Police helicopter observer Adrian Bleese shares stories from the skies
The elderly man had lain in the open all night. Now with the sun beating down on a blazing hot summer day his chances of survival were slipping away.
A walk with his dog in the fields near his home had turned into a nightmare when he twisted his ankle and fell.
Dehydrated and confused, and with no way of calling for aid, he was helpless. And hidden by the tangle of undergrowth at the edge of a cornfield – with his faithful dog still by his side – he was unlikely to be spotted.
Then, from above came the sound of rotor blades. In the nick of time he was found by the crew of Suffolk’s police helicopter.
The pensioner from Clare, whose absence had been reported by his worried neighbour, was one of countless missing people saved by the force’s eyes in the sky.
Among the crew that day was Adrian Bleese, one of a handful of civilians in the UK who flew as an observer on police helicopters.
I happened to glance over my left shoulder and saw something that looked out of place
“The man in Clare sticks in my mind even though it was such a long time ago,” he said.
“He was an old chap and he had been there for at least 24 hours. How much longer he had I don’t know. The chances of him being found in time were next to nil.
“Our search was not bearing fruit and we were about to change tactics when I happened to glance over my left shoulder and saw something that looked out of place.”
It was a small brown and white dog, sitting next to its master who was wearing dark clothes and hidden in long grass.
The helicopter landed nearby and the crew – fearing the worst – rushed to him. Conscious, but confused, he was taken to hospital by air ambulance.
“Officers on the ground took care of the dog and a neighbour looked after it while the old boy was in hospital,” Adrian added.
He spent 12 years working ‘above the law’ – and that is the title of his recently-published book telling the story of the job that saw him fly on more than 1,000 missions.
But the book would have never been finished if his quick-thinking wife Sharon had not saved his life when his heart suddenly failed on the day he completed the first draft.
“We were walking our dogs in the forest when my heart stopped and I died for a while,” is his matter-of-fact description.
“My wife brought me back by pummelling on my chest. It was really frightening for her. When I regained consciousness she was on the phone for an ambulance.
Helicopters keep officers safe during vehicle pursuits, and also help keep the person pursued, and the public, safe.
“I said no, I’m fine, and she drove us home. Then she phoned 111 and they sent an ambulance straight away.”
Adrian had a faulty heart valve which had gone undetected all his life. Almost four years later, with a replacement valve, he says he is fitter than ever.
“The six months recovering after the surgery gave me plenty of time to edit the book,” he said.
Suffolk police helicopter crews, who were based at Wattisham Air Station, provided vital back-up for officers on the ground.
As well as their unique ability to locate missing people their role included overflying car pursuits and tracking suspects from the air.
In 2011 the National Police Air Service was formed with everything owned and tasked centrally.
The Suffolk unit eventually closed down and there is now no helicopter based in Norfolk, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire.
“We did an average of 1,500 jobs every year. In the last financial year Suffolk got a helicopter on 18 jobs,” Adrian said.
He feels the swingeing cut to the service is a massive loss to the police force.
“We used to go to all vehicle pursuits and the officers following didn’t have to push so hard. They could back off a bit then the driver being pursued would ease off slightly.
“You could look ahead and see the road and traffic conditions. You can see around the next corner.
“Helicopters keep officers safe during vehicle pursuits, and also help keep the person pursued, and the public, safe.”
I learned to fly before I learned to drive. It was something I loved straight away and still do.
Adrian, who was born in Salford, has loved aircraft since a childhood visit to an aerodrome near his home.
“I joined the air cadets at school, and had my first flight on my 14th birthday in a De Havilland Chipmunk. They let me have a go taking the controls.
“When I was 17 I took a flying scholarship which was the first 30 hours of a private pilot’s licence.
“I learned to fly before I learned to drive. It was something I loved straight away and still do.”
He joined the RAF and trained in radar and electronic warfare, serving for six years on Nimrod aircraft doing maritime patrols.
Based mainly at Kinloss in Scotland, his roles included search and rescue and hunting for Russian submarines.
But damaging his ears during rapid decompression training brought his aircrew days to an end.
