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Victoria Police – 40 Years of Saving Lives

Victoria police Feature Story

The Victoria Police Air Wing is one of the oldest and most mission diverse airborne law enforcement operations in the country with a 40 year legacy that set the benchmark for airborne search and rescue in Australia.

The Victoria Police Air Wing have completed some of the most legendary rescues in Australian history in their 40 years of performing search and rescue in Victoria. Photo bt Ryan Mason.
The Victoria Police Air Wing have completed some of the most legendary rescues in Australian history in their 40 years of performing search and rescue in Victoria. Photo by Ryan Mason.

VICTORIA POLICE HISTORY

Victoria Police is the primary law enforcement agency in the state of Victoria, located in the nations south east. The State of Victoria was first established as a colony in 1851, forming the nation’s first collective police force shortly after in 1853 under the leadership of the first Australian Police Chief Commissioner William Mitchell.

The State of Victoria covers 92,000 square miles a mostly rural landscape consisting of almost 92,000 square miles with a population of over six million people, of which almost 4.5 million live in the city and surrounding suburbs of the state

The Victoria Police Air Wing started operations with one fixed wing aircraft, later transitioning to a fleet of Aerospatiale SA365C1 Dauphin’s before transitioning to their current fleet of Airbus Helicopters AS365N3’s. Photo by Paul Finnegan/Wikicommons.capital, Melbourne.

Victoria Police enjoys one of the highest community confidence levels in the world, with more than 86% of Victorian residents feeling confident in contacting police. Victorian residents surveyed during national census data collection in 2016, giving Victoria Police a 76.9% satisfaction rating regarding resident’s opinion of policing services in general.

AIR WING INCEPTION

The Victoria Police Air Wing was officially formed in 1975 after members of the Victoria Police Aero Club were given the opportunity to demonstrate the value of airborne operations to Victoria Police administrators. The demonstration included then Chief Commissioner Reginald “Reg” Jackson. Also present were Victoria Police assistant commissioners, and members of the Victorian government.

The Victoria Police Air Wing commenced operations with a single fixed wing plane, later moving to a fleet of SA365C1 Dauphin's. Photo by Ed Chisholm.
The Victoria Police Air Wing commenced operations with a single fixed wing plane, later moving to a fleet of SA365C1 Dauphin’s. Photo by Ed Chisholm.

After the demonstration achieved initial approval to create an airborne law enforcement arm of the Victoria Police, the first operational flight of what was to become the Victoria Police Air Wing was completed on May 22nd, 1975. The unit commenced operations with a single fixed wing Cessna 182, which over time was expanded to include several different twin engine planes including the Piper PA31 Navajo and Aero Commander 500S that was used for transporting Victoria Police members around the state.

Just a year after commencing operations in 1976, the air wing received its first pilot qualified to fly helicopters, which quickly led to Victoria police in 1977 conducting a six-week trial of using helicopters to assist routine police patrol operations. That six-week evaluation would shape the future of the Victoria Police Air Wing and lead the Air Wing on a path to the missions it provides today. Victoria Police’s airborne law enforcement efforts would also go on to become the benchmark for several other agencies that shaped their mission and vision from the example set by one of the first and most diversified airborne law enforcement operations in Australia.

In 1993 as the unit moved away from providing the transportation role started in the 1970s and transitioned into a group focused solely on law enforcement operations, the Air Wing moved to discontinue the use of fixed wing assets as helicopters began playing the primary role in airborne law enforcement operations around the world.

FLEET

In 1978, the Air Wing began rotary wing operations through the lease of a Hughes 500D helicopter that was flown mainly at night to support ground operations for a year until the Chief Commissioner Mick Miller announced the purchase of a twin-engine Aérospatiale SA365C1 Dauphin helicopters registered as VH-PVF, given the call sign “Air 490”. The Dauphin was the first Aérospatiale SA365 to be put into service in Australia, and due to its success in the role, led the Air Wing to purchase two additional SA365C1 Dauphin helicopters in 1986 from the Romanian government.

