As the rush hour begins in Stockholm Sweden, a stolen helicopter approaches an ATM cash storage facility and lands on the roof. Heavily armed, machine gun toting burglars break through the roof with a sledgehammer. The thieves rappel into the bank and use explosives to breach the safe. Responding ground units are hampered by spike-strips placed on all roads leading up to the bank. Another issue is that the burglars are reportedly armed with machine guns. The agencies own helicopter is grounded by a suspicious package, possibly a bomb, placed next to the aircraft. The burglars finish and take off to parts unknown, with reportedly millions of dollars in proceeds. Sound like the latest action thriller from Hollywood? Unfortunately, for Swedish Police this was all too real.
This difficult and challenging robbery occurred on September 23 of this year. Obviously very well planned and trained, the participants took only 20 minutes from landing to departure to carry out a multi-million dollar bank heist. Within a week, Swedish authorities had arrested six persons in connection with the robbery, all males, ages 21 to 36. Those arrested included a licensed helicopter pilot and persons with previous military experience.
Crimes like these serve as a reminder that yes, it can happen and there are very skilled, well trained persons ready, willing and able to carry them out. Although mere speculation, it can be assumed that a crime committed with this much detail and precision certainly had a plan to deal with any police officers that might be encountered. Based on their training and weapons, this plan likely included using the machine guns.
What can we learn from this incident? What could we do to help prevent this type of crime form occurring here and if a crime did occur, the rapid and safe apprehension of those involved?
The use of an aircraft in criminal activity is thankfully rare. Many people might wrongfully assume that using an aircraft is not the best idea, as air traffic control radar will be able to follow the aircraft as it departs the crime scene. The reality is that air traffic controllers take little, if an interest in low flying aircraft that do not impact on their assigned responsibilities. Add to this the fact that many areas, especially at low-levels, are invisible air traffic control radar and an aircraft flying would not appear on the controllers radar scope.
The use of a suspicious package to ground the only law enforcement aircraft in the area shows that the bad guys had a significant amount of knowledge of the agencies operations and highlights the critical need to keep all law enforcement resources protected against all threats.
All agencies should review their emergency contacts and make sure that the numbers for any air traffic control facilities are up-to-date. Keep in mind that many smaller airport control towers close at night and their responsibilities transferred to another facility. This makes the issue of a true 24 hour contact number crucial. What if a crime involving a helicopter or airplane is occurring? A call to air traffic control will give the controllers a chance to tag the target if and when it appears in their radar and do their best to track it. A tagged target is followed, radar limitations permitting, by several controllers. If the target is heading to a particular airport, this will become fairly evident. Obviously a helicopter could land almost anywhere, making it a much harder target to track and subsequently apprehend the operator. Even if a quick apprehension is impossible, at least investigators will have a general direction in which to begin their search and investigation.
Your agency should have a contingency plan if your aircraft is grounded as in this scenario. Is there another law enforcement aircraft within a reasonable distance? Are their military assets that could be called upon? Is their another aircraft resource that could be utilized, even if just to follow the criminal aircraft?
The use of spike-strips to disable approaching ground units means someone on the ground had to place them there. Maybe the radio call of a suspicious person placing something in the roadway is not just a nuisance. Has a unit pulled over a vehicle with several spike-strips in the back seat? Yes, mere possession of these items might not be a crime but a thorough and complete field investigation is certainly in order. It might be the start of a very long night.
Incidents like these point out the need for cooperation with all airport operators and a view towards any aircraft theft with an eye towards a possibly larger more sinister motive.
Above all, this incident reminds us that high stakes; complex, well planned crimes are not simply the domain of Hollywood. We must always remember that the result of not taking these possibilities seriously is not simply a director yelling cut! only to re-do the scene. Our failures may cost lives, possibly our own. Always play the What if? scenarios. It could quite literally save lives.