March 11 2014 Latest news:
by Jon Dean
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
We take to the skies to find out more about the work of the Air Support Unit and why they need to fly over Islington
I nervously buckled my seat belt as the rotor blades began spinning above me, reaching a cacophonous climax while the helicopter bucked like a lassoed stallion.
Outside the clouds darkened and the rain lashed down, and as I turned a shade of puce one of the crew leant forward and produced a sick bag from the seat in front of me. “Just in case we do any really dynamic flying,” he said.
Then, suddenly, the chopper broke free of the reins of gravity and lurched upwards – and as it banked sharply, pressing my face against the flimsy looking window that was all that separated me from a 1,000ft drop, I began to wish I had stayed in the newsroom.
The reason I was subjecting myself to this aerial assault was the delicate sensibilities of Islington’s ears.
Last year, the borough was responsible for a third of all complaints about the police helicopter, despite the aircraft being above Islington for just 20 minutes a week.
Then the Gazette ran an article explaining why the chopper flew above the borough and the Met launched a Twitter account for the helicopter to update folk.
By February complaints had dropped to zero – but at the joint webchat last week with the Gazette, the police and Islington Council, the subject still came up.
So, bravely, I trekked up to the Air Support Unit’s (ASU) Essex base to see first-hand what the crew did. Lippett’s Hill, where the ASU is based, is a old prisoner of war camp that used to house Italian captives.
It’s been used by the police since the 1960s and has been the home of the ASU since 1980.
It’s an amazing site, with views right across London.
These days the three gleaming Eurocopters handle about 25 jobs a day, which works out at 9,000 tasks a year from the 20,000 requests that come flooding into the control room – half of which are immediately deemed unsuitable – so they are tackling around 90 per cent of suitable calls.
They handle a range of operations, from patrolling Arsenal Games to helping with high speed pursuits and performing surveillance prior to a police raid (the on-board cameras are so hi-tech they can even check out what kind of back door a suspect has).
If you’re a crook and you get the chopper on your tail, there is only one way the situation is going to end. Whether you are trying to get away on foot or in a car, the heat-seeking and super zoom cameras will find you.
When the call comes in, the crew can be airborne in three minutes – and over Islington Town Hall in about seven minutes flying at about 140mph through London’s busy airspace.
Sgt Richard Brandon, in charge of things up at Lippetts HIll, told me the old helicopters were very comfy, but the new Eurocopters were more like a sports car – capable of quick manoeuvres and dishing out some serious G-force. All of which I found out first hand as we swept through the stormy sky on our way to a scouting mission.
The sharp turns and weightless motion really were quite distracting, and the idea of doing a high speed chase in such circumstances, while keeping the camera trained on a suspect gave me a renewed respect for what the ASU Team does.
Luckily for me, it was a quiet tour and I got to pick out some of Islington’s landmarks as we flew past Highbury, the Old Street roundabout and Finsbury Park, most of which look surprisingly different from the air.
I asked Sgt Brandon about the complaints the team receives.
“It’s made a big difference being able to let people know what we are doing,” he said. “The Twitter account has 13,000 followers now and most people give us positive feedback.
“Obviously we can’t put everything up there – if there was a gunman loose on Upper Street we wouldn’t want to cause panic, but generally we keep people informed.
“One problem is that even if we are not above Islington, people from there think we are right over their house – I know it can be really loud and disturbing.
“But as long as people know what we are doing, that we are trying to keep the streets safer, they don’t tend to mind too much.”