A single-engine Aérospatiale (now Airbus Helicopters) AS350B Squirrel was added to the fleet in 1988 to perform non-standard policing operations that included aerial observation duties and traffic patrols in country areas of Victoria. Also, the AS350 served as the initial training aircraft for Victoria Police pilots before transitioning into the larger twin engine Dauphin.

Victoria Police opted to contract out the ownership and maintenance of the agencies helicopters. The agency selecting Lloyd Helicopters bid. Lloyd Helicopters was later acquired by global helicopter operator CHC Helicopters, who now own and maintain each of the agencies current fleet of four helicopters. CHC in conjunction with Victoria Police began the process of replacing the Air Wing’s SA365C1 models in 2001 sticking with the airframe that had proven successful and replacing the current helicopters with two AS365N3 Dauphins. The air wing also replaced the remaining SA365C1 with another AS365N3 and an Airbus H135 T2+ to the fleet in 2009.

Victoria Police acquired the Airbus Helicopters H135 to replace the air wing's ageing AS350. Photo by Alex Barron.
          Victoria Police acquired the Airbus Helicopters H135 to replace the air wing’s ageing AS350. Photo by Alex Barron.

UPDATING FACILITIES

Since its creation in 1977, the Victoria Police maintained operations from a pre world war two hangar on the northern edge of their base at Essendon Airport on the outskirts of the city of Melbourne. In 2009, Victoria Police in conjunction with the Metropolitan Ambulance service moved into a state of the art purpose built a facility at Essendon airport that would house both the Victoria Police Air Wing and Metropolitan Ambulance Service (MAS) air operations.

Part of the new facilities at Essendon Airport that house the Victoria Police Air Wing include this state of the art air operations center, where ground staff can monitor aircraft in the air on missions. Photo by Kane Arlow.
Part of the new facilities at Essendon Airport that house the Victoria Police Air Wing include this state of the art air operations center, where ground staff can monitor aircraft in the air on missions. Photo by Kane Arlow.

The Victoria Police Air Wing operated an air ambulance partnership with MAS until 2016, which tasked one of the Air Wing’s AS365N3 helicopters in a dual purpose role. The Dauphin used as an air ambulance was also able to carry out policing duties when not required to transport patients in need of care. Increasing demand over the years would see the Dauphin,

call sign Air 495 or “PVG” to Air Wing members who reference each aircraft by their tail numbers spend most of its time in the air ambulance role, performing more than 300 missions each year on behalf of MAS.

Initially, the aircraft contracted by Victoria Police and was in blue colors with Ambulance on the top cowl.  On contract renewal in 2009, it was then contracted by Ambulance Victoria which resulted in the repaint to red with the police then on the top cowl.

After over two decades of partnership, MAS contracted out their air ambulance duties in 2017 to Babcock Helicopters who absorbed the responsibilities once fulfilled by Victoria Police and now operate a fleet of AW139’s that are owned, piloted and maintained by Babcock while MAS provides staffing for critical care treatment and rescue crews. The Dauphin used for that role is now in the process of being absorbed back into the Air Wing fleet and used for police operations once again after the aircraft is reconfigured by CHC’s in house maintenance team to once again fly in a dedicated police role.

The Melbourne Metropolitan Ambulance Service now operates a fleet of Leonardo AW139 helicopters that replaced several Bell 412 helicopters and a combined service provided with one of the Victoria Police AS365N3's. Photo by Kane Arlow.
The Melbourne Metropolitan Ambulance Service now operates a fleet of Leonardo AW139 helicopters that replaced several Bell 412 helicopters and a combined service provided with one of the Victoria Police AS365N3’s. Photo by Kane Arlow.

