AIKEN — High above the trees, sheriff’s office pilots patrol the county undetected.
A wanted or fleeing suspect knows to be on the lookout for flashing blue lights, but they don’t always know that pilots like Sgt. Larry Schrade are keeping an eye on them from above.
“It’s a perspective you can’t get from the ground,” said Schrade, who started flying in the Navy and has 6,000 flight hours.
The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office got the two-seater Sky Arrow 600 from the Department of Justice in 2006 to share with sheriff’s offices in Richmond and Columbia counties. Until 2009, the plane stayed at Daniel Field, but after both Richmond and Columbia counties opted out, it moved to Aiken Municipal Airport where it takes off on patrols several times each week.
Capt. Eric Abdullah said the plane is a valuable asset to the county, which only has to pay for maintenance and fuel.
“We use it to the fullest of our capabilities,” he said. “We don’t let it go to waste.”
Schrade, who retired recently but still flies as a reserve deputy, works an on-call rotation with two other pilots – a deputy and an investigator.
The pilots are often called to look for fleeing suspects and vehicles, monitor drug transactions, and assist with other local and federal investigations.
He said it’s not always about pinpointing the location of a fugitive. Sometimes the plane keeps a suspect hidden in one location long enough for bloodhounds to catch a scent and find him.
On normal patrols, Schrade flies around 1,500 feet, but during a search he might fly as close as 100 feet to the ground.
Even if they aren’t chasing anything specific, Schrade often takes to the skies while monitoring the police scanner, giving out tips to deputies on the ground before they ever arrive at a call.
Even at high speeds in a patrol car, it can take substantially more time to arrive at a call than by plane. Schrade estimates he can leave the sheriff’s office and be airborne in 20 minutes. By air, it’s 10 minutes faster to almost anywhere in the county.
“They (the sheriff’s office) really like to have that view from overhead,” Schrade said.
According to Abdullah, the closest agency with aircraft is the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.