Paperback:

Published: Eye Books (July 2021)

ISBN: 9781785632624

Above the Law

Adrian Bleese

£9.99

Adventures in a police helicopter

‘Engaging and enjoyable’

John Sutherland, author of Blue

Adrian Bleese spent twelve years flying on police helicopters, and attended almost 3,000 incidents, as one of only a handful of civilian air observers working anywhere in the world.

In Above The Law he recounts the most intriguing, challenging, amusing and downright baffling episodes in his career working for Suffolk Constabulary and the National Police Air Service. Rescuing lost walkers, chasing cars down narrow country lanes, searching for a rural cannabis factory and disrupting an illegal forest rave…they’re all in a day’s work.

It’s a side of policing that most of us never see, and he describes it with real compassion as he lives his dream job, indulging his love of flying, the English landscape and helping people. Perhaps more than anything, it’s a story about hope.

Extracts

‘Cambridgeshire Police, what’s your emergency?’

‘I don’t know where I am and I think I’m dying.’

That was how today’s story started and it didn’t take long for those words to make their way to us, the helicopter crew. When the emergency phone line rings my heart starts to beat that little bit faster, I can feel the anticipation building. It’s a mix of excitement, knowing that in the next few minutes I’ll be airborne again, and apprehension, never sure if this is going to be life and death for someone. There’s no way of knowing what or where the next job will be: a car chase, an armed robbery, a drugs bust or a missing child. Today it’s Cambridgeshire passing on their concern for the welfare of the young lady who’d called 999 to say she was lost and dying.

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Extracts

‘Cambridgeshire Police, what’s your emergency?’

‘I don’t know where I am and I think I’m dying.’

That was how today’s story started and it didn’t take long for those words to make their way to us, the helicopter crew. When the emergency phone line rings my heart starts to beat that little bit faster, I can feel the anticipation building. It’s a mix of excitement, knowing that in the next few minutes I’ll be airborne again, and apprehension, never sure if this is going to be life and death for someone. There’s no way of knowing what or where the next job will be: a car chase, an armed robbery, a drugs bust or a missing child. Today it’s Cambridgeshire passing on their concern for the welfare of the young lady who’d called 999 to say she was lost and dying.

I am lucky enough to be part of a crew of three with John Atkinson and Tony Johnson. That’s the standard crew of a police helicopter in the United Kingdom: one pilot, two air observers. Just about everyone knows what the pilot does, even most of the pilots, but the role of the air observer is, perhaps, not as clear. In a nutshell, it is the best job in the world. One of us will sit next to the pilot and assist with reading checklists and monitoring systems, that observer will also be responsible for using the camera to search for people and things, or record evidence when we reach the job. The other observer sits in the back of the aircraft, just behind the pilot, and navigates the aircraft to where we need to be. Once on scene, this observer will take tactical control of the helicopter and, quite often, all the other police resources assigned to the job. We swap around, one day in the front, one day in the back – not the pilot, the pilot always gets to sit up front, otherwise it gets a little bumpy. Today I’m in the front with John; Tony will be in the back.

All three of us know that a police helicopter is called to many jobs where speed of response is one of the most important considerations. Sometimes, though, particularly with missing persons, time spent on the ground planning what you will do when you arrive is invaluable. So, before we go anywhere, we do a lot of work with maps and the locations suggested by information we have received, looking at likely places within our search area, getting to know the lie of the land.

Once we are certain of our plan, we each grab our flying helmets by the chinstraps and head out of the office towards the blue and yellow Eurocopter EC135 sitting in the warm April sunshine on the helipad outside. John straps into the front right-hand seat and I strap into the left; the plastic and metal of the helicopter’s interior, gently heated by the sun, smells like a 1980s Ford Cortina. John and I run through the pre-start checks and he moves the switches to start the engines, there’s a high-pitched whirring before the jet engine lights and settles into a whistling whine as the rotors speed up to a blur above our heads. Tony then joins us, strapping in behind John and starting up his navigation equipment in the rear of the aircraft.

The air traffic control tower at Wattisham, where we are based, gives us clearance to taxi and John lifts the two-and-a-half tonnes of helicopter into the hover. Dr Johnson said that he who has tired of London has tired of life – but that’s because he’d never sat in a helicopter as it magically breaks its bonds with the earth; that’s the real test, and I could never tire of this moment. John moves us smoothly from the helipad to the fresh grass of the airfield and turns into wind. The ground just beneath my feet begins to speed up, faster and faster until the individual blades of grass are a smudge of green and we lift into the spring sky before heading west to help search for this young lady.

Around seventy per cent of the jobs we do entail some kind of search, and those for missing persons account for about a third of these. They are often the latest, and sometimes the final, chapter in a very sad story. This one is no exception. A string of bad luck had led this particular young lady to a point in her life where she was essentially homeless, relying on friends and sleeping on their sofas. When forced to rely on others and unable to see a way to help themselves, it is easy for good people to feel bad; she began to worry that she was a burden. She finally decided to take the few possessions she had and try to make it on her own. The last time anyone had heard from her was weeks earlier when she had left the last of those friends. That was until today when she rang 999 to say that she was dying and had no idea where she was.

