Caught from the clouds
Flying state troopers out to cool off hard-charging motorists
Monday, February 05, 2007
By Dana Wilson THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Trooper Scott Hartge has a birdís-eye view of aggressive drivers speeding and darting in and out of highway traffic.
Circling a one-mile stretch of I-71 last week in his single-engine Cessna, Hartge spotted a white car rushing behind a dark pickup in the northbound lanes near the Franklin County-Pickaway County line.
"He just may turn into a Ďfollowing too closeí if he doesnít watch it," Hartge said. As the car pressed ahead, the trooper radioed to a road cruiser below: "If he gets any closer than that, ticket for following too close."
Pilots in the State Highway Patrolís aviation section are helping drive down the number of traffic fatalities in Ohio, officials say. Preliminary 2006 data show at least 1,236 deaths occurred, down from 1,328 in 2005.
By the end of this year, the patrol aims to reduce the fatality rate on Ohio roads to fewer than one per 100 million miles driven as part of its LifeStat 1.0 program, launched in 2004.
Motorists caught speeding from above often are surprised to learn they are being watched from the sky, said Lt. Randy Boggs, who oversees the 15-pilot aviation unit.
"Some people just flat-out donít believe that thereís a plane there," he said. "They had no idea the Highway Patrol used aircraft."
Troopers such as Hartge are licensed pilots who trade road cruisers for fixed-wing airplanes most days of the week.
They dress year-round in uniform black flight suits, taking off from three airports to cover 10 districts across the state. The patrolís main hangar is in Columbus, at Don Scott Field on the Northwest Side.
The pilotsí primary focus is to identify aggressive drivers in and around metro areas, where the most violations occur, Boggs said.
Four central-Ohio roadways rank among the stateís 10 top arrest locations for aggressive driving: Rt. 270 in Franklin County, I-71 in Delaware County, I-70 in both Madison and Licking counties, and Rt. 23 in Pickaway County.
The gray planes with the words State Patrol emblazoned in yellow across the wings typically fly during daylight above heavily traveled roads and construction zones.
Last year, the patrolís air division logged 29,786 "enforcement contacts" with troopers on the ground.
Most of the observed violations lead to tickets written by road troopers, Boggs said.
"If we did not have police radios in our aircraft, we might as well not be up there," he said. "We communicate to them what we see. We tell them which car to stop. We state what we observed, and that officer on the ground, itís his discretion what he does with that."
Drivers pulled over for speeding are informed that a pilot checked their speed from the air using a stopwatch.
"The birdís-eye view is the advantage," Boggs said. "Thatís the key to the whole thing. You can see those aggressive violations coming."
The airborne unit often aids other law-enforcement agencies that canít afford planes or helicopters.
For example, patrol helicopters equipped with infrared radar assisted the Ross County sheriffís office last year during night searches for escaped fugitive John W. Parsons.
The patrolís pilots fly slightly higher than the Columbus police helicopter unit, with which they often work in tandem.
"Weíve been up flying and had their airplanes call and say, ĎOur planes are chasing somebody toward Columbus. Can you pick them up?í " said Jeff Ferguson, an officer with the helicopter unit. "They do an excellent job at what they do."
Post-9/11 security measures have increased similar multiagency collaborations with flight units across the country, said Dan Schwarzbach, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. He works in the Houston Police Departmentís helicopter unit.
"Being in the air, youíre a force-multiplier," he said. "You can cover a much wider area in a shorter amount of time."
The benefits, Schwarzbach acknowledged, are not without risk.
"There are no curbs at 180 feet," he said. "If that airplane breaks down, you better know what youíre doing."