Think of a fish finder in the sky: As the “fish” — cars and trucks on the busiest highways in the state — school below, a state police aircraft casts a net for the biggest ones and troopers on the ground reel them in.
New Hampshire, like other states, uses airborne tactics to catch speeders and other aggressive drivers. Bigger states with larger fleets of airplanes have cut back this method of traffic enforcement because of cost.
New Hampshire, meanwhile, has one Cessna airplane and one Bell 407 helicopter, which get pressed into service about 200 times a year, according to the New Hampshire State Police Special Enforcement Unit.
If you are speeding, driving aggressively or are just plain reckless, you might get caught in the net. The state Department of Safety says it uses the aircraft patrols on main thoroughfares for commuter traffic and holiday travel, as well as in areas it deems potentially hazardous.
On Thursday, State Police Capt. Christopher Vetter sat in his black unmarked patrol car on Interstate 95 north of Hampton. Vetter, who heads the Office of Highway Safety, is emphatic that airborne enforcement is about saving lives.
On any given day, the single-engine Cessna 182T, a four-seater that can cruise at 167 mph, takes off from Concord with a civilian pilot and a uniformed state police observer. Troopers in marked patrol cars round out the detail.
They catch offenders with simple math: Rate (speed) equals distance divided by time.
When the airborne team observes a car exceeding the normal traffic flow, weaving in and out of lanes or following too closely — most drivers have seen all of the above — they time the vehicle through multiple zones of precisely calculated distances. After a few zones, the driver’s speed is determined.
“What they’ll do is call it down. They’ll say, ‘It looks like a white vehicle in lane four, and he’s coming up’,” Vetter mimics the radio communication from aircraft to the ground. “We had him on one clock at XYZ speed.”
Vetter says that as soon as the trooper on the ground turns his blue lights on, the aircraft “turn around and go back to get another one.”
With the view from the sky, it’s easy pickings.
On this late morning, the volume is heavy, unusual for this time of day, Vetter says, and not ideal for airborne enforcement. The volume slows traffic down, and it can be risky to stop cars. The airborne monitoring was scheduled to run from the Maine state line southbound toward the Massachusetts border but was scrubbed because of overcast skies and unsettled weather.
The aim is to stop egregious speeding violations and prevent major, life-threatening accidents like the one that occurred a week ago.
About 3:30 p.m. last Sunday, several motorists on I-93 North called 911 to report a car driving erratically between Concord and Sanbornton. According to state police, the driver hit at least five vehicles before going off the highway and crashing into an embankment.
Trooper Micah Jones was first on the scene. He arrested 27-year-old Connor Sullivan of Laconia on charges of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence, driving without a valid license and “conduct after a motor vehicle accident” — better known as leaving the scene of the crash. Sullivan was released on a personal recognizance bail and will be arraigned in Franklin District Court.
“A crash is a crash,” Vetter said. “If you have a serious crash at high speed, how it happened makes a difference, but whether it’s a distracted driver or an impaired driver, a lot of times the outcome is exactly the same” — death or serious injury.