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Up in the sky
Its a bird, its a plane; no, its super cop!
Ripon police sergeant Steve Merchant flies with a Tracy pilot and DARE coordinator Don Sader in a test flight of a powered parachute that is similar to one the Ripon department will add as a search and rescue unit sometime in July. - photo by Photo Contributed

“SOAR” – a search operations aerial response unit -- is on the horizon for Ripon in July.

Operating for less than the cost to run a city lawnmower, Ripon’s police department is adding a Pegasus 582 powered parachute to its already cutting edge technology for use in search and rescue operations.

The aviation component comes on the heels of the community’s wireless technology and an extensive camera system that keeps the city under its watchful eye in the police department’s dispatch center.  Also in Ripon, stolen cars entering the community are recognized by other cameras that alert dispatches.

Police Sergeant Steve Merchant said that while other agencies are having their aviation funding cut because of the downturn in the economy, Ripon will offer its eye in the sky to other departments when called upon.

The powered parachute travels at 28 to 30 miles an hour and can fly at extreme altitudes with a ceiling of about 10,000 feet.  Flights will be limited to two hours on a 10-gallon gas tank with an engine that uses regular grade automotive fuel.

Cost of the craft and its required FAA training is estimated at $30,000 made available through a grant from the National Institute of Justice through the Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center.

To date the center has deployed nine aircraft to law enforcement agencies across the U.S.  These included three powered parachutes, two Sky Arrows, three Tecnam Eaglets and one Savannah light sport aircraft.
Sgt. Merchant said the powered parachute will be used for rescue and search operation along the Stanislaus River and for lost children and Alzheimer’s patients who have walked away from their homes.  It will also be a valuable resource in searching orchards for suspects in police chases who have attempted to elude pursuing officers.

There will be no night flights or any in inclement weather, he said.  Some 20 hours of flight training is the norm for officers planning to operate the craft.

Chief Richard Bull traveled to the National Institute of Justice Aviation Technology conference several weeks ago – at no cost to the city – where he presented his case to add the powered parachute program to the Ripon Police Department.

“It was a blast,” he was quoted as saying of the ride he was given in a parachute craft at the event.

Sgt. Merchant and Tim Bailey attended an earlier conference demonstrating Ripon’s firearms simulator in Kansas City, Missouri.  It was there that the two officers were introduced to the power parachute technology and Merchant said he envisioned definite law enforcement applications.

Ormonde and Merchant spearheaded the program taking it before the city council where they gained their approval before Chief Bull traveled to Maryland.  The officers set up a static demonstration behind city hall to show off the powered parachute.

Merchant said the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services and the Ripon Consolidated Fire Department are both on board with bringing the powered parachute operation into the south county community.

The aircraft needs some 300 yards to take off and must go airborne into the wind – also landing into the wind.  In addition to its pilot, it can also transport an observer with a total weight of 415 pounds.  Merchant said that a park area would probably be used to take off the parachute.  He noted that emergency landing sites have already been pinpointed around the city.

Points of concern in and around the community include the back country riparian forest along the Stanislaus River as well as the many swimming pools in the city.  Merchant noted that dangers exist with the many unkempt pools in homes that have been foreclosed upon with children being at risk.

He added that there have been marijuana growing along the river that officers cannot reach with their four-wheel drive vehicles.   And, flying at 1,500 feet over the river officers probably won’t be seen – it has definite law enforcement uses, he reiterated.

Its use will also be used in  searching for overdue rafters on the river and reported drowning.  He said Ripon has had to wait sometimes half an hour before a helicopter can reach the scene on the river.

Merchant said the Space  Shuttle Challenger’s small pieces of wreckage were located by powered parachutes after the spacecraft broke up reentering the atmosphere over the southern portion of the U.S.  He said helicopters could not be used because their rotor blade wash interfered with search technology.

The National Institute of Justice is the research and development agency of the United States Department of Justice.