Just about every Aucklander has at some point shaken a fist to the sky after being kept awake by the hovering police helicopter – one man has made more than 150 complaints. Dylan Reeve’s curiosity prompted him to seek a night in the air, to find out whether it was all worth the whirry bother
“Anyone know why the police helicopter is circling?” This, or any of a thousand very similar questions, is probably familiar if you belong to a neighbourhood group on Facebook. It’s such a common point of discussion that it’s actually an in-joke in many groups.
No matter how often the question is asked, we almost never really find out – what are they actually up to?
The New Zealand Police have operated an Air Support Unit in Auckland since 1988. Known by the callsign Eagle, the helicopter is ready to respond 24/7 across Auckland’s three police districts.
The sharp sound of the blades cutting into the air as it circles is familiar to many Aucklanders, including Orakei Local Board member Troy Churton, who attracted attention when he complained publicly about the helicopter flying over Remuera. Usually on the way to South Auckland, he said.
It later emerged that Churton had made 169 complaints to police about the helicopter in a little over six months.
One night, when Eagle was circling near my house, I had the same thought many do: I wonder what they’re doing.
Instead of shouting into the void of my local Facebook group about it, I decided to see if I could find out. Not specifically about that event, but what the helicopter is really doing when it’s circling overhead and robbing us of sleep.
Here I am, a little before 10pm on a Friday night, waiting outside the Mechanics Bay heliport to meet Mike, the senior Tactical Flight Officer, for an eight-hour night shift.
21:57 The night begins
The crew, civilian pilot Johnny, and two police tactical flight officers, Mike and Joe, are kitted up and ready a moment’s notice to climb the twin-engine Aerospatiale AS355, identified simply as POLICE3. There’s a handover period from the previous shift where they discuss calls (or lack of; the late shift didn’t get any during their shift today), technical issues they’ve been working through with the camera, and a bunch of operational minutiae about rosters and staffing.
I fill out some paperwork, receive a basic safety briefing and get handed a pair of night vision goggles. Night vision goggles!
Joe, the unit’s newest and youngest recruit, only two years out of police college, loads gear into the back left navigator’s seat and shows me how my life vest, seat belt and aviation headset work. Pilot Johnny completes his basic preflight checks on the helicopter. It’s ready to fly.
Mike, the cheerful boss of the shift, decides we’ll head out to the helicopter and go up for a proactive flight. While most of Eagle’s flying is reactive – responding to requests for support from other units – they also have a proactive role. As Mike explains it there are things they can see from a thousand feet up that stand out. Using the helicopter’s powerful FLIR camera they can spot smashed car windows, get vehicle details and often locate stolen or wanted vehicles before anyone on the ground has any idea.
A relaxed walk toward the helicopter, (or airframe as the crew prefers to call it) becomes a medium jog as a call comes over the radio for a car failing to stop for patrol officers on Ti Rakau Drive in Pakuranga.
22:41 Looking for a car
We’re over the area where the car, a 90s black Holden wagon, was last seen. So we’re doing wide circles as Mike scans the area with the FLIR camera for any cars that stand out – driving fast, or recklessly – or that look bright white on camera, a sign they’re hot and have been driven hard.
Soon the dispatcher alerts us that a car matching the description has been seen driving dangerously in Glen Innes. We’re overhead a minute later and immediately spot a very hot car stopped in a short cul-de-sac. A man standing nearby gets into a second car, but is intercepted by a police Delta (dog) unit the helicopter crew have guided to the location.
23:04 A suspicious man in Ellerslie
Joe, seated next to me in the back, has a very complex job. He’s watching the camera feed on a monitor, operating a laptop with maps, using the custom police app on his iPhone, and listening to two police radio channels and the onboard communication all at once. He’s also constantly looking out the window to keep Mike updated with exact details of our location – not what we’re flying over, but what the camera is looking at. Given the camera has 360 degree rotation and can zoom many kilometres into the distance, it’s quite a skill.
As Joe is reviewing the police iPhone app he spots a new call just coming in about a man seen trying to open the caller’s car door in their drive. We’re already overhead by the time the police dispatcher relays details of the job over the radio.
We spot the man below, still in the same driveway. More details are received from the caller saying that he seems very drunk. And he’s soon stumbling away from the address toward a main road. With a patrol car still minutes away we watch as he starts wandering in the roadway on a main road, then into the driveway of an office building. We direct the arriving police car to his location, by now a few streets away from where he started.
