Massachusetts State Police Air Wing

Veteran unit with Eurocopter AS355s and EC135s maintains public safety, apprehended Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

By Mike Potts
Contributing Editor

Massachusetts State Police Air Wing EC135 cruises over downtown Boston. In addition to patrol duties, the unit occasionally escorts tankers entering the harbor.

To the injured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, trying desperately to elude one of the largest police pursuits in recent memory, the boat must have seemed like a gift from Allah—a hiding place big enough to lie down in, covered by a translucent tarp that no one could see through, and safely stored in a back yard where his ground-bound pursuers were unlikely even to notice it.

But hanging in the sky less than 2 miles away was a package of technology so formidable that the young fugitive could scarcely have imagined it, and when the homeowner noticed a blood trail leading to his boat, the ensuing 911 call brought the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing helicopter on the scene in less than a minute.

On board the Eurocopter AS355 Twin­Star, an integrated electronic tracking system combining GPS and FLIR showed the 3-man flightcrew a detailed map of the neighborhood, complete with street names, projected on 15-in screens at each seat position. It was a simple matter to bring the helicopter into position and lock the FLIR camera on to the boat.

While the infrared image could not penetrate the cover, the heat signature coming from underneath was clearly visible and the shape was unmistakable—clearly, there was a human being hiding in the boat.

Troll Sky Link auto-racking antenna keeps the FLIR unit and video camera system trained on a target while the helicopter maneuvers.

First on the scene, the airborne Massachusetts State Troopers reported their find. Almost instantly, personnel from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, the Boston and Watertown Police Departments and ground-based units of the Massachusetts State Police, who had been searching for Tsarnaev all day, began converging on the site.

Overhead, the TwinStar orbited the scene slowly, its FLIR ball locked on the target with tracking equipment that holds the target image while the helicopter maneuvers, making it a more elusive target in case the suspect, who had exchanged gunfire with police the previous day, turned out still to be armed.

Real-time FLIR video images of the boat and its human-shaped heat signature were being downlinked to police officials coordinating the search—video that would later reach the Internet, showing a fascinated world how the alleged terrorist bomber who had attacked the Boston Marathon was finally taken into custody. And the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing suddenly became the most famous airborne law enforcement unit on the planet.

FLIR unit mounted beneath one of the Massachusetts State Police's Eurocopter EC135s.

It was the kind of situation that every law enforcement professional knows might occur once in a career if he or she is lucky—when the countless hours of training and preparation come together with the massive investment required to support cutting edge high-tech police operations at the key moment necessary to achieve a critical high-profile arrest or rescue.


Unit history

For the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing, preparation for this moment of glory had begun years before, when the unit was formed in 1969. The unit started operating a single Bell 206 JetRanger from a base at OWD (Norwood MA), a little to the southwest of Boston. In 1979 the unit added a 2nd Bell 206 and a fixed-wing Piper Saratoga.

About a decade later, one of the JetRangers was traded on an Aérospatiale (now Eurocopter) AS350 AStar—the first step in a process that would see the Massachusetts State Police become an all-Eurocopter operation.

A second base was opened at CEF (Westover AFB, Springfield MA) in 1989 to facilitate operations in the western part of the state. In anticipation of opening the Westover facility, a 2nd AStar was acquired to be based there. The 2nd JetRanger was subsequently transferred to CEF and remained operational there for several years afterwards.

In 1999 the unit began a program to upgrade to twin-engine equipment for its regular rotorcraft operations. By 2002 the unit had acquired 4 AS355 TwinStars. One AS350 was retained for use as a trainer.

Members of the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing with one of the unit's Eurocopter EC135s on the ramp at PYM.

The unit's original base at OWD was relocated to PYM (Plymouth MA) in 2001, and all scheduled aircraft maintenance is accomplished there. A 3rd base was added at LWM (Lawrence MA) in the northeastern part of the state, not far from the New Hampshire border, in 2004.

In 2009 the unit began a 5-year program to upgrade from AS355s to Eurocopter EC135s. Today it operates 2 EC135s and 2 AS355s in regular patrol operations.

A 3rd EC135 was accepted by the unit this May at American Eurocopter's headquarters at GPM (Grand Prairie TX). This aircraft is now being fitted out at the Metro Aviation facility in Shreveport LA. It is expected to enter service in 4Q2013, replacing one of the Twin­Stars. Plans call for a 4th EC135 to be acquired next year.

Training is still conducted in the AS350, and the department has 2 fixed-wing aircraft—the Saratoga and a Cessna 182—although the helicopters are the primary mission aircraft.

The helicopters are equipped with Garmin 530s for aviation nav/ com, as well as a customized law enforcement tactical installation that includes integrated GPS, FLIR, moving map with screens for 3 seating positions, searchlight system, digital video downlink, and tactical police radios. The installations are as identical as possible to promote safe and efficient working procedures.

On the later EC135s the searchlights are mounted further aft along the fuselage to improve the aircraft's center of gravity characteristics.


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