Sunday, January 04, 2015

Western Australia Police: Choppers grounded as pilots quit

WA's two police helicopters have been grounded since Saturday after the sudden resignation of two senior pilots, leaving the State without eyes in the sky for chases, patrols and searches.

Assistant Commissioner Nick Anticich denied last night the resignations were linked to personality clashes within the police Air Wing, despite rumors of tension and infighting.

The departure of chief pilot Rohan Armstrong and deputy chief pilot Kenny Kross means that three of the unit's five pilot positions are now vacant.

Despite still having two pilots, the choppers cannot fly because under air safety laws the unit's air operator's certificate is held by the chief pilot rather than by the organization.

Mr. Anticich said police were due to hold urgent talks with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority this morning to try to find a solution that would enable the helicopters to return to the sky as soon as possible.

He said he hoped the air safety regulator would allow police to operate under a "private license" until another pilot could be trained to fill the senior role.

Shadow police minister Michelle Roberts described the situation as "absolutely inexcusable" at a busy time of year.

"It is a really critical time of year to have all the crew available," she said.

"It's not just public safety that's put at risk because of something like this, it's also potentially the safety of officers on the ground.

"One of the things that Air Wing does is support officers on the ground, whether that's at an out-of-control party or during a car chase."

Mr Anticich denied the grounding created a safety risk.

"Generally the majority of the work for the police chopper is patrol and backing up the troops on the ground," he said.

"Rescue is not the primary police function.

"If resolving this issue takes an extended period of time, then we will operate using our fixed-wing aircraft and, if need be, we will hire another helicopter.

"Some of our optional patrolling would be limited because we don't have our helicopter in the air.

"But we can cover emergencies and the fixed-wing aircraft can do most of the things the helicopter does.

"We do this all the time when the helicopter is not in Perth or down for maintenance . . . we're not unfamiliar with supplementing the capability through other means."

Mr. Anticich said police could also ask the Department of Fire and Emergency Services to use the rescue helicopter if it was part of a search-and-rescue incident.

The police helicopter also often directs officers on the ground during pursuits of stolen vehicles or fleeing offenders, helps search for people missing on land or in the water and has even pulled out cannabis plants from marshy or difficult-to-access bush.

In July, the police helicopter crew rescued a teenage hiker stranded on Bluff Knoll, winching the 18-year-old and a police rescue crewman to safety in the pitch-black in wet, windy conditions.

The risky rescue was prompted by fears the teen would not survive another night out in the freezing temperatures and afterwards, Capt. Kross said it had been some of the most extreme flying conditions he had experienced.

Mrs. Roberts said police needed to focus on retaining staff in specialist areas.

Mr.  Anticich denied there were any cultural problems despite the three resignations, with the two senior officers leaving in quick succession.

"We've had one vacancy for some time and helicopter pilots are in high demand," he said.

"We'll be trying to fill the positions as soon as possible but the problem is identifying suitably qualified people who want to come to fly with the police service."

Mr. Anticich said WA Police were not considering outsourcing the management of the Air Wing operations to a private company, similar to the way DFES and police in some other States had.

Police got a new $20 million WA police helicopter in May 2012 after several months of delays and problems.

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