This week, our special guest is Bob Sleigher from West Columbia.
Sleigher is a corporate pilot and flight instructor for 45 years and has been in law enforcement and a state constable for 12 years. He was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame in 2008. He has just started a foundation to help law enforcement here in South Carolina and we are very excited to hear all about it.
To begin this interview, Sleigher, what is the Aviation Hall of Fame?
The South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame was established in 1991, and it honors pioneers and leaders in the aviation industry. You have to be nominated. Nominees have to be fliers—either pilots, as I am, or flight crew members. They also have to make a significant contribution to the development, advancement or promotion of aviation and they must have close ties to the State of South Carolina.
All nominees are reviewed very carefully by the Federal Aviation Administration or the Department of Aviation
Nominees have to be a good influence in promoting the state’s aviation industry, and have good ethical conduct.
You must also have a proven track record of responsibility toward your associates in the industry and community.
It’s a tremendous honor to be inducted.
Members must maintain a high level of respect within the state’s aviation community for service, performance, and public service.
I understand you have a new foundation that is related to aviation and serves law enforcement and the public. What is this foundation?
We have just started a new foundation called the Law Enforcement Aerial Surveillance Foundation. It’s a nonprofit organization that was created to provide efficient, multipurpose aircraft to law enforcement.
Why does law enforcement need aircraft?
That was a short question with a very complicated answer. Let’s start with some facts. I think all of us want to have good law enforcement protection. If you pick up the newspaper on any given day, you will see plenty of articles about crime and the dangers we face in society today. In 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, there were an estimated 18.7 million victims of violent and property crime in the U.S.
Can you explain this bad news and statistics?
There is actually the good news. This is a big drop from 20.1 million in 2009. But the point I want to make is that even though law enforcement is working diligently and succeeding in reducing the crime rates, we need to be sure that law enforcement can continue to do their job.
I think we know that our law enforcement agencies are diligent in protecting us, but the truth is, they could use some help. Think about it this way: We pay taxes that are used to support our need for public services. For example, we want to have immediate response from our fire departments when our house is burning. We want to be sure that our roads are maintained because no one wants to drive into a pothole. And we need law enforcement to be there when we call them for help.
But like the rest of us, law enforcement has to deal with the economy. What makes this worse is that law enforcement, like all government agencies, is having to cut back. Rather than laying people off, they have to cut expenses, which means they lose resources, cut back on shifts, or don’t fill open jobs.
We certainly don’t want to frighten our readers, however, one national article estimates that we have lost 12,000 police officers in the US in the last year.
The article says that there have been 30,000 jobs not filled. If you divide this by 50 states, that’s an average of 840 jobs either lost or not filled per state. If you divide that by 46 counties in South Carolina, you get an average 18.3 lost jobs for law enforcement in every county in our state. Let me say now that South Carolina is in better shape than a lot of other places, but we are still seeing cuts. That’s why we have to start planning for new or different ways to ensure that our law enforcement agencies have what they need to continue to serve and protect the public.
But we still have police officers who will respond to our calls?
Yes, we do, but remember there are many factors that affect their response. For example, here in Newberry, you may get a much faster response if you call for help if you live downtown or in the city limits. If you live further out in the county, it may take the police a while just to get to you. And, unfortunately it’s been my experience that by the time the police are able to respond to many calls, the bad guys are already gone.
This is where our organization comes in. We provide low-cost solutions for law enforcement, by providing aircraft that is custom built for their needs.
Do you sell airplanes to law enforcement agencies?
That’s not our intention. Our program is set up to help provide aircraft to law enforcement, and we accept public donations and corporate sponsorships to do this.
This is a way that members of the community can have a positive impact on community safety.
So, you take donations to help communities obtain these planes. That means that civic groups or the public or companies could work with you to obtain a plane for the local law enforcement agency to use.
That’s exactly right. Plus, we do a lot more than just get the plane for them.
Before you tell us about the planes, tell our readers how your foundation works.
We are incorporated as a nonprofit, charitable organization so people can donate to us and their contributions are tax deductible. We go into the community when asked and make presentations to civic groups, community or church groups, or corporations. We tell them about the planes, and what they are capable of doing.
We accept all kinds of donations, including financial or property, such as vehicles, and we will even take airplanes if anyone wants to donate one.
Individuals can also contribute their time and talent to help us get the word out, to talk about the program, and talk to local law enforcement.
When the funding is raised, do you buy the airplane and then fly it for law enforcement?
No. We work with law enforcement to order the airplane with the equipment that the local agency department needs. They might need cameras, or spotlights, or there may be other special equipment that they need. Then we train the pilots to fly the airplanes and operate the equipment and we put the planes into service.
The agency would select a law-enforcement officer that you would then train to fly this airplane. They could also select other personnel, even a volunteer like a state Constable or a retired military or commercial pilot who would be trained under their auspices to fly the plane. That’s also a big cost savings to law enforcement, having volunteers who are highly qualified to assist working from the air.