In 2016, Victoria Police Minister Lisa Neville announced that the Victorian Government had granted approval for the Air Wing to replace Victoria Police’s aging AS365 fleet. The government is assigning a $63 million (AUD) budget for the purchase of replacement aircraft as part of a two billion dollar budget measure passed by the government aimed at improving Victoria Police operational capabilities. The budget also includes funding to hire an unprecedented number of recruits, new training facilities, and upgrades to several hundred highway patrol vehicles that will see each fitted with Automatic Number Plate (license plate) Recognition (ANPR) systems. “From the air, police do amazing work to keep our community safe. That is why we are giving Victoria Police a state of the art Air Wing fleet to track criminals, respond to emergencies and support safer communities and ensure police have every resource they need to target crime and protect Victorians.”

No firm decision has yet been made by the Air Wing on what model helicopter will replace the workhorse Dauphin fleet, but the budget  allocated also allows the Air Wing to purchase a fixed wing asset to provide and perform as an observation platform

SERVICE

The Air Wing covers an impressive range of missions throughout the State of Victoria that sees the unit fly three thousand hours annually. Three hundred of those hours flown each year by the dedicated air ambulance helicopter before its discontinuation.

The Air Wing also dedicates substantial flight time to ensuring its pilots and crew are well prepared to respond to any incident. The Air Wing flying over 550 hours a year devoted to training that includes training with units that work in close collaboration with the Air Wing, including the Victoria Police Special Operations Group, Dog Squad, Water Police, and Search and Rescue Squads.

The Victoria Police Air Wing conducts countless hours of training to ensure that their air crews are ready for some of the most challenging rescues possible. Photo by Ryan Mason.
The Victoria Police Air Wing conducts countless hours of training to ensure that their air crews are ready for some of the most challenging rescues possible. Photo by Ryan Mason.

MISSIONS

The Victoria Police Air Wing has assisted in saving the lives of many Victorian citizens over its almost forty years of operations responding to several thousand calls for service each year that range from search and rescue tasks, assistance in locating missing persons, and marine incidents that occur on vessels at sea or in Port Phillip Bay.

The Air Wing also responds to missions dispatched through the National Search and Rescue Operations Center (AUS-SAR) that number over 20 missions each year. Helicopters from Victoria Police are also asked to assist in missing aircraft searches several times a year on top of their regular day to day patrol work supporting ground units.

STAFFING

Staffing a large operation like the Air Wing requires a small army of staff to ensure smooth day to day unit operations. Current management of the Air Wing is overseen by an Inspector assigned to manage the Air Wing, several civilian administration staff, Senior Sergeants, and Sergeants that are qualified Tactical Flight Officers (TFO’s) that work operational shifts as part of the flight crew. The remainder of air wing staffing is made up of Senior Constables that form the flight crews of TFO’s and pilots. The Victoria Police Air Wing is also overseen by a Chief Pilot that also works in a functional role as a line pilot as well.

Air Wing Tactical Flight Officers and Pilots are selected from a rigorous interview and testing process not unlike initial selection to become a police officer. Photo by Ryan Mason.
Air Wing Tactical Flight Officers and Pilots are selected from a rigorous interview and testing process not unlike initial selection to become a police officer. Photo by Ryan Mason.

HIRING AND QUALIFICATIONS

Victoria Police hires both internally and externally for pilot roles, due to the high qualification requirements, the majority of pilots that fly for Victoria Police are hired externally. The Air Wing has only one pilot that started his career as a general duties police officer, joining the Air Wing as a TFO later progressing into a pilot role. At present, there is only one career police member who is a pilot.  Since 1998 there have been eight career police pilots including Chief Pilot.

All pilots with the Air Wing are required to meet minimums including a commercial helicopter pilot certificate, class 1 aviation medical and have at least 2000 flight hours in a helicopter with 1500 of those as a pilot in command. Pilots are also required to have a command multi engine instrument rating in helicopters and several requirements specific to Australian CASA regulations that include a night VFR rating, hoist endorsement, and an NVG rating. Pilots are also required to be Australian residents or citizens.

Tactical Flight Officer candidates must be off probationary status (first two years of police service,) have excellent map reading and communications skills coupled with a sound knowledge of police operational tactics and strong multitasking ability and be in excellent physical condition.

