It’s Friday night in Kansas City, Kan. and officers are busy. This weekend, in particular, officers would be involved in seven different vehicle pursuits. Given the population of Kansas City and the nature of police pursuits, the encounters would normally be dangerous for all involved. That’s where the Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) Aircraft Unit comes in.
“The goal of the air unit is to provide airborne support to public service agencies across Kansas,” said Captain Jason Vanderweide. Captain Vanderweide oversees the statewide aircraft operations in Kansas for KHP.
On this night, by utilizing an array of aircraft tools, KHP is able to allow the officers to back off of the pursuits, while still following the suspects from the air.
“It puts the public in a safer position in that typically, when those people in pursuits see police officers backing off, they’ll slow down themselves. That really helps with the safety aspect and then having us overhead to be able to direct those officers to where the suspects have gone leads to a pretty good capture,” Captain Vanderweide said.
Lieutenant TJ Wahlmeier, who acts as the East Region Aircraft Supervisor for KHP, agrees saying, “It’s a dual function of our service. We want to capture that person so that the violence can stop, and the crimes can stop. The other aspect is trying to overwatch the situation and make it safer for everyone on the ground.”
He remembers a case in Butler County, Kan.
We want to capture that person so that the violence can stop, and the crimes can stop. The other aspect is trying to overwatch the situation and make it safer for the officers on the ground.” – KHP Lieutenant TJ Wahlmeier
“They had an armed suspect on foot that our Wichita crew was able to spot with a CESSNA STATIONAIR piston and a FLIR camera. They were able to call out that armed suspect’s location as officers were moving towards him to give them the advantage. They knew the armed suspect’s location and that he was basically waiting for the officers to come in. So that airborne resource ultimately led to his capture and the officers not getting injured.”
But it didn’t start this way. Back in the 1960’s, Captain Vanderweide said several troopers were assigned to the Kansas Turnpike Authority and happened to have their pilot’s licenses. He said they decided it would be smart to utilize aircraft to time vehicles on the turnpike to check for speeding, thus, starting the KHP Aircraft Unit. For many years, KHP rented or leased aircraft for this purpose before purchasing aircraft of the agency’s own.
“Then, we saw with a change in radar technology that guys on the ground were able to utilize traffic radar a little more effectively than they had been. So, our mission changed from traffic enforcement and morphed into more of a law enforcement support,” Captain Vanderweide said.
Now, the unit consists of three bases across the state utilizing a Bell 407 helicopter and several Textron Aviation aircraft. The fleet includes Cessna Stationair pistons with FLIR cameras, a CESSNA SKYLANE RG piston and a KING AIR 350 turboprop. In 2019 alone, the unit assisted more than 130 agencies across Kansas and Captain Vanderweide said the numbers in 2020 look to be tracking upward.
Lieutenant Wahlmeier added, “I see the need continually to increase. We are limited on equipment and personnel so both of those will have to be updated and increased as we move forward.“
That need expands beyond just catching dangerous suspects. The KHP Aircraft Unit assists in everything from missing persons cases to post-disaster surveillance to marijuana eradication. Captain Vanderweide said the aircraft are even a useful tool to help move blood.
“I see the need continually to increase.” – KHP Lieutenant TJ Wahlmeier
“One of our functions that not many people know about is where we fly blood from usually The American Red Cross in Wichita’s blood bank to rural parts of Kansas. They can’t keep a large blood supply on hand so when they have an incident and they need blood relayed; they call on us to help.”
Both say while they became Kansas Highway Patrol Troopers first, adding the aircraft side to their careers has tapped into additional personal interests and allowed them to serve a larger group of citizens in Kansas.