For the first time in its history, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office will take to the skies in its own aircraft.
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on June 21 unanimously approved the acceptance of a 1982 Cessna Model 182R fixed-wing, single-engine, single-propeller airplane being donated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department that will be used by the local sheriff’s volunteer pilot team for search-and-rescue operations and, if needed, for surveillance and narcotics operations.
The plane, which was purchased by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in 2001 with grant funds that have since expired, was appraised two years ago at about $111,000, according to a San Luis Obispo County staff report.
The $79,075 cost to transfer and repair the plane is being split by the Sheriff’s Advisory Foundation and the county’s asset forfeiture fund and will not impact the county general fund. However, the Sheriff’s Office will likely ask the Board of Supervisors for $60,000 in annual funding for ongoing maintenance costs beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the department has no plans to ask for any additional staff positions for the aircraft.
The airplane is expected to arrive in the county this week, and it will be taken to two local aeronautical maintenance companies for repairs and other work. The initial $79,075 will cover registration, a factory-rebuilt engine, a propeller overhaul, interior upholstery, flooring replacement, a new transponder, Gyrocam repair, paint and inspection. It will be stored at the Santa Maria Airport.
Once that work is complete, the Sheriff’s Office anticipates paying an average of $60,000 per year for maintenance associated with an estimated 200 hours of flight time annually. Those costs include operations, fuel, parts, insurance, storage and other expenses.
While neighboring counties such as Santa Barbara and Kern have their own fleets of aircraft and full-time staff to operate and maintain them, San Luis Obispo County has historically relied on a team of about 25 certified volunteer pilots with their own aircraft — the Aero Squadron — to respond to search-and-rescue situations. Without an aircraft of its own, the Sheriff’s Office also regularly asks the CHP to assist with its helicopter.
That unique Aero Squadron model will remain in place with the new airplane, Parkinson said, but the county-owned Cessna — which will be outfitted with rotating seats, large windows and a high-powered, law enforcement-grade 360-degree camera — will be the “primary go-to” aircraft flown by the trained volunteers.
“There are times, in all honesty, that if, say, we have an injured hiker out at Montaña de Oro, we may call the CHP because they’re right there, but they also have other missions and responsibilities,” Parkinson said. “Search and rescue really is our responsibility.”
Parkinson said the agency’s search-and-rescue team has responded to 32 incidents in the last two years; of those, 25 required aircraft. He said that while the volunteer team is experienced, they have been limited by their privately owned planes. The new plane is already modified for search and rescue, with features such as single-swivel seats and a large vertical window for observers. Another benefit, Parkinson said, is a mounted exterior Gyrocam — a long-range, remote-controlled camera with night vision capabilities connected to an interior viewing screen.
Those cameras, Parkinson said, sell new for between $300,000 to $500,000. The plane’s camera, though 14 years old and called “obsolete” in a San Bernardino County staff report in May, can be repaired for about $10,000.
The plane will fit up to four people.
Parkinson said Friday the gift was a deal he couldn’t pass up after hearing San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon say he was looking to donate the plane ahead of $50,000 in maintenance costs to bring it up to speed. San Bernardino County has other aircraft used by its Aviation Division, and the Cessna was largely used for narcotics investigations, surveillance and marijuana extraction.
Asked about the age of the plane, Parkinson said the frame itself is “very airworthy” and the rebuilt engine and other upgrades will ensure the department will get several years, at least, out of the plane.
“It’s not a car (where you) have to replace it every 20 or so years. Airplanes are different,” he said. “I don’t profess to be a plane expert, but I’ve done a lot of research, and I have pilots in the Aero Squadron who are are very excited.”
Parkinson said the new plane will be vital to local search and rescue and be able to locate missing persons or illegal vessels and vehicles associated with drug smuggling at night.
“We don’t lose people inside houses,” he said. “Any time we’re in a search and rescue situation, we’re going to want to get the plane up there, and if it means getting to (a person) before they’re dead or in any worse condition, it’s worth it.”