TRAINING

Pilots joining the Air Wing from outside of Victoria Police are required to attend an abbreviated police academy course that equips them with basic policing skills in firearms, tactics, self-defense, and law, which upon completion, allows pilots to perform their duties as functioning police members in their operational pilot role. The Air Wing sends pilots to Singapore as part of recurrent training to utilize a full motion AS365 simulator, with the remainder of recurrent training and check rides completed in house using department aircraft.

During ongoing field training, Air Wing members will utilize the teams and equipment of specialized units that they work with regularly that include using the boats of the Water Police unit for marine scenario based training. This also includes working in rural mountainous terrain with Victoria Police Search and Rescue and in urban environments with the Special Operations Group (SOG.)

EQUIPMENT

The four helicopters that serve Victoria are fitted with the most up to date equipment, sourced by Air Wing staff that strives to stay on the forefront of technology and allow members to carry out the many and varied missions completed each year by the Air Wing.

The Air Wing’s two primary police patrol aircraft, Polair 30 and 33, or PVD and PVH to unit members who identify each aircraft by tail numbers. Each operational helicopter is crewed by a pilot and two tactical flight officers on each flight. TFO’s perform dual roles during each flight that can switch from the role of operating surveillance equipment on general policing roles and working as an extra set of eyes for the pilot in the front seat, to taking on the roles of rescue crew member and winch operator if dispatched to a search and rescue job.

Each Victoria Police AS365N3 has a custom rear seat TFO station featuring dual 10' Boland screens for mapping and FLIR operation. Photo by Kane Arlow.
Each Victoria Police AS365N3 has a custom rear seat TFO station featuring dual 10′ Boland screens for mapping and FLIR operation. Photo by Kane Arlow.

Each of the four helicopters operated by Victoria Police can be fitted with a FLIR Star SAFIRE EO/IR camera mounted on the forward port side of the aircraft. The unit then feeds imagery to the rear seat TFO which also supplies the images simultaneously to a front TFO station in the copilot seat via dual 10.2 inch NVG compliant panel mounted Flight Display Systems screens featuring a custom designed, mounted Boland 15.6 inch NVG compliant LED touchscreen monitor.

The FLIR Star SAFIRE can be operated in either the rear or the front TFO position. To manage the data requirements of the onboard EO/IR system, the Air Wing selected an Air Knight Digital HD recorder that records all recorded imagery via Secure Digital cards.

Victoria Police helicopters are often required to perform long distance flights to complete search and rescue operations and are also tasked with operating in urban areas that sometimes require precise positioning. The Air Wing uses the MissionMap System, designed and built by Sydney based Logimap. The MissionMap system with GPS assisted HD quality moving maps is also displayed on both front and rear TFO screens via a toggle switch that allows quick access to mapping and FLIR imagery as needed on board the helicopter.

Victoria Police Air Wing AS365N3 helicopters are each equipped with the latest technology including the FLIR 380HDc seen here. Photo by Kane Arlow.
Victoria Police Air Wing AS365N3 helicopters are each equipped with the latest technology including the FLIR 380HDc seen here. Photo by Kane Arlow.

Each helicopter is also equipped with a digital downlink transmitter that enables ground based resources and officers in the Victoria Police Flight Coordination Center to see live imagery of incidents, assisted at times by illumination provided by an onboard Specrolab Nitesun SX-16. The Air Wing performs rescue winching using a Goodrich Hoist system capable of performing winching tasks at up to 250 feet below the helicopter. The winch is capable of lifting a useful load of over 272 Kilograms (598.75lbs) which enables the Air wing to accommodate the majority of rescue cases they perform.

Each helicopter in the Air Wing fleet can perform in a search and rescue role statewide with the exception being the Airbus Helicopters H135, which was not fitted with a hoist due to the aircraft initially having a different mission profile than that of the Air Wing’s Dauphin fleet. The H135 helicopter is however still used for Search and Rescue operations not likely to require extraction of a victim via hoist.

VH-PVG which was previously utilized for ambulance duties is undergoing a modification to return it to full police configuration, Polair 35; the Air Wing’s third AS365 will also return to full-time search and rescue capability, further enhancing the existing capacity of the operation.

