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Era of Ripon air patrols starts
Gas powered parachute part of crime fighting arsenal
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Ripon police sergeant Steve Merchant, along with the U.S. Justice Department instructor pilot Jim Macleay, take their first flight in their new powered parachute at Mistlin Sports Park early Wednesday morning. - photo by GLENN KAHL
RIPON — Ripon Police officers took to the air early Wednesday morning in the powered parachute they received this week from the U.S. Justice Department – one of only three in the nation.

It was 6 a.m. when Sergeant Steve Merchant and Lt. Ed Ormonde trailered the new craft to the lush green Mistlin Sports Park on River Road.  Justice Department contract instructor pilot Jim Macleay from Tracy was there to check them outonin their first flight of the observation craft.

Sgt. Merchant practiced taxiing the powered parachute around the grass before he and Macleay took off for the first time circling the park.  They practiced takeoffs and landings before taking a tour of the city and the Stanislaus River bed landing back west of the Mistlin water tower.

“Seeing the trees come up at you, you are just glad to get off the ground,” Merchant quipped.  When there is only one pilot on board the takeoff is more rapid, he added.  Even so it is very quick with two on board.

Merchant said his only challenge was staying clear of the light poles in the park that they approached in their landings.  They took off in less than 100 feet staying well clear of the almond orchards on the north side of the park.  Landing used another 50 feet as the craft was feathered down on to three wheels.

The sergeant noted the perspective was so different in looking at Ripon from the air.  “I didn’t realize Ripon was so small,” he chuckled.

Lt. Ormonde was the second Ripon officer to try his hand at piloting the parachute craft.  He took the opportunity to fly over his house and along the river as well.  He said from an altitude of 540 feet he could see all kinds of debris on the riverbed.

“I’d never been up and I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.

In his takeoff he said he taxied to the northeast with the engine wide open and the parachute billowing behind them wondering if they had enough room to get over the almond trees “and boom, up we go,” he said.

There was about a 12 mile wind Wednesday morning with Ormonde and Macleay coming back from the river at just about 10 miles per hour.  He said returning from the east to a landing position on the park grass the craft was descending about 100 feet per minute.

The officers spent some two hours in their training flights on the 10 gallon capacity gasoline tank.

Merchant said he was awed in how much area they could cover from the air.

The 2005 powered parachute has first been assigned to the Texas Cattlemen’s Association but when they had only made use of it for 10 hours in the past year it was given to the Ripon Police Department.

The unit is the only one in use in California by a police agency, Merchant said.  

“We’ve gotten calls from other agencies who may want to use our craft because they are expecting a cut in their funds.”

He told of an Indian nation in Arizona the size of Connecticut – Tonono O’odham – that borders on Mexico and uses a powered parachute.  “They have used this several times to locate bodies out in the desert,” he said.