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Azusa Bid to Buy Aircraft Put on Hold

July 21, 1988|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

AZUSA — A proposal by Police Chief Lloyd J. Wood to begin aerial patrols using a lightweight, low-cost aircraft has been grounded, if only temporarily.

At Monday's City Council meeting, the purchase of a used ultralight from the Downey Police Department was put on hold until questions are answered about pilot training and the effect on the city's insurance liability.

The ultralight, which is more like a motorized glider than an airplane, would be used for aerial surveillance to assist officers on the ground. Backers say it would also have a deterrent effect on potential criminals because the aircraft would provide a watchful "eye in the sky."

"Just the fact that we're up there would make people feel better and provide a deterrent for criminals," Wood said.

If the city purchases the single-seat aircraft, Azusa would become the only department in the Southland--and one of the few in the nation--to use one for police work.

Under the proposal, the department would buy the ultralight, parts and a spare engine from Downey, which has has used the aircraft since 1983. Downey is selling its ultralight, an Eipper Quicksilver, in a bid to upgrade its aerial surveillance by purchasing a two-seat airplane.

The Downey ultralight comes equipped with a siren, searchlight and public-address system. It has a 50-horsepower engine, with a top cruising speed of 35 m.p.h., according to Wood's report. Wood said the ultralight is quieter than a helicopter and cannot be heard by people indoors.

Constructed of light material, the aircraft has an excellent gliding capacity and can travel great distances unpowered. It also has a parachute attached to the aircraft.

The price of the ultralight would be between $8,000 and $10,000. Wood estimates that pilot training, other equipment and landing-site preparation would cost an additional $10,000. The money would come from Azusa's drug-seizure fund, which allows local police agencies to spend part of the assets they recover in drug raids.

Wood said it is a no-risk experiment.

"Let's say we had it for two years and it failed," Wood said. "It wouldn't cost the city anything because all the money came from narcotics dealers."

In addition, Wood said Downey police have agreed to help Azusa get its program off the ground. If the concept is approved in August, Wood said, the Azusa ultralight could be in the air by early next year.

Wood said he was confident that concerns raised by Councilman Harry L. Stemrich, which caused the council to delay action, can be answered.

Stemrich, an aerial photographer, said he wants only qualified pilots holding Federal Aviation Administration credentials to fly the plane. Because the craft will fly over populated areas, performing acrobatic feats, he said the pilots should have more training than proposed by Wood.

Wood's proposal notes that those who fly ultralights, which generally are not regulated by the FAA, are not required to be licensed pilots.

The training for Azusa's pilots, as envisioned in Wood's proposal, would include eight hours of ground school, 10 hours of instructor-supervised flying and 35 hours of solo flight.

Although Wood said one prospective pilot has a license and several other officers are working on their certification, the proposal would not require them to be licensed. Both of the Downey officers who fly the aircraft are qualified pilots.

Could Be Delayed

Wood agreed that the officers should eventually get their pilot's licenses, but said the program could be delayed if they must be certified now.

As to the liability question, Stemrich said he would support the program if Wood could demonstrate that the city would not face drastically increased insurance costs.

Monterey Park, which became the first police department in the nation to use an ultralight in 1982, ended its program three years later after its liability insurance was cancelled.

Wood said Azusa is part of a municipal insurance pool and would not face losing its coverage. Downey has the same kind of coverage and has had no insurance problems. "I'm of the opinion that a police car could do more damage than the ultralight," Wood said.

Wood compared the ultralight to a helicopter, but said it would operate at a fraction of the cost.

A helicopter, which can cost $250,000 to $750,000, can require up to $600 an hour to operate. By contrast, the ultralight will cost about $7 an hour to fly.

Wood said the annual cost would be less than a squad car.

Economy has been the idea's main selling point for suburban police departments seeking air capability. Departments in California and around the nation have experimented with the ultralight. Some eventually have rejected it for a variety of reasons, including safety concerns and its limited capabilities. Others have turned to conventional, fixed-wing airplanes after using ultralights.

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