Well, what a morning/afternoon that was, certainly one to remember, and by all accounts to be remembered by too. I'm guessing here, clutching at straws a little, but something tells me I'm the 'over excited' one of the group that visited Lippitts Hill today. Nothing indicated this more than being told on my arrival that they had wagered that I would arrive first due to my build up. I just call it enthusiasm lol.
Anyway, once I was over the embarrassment of being identified as a little nerdy, it was onto business. The general introduction to the place was a surprise too. Lippitts Hill is in fact an ex POW camp from WW2, so a lot of the buildings, which are nothing more than wooden dorm room looking buildings, are listed, so no real changes can be made to the general layout of the place. As Tony, our guide for the day pointed out, the location is prime for development, but I for one am glad its staying as it is.
Surrounded by Epping Forest, the approach to Lippitts Hill itself is a beautiful drive, winding country lanes, lovely scenery, mountain bikers and horse riders line the lanes, and following the morning downpour, there are lots of kerbside rivers in flow. So you can imagine, its quite surprising when the hidden entrance to the ASU appears at the side of the road.
Hidden away from sight, the entrance is quite unassuming, but what lays beyond the gates is a tech nerds dream playground.
Once on site, we were greeted by the aforementioned Tony Donnelly of the ASU. Once all on site and briefed on the basics of the place it was off to the ASU Classroom for a presentation. Within the presentation were some very interesting facts. Things that made someone like myself realise how little they actually know about the unit and their work. I consider myself relatively well informed about some aspects of the ASU, but as the presentation went on, I started to feel like I knew nothing.
The depth of the information was actually quite surprising, and refreshingly interesting. Rather than being bombarded with PR info as some might imagine, everything explained was of interest and relevance. Deeper knowledge of how the on-board gear works, just how effective some of it is, and how un-used other bits like the night-sun are these days, with the advances of the infrared systems.
Bundles of footage was shown of all sorts of situations from stand-offs to chases coming to an end, with each clip focusing on a particular piece of equipment or aspect of it.
Then it was fun time, off to meet the Eurocopter 145's. A, B and C were all on site today. C on the pad ready to fly, A in the hanger staying warm, but ready to go if needed, and B in for a 'little' bit of work, as the picture will show. Allowing us to spend some time climbing all over the chopper was really cool, if that doesn't sound a little infantile. After a quick talk through about the Eurocopter, and pointing out the camera pod which also contains the very impressive FLIR unit too, as well as the night-sin, downlink unit and other external bits and pieces it was onto the insides.
Wowza! There is a lot of equipment in there, with various seating points in the helicopter having access to certain pieces. All the flying gear aside, which in itself is super complex looking, the observation post is a multitude of screens, buttons, controllers and even room for a keyboard. More spacious than you might imagine, although no luxury, the front observer/navigator and the rear observer and equipment operator are far from cramped up as some TV programs might give the impression of.
The rear post has a lot going on, and is the one usually focused on by most programs, and understandably so, with so much going on there, you can imagine that in the middle of a job there is a level of multi-tasking that most could only dream of being able to complete. With the units in the camera pod all being able to operate independently, there is a lot to control. There is also some very clever equipment in there though, with some pretty powerful software and hardware working together.
Ever wondered how i99 can tell ground operatives which address someone is in the backgarden of? Well the software enables the camera operator to see a building by building map of an area based on where EXACTLY the camera is pointed and locked at that time. And the opposite also applies. While airborne, the operator can enter a street address, and the camera will turn and zoom to that location, even if they are miles away at the time, it will remain pointing at the set location until they come into range of it.
Speaking of ranges, optical range is quite astounding if I'm honest, the zoom can get ultra close to things, when the helicopter itself is seemingly in another postcode. A demonstration of its zoom capabilities was given to us live whilst in the ops control room while C was out on a planned flight in central London. Flicking from one landmark to the next in what seemed like seconds, it makes you realise that there is very little that the ASU can't get to and see in very little time at all.
With flight times between 5-10 mins to all four corners of the M25, you would be stupid to think that the helicopter would take 'a while' to reach you if you were up to no good. Armed with a street to head for, the cameras will be trained on the criminal from i99's initial approach, and the unit will be in most parts of London in 5-6 mins if the unit is already airborne. The tech on board is enough to outsmart the best out there, and only pure luck will see you getting out of their noose.
Another thing that surprised me was the level of flexibility of the ASU, and the number of roles it is able to carry out, from simple surveillance to searching for missing persons. Right up to transporting other divisions of the Met Police from S019 to dog units, and even bomb squads and their equipment. Interestingly the largest role that it carries out is looking for missing and vulnerable persons. While the TV and media focus on the high speed, high octane roles, it is heartwarming to realise that there are other less dramatic and graphic jobs that it does, which instead of looking for a criminal, is looking for a victim of health or other circumstances. Just goes to show that the media like to go for the hard hitting stuff, and not the whole package. Another reason today was such a good opportunity to meet and appreciate a team which provide such a vital service to Greater London and now the Home Counties.
I could rattle on about today for a lot longer, and I currently feel like a 7yr old who has just come back from their first trip to Disneyland, and got to meet Micky and the cast. Not to compare the ASU guys to cartoon characters, although there were definitely some colourful characters and personalities on show today. But for now I will draw it all to a close, and pop some pictures up for all to enjoy.
So next time you see the ASU up at 2am, and it might have woken you from your slumber, appreciate it and respect the people inside it. They are keeping our city a safer place, as are all ASU's around the country. If you do from time to time look up and wonder what they are doing, follow @mpsinthesky on Twitter, and see their day to day jobs and operations. Who knows, you could even be one of the next lucky winners of their next competition, and you too could be paying the Lippitts Hill ASU a visit.
Thanks once again to Tony and the rest of the crew on today, for the education, humour and time given to us all today.
Sent via Blackberry®
PS More images of the day can be found here...
Courtesy of WadeyLady
And also here.... http://www.flickr.com/photos/waterford_man/sets/72157632625097228/
Courtesy of Rich
Of course its not JUST the guys in the helicopter that make up the ASU.... Read more on the ground based staff here... http://michaelsnasdell.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-asu-is-not-just-about-pilots-and.html