What can law enforcement do from the air?
They wouldn’t generally come to your house in a plane, although, if you lived in the country and had enough area where the plane could land, that’s a possibility. But there are many things that can be done very efficiently from an aerial unit. For example, we live in an area where there is tremendous growth occurring in the senior population. Just about a year ago, a gentleman wandered off right here in Newberry, because he had dementia. He was missing for several days, before he was found, lost in the woods.
He was dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion. If we had had the ability to search for him by air, he might have been found much sooner.
Don’t all law-enforcement agencies already use helicopters for this type of work?
Some agencies have had helicopters in the past, but as I am sure your readers know, the economy has been in really bad shape. As a result, there have been drastic budget cuts to all state agencies and our county and city governments as well. And helicopters are very expensive. It costs from 1million -4 million dollars to make that initial purchase for a helicopter.
Doesn’t the military give their surplus units to law enforcement?
Sometimes they do, but even if one is given to law enforcement such as from the Army or some other agency, the repair costs are prohibitive. You see, they don’t give new units to law enforcement. They give old models that may need a lot of work, repair, maintenance, and upkeep. And it is very expensive to operate a helicopter.
The expense of operating helicopter can be between $400 and $600 an hour, sometimes goes as high as $800 per hour. So, when agencies have to make cost cuts, they look for the most expensive item on the budget and either cut it drastically or eliminate it completely.
If I understand what you’re saying, our law enforcement has to cut back on helicopter use.
Right, and that’s only the counties or cities that already have the helicopters. Many of our local law enforcement agencies in smaller counties just don’t have the budget to spend to buy a helicopter, much less operate one.
These planes are much more economical and way under one million dollars. Actually, the cost to buy the plane, equip it, train the pilot, and put it in service is around $160 thousand dollars.
Compared to a helicopter, that is not very much money to buy a plane. This a fraction of the cost agencies have been paying for air support to protect our citizens, it is only a fraction of the cost.
You told us that it can cost up to $800 an hour to operate a helicopter? How much does it cost to operate the plane?
This is where the use of airplanes gets even better. These airplanes operate at around $25 an hour. If you look at the costs long term and amortize the expense over several years, these planes are actually cheaper than a patrol car to put into service.
Tell our readers a little more about these airplanes.
First of all, these are small planes. They are built using very durable and lightweight materials and advance technology. They have autopilot and cameras that can take digital pictures. They have GPS so that they can find locations easily and quickly.
And they allow officers to perform airborne surveillance that makes police protection much more available. These airplanes are very, very quiet.
That’s another excellent point. Unlike helicopters, these planes are extremely quiet. That is one of the things that make them an excellent deterrent to crime. You see, when criminals know there may be an airplane in the sky with two law-enforcement officers looking down at them that they cannot hear or see, they are less inclined to commit a criminal act.
These planes can perform vehicle pursuit, and help with traffic enforcement.
They can help locate stolen property or assist with Fish and wildlife surveys. They can provide DUI assists, help find fugitives, and conduct lost person searches.
The camera equipment on these planes is amazing. They can photograph a crime scene with great detail, using high resolution photography from high in the air. The pictures become evidence if law enforcement prosecutes a criminal. You know, a lot of people like all the crime shows on television. If you watch them, you know that they talk about “preserving the crime scene.” These aircraft actually help do that too.
You said that these airplanes help with criminal enforcement and that they can help with lost people searches as well. What else can they do?
Another thing that these planes can be used for is to assist in times of natural disaster when emergency support is needed. These planes can stay in the air a really long time. Remember some years ago when the train derailed in Graniteville? For a helicopter to provide air support, it was not only very expensive, but the helicopters could only stay in the air for about an hour and a half at a time. Then they had to go refuel. If law enforcement had been using these planes, the planes could have stayed in the air at the site for more than 6 hours at a time. The planes can also refuel locally because they use automotive fuel.
Another great thing about these airplanes is that they can land and take off in very short distances. They can land in the distance less than a football field and they can also be equipped to land on water. They do 95 percent of what a helicopter can do. They just can’t land or take off vertically. And, better yet, they don’t need special fuel. They use automobile fuel.
This seems like a great idea and a great project for a community or organization to take on as a project.
We think it’s a great idea and a wonderful community action project. Another reason we came up with the idea is because criminals often go after our most vulnerable population. In South Carolina that means they may go after our seniors.
You know, our senior citizens have worked their whole lives to support our communities and we need to ensure that they can age well and safely. We all deserve to live safely and to be protected and enjoy our lives. This is a way we can help law enforcement help us.
How can citizens contact you for further information on the LEASF foundation, or how they can make a donation?
People can contact LEASF at 803-730-5961. We are always happy to talk to them about our program or arrange to come speak to their groups or businesses. They can also check us out and donate to us on line at our website at www.LEASF.