About those big brown signs along Virginia highways that warn, “Speed limit enforced by aircraft:” Forget about ’em.
After all, former Gov. Jim Gilmore has forgotten the role he played in the program that put the markers there. And state police largely have shelved it.
The idea was that “bears in the air” would fly above interstates in Cessna 182 airplanes, search out speeders and then radio fellow state troopers on the ground to nab drivers with lead feet.
The General Assembly approved the program in 2000. From that point to 2008, it netted 5,117 tickets. In the four years since, the total has fallen to 87, including zero this year. No speed enforcement missions have been flown this year, said state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
“We’ve cut back significantly because of the cost associated with operating an aircraft,” Geller said.
An hour in the air costs about $150 to cover fuel and maintenance costs, Geller said. Missions range from four-and-a-half to six hours, she said.
“It is a bit manpower-intensive,” she said.
The missions require at least three officers — a trooper on the ground, a trooper-pilot to fly the plane and a specially trained trooper to calculate a vehicle’s speed moving between two painted lines on the road, Geller said. Officers also must undergo classroom and field training to become certified.
Gilmore ordered increased patrols after a January 1999 crash near Natural Bridge on Interstate 81 killed four people. Newspaper stories about the “bear in the air” program cited Gilmore’s role in “spearheading the effort.” Asked to comment for this story, Gilmore said he didn’t remember taking part in the program’s implementation. He did not return phone calls asking for clarification.
In 2011, the state’s three Cessna 182 planes spent a combined 586 hours in the air, Geller said. Most of that time was spent on administrative transports, surveillance and pilot training, she said. Decreased federal funding has forced police to scale back expenses, including aerial speed enforcement, she said.
During the more than 8,100 hours, or some 330 days of the year, that the planes were not in the air they sat at state police aviation bases in Chesterfield, Lynchburg and Abingdon.
Other states similarly have scaled back programs to patrol highways with eyes in the skies.
New York State Police have not written a traffic ticket for offenses spotted during aerial missions since 2005.
“It hasn’t been entirely eliminated,” said Sgt. Kern Swoboda, a spokesman with the New York department. “We still have the airplanes.”
The California Highway Patrol still has 15 planes used to catch speeders, but spokeswoman Fran Clader said the department's annual air operations budget has decreased by a third, from about $12 million to $8 million. California police aircraft have been repurposed, spending most airtime on support searches and pursuits.
In Florida, the Highway Patrol still uses the program, issuing about 30,000 citations a year, according to chief pilot Capt. Matthew Walker. The patrol, which boasts eight planes and eight pilots, has not faced budget cuts, he said.
Alabama lawmakers instituted aerial speed enforcement in 1990, and the Alabama Highway Patrol still touts the program on its website. But aviation unit Cpl. Kent Smith said the tactic hasn't been used for years.
“It’s just not cost-effective,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.