23:18 A pursuit
After quickly locating a drunk driver for ground units in Onehunga we’re called for a pursuit in the Counties Manukau district. The car, with four people inside, is being chased by a handful of police cars in Manurewa.
As we race south at more than 200km/h we can see the police lights ahead from more than 5km away, and the FLIR camera has already managed to zoom into to the action. Just as we arrive overhead the pursuit slows as the car seems to show signs of mechanical difficulties. It’s soon crawling at only 25km/h in the 70 zone, and units on the ground box the slowly fleeing driver in.
23:26 Symonds Street carjacking.
As we’re heading back toward the city from South Auckland a radio call goes out for a Hyundai Tucson stolen at knife-point from a driver in Symonds Street. The offender is believed to have carried out a smash and grab at a nearby bottle shop. The car was last seen heading onto the Southern motorway.
Before we can get far we have to pull up to a hover just south of the Auckland Airport approach path in order to wait for an incoming flight to pass in front of us. As we wait we scan the motorway stretching out in front of us for any sign of a car traveling way too fast.
Once we’re cleared to cross the airport flight path we get a possible location from comms. The owner’s phone was still in the car, and he’s tracked it to an area in Onehunga. We are circling the area a couple of minutes later and immediately see a hot car in a parking area behind shop.
A man standing in an alley by the car seems to hear us and approaching police cars. He tries the doors of a few other cars parked nearby before grabbing things from the stolen car and heading toward a nearby fence. Mike radios the address of the property he’s going to jump into and moments later he tumbles from the top of the fence onto the ground right in front of an arriving police car.
23:56 Back at base… or not
We touch down back at Mechanics Bay, but before we can exit the helicopter Joe needs to fuel it up again ready for the next call. I’m looking forward to having a pee.
But we aren’t on the ground long enough for a toilet visit. I’m not out of my seat before we’re heading to a new call in Howick for a possible burglary in progress. A caller has spotted lights on next door, but the neighbours are on holiday.
We’re circling the address less than five minutes after the call, but can’t see any sign of activity. Soon a police dog handler and patrol units are on site and approach the house. Ten minutes later units on the ground report that everything is secure and there’s no sign of activity in the house. Maybe the lights were on a timer?
Thirty minutes after the last landing and we’re back at base – this time after landing myself and pilot Johnny make a break for the nearest loo, but…
00:27 Fleeing car on the Shore
We’re literally halfway to the toilet when Joe calls us back. A silver sedan has fled at high speed from North Shore officers and they’ve lost sight of it. A few minutes later we’re scanning the area in which it was last seen, but can’t see any fast moving cars around. I shouldn’t have had that huge can of V before the flight.
After more than 10 minutes with no sign of the car, Johnny spots some tail lights next to a dark warehouse. The FLIR camera confirms that the car is indeed very hot, is still running, and the driver is inside. Minutes later a patrol car arrives and confirms the car matches the description, and the driver is very intoxicated.
Just before 1am we’re back at base … Finally!
While we wait for the next call Mike recounts some memorable flights, including being shot at by a heavily armed man reported to be suicidal. After popping off a few rounds from an AK47-style rifle at the helicopter, he loaded a large number of guns into his car and drove toward a police roadblock. Preparing themselves to witness the worst, the Eagle crew were relieved to see the man stop short and give himself up.
01:51 People of the roof at St Lukes
After initially heading toward a call in Papakura which was cancelled soon after takeoff, we’re now heading to reports of people climbing on the roof of the St Lukes Mall.
From a few kilometres away we can see a man on the roof – is he taking a selfie? He hears us coming and tries to hide before thinking better of it and making a break for his friend and the car parked below. They disappear into the covered carpark, but we spot them coming out and heading into a nearby residential street. An arriving patrol car is directed to them and they’re stopped.
The officer on the ground confirms – he’s looking at a cellphone with roof selfies on it.
02:07 Distraught woman
A call has come in about a distraught woman screaming hysterically in Torbay streets. With no ground units available we decide to respond and less than five minutes later we’re watching a man and woman having what seems to be a very animated argument in a park.
We watch them for the next 20 minutes until a patrol car arrives and we direct them to the woman, now a nearly a kilometre up the road from the park.
