We’ve seen the signs on the highways warning that our speed is being enforced by aircraft; there are several in Stanislaus County. When I was a kid, I would imagine a plane, its wingspan stretching across four lanes of traffic, landing on the highway in pursuit of scofflaws.
The California Highway Patrol for decades has been watching the state’s highways from the sky, but the signs these days are more a relic of speed enforcement’s past.
As a result of new technology in the air and on the ground, the CHP’s airplanes and their crews have evolved from a primary function of traffic enforcement to assisting in crimes or incidents in progress like vehicle pursuits, DUIs, street racing and searches for missing persons or for suspects on foot hiding from police, said Officer Nick Fishbough, a pilot for the Central Division’s Air Operations.
There are eight CHP divisions in the state, each with an air operations unit. Stanislaus County is at the very northern end of the Central Division, which continues south to the Grapevine. Most units have two planes, used primarily for enforcement, and a helicopter, used primarily for rescues and medevacs. The Central Division primarily uses its newest plane, Air-43, which is a GippsAero GA8 Airvan equipped with a high-tech camera.
A decade ago, the CHP airplanes would fly around for much of the day looking for speeders and coordinating with ground units to pull them over. Fishbough said the pilot and flight officers would use mile markers on the highway, bring the plane’s speed to that of the vehicle in violation, or a touch slower, then note the time it takes to get from one point to another.
The flight officer would then radio the description of the vehicle and its speed to an officer in a patrol car, who would pull over the vehicle. Both officers’ names must appear on the ticket and both must appear in court, Fishbough said.
But beginning in the early 2000s the use of Lidar technology emerged in law enforcement. Lidar is better at singling out a sole vehicle than radar and it is far more cost-effective than using airplanes, which cost about $200 an hour to fly, Fishbough said.
Patrolling from 6,000 feet above, however, does provide a much broader perspective than from the ground.
For that reason, Air-43 is still used several times a month for commercial vehicle enforcement operations, primarily targeting big rigs and other large vehicles that are using the fast lane.
“Large, slower-moving vehicles are in the incorrect lane and bogging down traffic,” said Sgt. Billy O’Conner, supervisor of the central division’s commercial unit. “Our goal is to maintain a safe and efficient flow of traffic on the roadways.”
Big rigs, semi-trucks, other vehicles towing trailers and motorhomes can move into left lanes only to pass other vehicles and only without exceeding 55 mph. Often if they are passing in the fast lane, they are exceeding the speed limit, authorities said.
And when the planes are up there, while it’s not their primarily focus, Fishbough said they certainly will send a ground unit after those “overachievers; that car that is in and out of traffic. That right there is enough to issue a citation.”
Stanislaus Superior Court officials told me they do not keep data on how many speeding tickets are issued as a result of aircraft enforcement.
Anecdotally, Fishbough they are issued “rarely – extremely rarely.”
Still, the “Speed Enforced by Aircraft” signs are posted to serve as a notice to motorists that they could be cited this way, however slim the chances.
The last time the air unit was in Stanislaus County doing commercial vehicle traffic lane enforcement was November, but it was called away to assist on a stolen vehicle call back in Fresno where it is based.
Air-43’s latest technology is ideal for this type of call.
A camera – the same used by the military on its predator drones – is mounted on the plane’s belly pod. It has a mapping system that identifies street names integrated over the image, can zoom in on a suspect or his vehicle from 6,000 feet in the air and three miles away and uses thermal imaging to detect heat sources.
“The more you run, the hotter you get, the easier it is to see you,” said Sgt. Shawn Wills, a supervisor for the air unit. “We can literally see footprints. That is what really sets this camera system apart; it works extremely well during the nighttime.”
Before the unit got the camera around 2009, officers were limited to daytime patrols using binoculars. Now they patrol most of the day and night, Wills said.
When patrolling in a given area, the flight officer will monitor the traffic of all the agencies in the area to assist wherever needed.
In February, the air unit spotted several vehicles racing on a country road in Stanislaus County and notified ground units, who arrested two drivers.
In 2016, Air-43 assisted in 216 arrests, 13 pursuits and 472 searches.
And although rare, Fishbough said the Air-43 crew has even used the camera to catch a few speeders.
“It has GPS speed tracking. When you follow a target, it tells you how fast you are moving the camera,” Fishbough said.
He said testimony to the GPS tracking has held up in court and it comes with video evidence.
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