him. I got no help and for good reason. I had to learn the hard way. Essentially the bottom line was I had to know exactly where we were at all times. If there was a problem with the aircraft and we had to land, the pilot would want to know where was safe to go and I’d have to tell him almost instantly. To that end my training officer would constantly point out a town, village, individual feature or farm and ask what it was called. Again that started to get easier. When you’re on a job orbiting the target or following a person/vehicle and you’re looking in an A to Z, the screen to see what the camera operator is viewing and then back out of the window it is very easy to lose your bearings as the world looked different every time you looked! At times I had no idea which way was north, south, east or west. Then I would be asked to name a nearby village!
Slowly, very slowly, things started to click. Changing a radio channel took seconds to change instead of minutes freeing up brain capacity for something else. I was amazed at how quick my local knowledge improved and I could name the bigger towns and villages without consulting the map. The bad flights got fewer and the better flights became more frequent. Eventually I reached a level where my training officer deemed I was ready for my line check – an annual check we all have to do to be signed off as competent and safe to carry out the role.
The less said about my first line check the better. The nerves well and truly got the better of me. It was my worst flight for a long time and it was difficult to pull out any positives. Nevertheless we tried again the following night and it couldn’t have gone any better. Phew! So that was that, signed off.
My next shift I was doing it for real without the safety net of my trainer sat next to me. First job – we went to Liverpool for about 90 minutes and completed 5 different tasks there, a real baptism of fire. What helped though was amazingly the mapping system now worked! Not only that, the crew joined in. Whereas before there was no help, or barely any conversation, now it was a real team effort. The pilots are fantastic. They rarely need telling which way to go, they’re off. More brain capacity freed straight away!
If I was being brutally honest I would say it has taken a good 10 months to get to a stage where I now can’t wait to go to work. When air support is asked for officers on the ground are waiting for you and when you arrive on scene, you effectively become the commander of the incident. That’s a big pressure to get right. And if it’s not quite going to plan – sound confident! Pursuits were my main worry. Still are. Providing a quality commentary is crucial in helping to bring the pursuit to a safe conclusion. I was glad once the first couple were out of the way, the first being all the way from Blackpool on the motorway network and culminating in Bolton town centre.
The unit is predominantly a reactive outfit so there is downtime compared to my last role as a Response Officer where there wasn’t any. That took some getting used to but I’ve learnt that when in the air, mentally you’re far busier than many roles in the police at any given time so the downtime is important to debrief, unwind and prepare for the next task.
When I first joined, my friends and family all said there must be amazing views but I honestly don’t remember once looking out the window to admire the view for some time due to being so busy. But I refer one last time to brain capacity! 12 months on and I can now take the odd moment on the way back to base from a task and take in stunning views at all times of the day and night, a real perk of the job. Views we like to share on our official twitter account @NPAS_Warton. And there’s not many better feelings than catching the bad guys or finding that vulnerable missing person.
It’s been a tough 12 months but I wouldn’t change it for anything, I never forget what a privileged job I do, I’m in the best job in the Police!