MAINTENANCE

Maintenance of the Air Wing fleet is a fundamental component of Victoria Police’s strategy in providing the clock airborne law enforcement and search and rescue capabilities to the citizens of Victoria. Maintenance needs are carefully scheduled around the operational and training requirements of the Air Wing by CHC support staff that consists of a senior base engineer, two avionics engineers, five airframe engineers and two employees charged with maintaining the maintenance stores and safety equipment needs of the unit respectively.

SEARCH AND RESCUE

The state of Victoria boasts a temperate climate that attracts millions of visitors every year from both other states and international tourists. The state has many state parks and forests that feature varying elevations, walking tracks, and cliffs that make them a popular attraction for climbing enthusiasts and hikers alike. The state of Victoria also features hundreds of kilometers of pristine beaches and Port Phillip Bay directly south of the city of Melbourne that sees both commercial marine traffic into the Port of Melbourne and leisure craft that vary in size from small runabouts to large luxury mega yachts.

With the number of commercial vessels and pleasure craft that operate in the waterways of Victoria, and a constant flow of local residents and tourists that frequent inland areas for leisure activities – the Victoria Police Air Wing has a steady stream of search and rescue missions that can require response over water or land. In standard Police configuration, the Dauphin’s endurance can stretch to 2.5hrs but is a variable that fluctuates according to mission requirements. On occasions, Victoria Police is requested to assist yachts or boats in distress, sometimes over one hundred miles from the nearest coastline. Search, and rescue missions such as these are carefully planned out to ensure operations are conducted safely.

Inland search and rescue operations can quickly turn into overnight stays or tasks that require unit personnel remains in a location for several days at times, dependent on the severity of the situation or if inclement weather makes returning to base unsafe.

Victoria Police AS365s can be called to the other side of the state to conduct complex rescues at a moments notice. Photo by Ryan Mason.
Victoria Police AS365s can be called to the other side of the state to conduct complex rescues at a moments notice. Photo by Ryan Mason.

WHEN TRAINING PAYS OFF

Although the Victoria Police Air Wing has been involved in many notable rescues, none stand out more so than rescue operations conducted by officers from the Air Wing on December 27th and 28th, 1998 during the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race. As the afternoon shift crew started to settle in for their shift two days after Christmas that year the Air Wing operations center received a dispatch from the Australian Search and Rescue Center (AUS-SAR.) Minutes later, the on duty air crew were airborne and responding to an area off the coast of Mallacoota, a coastal town in the states east.

The departing crew of Senior pilot Constables Darryl Jones, winch operator Barry Barclay and rescue crewman David Key had no idea that this mission would be one that no amount of training would prepare them for, and be a mission that all considered at several points during the rescue attempt, could be their last. Rescue crewman David Key was at the time of the mission one of the longest serving and most experienced members of the Air Wing, having participated as either a rescue crewman or winch operator in over 800 rescues during his years with Victoria Police.

As the helicopter neared Mallacoota where they would stop for fuel, pilot Darryl Jones noted the rapidly deteriorating weather that was approaching cyclonic speeds of up to 80 knots on their tail and white caps on what appeared to be mountainous seas that almost turned the sea in the distance to white.

After refueling at the Mallacoota aerodrome, the crew was briefed by phone by AUS-SAR that the situation had worsened as they were in flight and a massive rescue effort was being mounted to respond to 20 EPIRB activations within a 4000 nautical mile search area. Reports were now being received of at least ten yacht crew members in the water having been thrown overboard, and several yachts reported as already sunk during the race leg along the New South Wales and Victorian coastline. The rescue effort was soon to involve five helicopters, thirty-three fixed wing aircraft, one Navy vessel and several commercial ships in the vicinity that would work together to save the now dozens of stricken vessels caught in unheard of conditions that have not been seen since.

The immediate assignment given to the Victoria Police Air Wing was to respond 60 nautical miles from shore between Gabo Island and Mallacoota and rescue the four occupants of the yacht “VC Offshore Stand Aside.”

