Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Mark Schroeder, who visited with people stopping by the KHP’s hangar on Friday at Hays Regional Airport, said call volume is up.
Schroeder, along with two other KHP pilots, works from the Hays airport as part of the airborne services wing of the KHP. The unit assists local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with everything from surveillance and arrests to search and rescue, as well as assisting at crashes, finding missing persons, and delivering blood to area hospitals for the Red Cross.
The unit had its hangar open Friday as part of the 2019 Fly Kansas Air Tour, highlighting general aviation, sponsored annually by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
In 2018, the KHP’s aviation unit, Troop T, had 830 calls into service for the year, but in 2019 calls have already reached 650, putting it on track to surpass 2018, Schroeder said.
One of three locations for the KHP’s based aircraft, the Hays crew flies a Cessna 206 Stationer, a high wing plane that allows an unobstructed view of the ground.
Outfitted with a thermal camera, the plane is fairly fast and its weight capabilities make it possible to carry all the necessary equipment, Schroeder said.
As superintendent of the Hays-based crew, Schroeder oversees air operations for western Kansas. KHP also has aircraft and crews based in Topeka and Wichita. In Hays, there are three officers. Besides Schroeder, who has been at the Hays base since 1999, there are Ben Kahle and Brandon McMillan. All are residents of Ellis County.
The officers generally work an open shift, making them available for calls or scheduled flights 24 hours a day. Each one is an FAA-certified Instrument Rated commercial pilot.
Flying as a two-man crew, they get all kinds of requests from law enforcement, such as a call Thursday night from the FBI asking them to help the Department of Corrections carry out a high-risk warrant in Colorado.
Earlier in the week, the Hays crew went out on a local call in rural Ellis County to assist the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement with the arrest of an armed man holed up in a farm building where he was allegedly trespassing.
“We used our camera, and we were able to get in closer to the guy than officers on the ground,” said Schroeder. That helped police on the ground to make the arrest.
“That was a busy day for us,” Schroeder said, explaining the crew in the morning had started with an aircraft maintenance stop in Topeka, then a call from the Garden City area to help locate a suspect at a rural trailer house who was eluding Finney County law enforcement.
“With our mapping system, we can tell officers on the ground what roads to take to locate a suspect,” Schroeder said. But the day wasn’t over. “Then we left there and halfway back we got the Ellis County call. But today we haven’t had a call, so sometimes we’re very, very busy, and sometimes it’s slow.”
In the 20 years he’s been with the Hays crew, Schroeder says, the unit has expanded, with a better plane and bigger cameras, which is helpful, given the calls coming in.
“We’re having more and more issues like we had up here, like the suspect with the weapon," he said. “A lot of it is people in most departments now know that this asset exists and is available to them.”
While drones are increasingly useful, such as in helping crash investigators get a good view and images of a wreck, Schroeder said drones are limited in what they can do.
“Most of the drones are not big enough to carry that large of optics,” he said, and “we can stay on station for a long time.” There are also limiting factors, such as that drones can’t be flown at night and must remain in the line of sight.
The job can be dangerous. “We’ve been shot at before,” he said. “But it’s pretty hard to hit an aircraft.”
The crew flies in all kinds of weather, with thunderstorms and ice storms about the only elements that will ground the plane. The Cessna 206 is outfitted with a state-of-the-art video screen display in the cockpit to handle the electronic systems governing communication, navigation and aircraft systems. The pilots orient the Fluke Infrared Camera onboard, which is very sensitive at taking measurements from the lens, measuring heat on the ground down to .03 degrees to generate a black and white image of what’s happening below.
“Outfitted the way it is, the aircraft costs over a million dollars,” said Schroeder. “But the way we see it, it’s well worth it if we find a kid with it. That’s worth it to me.”