Circling over Surrey on a clear afternoon in February of last year, RCMP Tactical Flight Officer Cpl. Curtis Brassington and his civilian pilot received a call about a stolen pick-up truck spotted in Pitt Meadows.
An officer had turned on his lights in an attempt to pull over the red full-sized truck, but the driver sped off at a high rate of speed.
Following protocol, the officer pulled to the side of the road – having to watch as the truck headed westbound on Lougheed Highway. He was adhering to a no-pursuit policy put in place to help prevent high-speed collisions involving innocent drivers and pedestrians.
That’s when Brassington and Air 1, one of two RCMP helicopters monitoring the skies over the Lower Mainland, picked up the pursuit.
Within minutes, Air 1 spotted the truck in Coquitlam, barreling 140 km/h down the shoulder of the highway in heavy traffic. When the suspect saw RCMP cruisers in the area, he slammed on his brakes and began speeding in reverse against traffic. However, police were able to lay a down a spike belt that blew out a rear tire.
For the next hour-and-a-half, the driver of the stolen truck raced throughout the Lower Mainland, from Maple Ridge to Surrey, Cloverdale and Langley, travelling at speeds upwards of 150 km/h on Highway 1 with Brassington and Air 1 watching from 300 metres (1,000 feet) in the air.
When the suspect eventually ended up on the Golden Ears Bridge (left) – facing oncoming traffic and the vehicle’s engine failing – RCMP members were able to box the truck in.
However, before it came to a complete stop, the driver jumped from the truck, climbed the fence on the bridge and tried to jump into the river. Officers grabbed one of his legs before he went over the edge and he was taken into custody.
During this ordeal, the driver left 17 smashed vehicles in his wake.
A few months later, the career criminal pleaded guilty to numerous charges and is now in prison.
“It was a miracle he didn’t kill anyone along the way,” said Brassington. “But at least from the air we were able to watch where he was going. Members were at some points able to block intersections because he didn’t stop a single time at any stop sign or red light.”
Without the ability to follow the suspect from the air and keep that continuity, Brassington said, the driver may have been able to get away and then the costs of finding him and bringing him to justice would have skyrocketed.
Police helicopters patrolling the skies around major metropolitan areas are not new tools in the crime-fighting kit. In fact, many large cities in the U.S. have a dozen or more choppers in the air.
But it wasn’t until 2006 when ICBC funded the purchase of the first police helicopter for Metro Vancouver, with a jurisdiction stretching from Whistler to Hope. A second helicopter was added shortly after. Operational costs of $5 million annually are divided between the RCMP, ICBC and the provincial government.
Equipped with a pair of cameras mounted on the underside of the helicopter for high-definition video and infrared heat detection, along with helmet-mounted night vision goggles that can amplify light up to 40,000 times, the airborne officers are able to respond to calls that run the gamut – from missing hikers, to surveillance, to traffic patrol, to marine emergencies – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Recently an older gentleman from a First Nations community in the eastern Fraser Valley had gone out fishing alone in a small aluminum skiff, but by nightfall had not returned.
Following a search by local residents and search-and-rescue volunteers, his overturned boat was found floating in the river.
Air 1 was dispatched to the area and using the infrared camera, was able to detect a heat source in the dark near the edge of the river. It turned out to be the fisherman and although he was hypothermic, he made a full recovery.
Often just the light from a cellphone in the dark or the reflection of light from a bright object such as a belt buckle can be the difference between people being spotted or not.
“We will tell people, ‘if you are lost at night and you hear the helicopter, turn on your flashlight or phone and point it at the helicopter’,” said Brassington. “Once we see that flash of light we can point our camera in that area and say yes, that’s a person.”
Air 1 in 2015:
• Took 800 flights
• Played an essential role in 400 arrests
• Attended 1,500 calls
• Attended 30 search-and-rescue calls
Below: Air 1 RCMP Tactical Flight Officer Cpl. Curtis Brassington next to Air 1, stationed at the Langley airport.