The team departed Mallacoota Aerodrome as pilot Senior Constable Jones noted a substantial speed increase via the helicopters speed gauge. The AS365 flown had a cruise speed of 120 knots. However, cyclone force tailwinds in the area were recorded at 85 knots giving the helicopter a cruise speed en route to their assigned search area showing an indicated 205-knot ground speed. The flight taking only ten minutes versus the thirty-minute flight time.

The conditions stated in an after action report detailed the weather conditions as “the worst conditions I have ever encountered due to the mountainous seas and ferocious winds” said Senior Constable Key, the rescue crewman on the flight in his statement of events.

Upon reaching their assigned search area, AUS-SAR diverted the Air Wing helicopter to search for the yachts “Sea-Anna” and “Business Post Naiad” which had both sent out mayday calls. A responding SouthCare Bell 412 was sent to the helicopters primary task where they rescued eight crew that abandoned the yacht VC Offshore Stand Aside. The Victoria Police helicopter was also notified to search for the boat “Winston Churchill” in their search area as mayday calls began to stream into the AUS-SAR center faster than air assets could be assigned to look for them. After searching for the three vessels unsuccessfully for 15-20 minutes, AUS-SAR again reassigned the crew to respond to the yacht Kingurra who reported one of their crew members had been washed overboard after a wave hit the yacht. The situation made more urgent as reports relayed that the team member had slipped out of his safety harness and was now drifting further from the yacht with every passing minute, dressed in only long johns and a tee-shirt and had now been in the freezing water for almost forty minutes.

As the crew approached the last reported location of the Kingurra, the crew noted a red flare in the distance that quickly extinguished. This left pilot Darryl Jones to rely on his dead reckoning skills to continue towards their location with no visual references as ceilings ranged from 600-2000 feet, and sheet rain fell on the seas below that were described by the crew as literal moving mountains of water that ranged between 90 feet and 120 feet in size. Senior Constable Jones established a hover as best he could at 100 feet from the sea below, coordinating with Senior Constable Barclay on how much winch line to deploy as Key was lowered for a rescue attempt of the missing crewman. Several times Jones stated that he had to pull pitch to avoid waves that were approaching at eye level while hovering at 100 feet. The closest wave to the helicopter was recorded by the helicopter’s radio altimeter at less than 10 feet below the helicopter and over 120 feet in size, the equivalent of a four story building.

The yacht Midnight Rambler struggles to stay upright in the huge seas of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Photo courtesy Wikicommons.
          The yacht Midnight Rambler struggles to stay upright in the huge seas of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Photo courtesy Wikicommons.

Several minutes later, the crew arrived overhead of the Kingurra and made contact with the skipper of the yacht who directed the helicopter to an area 600 meters (2000 feet) to the rear of the boat where their crewmember was last spotted. By pure luck, Senior Constable Barclay spotted the crew member in the water and notified Jones to come back around to effect a rescue attempt. Senior Constable Key was then lowered into the raging sea below and was immediately hit by a wall of water that he estimates were 90 feet high and 35 feet thick that flipped him over in his buoyant state with his life vest. He then began tumbling him down the massive three story face of the wave that only stopped as he was submerged into the wave as the helicopter rescue cable stopped his fall.

Senior Constables Barclay and Jones then decided on trying to drag Key on the winch line towards the now flailing crewman that appeared to be at the end of his endurance fighting the mountainous seas. After being hit by another wall of water, Senior Constable Key surfaced and found himself right in front of American Kingurra crewman John Campbell. After fighting the waves and wrestling to get the rescue harness on the injured crewman who was too exhausted to assist Key, the two were being winched from the raging sea. As the winch neared its end bringing the two close to the door of the helicopter, the winch froze less than a foot from the point where Senior Constable Barclay could pull the two into the aircraft. Sensing the exhaustion of the crew member and the potential risk of him falling back into the ocean, Senior Constable Barclay reached out of the helicopter attached to a rescue line and pulled Campbell into the aircraft. It would take a further six power cycle resets before the winch began to function correctly and Senior Constable Key could be brought back inside the helicopter.

