Victoria Police is to replace its ageing helicopter fleet, allowing the air wing to stay longer in Ballarat during search operations before refuelling.
Police Minister Lisa Neville joined officers this week at Essendon Airport, the home of the force’s fleet, to announce the start of a tender process to find three new helicopters and a plane.
The new aircraft will be required to have a longer flight duration and bigger range, which will mean the fleet will have greater coverage across the Ballarat region to hunt offenders and find missing people.
Ballarat police regularly call in the air wing from Essendon during big operations, including when a 17-year-old boy allegedly fled the scene of a fatal crash in Ballan that left a 16-year-old girl dead last month.
A police helicopter was seen hovering over bushland south of the Western Freeway shortly after the smash before the boy was arrested.
The air wing was also called to a manhunt at Canadian Regional Park after a man allegedly rammed a police vehicle in June.
Helicopters eventually have to refuel during extended operations in Ballarat.
But it’s hoped the new aircraft will be able to travel further and for longer.
Ms Neville said the air wing had played a critical role in targeting youth offending, which has come increasingly under the microscope in Ballarat this year following a spate of aggravated burglaries and car fires.
"Over the last two years particularly, the use of our air wing capacity to tackle some of that youth offending - we can't underestimate how significant it's been,” she said.
“Both in deploying dogs, for example, but also just tracking offenders when a pursuit might become dangerous.”
Set up in 1975, the air wing includes three twin-turbine helicopters and an air ambulance that is used to support Ambulance Victoria to respond to critical emergencies.
The fleet responds to around 5000 calls every year, assisting police and the community through regular traffic surveillance, aerial patrols, search and rescue operations, and by working with police on the ground to target and catch suspects who may be on the run.
Inspector Craig Shepherd, who belongs to the air wing, welcomed the start of the tender process to find the new aircraft.
“The replacement of the helicopter fleet in early 2020 will give us the ability to travel further and with a greater payload with a greater number of persons on board,” he said.
“For example, it will give us the ability to rescue several persons from a mountain in an alpine area as opposed to one person.”