Saturday, December 05, 2015

Volunteer pilots discuss new plane

John Voss and John Rabine stand by the new plane operated by the Kings County Sheriff's Department.

If you’ve been seeing a small airplane flying over Kings County, there’s a good chance it’s the Sheriff’s Office’s new airplane.

The aircraft, made by German airplane manufacturer Flight Design, was purchased earlier this year for about $471,000, most of which is being paid from assets seized from criminals. Since the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have personnel qualified to pilot the plane, they opted to start a volunteer pilot program.

That’s where former Marine aviator John Voss and retired Naval Air Station Lemoore Pilot John Rabine come in. As part of the program, they come out to fly the plane at least once a week and respond to any missions that the aircraft may be needed for.

“It’s an opportunity to give back to the community,” Rabine said. “I think the program is valuable not only for the county but also for the local municipalities. Also, it’s not bad to fly.”

Rabine was an F/A-18 Hornet pilot at the base for about 20 years before he recently retired. This new plane, however, is a far cry from that. It’s a light, small two-seater that only goes up to speeds of about 110.

“It’s a great little plane,” he said. “It’s really quiet. Some people have told us they thought we were a large drone.”

The plane is being housed in a hangar at the Hanford Municipal Airport off Hanford-Armona Road.

Voss has been flying for more than 20 years. He has his own personal plane, a Beechcraft Debonair, but also served as an aviator for the Marine Corps for about 12 years.

For the past 10 years, he has been working at Naval Air Station Lemoore, helping train personnel on the flight simulators. When he heard from the Sheriff’s Office that they were looking for volunteer pilots, he jumped at the chance.

“It’s been an awesome experience,” he said. “I enjoy the job and the mission.”

Voss said he’s wanted to be a pilot ever since he was a kid. He said his dad flew planes for the military as well and wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“I grew up loving airplanes,” he said. “I have an absolute love for flying.”

Voss said he likes the county’s new plane, despite its size. He believes it was a good investment for the county and a cheaper alternative to renting helicopters, which is what the Sheriff’s Office used to do. It was very cost-intensive, with the price going up to $500 an hour.

“The plane’s a low cost to operate,” he said. “If we really wanted to stay airborne, we could stay up to six or seven hours for major situations, although that’s not preferable. We would only have to deal with the cost of fuel.”

According to the Sheriff’s Office, fuel costs between $20,000 and $30,000 per year.

The plane might look small and unimpressive on the outside, but it houses some serious tech. The aircraft has infrared capabilities for tracking vehicles and people on the ground during pursuits and other situations.

It also had video and audio recording devices, a spotlight, various communication equipment and other features. It also has a built-in parachute in case of emergencies.

“It’s pretty high tech and very user-friendly,” Voss said. “The forward-looking infrared is my favorite feature.”

Typically when going on a mission, the plane will have one pilot and a tactical flight officer in the cockpit. The officer is responsible for using the equipment on board, such as the infrared, as the pilot has to focus on flying.

Voss said the team comes in around 6 p.m. and checks the weather to see if it’s good for flying. If so, they will take off, hover over the county and listen to radios from various law enforcement agencies for any calls that may require their assistance.

In some cases, a mission has already been determined and, in that case, the plane will go straight to the scene.

“We usually spend a couple hours airborne each time,” he said.

Voss and Rabine said the plane and the missions they have gone on so far have been successful. In one recent case, they responded to a suspicious person report at a dairy in the area of 15th and Flint avenues.

Using infrared, the aircraft was able to locate the suspect, after which he took off running and hid in another area of the dairy.

The aircraft was able to determine the suspect’s new location and provided the information to patrol units on the ground. After that, the suspect was found and arrested.

“We try to help officers on the ground as much as possible,” Voss said. “If the officers can go home because we found someone who could have possibly injured them is a huge win for me.”

Patrols don’t always go smoothly, however. Rabine said there was one incident in October in which someone pointed a laser at the aircraft, hitting the glass doors.

“It’s like being on the inside of a disco ball,” he said. “The light hits the glass windows and lights up the inside. It’s really blinding.”

Rabine said they were able to locate the culprit, identified as 45-year-old Michael Quair, who was arrested and booked into the Kings County Jail.  

Despite some hiccups, Voss and Rabine said they have enjoyed their experience with the program so far.

“Going out there and working with these people is great,” he said. “The Sheriff’s Office has been very supportive.”

“It’s just another way to serve my community in another capacity,” Rabine said. “This is a great program that really allows [the county] to control and utilize the asset when they need to. It’s a very good use of taxpayers’ money.”

Sheriff David Robinson said as pilots are paid about $28 an hour in this area, around the same amount as a deputy, having non-paid volunteer pilots is a big savings for the department.

"The only issue is that our pilots aren't around 40 hours a week like full-time pilots, but even at half-time, it's significant savings for us," he said. "They're not always available. We know they have their own lives, so we try to be flexible."

Robinson said the department may decide to add a paid pilot sometime down the road if needed. 

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