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August 30, 2009

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From city beat to the sky, they're now chopper cops

THE careers of two Shanghai policemen took a dramatic turn two years ago when they were chosen for helicopter pilot training. Now they're preparing to fly new choppers in the skies over Expo, Dong Hui reports.
Like many working men, Ye Lei takes a suitcase to work. Night navigation light? Check. Sunscreen and sunglasses? Check. Cloud breaking chart? Check. Ye is among six police officers in Shanghai's first police helicopter team who, without any history of aviation experience, have trained to become young pilots.
Also from Shanghai, and the same age as Ye, 27-year-old Wang Fei has worked side-by-side with his colleague for two years after they were chosen as two of the six pilots-to-be in the team.
Ye, energetic, and Wang, calm, passed a rigorous six-month selection program in 2007 - including two physical tests, a coordination test, a response test, a psychological test, an interview and an English test - to finally stand out from over 200 applicants, including other city police officers and students in the Shanghai Police College.
They were then sent to a helicopter flight training school at the Bristow Academy in Florida, the United States, for a 10-month initial training course. Returning home with pilot's licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration last December, they are continuing intense training in Shanghai to serve the city in three light-duty and medium-sized choppers next year.
"None of us touched anything in aviation before," said Ye, a yearlong traffic police officer in Shanghai's Baoshan District before being chosen. Wang was scheduled to be a specialist policeman after graduation from the Shanghai Police College.
"The first time I controlled a chopper, I felt I was performing aerobatics," said Ye.
In his first flight in the United States, Ye's coach let him control a "right hand," a lever to keep a chopper balanced in flight. "The plane started to perform like a wig-wagging pendulum," Ye said. "And when he handed the 'left hand' over to you, you felt like the plane was almost falling." A "left hand" lever connects with throttle and triggers the engine.
Unlike drivers, aviation pilots need to keep the other three hands or feet moving while operating one. If Wang peddles the "right foot" to raise rotor blades, he needs to move the "left hand" to turn on more power, control the "right hand" to balance the chopper from head up and use the "left foot" to steady it from right-hand deviation.
"At the same time you need to observe data on 3 to 7 meters, report conditions to the control tower and listen to their instructions," said Ye.
They also experienced a huge language barrier. "In the first month, I could only catch 40 percent of their words," said Wang.
The barrier comes especially when it involves the raft of essential aviation phrases and terms in noisy radio talk between control tower and cockpit.
The first time Ye flew a chopper solo from one airport to the other and engaged with the control tower, most responses he got were "say again, please," while Ye also failed to catch instructions from the air traffic controllers. "He then asked me to follow a chopper in front of me and return to my own base," Ye said. "I felt suddenly depressed." Getting out of the chopper, Ye found he had sweated buckets.
"They talk very fast if the tower is busy with three to five aircraft movements happening. For over a month, everyone of us listened to radio talk during our leisure time," Ye said. "I remember this radio talk now, to warn myself."
Any tiny mistake can lead to a fatal clash and it came especially early for Wang. In one of his training exercises, the chopper's only engine suddenly stopped working, probably as a result of thin air at altitude affecting the engine performance.
"I felt I was about to die," Wang said. "Because when you go down, nobody can guarantee you'll manage it right. Actually lots of people die in such situations, as the craft can easily tip over."
The helicopter was like a car racing ahead at 28 meters per second and down at 5 meters per second, and he needed to stop it without a brake. Improper handling could make the descent even faster, he said.
Wang managed to use the air to support the rotor blades from beneath, keep its speed stable and balance the chopper's angle until it landed in clear space between a crocodile infested river, and a forest.
"He needed to observe lots of data at the same time, like the speed of the rotor wing," Ye explained. "If the angle wasn't right and the wing rotated too fast, the chopper could disintegrate in the air, but if it was too slow, it could drop and break into fragments."
"It's easy to speak about the procedure, but the body coordination was challenging at that time. And it's extremely important to keep calm, as you know after the engine stops the last chance (for survival) is in your hands," Wang said.
Being a chopper pilot gives Ye and Wang advantages that passengers on commercial airplanes can't experiences because they fly much lower.
And they are able to land in vastly different places to conventional aircraft which need runways to touch down on.
"Some places around our training base were used for grazing," Ye said. "The first thing before you land at these places is to drive the cattle away to clear a landing point."
Ye's other experiences in Florida include hovering the chopper 1 meter higher than a lake and scaring away crocodiles basking in the sunshine, while Wang once piloted the chopper to chase a fleeing boar.
Back from training in the United States, the two pilots work to master the performance of three choppers - two light-duty EC135s and one medium-sized EC155 - at Hongqiao International Airport base. They've accumulated over 200 hours at the controls but are yet to be sent on a patrol.
"Safety is always the first priority," said Wang. "Shanghai downtown is full of skyscrapers which makes for complicated air currents between the buildings." If error occurs and a chopper falls, it's extremely dangerous for people on crowded streets, Wang added.
And the weather conditions are crucial to safe flying. Bad weather involves poor visibility, strong winds, thunder and lightening, and hot weather vaporizes into a haze. "We count on the weather all the time," Ye said.
The three choppers the city has bought so far, with a fourth on order, will be mainly used for medical rescue emergencies, as eyes in the sky and for fire rescues.
"In some foreign countries the helicopter ratio is an average of one to a million people, and they get free service in any emergency," Wang said. "But Shanghai is so big. Say if we depart from Hongqiao airport and get somewhere within 20 minutes, it's still too late in some situations."
The city is planning on building more helicopter landing pads and developing the police helicopter fleet.
It is also negiotiating with Eurocopter Group, a France-based manufacturer from which Shanghai purchased all its choppers, to modify a helicopter to better meet medical rescue requirements, including lowering stretcher and medical equipment. "We've practiced on the landing pad on the roof of Huashan Hospital," Wang said.
The police helicopter fleet, which now has 15 pilots and a total staff of 50, is expected to be on standby duty 24 hours a day before next year's World Expo. "From then we'll be dispatched whenever the city's police command center asks us for search and rescue services," Ye said.


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