Aiken uses plane to help fight crime

AIKEN — You can run, but you would have a hard time hiding from the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office’s eye in the sky.

Those on the ground probably don’t notice the Sky Arrow 600 light sport aircraft above, but it’s up there.

“It makes the community feel a little more secure,” Capt. Troy Elwell said.

From the sky, the deputies are able to see miles at a time. They usually fly around 1,500 feet, a height at which cars, houses and even people are visible.

If they are called on for stealth missions, said Staff Sgt. Larry L. Schrade, one of the plane’s two pilots, it hovers higher – about 3,000 feet. From there, it is nearly invisible to the naked eye from the ground and impossible to hear.

The plane has been used for such things as car chases and marijuana eradication.

“The plane takes the liability off of a pursuit,” Elwell said. “In 30 to 45 minutes, we can be anywhere in the county.”

The plane can track from the sky and see large distances ahead of the car being chased. This way, the deputies on the ground don’t have to engage in high-speed chase and can instead cut the suspects off where the plane sees them heading.

The aircraft is a grant plane that was provided through the National Institute of Justice and the Department of Justice. It is one of several types of aircraft provided to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, according to a news release.

When Aiken got the aircraft in 2007, it was shared by Aiken, Richmond and Columbia counties and hangared at Augusta’s Daniel Field. Because of budget restrictions, Columbia and Richmond counties have backed out, so now the plane is at Aiken Municipal Airport, where they are not charged hanger fees. The plane will still cover Richmond, Edgefield and Columbia counties if asked.

The plane usually flies two to four times a week for regular road patrol, but can be called up at any time.

A few months ago, Schrade and fellow pilot Sgt. Kris Evenson got strong enough radios that they can talk with deputies on the ground, which speeds up communication.

For example, on Sept. 28, the plane helped catch a car theft suspect who had eluded road deputies. The airplane was able to identify the missing vehicle from the sky and send officers to it.

The aircraft is also useful for reconnaissance and aerial photography on large undercover operations, Elwell said.

Elwell said he would like to see the plane used more often and is hoping to get another pilot at some point.

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