We start our search of the areas that we’d identified back in the office but there are lots and lots of places where a person can be hidden in the twenty square kilometres our information suggested she was in. None of us are in the mood to give up easily and Tony calls her, gauging whether we are growing warmer or colder in our search by the noise of the helicopter in the background. After only about twenty minutes on scene we have narrowed the area down but still can’t find her and the battery on her phone has given up. John lands in a small clearing and, after he shuts the helicopter down, we continue the search on foot. It’s tough going, with low-hanging branches in our faces and brambles catching and tugging at our flying suits. But eventually we find her. She’s in a sleeping bag under a huge brambly bush the size of an elephant. She hasn’t eaten for several days and is far too weak to move. Even if she hadn’t been so weak, getting out of here would still be a real struggle; we can barely fight our way in to help her. While I talk to her and reassure her, John and Tony head back to the helicopter for the stretcher that we routinely carry but, thankfully, rarely use. After several minutes we manage to get her and her sleeping bag out of the undergrowth and onto the stretcher before carrying her to the helicopter and then, after a few minutes, on to an ambulance which has arrived at the end of a nearby lane.

I have no idea what happened to her after that and, several years later, I still wonder about her and dozens of others like her. I know that, thanks to Tony’s persistence and John’s flying skills, she didn’t die on that day. I hope, thanks to some of the training I’d had from the police and the things I was able to say to her, that she didn’t feel like dying any time soon afterwards. Perhaps just the fact that we listened to her helped. She called 999, so clearly she had hope for the future, she wanted to survive. Survival, above all else, needs hope. Perhaps this spring day was the start of a new phase of her life. I like to think that she’s happy today, but I don’t know for sure.

Fourteen years earlier I’d been asked a question in an interview for a job with the police; it was, I think, a very good question. An Inspector asked me, ‘How will you cope with the fact that you will be dealing with very intense incidents but may never learn the outcome?’ I bluffed my way through somehow and gave a reasonable reply but I didn’t really know the answer; we can never know who we will be until we’ve already had to be that person. As I’m a bit of a slow learner, I had to be that person for quite some time and it wasn’t until this April day – a few days before my forty-third birthday – that I really learned what he meant.

So, Inspector, to answer your question more fully, I’ll do what I can at the time in the very best way I know how. That way, most of the time, I’ll be able to forget the incident and move on to helping the next person. Sometimes, though, I won’t be able to do that and I’ll think about that person for a long time afterwards, maybe forever, because that’s the way life is. That’s okay, though, because I’ll know I’ve made a difference – and that’s what will make my work worthwhile.

I didn’t think of that at the time, mainly because I had no idea that this was the truth but partly because job interviews aren’t always the best place to think clearly. You have lots of memories to sift through in order to try to tell the story of who you are or, at the very least, who you’d like to appear to be. Sometimes that’s in the right order; sometimes it’s jumbled up; sometimes it’s relevant; sometimes it’s not; sometimes you forget what you meant to say, but every now and then it all works out fine. Life is like that, too, and everything is about stories. The stories that young lady told herself about the world and her friends and her own self-worth led to her nearly dying under a bush. The stories I told myself led to me being part of the team who stopped that happening.

These stories are, like all stories, a mix of fact and fiction; just one version of events. One thing you learn very quickly when you work for the police is that there are few things less reliable than an eyewitness. Memory is a liar and it is such a good liar that we generally believe it.

I wholeheartedly believe everything I’m about to say but I know that a lot of it isn’t the way that other people will remember it. Perhaps my story isn’t the whole truth but if it’s in any way a lie, then it’s one I’ll be completely honest about. Like all good stories there are car chases and murders and sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and, like all good stories, you shouldn’t believe all of it.

I’d like to tell you that story right now.

quotes

‘An engaging and enjoyable read, offering a perspective on policing unlike any other you will have come across before’

John Sutherland, author of Blue and Crossing the Line

‘Hugely entertaining and enlightening – brilliant!’

Catherine Larner

‘Adrian takes us on a personal journey, filled with humour and anecdotes. This book provides a great insight into this exciting aspect of policing’

Richard Brandon, author of Police Helicopter Operations Manual

reviews

‘Adrian Bleese writes with real immediacy and warmth. He exhibits the dry, black humour so often evident in personnel within the emergency services, while also displaying a real compassion for the people whose lives he is observing, whether he is protecting them or pursuing them’

More About Books

‘An entertaining and enlightening account of a job that few of us will have considered as a career, but which Adrian Bleese always dreamed of doing. There’s much humour and warmth in his writing’

Suffolk Magazine

‘The ultimate police aviation book. Informative and full of pertinent humour, light but without losing the focus of a serious subject... What a delight it is’

Police Aviation News

‘Bleese’s account of everything from searching for missing to children to chasing cars and a whole bunch of other strange stuff he encountered during his 3,000 sorties is an interesting insight into a different world, its people and sometimes its politics’

Flyer Magazine

‘A wonderful read. Get a copy now!’

Helicopter Life

‘It felt like I did not have to read, but the book talked to me. If you are looking for an honest, from-the-heart tale, it’s a must-read’

B for Book Review

‘A genuinely absorbing read, written in an easy, jovial style, that showed me a side of the police service that I didn’t really know anything about. If you’re into occupational memoirs or interested in the police at all, then this has a lot to offer’

I Read Therefore I Blog

extras

Adrian Bleese shares some of the stories from Above the Law with the Bury Free Press.

ABOUT

Adrian Bleese

Adrian Bleese was born and raised in the northwest of England before joining the Royal Air Force to fly on search-and-rescue and submarine-hunting missions. On leaving the RAF, he was stunned to discover that no one needed any submarines hunted and he was therefore forced to find a real job. Following some time working in advertising, he began working for Suffolk Constabulary and spent twelve years flying on police helicopters, attending almost 3,000 police tasks even though he was neither a policeman nor a pilot. He was one of only a handful of civilian air observers working anywhere in the world.

Flying and writing have been two of his lifelong abiding passions. He has had a monthly column in an aviation magazine and also written flight safety and aviation history features.

He has lived in East Anglia for more than twenty-five years, is a keen private pilot and has a great love for his adopted home, the countryside and its history. See more of his videos at www.adrianbleese.co.uk.

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