The Somerset Police Depart-ment’s fledgling aviation program is about to enter the next level, thanks to a test run that has been deemed a resounding success.
A number of city and county officials and community leaders gathered Tuesday evening at the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport to learn about SPD’s new aircraft, the German-made two-seat AutoGyro Calidus, and to hear about some of the services the aviation program can offer.
“We have a lot of different communities in Pulaski County ... things that law enforcement does affects all of us,” said SPD Acting Police Chief Major Doug Nelson. “If we can get things to help our neighbors with, that’s being a good neighbor that’s a good partnership.”
The Calidus, flown on Oct. 13 by SPD Chief Pilot Lt. Shannon Smith from Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville, Maryland to Somerset, replaces another aircraft the department took on a test run between April and May of this year — with successful results.
“If you’re able to address a situation from the air, you’re going to be at a better vantage point,” said Smith, who has taken to the skies many times this past spring and summer to ensure the safety of infrastructure and to assist in a variety of calls.
Smith flew a leased Magni M24 gyroplane for the trial period, which was assigned to Somerset for the purpose of testing and evaluating its benefit to local law enforcement with cooperation from the Law Enforcement Aviation Technology program, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.
The aviation program is administered nationally by the Small, Rural, Tribal, Border Regional Center (SRTB-RC) through The Center for Rural Development in Somerset. The program has assigned 17 aircraft to small law enforcement agencies that might not see aviation as a viable option to their police agency.
SPD’s flight crew, led by Smith — who holds airline transport pilot and certified flight instructor certificates in single and multi-engine airplanes, and a commercial pilot certificate in gyroplanes — logged 138 flight hours and flew more than 4,000 miles between April and July.
Smith has nearly 2,100 flight hours logged in 23 different types of aircraft since 2002. He is the second law enforcement officer in the United States to become a Certified Flight Instructor specific to gyroplanes for police operations.
The flight crew conducted aerial patrols, assisted patrol units with radio calls, monitored traffic flows during special events, and conducted surveillance and inspection of critical infrastructure owned by Somerset — including the 149 miles of natural gas pipeline, which runs from Virginia to Casey County.
The crews also identified several suspicious vehicles and assisted on radio calls that resulted in seven arrests. Two of those arrests were for DUI, and others were for drug violations and for outstanding warrants.
Smith said the flight crew assisted on a tense domestic violence report at a residence on West Ky. 80 — and he said their vantage point from the air helped him to relay information to officers on the ground and keep them safe.
“That’s one of those that I’m probably as proud of as any,” Smith said. “We were at the right place at the right time.”
The subject of the call was reported to be armed, and Smith said he was able to spot the suspect as he fled the apartment and made his way around the building.
Smith said he was able to communicate with officers on the ground about where to go in order to remain as safe as possible since the suspect was armed.
The flight crews’ assistance with a variety of calls, along with the need to ensure infrastructure safety, helped SPD decide to secure an aircraft of their own once the trial period ended.
Smith said the Calidus was purchased with funding through a cooperative agreement between The Center for Rural Development and the SRTB-RC. SPD made up the remainder of the purchase price — around $13,000 — through money seized from illegal drug trafficking investigations.
“This is not taxpayers’ money,” Nelson said during Tuesday’s presentation.
In exchange for funding assistance, the police department will submit data to the program to help with other aviation needs throughout the country.
The Calidus is a bit different from the Magni M24 gyroplane, but Nelson said it offers the city and taxpayers just as much cost savings — and they’ll be able to continue the services that began with the trial period.
“The bottom line on using non-traditional aircraft for law enforcement operations is this: Increased public safety at a decreased cost,” said Smith through a press release.
Smith said the Calidus uses around five gallons of automobile-grade gasoline per hour, or less than $20 per hour at today’s fuel rates.
“That’s a tremendous savings compared to a helicopter that may use 20 or more gallons of jet fuel per hour, which costs over $100 per hour,” Smith added.
The maintenance costs are significantly reduced due to the gyroplane’s simple design and lack of complex systems.
“It (the gyroplane) is a very capable machine,” Smith said. “It really set the pace for us realizing the advantages it would have to our department.”
The Calidus is also equipped with a mobile police radio — something that wasn’t present in the Magni M24.
“If the guys on the ground can’t hear us or can’t understand us, we’re really not as effective as we could be,” Smith said.
The Somerset Police Department is one of only three law enforcement agencies in the country using a gyroplane for police operations. The Tomball Police Department in Texas and the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland also employ the aircraft.
“We think it’s the future,” Nelson said on Tuesday.