National Police Air Service needs urgent reform

Police leaders must act quickly to fundamentally change the National Police Air Service (NPAS) if it’s to help police forces further improve their efficiency and effectiveness, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has reported today.

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Planes, drones and helicopters: an independent study of police air support

The assessment was undertaken following concerns from some police forces, as a result of which the NPCC invited HMICFRS to carry out an inspection of police air support provided by helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and drones. It incorporated information from all 43 police forces in England and Wales, as well as interviews with senior and front-line officers from 32 forces.

HM Inspector of Constabulary, Matt Parr, who led the inspection said:

“Among those who lead police aviation, we have found high levels of skill, dedication and commitment. In particular, we recognise the major contributions made by the members of the NPAS National Strategic Board and especially by the current chief constable of West Yorkshire Police and the police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire.

“However, we found some fundamental problems with the current collaborative arrangements for police air support, which have led us to conclude that urgent change is required – if not a fresh approach entirely. A system whereby someone in Lincolnshire paid 5p towards police air support last year, whilst someone in Cleveland paid £1.98, is one that needs a coherent strategy.

“With the number of bases being halved and the number of aircraft being cut by a third in the last 10 years, savings have primarily been made by cutting the service provided to forces rather than increasing efficiency. An inconsistent service means that many incidents requiring air support are over before a police helicopter can arrive. Moreover, we are concerned that the police service now operates insufficient aircraft to provide a consistently prompt response to incidents in all forces in England and Wales.”

Although a few forces received a quick response, many did not, with the average response to a crime in action that did not involve an immediate threat to life taking more than 30 minutes. The report found that in over 40 percent of cases, police forces cancelled their call for support from an NPAS helicopter because the incident was over before the helicopter could arrive. Although NPAS met its response time targets, this was due to these targets being too lenient and the fact that calls that did not result in aircraft attendance were not included in the assessment of response times. On average, it took more than 10 minutes to despatch an aircraft to the most urgent of calls and an average of almost 22 minutes to despatch an aircraft to a crime in action.

The report highlights that although most forces have purchased drones, no force has rigorously evaluated their use and, as a result, the police service has not developed a common view on their relative merit as a form of police air support. This brings the risk that the service will lack the evidence it needs to capitalise on the developments in drone capability that the government anticipates will occur in the coming years.

HMICFRS makes a number of recommendations in the report which will need to be implemented before an up-to-date strategy can be developed:

  • A common understanding of demand should be developed.
  • Analysis should be undertaken of the differences in the use of air support tactics by different forces.
  • The NPCC lead for air support should carry out and publish a review of the NPAS deployment process.
  • Police and crime commissioners across England and Wales, who fund the operating costs of NPAS, should be consulted on a costed fleet replacement plan.

The current capital investment strategy means that there has been insufficient funding to replace the aging NPAS aircraft, with funding having been used to upgrade existing aircraft, rather than purchase new ones. This approach has resulted in a number of aircraft nearing the end of their working life, without plans and funding for sufficient new aircraft being in place.

The low and inconsistent levels of support provided by NPAS to police forces, the challenges around NPAS financing, the lack of an up-to-date strategy for police air support and weaknesses in governance have led to an urgent requirement for police leaders to revise the service.

The report concludes that, while a single collaboration between the 43 forces across England and Wales remains an appropriate way of providing effective and efficient police air support, revising existing arrangements may not be practical or offer an opportunity to look for fresh ways to provide agreed levels of service. Police leaders are urged to consider the option of replacing the current collaboration agreement, to ensure that improved arrangements can be put into place within the next three years.

Get the report

Planes, drones and helicopters: an independent study of police air support


  1. NPAS services are currently provided jointly by the police and crime commissioner for West Yorkshire and the chief constable of West Yorkshire Police.
  2. NPAS has a fleet of 19 helicopters and will be adding four fixed-wing aircraft to that fleet.
  3. NPAS provides air support to the 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales and to the British Transport Police; each force contributes to the funding of the service, according to the number of times it makes use of the helicopters. Capital funding is provided directly by the Home Office.
  4. Drones are not currently operated by NPAS but most police forces use them.
  5. The majority of flying hours are spent assisting with police searches for suspects and missing persons.
  6. On 19 July 2017 HMIC took on responsibility for fire & rescue service inspections and was renamed HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.
  7. HMICFRS is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest. It assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime, anti-social behaviour and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMICFRS inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other major policing and law enforcement bodies.
  8. For further information, HMICFRS’ press office can be contacted from 8:30am – 5:00pm Monday – Friday on 020 3513 0600.
  9. HMICFRS’ out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217729.