Tulare County Sheriff’s Department’s new plane is laden with technological innovations
If you look up in the skies over Tulare County and happen to spot a tiny, white plane flying by, there’s a chance it may be looking back at you.
Particularly if you’re on the run from law enforcement or lost.
That’s because the county Sheriff’s Department’s new plane — with the radio call sign “Sheriff One” — includes a long-range camera that can swivel on its under-the-wing mount and zoom in on objects and people thousands of feet away. With its forward-looking infrared camera, it can even do it at night.
The Sheriff’s Department has had the CTLE-model plane since August, after taking possession in Connecticut from the U.S. division of its manufacturer, Germany-based Flight Design GmbH.
Since then, a team of sheriff’s deputies and volunteers who are pilots and flight control officers have done flight training on the new aircraft, worked out technical glitches and developed policies and procedures for the department’s air crews.
And they’ve also done some law enforcement work, retired sheriff’s Capt. Dave Williams, one of the pilots, told a crowd that gathered Tuesday afternoon in a hangar at the Visalia Municipal Airport to see the department’s new $220,583 plane.
Sheriff’s officials showed a video of how the plane’s infrared capabilities spotted a man who wandered away from home in early September and was in an orange grove.
They also showed a video of the crew warning sheriff’s deputies that a car that fled from a patrol car in the Rocky Hill area near Exeter was speeding toward them and a group of civilians.
“As we’ve been training, we’ve been called out to a few missing-persons” searches, as well as some vehicle chases to monitor them from the air and to conduct aerial searches for stolen heavy equipment, said sheriff’s Lt. Marsh Carter, another of the CTLE’s pilots.
In fact, he said, since the plane arrived here in late August, “I’ve been called out about every weekend.”
The plane was recently used to search for suspects in the lower foothills after some cattle were shot, added Sheriff Bill Wittman, who was all smiles as the crowd of about three dozen people admired the plane.
He and other sheriff’s officials said the small, lightweight, two-seat, single-engine plane should work well for the agency rather than a helicopter, which can cost $400,000 to $500,000 used and up to $4 million new.
“This will do about 95 percent of what a helicopter can do,” short of landing and taking off at a single point, Williams told the crowd.
– It can hover in a 300-foot circle over crime scenes or search areas.
– Cameras can remain focused on a single object — a car, a parking lot or a house — while the plane circles.
– A spotlight with a mile-long range and a video screen lets the flight officer watch what the camera sees.
– The new plane uses automobile fuel, rather than the more expensive aviation fuel, about 4 gallons for every hour of flight.
Between fuel, insurance, maintenance and renting hangar space at the Visalia airport, Sheriff One will cost about $34 for every flight hour used — not counting the salaries of the deputies flying it — compared to $300-$400 an hour for a helicopter, Williams said.
Sheriff One is a modified version of Flight Design’s CTLS airplane, normally used for recreation and flight training. Tulare County is the first in the country to use it full time for air patrols, Williams said.
The Sheriff’s Department’s new plane costs about $60,000 more than a standard CTLS because of the additions, including a “glass-panel” cockpit that uses LED screens rather than gauges, switches and dials. It also has digital recording equipment to store camera images.
Most of the CTLS was paid for with a $199,967 California Emergency Management Agency state Homeland Security grant. The remaining $20,616 came from forfeited drug assets.
Wittman has set aside $50,000 of his department’s annual budget to cover the flights and other costs.
Some of the flight crew members are volunteers from the sheriff’s Aero Squadron, a group of private and commercial pilots who provide their skill and, sometimes, their own aircraft to help in search-and-rescue and flight operations.
Though retired, Williams has been given reserve sergeant’s status in order to be paid for his flight time and other work he’s doing for the Sheriff’s Department. Besides him and Carter, two volunteer pilots will put time in flying the CTLS, and a retired California Highway Patrol officer has volunteered to serve as the tactical flight officer.
But the new plane does have limitations.
It can’t land in isolated areas to pick up people and drop off people, as a helicopter can.
And with only a 100-horsepower engine, it couldn’t handle the strong crosswinds over high Sierra Nevada regions, Williams said.
“We will not be looking for marijuana [gardens] in the mountains,” he said.
As such, Wittman said the plane the Sheriff’s Department has used for years, a 1973 Cessna Skymaster, will remain in service for occasional surveillance work as well as for search-and-rescue operations in the mountains.
Wittman said one of the planned uses of the plane will be to search for crooks taking apart farm machinery to steal copper wiring to sell it, as well as thieves taking crops, livestock and heavy equipment.
“This plane will be used to go after the guys who rip off our farmers and ranchers,” he said.
Other law enforcement and fire agencies in the county will be able to call the Sheriff’s Department for air support.
“I’m absolutely thrilled we’re going to have this resource in Tulare County,” said Visalia Police Chief Coleen Mestas. “I think it was an exceptional use for Homeland Security dollars, which aren’t easy to get in this area.”
Police departments in Tulare, Woodlake, Porterville, Lindsay, Farmersville, Exeter and Dinuba have a joint-powers agreement to receive helicopter services with Tulare-based Blue Sky Aviation, which charges $500 an hour, when they need air support.
At least some of the agencies don’t plan to get out of the agreement now that the new sheriff’s plane is available, including Woodlake, Porterville and Dinuba Police.
Exeter police Chief Clifton Bush said he would likely call for air support from the California Highway Patrol in Fresno or Kern counties first, but said he plans to keep his contract with Blue Sky in case its services are ever needed. The sheriff’s new plane just gives his department another option.
“We’ll always use the one that doesn’t cost us anything first,” he said.