The danger, however, for the crew and their rescued passenger was not over. The extra time spent searching for other missing yachts and the time dedicated to the search that required the helicopter to fly at a speed of over 100 knots just to stay over the rescue had burned more fuel than could have been forecast due to the “once in a lifetime” storm the crew was flying in. The rescue of Campbell had cost the team in fuel reserves, and it was now a game of chance as to if they would make it back to land or have to ditch the helicopter as they now battled the 85-knot headwinds to return to shore.

Senior Constable Jones started preparing the helicopter for a ditching and instructed the rear crew to position themselves by the door in case fuel reserves were exhausted, and a ditching was the only course of action. Jones noted during an interview several years later that in his head he had run the numbers every way he could and it appeared that unless the wind disappeared, that ditching was their only option and preparing the crew to survive was his priority. Although he noted, he had planned to ditch the helicopter in a way that gave his team and survivor the most likely chance of survival. Jones proposed to lower the chance of the blades striking the helicopter as they disintegrated on impact, which was also the scenario that was most likely to be one he would not survive.

As the two crew members in the rear of the helicopter tied themselves to their passenger to keep them together if a ditching occurred, Senior Constable Jones brought the helicopter’s power back to the lowest setting he could to try and conserve fuel. With 20 miles indicated remaining to their destination, and only 10 minutes of fuel on board, the wind that the helicopter had been battling the whole return journey disappeared in an instant. The cliffs of Mallacoota became visible through the torrential rain and began blocking the ferocious winds that had so impeded their journey right as the 5 minutes until empty alarm sounded. Right as the helicopter reached land mass the three minutes until empty alarm sounded as Senior Constable Jones nursed the helicopter to the staging area at the Mallacoota Community Center where he quickly put the aircraft on the ground just after 8 pm. The crew noted that the helicopter powered down on its own a mere 40 seconds after touching down after complete exhaustion of the fuel reserves.

The crew of Air 490 that day went back out into similar conditions the next morning at 6 am after assisting other officers at the staging point for several more hours that evening and spending the night sleeping on the floor of the Mallacoota Police station. The crew rescued four remaining crew members of the yacht “Midnight Special” after the SouthCare rescue helicopter reported it was at the maximum gross weight after picking up eight of the crew members. Senior Constable Key again returned to the heavy seas, completing the rescue of the fourth and final crew member right as the Midnight Special sank beneath the surface and disappeared without a trace directly underneath the helicopter as the last crew member was pulled into the helicopter.

By the time the two crews that were sent to assist in what is now regarded as the largest scale maritime rescue operation in Australian history returned to their base in Essendon, the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race had claimed the lives of six sailors and caused the sinking of five boats. Only 44 out of a field of 115 starting participants completed the race. The ensuing rescue effort resulted in the airlift of 55 crew members from stricken yachts damaged by seas that were the biggest ever witnessed in Australia due to the development of a freak weather anomaly, a low-pressure system that developed and headed straight towards the race route. A weather phenomenon not usually seen in the hot summer months in Australian waters that have not been seen since the 1998 incident.

The Victoria Police Air Wing also completed two other sea rescues in similarly treacherous conditions in 2005 and 2013, both to rescue a solo yachtsmen that had suffered similar fates to those in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Although the conditions that were not the same as those experienced in 1998, the rescues were similarly complex. In their attempts to rescue both yachtsmen being right on the edge of the distance they were able to respond safely to and with a tiny window in which to effect a rescue before having to return for fuel. Waves hit the 2005 incident requiring multiple winch attempts as the survivor and rescue crewman during extraction, one tossing the survivor back into the water.

The second 2013 rescue, again off the coast of Mallacoota in a similar location to that of the 1998 rescues saw the yachtsman desperate to escape his crippled yacht leap from the yacht on to the legs of the approaching rescue crewman still dangling above him in a desperate attempt to be saved. Both rescues were eventually successful, resulting in saving the life of each yacht captain.