Still only 24, he had to decide on a new career. “I was living in the north of Scotland, and trained to find submarines – and not many people want submarines finding.
“I’d always loved photography, which had been part of my job in the RAF, so I set up in business taking pictures for hotel brochures. But it was very seasonal so I decided to move back to England.
“I had no particular ties to any part of the country so I closed my eyes and stuck a pin in a road atlas map. It landed in Bury St Edmunds.
“I sold my house, put my furniture in storage, and drove to Bury. I kind of think there are some decisions in life you can make like that, and make the best of it.
“Suffolk is home now. I couldn’t think of living anywhere else. My first house was in Metfield and my first job was at the Scole Inn.
Then for a time he sold motors advertising for a newspaper in the Sudbury area.
A few years later, on an early flight in the police helicopter, he impressed with his apparent local knowledge and sense of direction ... in fact he was using the garages he used to visit as landmarks.
He started working for Suffolk Police in 1998, spending his first three years in the control room taking 999 calls. Then he trained as a helicopter observer.
It was my favourite bit of the job. You really felt you were flying. It was a wonderful experience.
Civilians in the job were a rarity. The helicopters had a crew of three, a civilian pilot, and two observers who navigated and operated equipment including super-powerful daytime and night vision cameras.
“We did two shifts, 8am to 5pm and 5pm to 3am,” said Adrian.
“The thing I loved about the job was you would be sat in a Portakabin on the old RAF Wattisham and the next minute looking for a missing person over Bury, or involved in a pursuit over Ipswich.
“The water meadows in Sudbury was a place we had to search a number of times for missing people.
“The best way to do it was to step out on to the skids of the helicopter with a harness that was attached to the aircraft so you couldn’t part company.
“Sometimes you had to look vertically down into reeds or crops, and photograph that as well.
“It was my favourite bit of the job. You really felt you were flying. It was a wonderful experience.
“But I hated watching other people doing it. It just looked wrong when someone opened the door and stepped out at 1,000 feet.
“In my job I did exactly what a police officer would have done. The only difference was if we landed I couldn’t make an arrest, although I could assist police officer colleagues.”
Although much of the work was deadly serious, the job had its lighter moments – and he recalls one sparked by a far-from lighthearted situation.
They were tracking a man armed with a shotgun, and Adrian called out through the helicopter’s Skyshout loudspeaker: “Put down your weapon and lie face down on the ground.”
The man then aimed his gun straight at the helicopter, which retreated to a safe distance before issuing another warning. This time he obeyed.
Three hours later a call came from the control room. A ‘sweet old lady’ had phoned to say her husband had been in the garden tending his cabbages when he heard the ‘lie-down’ command.
He had complied immediately ... she was wondering it if was all right for him to get up now.
Occasionally animals provided unexpected help. A tight-knit flock of sheep in one corner of a field indicated you should start a search in the opposite corner because sheep usually run away from things.
Cows on the other hand are curious and will amble over to investigate. And a horse once grassed-up a suspect by sniffing intently at the wheelie bin where he was hiding.
It made me think I had a lot of stories, and I went back through my logbooks and realised I had plenty of material.
Although Adrian trained as a private pilot at 17, he had never qualified. It was a police call out that finally spurred him to do it.
“We got a report of a crashed plane at Nayland ... in fact it was just a plane coming in low before it landed.
“But we had a look around the airfield, and found a dilapidated old 1970s aircraft with an open cockpit. I said ‘that’s a real aeroplane – if it was for sale I’d buy it’.
“By chance it was. So I phoned my wife and said ‘remember how lovely I was when you wanted to buy a horse...
“I never did get it airborne, and in the end I sold it. But that was the catalyst for getting my licence,” said Adrian, who carries out security inspections for the Civil Aviation Authority.
He has always enjoyed writing, including articles for aviation magazines, and was inspired to produce his book by reading one written by a search and rescue helicopter pilot.
“It made me think I had a lot of stories, and I went back through my logbooks and realised I had plenty of material,” he said.
Above the Law is available from bookstores, online, and from publisher Eye Books.