02:33 A fire
We’re over Albany heading back toward the west when Johnny notices what seems to be a huge fire out toward Henderson. It’s not visible to the naked eye yet, but is a very obvious bright spot in the night vision goggles. Comms confirms the fire service is aware and is responding.
We’re over the fire just as first fire engines are arriving. The entire house seems to be engulfed and the roof is gone.
As we head away from the fire a call comes in about a driver possibly fleeing the site of a crash in Titirangi. When we arrive a couple of minutes later we see people sitting a man on the ground and wrapping him in a blanket. He doesn’t seem to be running anywhere.
02:53 Onehunga building site
We are about 100 feet off the ground, just about to land when a call comes in about a group of people breaking into a building site in Onehunga. We do need to refuel, but it can wait. We head toward Onehunga.
As we get overheard we can see four people moving around on the top of a multi-storey construction project. They’ve heard us and make a break for the scaffolding to get back down. One makes a dash for the car as the other three head for a neighbouring residential area.
As Delta units and patrol cars arrive on the scene the guy in the car is quickly detained, but the other three are jumping over fences and running through backyards. Mike is in constant communication with the officers on the ground, trying to get them in front of the fleeing suspects. Soon two are caught, but with one still on the loose a dog handler leaves his detainee handcuffed to a metal fence and carries on.
After 20 minutes overhead (Johnny said we only had ten minutes fuel remaining when we first responded) the fuel light is on and we can’t stay any longer. We race back to refuel, but by the time we get back there’s no sign of the third guy.
We help the patrol car on the ground locate the suspect handcuffed to the fence before heading back to base for a meal, although given it’s about 4am, I’m not sure what meal to expect.
Mike has brought bacon, bread, hash browns and eggs from home. He seems happy to cook for us all, and his poached eggs are really on point.
We talk a little about the role of the Air Support Unit – as well as the obvious flying-and-watching stuff they also train for other things they may be called upon to do.
The helicopter carries M4 rifles, Glock handguns, Tasers and tactical gear. If the circumstances demand it they can land and deploy with firearms. They are even trained in air-to-ground shooting should they find themselves with no other option (although shooting from the air would require approval from very senior police staff).
Beyond that there’s also a rescue element. There is a surf lifesaving rescue tube on the back of the helicopter cabin, and they carry wetsuits, flippers and a mask on board. The Tactical Flight Officers are trained as rescue swimmers and lifesavers, and practise jumping from a hovering helicopter into the sea for water rescues.
In the back of the helicopter they also carry a full trauma first aid kit and automatic electronic defibrillator. They have been dispatched a number of times in the past to deliver life saving first aid in rural areas when no one else can respond soon enough.
05:24 Another fleeing car
We’ve been in the air again for 20 minutes when a Mt Wellington patrol car reports a car fleeing from a traffic stop. We’re close and can see the police car’s blue and red lights almost immediately, but can’t spot the fleeing car – it’s sped off way ahead.
Suddenly a bright flash on the ground catches our eye. What was it?
It was power arcing as the fleeing car hit a power pole on the main road. Luckily the driver seems to have gotten out and police quickly detain him, but there’s no sign of the passenger. We fly low and confirm with the camera that no one remains in the car, but we can’t see the passenger anywhere nearby.
We head back to base as more cars arrive to look for the passenger and divert traffic away from the downed power lines.
As I head home the Eagle crew still has an hour left to handover to the next shift and complete incident reports about the night’s flying. Over the space of eight hours on active flying duty we’ve spent about five hours in the air. In that time the crew responded officially to around a dozen jobs, and were constantly on the lookout for other activity they’ve learned is worth their attention.
The thing that hadn’t struck me before was how much more efficient the helicopter made police on the ground. In almost all cases the helicopter was on site before any ground units and was able to locate people and vehicles of interest immediately, guiding police on the ground right to where they needed to be.
While I didn’t closely follow our exact flight paths the whole time, I’m pretty sure we only flew over Troy Churton’s house a couple of times.
I’m sure I will still be annoyed if the police helicopter keeps me awake, and I’ll keep wondering exactly what it is they’re doing, but I have a little more insight now. And I totally get that they’re too focused on a bunch of other stuff to worry about how they sound to us on the ground.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.