INTO THE FIRE

One of the most high profile incidents involving the Victoria Police Air Wing in recent years occurred on the 7th of February 2009, a day that was given the name “Black Saturday.” The devastating fires that erupted across a large portion of Victoria were the most devastating to hit Victoria since the Ash Wednesday fires that took place on the 16th of February,1983. Those fires resulting in the deaths of 43 Victorians as 180 separate fires raged across the state fanned by winds reaching 68 miles per hour (110Km/h) and scorching temperatures common during the Victorian summer.

Black Saturday, would, however, prove to be far more deadly than the 1983 fires. Resulting in over 400 fires across the state that took the lives of 173 Victorians and injuries to over 400 more, along with the loss of entire towns that were wiped out as the fire approached towns located at the bottom of hills that surrounded towns on all sides. The hills erupting in flames and approaching from all sides, trapping many as they tried to escape the flames that reached temperatures in places that imploded brick homes and melted the metal frames of cars where they sat.

The Police Air Wing as is the case with any large scale emergency were tasked with assisting in any way with rescues as people became trapped in their homes and businesses with no way to escape. Some country residents are resorting to taking shelter in dams on their properties. Many hiding under fireproof blankets for cover as fires raged above and around them, raising the temperature of the small dams substantially as the fires burned everything in their path.

The Air Wing was dispatched to one of the worst cut off areas in the town of Kinglake West, where it was reported that four people were trapped and believed cut off by fire and bushes that were exploding as the fires approached their location. The four individuals who called for help, a resident, and three friends, were trapped on Coombs Road, Kinglake West, where it would later be discovered as the fires were extinguished that 11 other people on the street had been trapped and perished in the flames.

As the Victoria Police helicopter approached the location of the call for help, the crew witnessed the home with fire sprinklers activated on the roof and fire approaching from the north west.

Seen in this still shot from footage captured by Channel 9 Melbourne, the crew of a Victoria Police Dauphin prepare to winch Senior Constable Key down to the stricken party before the conditions force the crew to cut him loose.
Seen in this still shot from footage captured by Channel 9 Melbourne, the crew of a Victoria Police Dauphin  winch Senior Constable Key down to the stricken party trapped by flames before conditions force the crew to cut the winch cable once he is on the ground..

Key was lowered to the ground and was immediately approached by a female resident and her dog. Key spoke with her briefly and fitted her with a rescue strop.  She refused to leave without her dog, so Key picked up the dog and placed it between the two.  While performing harness checks, the dog was spooked and escaped from the pair.  The female again refused to leave without her dog, so Key disconnected both from the winch hook and the aircraft then cleared.

Their answer came just a minute later as the helicopter radioed Key to tell them to hurry up and get in their vehicles as they had spotted a small off road track that was as yet not surrounded by the inferno. Those on the ground loaded up three vehicles and a horse trailer that was loaded with one resident’s horses and led by the helicopter that provided directions from above as smoke surrounded all of the vehicles, was able to drive himself and his grateful new friends to safety.

No matter what mission they have been tasked with over the last 40 years, the Victoria Police Air Wing has responded with highly trained professionals that often risk their own lives in the performance of their duties as pilots, tactical flight officers, and rescue crew members for the people of Victoria that they serve. The Victoria Police over the four decades of service the Air Wing has provided has shown a dedication to not only keeping the unit operational but to ensure that the Air Wing has the latest technology available to complete the diverse mission requirements that can change at a moment’s notice. Entry into the unit is tough by design, as evidenced by the many hundreds of lives saved by unit members who regularly go above and beyond putting their lives on the line in service to their state and its residents.

Victoria Police currently operate three Airbus Helicopters AS365N3's, but have recently been granted $68 million to replace the ageing fleet, although no decision has been made on the replacement airframe. Photo by Ryan Mason.
Victoria Police currently operate three Airbus Helicopters AS365N3’s, but have recently been granted $68 million to replace the ageing fleet, although no decision has been made on the replacement airframe. Photo by Ryan Mason.

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