High-tech cameras help planes play a larger role
BY MOLLY MCMILLIN
The Wichita Eagle
For decades, law enforcement officers around the country have used airplanes and helicopters for speed enforcement, transporting criminals and visual surveillance.
But for years, they relied on rudimentary binoculars to see the ground, which limited an airplane's usefulness.
But an influx of sophisticated camera and forward-looking infrared equipment has given airplanes more flexibility and a much larger role.
And Wichita planemakers say that gives them a growing niche for sales.
It's a welcome bright spot in an otherwise weak market for aircraft sales.
"It's been a real bugger trying to sell airplanes... in that environment," John Doman, Cessna Aircraft vice president of worldwide propeller aircraft sales, said of the economic downturn.
Aircraft used in law enforcement is a growth market, Doman said.
Cessna has long sold Cessna 182s, 206s and Caravans for use in law enforcement.
But the company is receiving more interest, writing more quotes and delivering more airplanes, he said.
"It's an emerging opportunity," Doman said. It's one that will get even better when the economy improves and agencies' budgets improve with it.
Helicopters will continue to have a large role in law enforcement.
"But the percentage of the fleet I think will change," Doman said.
Broad range of missions
Aviation units operated by law enforcement supplement traditional ground units.
In the air, officers have a broader field of vision. They can monitor situations, give alerts or observe things not otherwise seen.
Aircraft also can cover ground more quickly.
In 2007, the most recent data available, large law enforcement departments provided aerial enforcement in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
They operated 604 helicopters and 295 airplanes and flew more than 330,000 missions in 2007, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics.
They engaged in activities such as vehicle pursuits, counternarcotics missions, counterterrorism missions, firefighting, emergency medical response and prisoner transport.
Fixed-wing airplanes are effective in airborne law enforcement, said Airborne Law Enforcement Association president Martin L. Jackson.
"There's a lot of missions that can be accomplished in an airplane that normally people think you can do only in a helicopter," Jackson said.
They're well suited for monitoring large crowds and for search-and-rescue operations, for example.
Changing the game
The California Highway Patrol — one of the country's largest users of airplanes for law enforcement — has used helicopters and aircraft for 40 years.
But when surveillance camera equipment designed for drones became available to law enforcement agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the technology changed the way the CHP could operate, said John Nielsen, a CHP air operations officer and pilot.
Two of its fleet of 14 Cessna 206 single-engine aircraft so far have been fitted with powerful military-grade camera systems.
"That's changed the whole game for us in what we can do," Nielsen said.
Live images can be downlinked to a mobile command unit or dispatch center so officers on the ground can view them on a large screen.
The CHP uses the planes to help look for fleeing suspects and speeding vehicles, search for missing people, patrol rural areas and assist other agencies.
Infrared cameras allow the planes to operate at night, and heat-sensing equipment is useful for searches.
The airplanes can stay in the air longer than a helicopter. And since they can fly higher and quieter, suspects don't notice them, Nielsen said.
"We don't have to descend and get low," Nielsen said. With the camera's powerful magnification, "we can stay up at 5,000, 6,000 feet."
The 206s are also much less expensive to operate than the helicopters, he said.
"They're a good bang for the buck," Nielsen said.
The Kansas Highway Patrol operates one helicopter, one Cessna 206, two Cessna 182s and a King Air 350 at its Topeka headquarters. It has a Cessna 182 in Hays and a Cessna 206 in Salina.
Planes in Salina and Hays have infrared cameras that let pilots see at night by sensing body heat on the ground.
"We can do manhunts and look for people in the aircraft," said Eric Pippin, a captain with the KHP.
The agency's airplanes are often used for surveillance, but they also are used for many other missions.
"We fly airplanes every day across the state," Pippin said. "They're the backbone of our aviation unit."
The King Air 350, which can carry nine passengers, is used for executive transport of governors and public officials.
On Friday, it flew Gov. Mark Parkinson to Wichita for an event at Bombardier Learjet.
Hawker Beechcraft is finding expanded special-mission functions for its King Air turboprops.
It recently delivered a King Air B200GT to a Latin American country for use by the federal police. The plane had been modified by Avcon in Newton to carry electro-optic and infrared equipment.
It was equipped with a data link to transmit information back to national police headquarters.
"They're really happy with it," Hawker Beechcraft special mission product manager Roger Hubble said. "They're anticipating buying another."
Hawker Beechcraft's special mission business is doing well, Hubble said, although the law enforcement segment is one that "has not serviced well in the past."
The company had tried to do these kind of conversions in-house. But they took a lot of time and resources, he said.
Now, with conversions Avcon can do for the company, that's changing.
"It makes us more price competitive and significantly more responsive to the market," Hubble said.
The King Air's pressurized cabin is an advantage. It can fly 300 or 400 miles, operate a surveillance mission and fly home.
"It can cover a much, much larger area," he said.
The law enforcement market is a growing niche.
Since it delivered that King Air 15 months ago into Latin America, he said, "we've had interest from five or six countries in the Latin American region," ranging from federal police agencies to military organizations.