The state-owned Bell helicopter patrols the skies over New Hampshire. The helicopter, which is used primarily for rescues, is equipped with infrared equipment that enables it to detect a person's body heat. (Courtesy NH State Police)
State police's eyes in the sky foil feet of lead
When a state police trooper clocked a car going 100 mph on Interstate 93 north this month, a state-owned plane tracked the speeding vehicle, which tried to elude police by pulling into a gas station.
When authorities worked to find the body of murdered University of New Hampshire student Elizabeth Marriott, they called on the state helicopter to help cover more ground by searching the Portsmouth area by air.
And when a hiker suffered a heart attack on a mountaintop, the state's helicopter rescued the man, who authorities said would likely have died otherwise.
Welcome to the state's air force, of sorts.
Flying along the state's busiest highways, state police use a state-owned Cessna to clock speeders and spot reckless drivers, radioing their locations to waiting troopers below.
"There are so many high speeds we've been getting recently, and many of these (drivers) wouldn't be apprehended by conventional radar or laser because of traffic volume," state police Director Col. Robert Quinn said last week.
Just last Sunday, Trooper 1st Class (Tfc.) Timothy Stearns, clocking vehicle speeds from the plane, said he recorded nine vehicles traveling at least 90 mph in a 65-mph zone on Interstate 89 in Sunapee. A total of 55 drivers were pulled over for alleged speeding over several hours, he said.
Stearns believes "the speeds have started to pick up a bit" recently, and he suspects cheaper gas prices means "they're not thinking about conserving fuel."
Six of those drivers exceeded the speed limit by at least 26 mph and face a possible 30-day loss of their license and up to a $1,000 fine plus other penalties, he said. Those hitting 100 mph often are charged with reckless operation and face up to a 60-day loss of license plus fines and penalties, Stearns said.
"The results that they're getting are phenomenal," said Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency. The agency provides the state Department of Safety with nearly $100,000 in federal funds yearly to use for highway enforcement purposes.
The plane flies about 190 days a year, and the trooper teams have pulled over 5,115 vehicles with the aid of the aircraft as of Friday, according to state police Sgt. Matthew Shapiro, commander of the Special Enforcement Unit. The plane also flies for investigators to take pictures of serious crash and crime scenes.
On days the plane doesn't fly, troopers conduct highway enforcement on the ground.
The 2008 Cessna was purchased in 2008 for $361,385 plus $70,385 in special radio equipment, principally from money from the federal Street Sweeper grant and an additional $70,000 in federal drug forfeiture funds, according to Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney.
The state also owns a Bell helicopter, used primarily for rescues, purchased for $1.6 million from a combination of federal drug forfeiture, state drug forfeiture, federal Street Sweeper grant funds and some state highway and turnpike funds, Sweeney said.
Sweeney said the helicopter - which is equipped with forward-facing infrared equipment that enables it to detect a person's body heat - costs a lot less than the expense involved in using only people on foot.
One ground search that covered 2 square miles required 110 searchers and took 921.5 person/hours to complete at a cost of $75,000. "By contrast, the copter can cover 30 miles during a three-hour flight at a cost of $2,064," Sweeney said in an email.
"On another occasion, a hiker having a heart attack on a mountaintop was rescued quickly at a cost to the state of $1,921, where an exclusively ground rescue mission would have taken at least 18 people eight hours at a cost of $9,936 for manpower, or 417 percent more, and the hiker would have likely died," Sweeney wrote.
Renting a helicopter and loading the required gear "would be impractical," he said.
The operating budget for the aviation unit is $177,590 a year in current expenses, repairs and maintenance, aviation fuel and other expenses, he said. He estimates the salaries and benefits of the two pilots could add up to an additional $150,000 annually.
Former Rep. Beverly Rodeschin, R-Newport, said she questioned the purchase of the helicopter.
"I'm a conservative; I just wondered whether all these things were new toys for them or are they really in need of them," said Rodeschin, who lost her seat in 2010. "I didn't really think they were in need of it."
She said using federal grants still is money collected from the public.
Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said he thinks a case can be made for either the helicopter or the airplane.
"I think the helicopter has a better case. I don't think you can make the case for both," Kurk said. "Maybe there is an economic case that can be made for the airplane in addition to the helicopter."
The helicopter is used for helping put up roadblocks for escaped prisoners or fleeing criminals, monitoring illegal drug operations, delivering SWAT team members and assisting during floods and catastrophes. It is often used during visits by the President, vice president and presidential candidates, Sweeney said.
By using the plane to enforce highway laws, state police said troopers have an easier time stopping high-speed vehicles. That's because a trooper by air tracks a vehicle's speed within a series of white-marked areas on the highway. After those marked-off zones, signs are posted to warn drivers that the area is being monitored by air, forcing the herd of cars to slow. The trooper in the plane keeps his eyes constantly on the alleged speeder, relaying the speeder's position, so troopers just past the area with the signs can stop the correct vehicle going at a slower speed because of the slowing traffic, Shapiro said.
"Once you lock on to a car, you don't take your eyes off of it," Stearns said. "There's no mistake."
Without the plane, a trooper parked along a highway with radar must start his pursuit at zero mph. The trooper also doesn't have a team of troopers ahead to slow traffic.
Manchester attorney Michael Iacopino, immediate past president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he has handled a couple of speeding tickets resulting from monitoring aircraft.
"My experience is it doesn't make a difference whether it's an airport case or a regular radar type of case," Iacopino said. "There are obvious areas of cross-examination for both. ... Neither is fool-proof."
An attorney can challenge whether the trooper spotting from the air kept constant visual contact and police pulled over the correct car.
Stearns said there have been guys who sneezed and closed their eyes, resulting in them giving up on that vehicle.
In cases that go to trial, the alleged speeders sometimes ask how police can tell whether it was them speeding.
"Most people aren't ducking in and out. They're staying in the same lane," Stearns said.
Gov-elect Maggie Hassan was noncommittal about the aviation unit, according to her spokesman, Marc Goldberg.
"As part of her fiscally responsible budget instructions, Governor-elect Hassan has encouraged all agencies, including the Department of Safety, to evaluate innovative ways to identify efficiencies and will work closely with agencies to make the difficult decisions needed to submit a balanced budget to the Legislature by February 15th," he said in an email.
Areas clocked by air include Interstate 93 in Bow, Canterbury, Northfield and Campton; Interstate 89 in Hopkinton, Sutton, Sunapee, Grantham and New London; Route 101 in Candia and Raymond, Interstate 95 in Greenland and Hampton, and Route 16 in Dover and Rochester.
Quinn said speed isn't the only thing the plane is helping to thwart.
"The other thing I think is important is the aircraft has been getting drunk and drugged drivers during the day," Quinn said.
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Michael Cousineau may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.