When police were searching Interstate 93 yesterday morning for a reported armed man, they called in the N.H. State Police airplane to help.
The single-engine plane already was up, patrolling the state’s major highways for speeders, distracted, aggressive or impaired drivers.
It’s in the air most days, according to Lt. Kevin Duffy, commander of the state police Special Enforcement Unit.
While he wouldn’t be specific, he said the plane covers the whole state, concentrating on Interstates 89, 93 and 95, and Route 101.
That unit has six troopers, the plane and a civilian pilot. This isn’t some new surveillance technique. Duffy said state police have had aircraft since the mid- to late 1970s.
When bad weather grounds the plane, those troopers are on the ground, using Doppler or laser radar on enforcement patrols.
On Wednesday morning, police arrested Felix Rivas Torres, 21, of Manchester for reckless driving on Route 101 in Raymond. He was clocked traveling at 111 mph by the aircraft detail.
While the plane was up for several hours that day, police said, they stopped 45 drivers, and issued 24 tickets and 21 warnings. Seven of the drivers stopped were traveling at 85 mph or higher.
“What the aircraft does for us is give us the ability to track higher speeders, who wouldn’t be interdicted by troopers on the side of the road, running radar,” Duffy said. “When you’re traveling 111 mph, it’s kind of an eye-popping observation.”
Police use highway markings, visible from the air, to calculate how fast a motorist traveling 1,500 to 2,000 feet below is traveling. There are five “zones” in each stretch of marked highway, one after another and each 1,500 feet in length, Duffy said.
“As a car enters a zone, the trooper in the air essentially starts a stopwatch on the vehicle,” he said. “They use a calculation based on how fast you make it through the zone to determine how fast you’re going.”
Meanwhile, there’s a trooper on the ground, in contact with the trooper flying above. The airborne trooper will call out a vehicle description to the trooper below and link the two — meaning help the trooper in his or her cruiser catch up to the speeding car.
Conviction rates are high for drivers ticketed as a result of this enforcement, Duffy said.
“There’s really not a lot of contention,” he said. “Its difficult to discredit the process, therefore, the conviction rate is extremely high.”
The revenue’s not bad either.
When someone is clocked traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph, Duffy said, a judge is likely to assess a penalty “commensurate with that speed.”
But the goal isn’t fueling the revenue stream, he said. In fact, all ticket revenue collected throughout the state goes into the General Fund, so it’s not filling state police coffers.
The goal, he said, is to improve public safety — for residents and visitors.
To date, there have been 94 fatalities on New Hampshire highways this year. That compares unfavorably to last year, when 84 people died on the state’s roads, but better than 2010, when there were 124 traffic deaths.
Police are trying to keep the number of fatalities under 100 for the year, Duffy said, although the ultimate goal would be not to have any.
“We’re trying to send a message,” he said. “We want people to be aware they really need to pay attention and not be distracted by other issues, and that also includes distracted driving from impairment, drinking or drugging and driving.”
Police collect data that shows where and at what time most fatalities have occurred. They use that data to target those times and locations with extra patrols — ground and air — to reduce the number of accidents.
It costs the state police about $300 an hour to keep the plane up there, he said. That figure includes the cost of fuel, maintenance, and salaries for the pilot and trooper.
“If we save one life by the deterrent message it sends, then, yes, I believe it is worth it,” Duffy said. “I think any piece of equipment, if we save one life, is worth it.”
Not all troopers are cut out for airborne duty. The plane is small, a four-seater, and turbulence is not uncommon when traversing the sky above the Granite State.
“When the wind is gusting, there is some turbulence,” Duffy said. “Some troopers have difficulty with that; consequently, they’re on the road.”
Follow Jo-Anne MacKenzie on Twitter @ETNHEditor.