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Downey Police in Holding Pattern on Sale of Crime-Fighting Plane

July 24, 1988|CRAIG QUINTANA and LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writers

DOWNEY — After five years of fighting crime from the sky with its ultra-light aircraft, the Downey Police Department is proposing to sell the plane to Azusa police.

Downey police Detective Mike Carney said his department's increased emphasis on narcotics surveillance has made the single-seat ultralight obsolete. So, department officials want to sell the aircraft, an Eipper Quicksilver, and upgrade its aerial surveillance by purchasing a two-seat airplane costing about $24,000. A larger aircraft, Carney said, will provide more flexibility.

'Has His Hands Full"

"With one officer up there, he has his hands full," Carney said. "The difference is having a pilot do what a pilot is supposed to do and the officer watching what's going on."

But Azusa Police Chief Lloyd J. Wood's plan to begin aerial patrols with Downey's ultralight was grounded, perhaps only temporarily, last week when the Azusa City Council decided to delay the proposed purchase until questions are answered about pilot training and the effect on the city's insurance liability.

The ultralight is a low-cost, lightweight aircraft made of fiberglass and synthetic sailcloth skin. It weighs about 500 pounds and has a partially enclosed cockpit with a plastic shield.

Backers of the purchase by Azusa say the ultralight would deter potential criminals because the aircraft would provide an "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 an ultralight for police work.

Under the proposal, the department would buy the plane, parts and a spare engine from Downey, which has used the aircraft since 1983.

The Downey ultralight comes equipped with a siren, searchlight and public-address system. It has a 50-horsepower engine and a top cruising speed of 95 m.p.h., Carney said. He said the ultralight is quieter than a helicopter and cannot be heard by people indoors.

The aircraft has an excellent gliding capacity and can travel great distances unpowered. It also has a parachute attached.

The price of the ultralight would be between $8,000 and $10,000, according to Wood. He 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," he said. "It wouldn't cost the city anything because all the money came from narcotics dealers."

Have Agreed to Help

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 aerobatic 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.

Training Envisioned

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.

Wood agreed that the flying officers should eventually get their pilot's licenses, but said the program would 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 canceled.

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.

Cheaper Than Copter

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 cost up to $600 an hour to operate. By contrast, the ultralight will cost about $7 an hour to fly.

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