from 12:44 to 1:51 am on january23, a police helicopter orbited my neighbourhood. Every two minutes or so, it was as if a motorcycle with a broken muffler were driving up and down my back alley. There was a fire at Danforth and Carlaw several blocks to the north, and one helicopter hovered over the fire with a searchlight while the orbiting craft played backup.Helicopter aficionados make much of a helicopter's ability to maintain a light over the same spot by hovering. And as a licensed pilot, I fully understand that police can make good use of aviation for long-range observation and thermal imaging -- to find missing persons, for example.
But there's a way to satisfy that requirement that's cheaper and less intrusive to sleeping city residents. It's called an airplane.
The skilled crew of an airplane like a Piper Cub can do almost any police task that a helicopter can -- for example, maintain a light over a spot while circling at low speed or S-turning downwind.
The UK-based Pilot magazine ran an article on police aviation last October that outlined a role for both copters and fixed-wing aircraft. In December, a UK constable who was a pioneer police aviator expressed his preference for a high-wing tandem-seat single-engine airplane for surveillance.
Airplanes have many advantages over helicopters in addition to their quieter operation that comes from muffler systems compliant with the most stringent noise-control rules. The Katana aircraft currently in use at the Island Airport show what can be achieved with advanced muffler systems.
Furthermore, airplanes can unobtrusively maintain surveillance over an area where a serial offender is operating. The Parkdale garage arsonist and the Scarborough serial break-in rapist are cases where quiet observation might have helped police to make arrests sooner. A helicopter orbiting over an area is just too obvious.
Lower operating costs can make possible more hours of fixed-wing surveillance. And planes require fewer refuelling stops that take the aircraft out of action.
Modern-day aircraft do have an excellent record of reliability, but it should be kept in mind that low-level utility operations at night are high-risk operations and accidents do occur.
The danger to people on the ground from a Piper Cub derivative weighing a little over 1,000 pounds is far less than that posed by a 5,000-pound helicopter with thrashing rotor blades.
Certain helicopters are much less noise-intrusive than others, but they tend to have more complex rotor systems and cost substantially more. As expensive as the Bell Long Ranger is, it's one of the cheaper turbine helicopters. Since other helicopters can cost substantially more and taxpayer dollars are limited, we are likely to be stuck with the demonstrably noise-intrusive Bell if council takes the bait and gives in to police demands.
As Toronto debates the need for police helicopters, what are the chances of the powers that be settling on fixed-wing aircraft as a compromise? Slim.
City council, the police services board and citizens are being presented with a cooked study that ignores alternative aircraft.
It has often been observed that the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, and helicopters are the ultimate toy.
A high-wing tandem-seat single-engine airplane derived from the Piper Cub design, at less than a tenth the price of the chosen helicopter, falls so far short in panache and prestige that Toronto police officers would inevitably be subject to a degree of ribbing from officers in better- endowed craft for going about their business in dinky puddle-jumpers. Only the beleaguered taxpayer would be satisfied with the lowly but effective Piper derivative. George Haeh is a licensed pilot.