Policing Israel from the air

Securing pope, combating terror - all in a day's work for helicopter unit.

police helicopter 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
police helicopter 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shortly after sunrise on Thursday, we take off from the main base of the Israel Police helicopter unit in the central region, and within minutes the Bell Ranger five-seater aircraft - fondly described by police pilots as their "workhorse" - is hovering high over hilly forests and highways. Today's mission is to fly above the ant-like cars and seek out reckless drivers, such as those prone to illegal overtaking in traffic, an offense that has often led to serious accidents, injuries and deaths. But airborne traffic enforcement is only one of the many functions fulfilled by the unit. It will also play a key role in securing the visit of Pope Benedict XVI on Monday, when police will rely on the unit's experienced pilots (all of them air force veterans) and cutting edge technology to provide aerial backing to the massive security operation on the ground. "During the pope's visit, we will escort his convoy and broadcast images from the scene in real time to police commanders on the ground," said the pilot, Ch.-Supt. Nir Rosental, his voice coming through our headphones over the helicopter's internal communications system. "We will be working around the clock with a number of helicopters in the air." The visit is sure to stretch the unit's resources - six aircraft make up the police's presence in the skies. Sixty percent of its 4,000 annual missions are planned, but 40% of operations are responses to unplanned urgent incidents when pilots are scrambled to help deal with terrorist attacks or to monitor the Green Line for hostile infiltrators from the West Bank. When flying over areas under Palestinian Authority control, pilots hover higher than they normally do, to avoid the risk of ground-based fire and to increase their chances of landing safely in Israel in case of engine trouble, Rosental said. On Monday, the unit was called upon to help track down the Palestinian who followed a soldier off of a bus in Ramat Gan before stabbing him in the neck and fleeing the scene. No one has more experience of such incidents than the unit's head, Cmdr. Oded Shemla, who will be retiring in August after 17 years of service. Shemla oversaw the tripling of the unit's helicopter fleet, from two in 1992 to the current six. Shemla says that flying for the police is a far more action-packed experience than military service. "Here we see the 'enemy' on the ground every day. Ninety-nine percent of police flights are operational. In the air force you are in training most of the time," he said. Shemla is passionate about his job. Last summer, he took part in the searches for four-year-old Rose Pizem, the girl who was murdered and thrown into the Yarkon River by her grandfather. "When I head out on a mission to search for a missing girl, I feel like I am searching for my own daughter," he said. Sometimes, the view from the air is difficult to bear. Shemla recalled how in 2003, he tracked a red Fiat driven by a terrorist after it had slammed into soldiers waiting at a bus stop. Shemla responded to a call by a colleague in the police's anti-terror unit, who alerted him after the Fiat first struck. Shemla's quick response and tracking of the vehicle, as it turned around and headed back toward the bus stop for a second strike, enabled officers to shoot the driver dead, but not before the Fiat slammed into wounded soldiers for a second time. "They flew like dolls. It was very difficult," he recounted. The helicopter squadron and the anti-terror unit depend on one another, a fact to which both Shemla and Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, who hails from the anti-terror unit, can testify. In 2003 the anti-terrorism unit was called to Taibe in the middle of the night after receiving intelligence on Palestinian suspects who were hiding in a home and were planning on launching suicide bombing raids on Netanya and Tel Aviv. A helicopter hovered above the building as one of the suspects ran at police on the ground before detonating 20 kg. of explosives strapped to his body. The powerful explosion was clearly captured by the aircraft's video camera. Rosenfeld watched the images being replayed on Shemla's computer screen, gaining a new view of a familiar scene - he was one of the officers who had surrounded the house that night. "An officer from the unit lost a leg in that explosion," he said. Pilots have come under fire on more than one occasion. In the 1990s, a gunman armed with an M-16 belonging to a cult headed by Uzi Meshulam in Yehud shot on a police helicopter from a rooftop. The anti-terror unit shot him dead. There are also, of course, the pursuits, dozens of them captured on video. Some of the most electrifying chases have been of Beduin drug runners in the Negev, many of whom opted to flee police in jeeps and pick-up trucks in the desert, but were unable to evade the helicopter tracking them from above. The aircrafts' thermo-imaging technology has pointed the way for ground-based officers to look for suspects hiding out in the darkness of night. Only the heat of the suspects' bodies gave them away. During one nocturnal pursuit of a drug runner in the Negev, the helicopter flashed a laser beam on the ground to mark the suspects' hideout, deep in a bush. The laser was visible only to officers who were wearing night vision goggles. All that remained for them to do was to make the arrest. Shemla said the budget the unit receives is "alright," but that the time is nearing when it will have to buy new equipment. Technological upgrades cannot be carried out under the current budget, he said. "We are having problems with upgrades. We would like to buy new image transmission devices." On the other hand, the helicopter unit is one of the few parties to have benefited from the current global economic mess. "Since the crisis we have had a deluge of applications from pilots forced to leave the hi-tech world, and I am able to choose quality personnel," Shemla said. Twenty-five pilots now fly for the police. Asked to describe how he feels about finally retiring from the unit he helped mold for two decades, Shemla appeared a little choked-up. "I don't want this to be a farewell interview," he said.