CHP’s Valley Division Puts Eyes in the Sky

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Recently, the Valley Division of the California Highway Patrol has taken to the skies, using a new plane, which has given it a bird's eye view.

Officers said it is a new generation of police plane: the GippsAero CHP unit Air-21.

"This is high tech. We've got all the latest equipment, camera equipment, camera system," CHP Flight Officer Troy Marks said.

Marks said that military-grade camera system allows him to zoom down so he can see the make, model, color and even license plate of any vehicle on the road, from as high as 3,000 feet.

"So I can lock into a car driving on the freeway using (a) hand controller, and then the camera will automatically track the car," Marks told FOX40.

A live feed of the video can be sent to a command post and to officers on the ground. The plane's camera can also switch to infrared, which allows officers to know if a suspected stolen car had been running in the last 15 minutes or so. The infrared feature also helps when trying to find a missing person.

"That enables us to look in dark areas, trees, alleyways, that sort of thing," Marks said.

Marks and his pilot, Jeff Watkins, said their main focus while in the air is traffic enforcement.

"We're really looking for the overly aggressive, reckless drivers. In and out of traffic, high rates of speed, the cars that are endangering everybody else," Marks said.

At several thousand feet, Marks is able to catch those speeders who slow down when they see a marked CHP car - but he said speeders never see him coming.

"Yeah, they don't hardly ever look up so, yeah, we definitely have an advantage," Marks said.

But the flight crew also checks on the California State Capitol building, Folsom Dam and other high risk terrorism targets from the air. Their other focus is helping all law enforcement agencies in any way they can.

"I'm listening to every law enforcement agency (radio communications) in the greater Sacramento area while we're flying," Marks said.

The plane can stay in the air longer than any helicopter, flying around an area stretching from Chico to Tracy between five and 10 hours a day.

"Our loiter time is longer than we can handle it as humans. I mean, we have to land every once and awhile and stretch our legs," Marks said.

Air-21 can also help helicopter units, especially in the Sierra where search and rescue missions take CHP helicopters below the mountain line and out of radio range.

"A lot of the times we will be above the helicopter relaying the communications that they need," Marks said.

Air-21 is the only Gipps-Aero the CHP is currently flying. But the agency plans to replace its Cessna 206 fleet across the state, mainly because the new planes can carry more weight with fuel tanks that keep them up for more time, according to Marks.

"We can be in the air longer, which means that we can get to a call quicker," Marks said.

Recently Air-21 aided with traffic flow reports before and after Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara.