A bird’s eye view: ND Highway Patrol soars to new heights to pursue vehicles, find missing persons

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 6:33 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Vehicle pursuits are on the rise with 72 chases statewide this year alone. The North Dakota Highway Patrol has soared to new heights to combat this growing problem.

In 1966, the North Dakota Highway Patrol purchased their first plane for traffic enforcement. Now, the technology is much more advanced, but the department continues to use a single aircraft to patrol the skies.

As troopers prepare their Cessna T-206 for take-off, they’re training for search and pursuit maneuvers.

“We follow them until law enforcement can make a safe stop, rather than pursue them at high rates of speed,” said Dennis Gallagher, North Dakota Highway Patrol chief pilot.

The aviation unit is key to patrol operations.

“We can cover a larger area than guys walking the ground. We can cover a lot more area quicker,” added Gallagher.

They have an eye in the sky. Called FLIR, an infrared camera gives troopers a new perspective day or night. The information revealed on the cameras is then relayed to crews on the ground.

“It gives us a hot and cold picture, so we can really tell if something is hot. For example, if you’re searching for someone in a domestic dispute hiding out in a field when it is cold out at 1 a.m., there’s going to be a heat signature. We can see that heat signature on our camera, so it is really easy to depict what it is,” said Bennett Bitz, traffic enforcement trooper/tactical flight operator for the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

The six-passenger plane becomes a three-seater with the search equipment. When pilot and trooper embark, they could be heading to a search and rescue or to help with aerial traffic enforcement.

“I lead law enforcement to them. I just give them directions from overhead. I kind of give them a warning. ‘Maybe 100 yards out. 50 yards out. Hey, the guy’s right on top of you, look out your driver door he’s there, be careful.’ It’s definitely a good advantage to be overhead,” added Bitz.

This eagle-eye view is of a 2019 stolen-vehicle pursuit where ground crews lost the sight of the suspect. The aviation crew was able to locate him and track him to a Mandan residence while limiting risk to the public.

“There is a big sense of relief when you know that the plane is up because you know that you have some eyes in the sky. You’re not necessarily pushing it as hard to try and keep up with the subject. You have an asset up there that can track the vehicle safely or search an area safely where you don’t have to put in troopers or law enforcement on the ground,” said Sgt. Wade Kadrmas, agency safety and education officer for the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

The department uses this aircraft to patrol the entire state.

So far, the North Dakota Highway Patrol aircraft has been used 39 times in 2021. Three of those instances were for traffic enforcement.

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