Eyes in the Sky: Helicopters find missing persons, fleeing criminals

In law enforcement, it’s not just what you see, it’s how you see it. For Lt. Mark Cherney, that’s often from overhead.

Cherney is the chief pilot for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, and one of four pilots for the department’s Aviation and Marine Bureau, which he also supervises. In a county the size of Collier, that may seem like a modestly-sized crew, but when a pilot is paired with a tactical officer, don’t underestimate the power of what Cherney calls, “eyes in the sky.”

“One advantage to the helicopter is that it’s a force multiplier,” he said.

Consider the case of a missing boater, overdue from a fishing trip and presumed to be lost in the twisting mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands. A helicopter team can scan the area from Goodland to the south of Everglades City in about 30 minutes, potentially shaving hours off the hunt.

The missing boater isn’t an uncommon situation, Cherney noted. About 80 percent of their work involves performing some kind of aerial search, with an aviation team seeking everything from missing people to property.

Aviation is often enlisted to help find children and the elderly, especially those who have Alzheimer’s disease and have wandered away from their homes. While there can be no way of absolutely knowing which direction the patient went, the pilot and tactical officer use Alzheimer’s data to inform their search, Cherney said.

One such piece of data is that many Alzheimer’s patients are found within 20 feet of water. In Southwest Florida, where water is prevalent, making sure those watery areas are cleared becomes top search priority.

“Sometimes, finding nothing is just as important as finding what you’re looking for,” Cherney said.

Searching for fleeing suspects is another part of aviation’s mission. For that, they sometimes work with a K-9 unit, and have reconfigured the department’s Bell OH-58 helicopters to allow a K-9 team to travel with them.

This year, aviation has located 22 people who were lost or endangered, Cherney said, and were actively involved in capturing 32 suspects later jailed on felony charges.

Yet, Cherney said his department is always looking for a way to do better. That’s because his profession’s sole responsibility isn’t law enforcement, he explained. It’s also about operating a machine that weighs 3,200 pounds at takeoff, a machine that may suffer mechanical problems in flight, be unexpectedly be struck by a bird or even be shot at by a suspect on the ground.

“We’re always striving to improve,” Cherney said. “And the minute we think we can’t, it’s time to stop and reevaluate.”

While other law enforcement agencies might chose to hire trained officers and teach them to be pilots, the Collier Sheriff’s Office prefers to do the opposite, hiring pilots and schooling them to fight crime. The method seems to work: Since the agency began in 1972, Cherney said, there have been no reportable safety incidents.

“I want the best pilot,” Cherney said. “I’d rather have someone who needs to gain law enforcement experience and have the very best pilot at the controls.”

The sheriff’s department’s two helicopters were donated to the department in the 1970s, as part of the federal government’s military surplus property program. The bureau has one staff mechanic to maintain their aircraft, which also includes a former military plane. New parts are acquired through the Department of Defense, with the sheriff’s office paying a minimal transfer fee.

The helicopters are outfitted for their law enforcement work with searchlights, a public address systems, dispatch system, night vision goggles, an infrared camera and a moving map system.

People are still the most important component, though, Cherney explained.

Sheriff’s aviation flies for a variety of reasons, including search and rescue, suspect pursuit, aerial photography, passive enforcement and the assistance of other agencies. In all of those, having a team that works well together is crucial, explained Cherney. While the pilot works to create a safe flight, the tactical officer must do what’s necessary to help complete the mission.

The flying, which averages about three hours a day, is usually “low and slow,” Cherney said. That’s hard flying, he concedes — and cooperation and communication between the pilot and tactical officer is essential.

“Those two people have to be able to get along,” he said.

If they do, the result is more than just a successful mission. It’s exciting and interesting, too.

Prior to joining the sheriff’s office more than two decades ago, Cherney was a Naples flight instructor, and then an overnight cargo pilot for UPS. The latter job created a routine in his life that he soon ached to escape, but no such routine exists in his current profession.

“No two days are the same,” Cherney said. “In 23 1/2 years, I’ve not had two days that were identical. Every day is different, every criminal is different, every missing person is different, and it’s a challenge.”

Contact Elizabeth Kellar at liz@elizabethkellar.com.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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