The Ripon police department can’t afford a $1 or $2 million helicopter.
But a “flying go-cart” for aerial searches and perimeter checks? It’s already in the sky.

“What kid doesn’t want to go up in a flying go-cart?” asked a big kid, Sgt. Steve Merchant, one of two licensed pilots of “Air One” for the Ripon police.

The San Joaquin Valley city of 15,000 operates a powered parachute, on loan for rural law enforcement testing from the U.S. Justice Department, to deploy quickly wherever it might help to gain the perspective from 1,000 feet or lower. (See video here)

On Sept. 10, in a mutual aid call to nearby Manteca, the powered parachute helped locate a burglar who had taken several shotguns and jewelry from a retirement subdivision. The burglar was hiding in dense field of corn seven feet high, police said.

“That suspect understood that corn was good cover but it was only good cover from the sides (where Manteca police on foot had a perimeter),” said Manteca Police Public Affairs Officer Rex Osborn. “From the top, you can see things better.”

Sgt. Merchant, piloting the low-tech aircraft, had the view from above, communicating with the perimeter watchers by police radio.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Osborn. “Sometimes the simplest equipment is the best equipment,” he added, comparing the powered parachute to other basics that haven’t changed much over the years such as personal firearms carried by police and handcuffs.

“Would we some day look at (buying a powered parachute)? Absolutely,” said Osborn, adding that there are no such plans in the immediate future.

The Department of Justice’s Aviation Technology program is testing powered parachutes at a handful of small and rural departments around the country. Ripon, with 24 sworn officers, is the only testing site in California, said Merchant, Ripon’s investigations supervisor.

The craft itself is estimated at $19,000, with several thousand dollars worth of gear, including a trailer and a Global Position System device. The cost of training brings the federal investment in Ripon’s system to about $30,000. Ripon police make monthly reports to the Department of Justice on its use.

Weighing 412 pounds without a pilot, the powered parachute has a 65-horsepower engine, comparable to a snowmobile. It has two seats, but normally goes up with a solo pilot, Merchant said. Steering is by foot control, so on a calm day the pilot’s hands are free to, say, take a digital photo from the air.

The Ripon police usually take off from a nearby rec soccer field. From getting the call to getting airborne takes 20 to 30 minutes, Merchant said – driving to the soccer field, unloading the craft out of a trailer, starting it and deploying the parachute.

It can take off in less than 100 feet of horizontal distance. It cruises at 5 or 6 miles per hour.

The parachute is stored in a bag alongside the aircraft. As the pilot warms the engine, he lays out the parachute to make sure lines are straight. He fills up air cells within the parachute that create lift by puffing the chute out – “like a dragster,” Merchant said.

On a calm day, said Merchant, “It’s like being in a lawnchair at a thousand feet.”

“Air One” doesn’t fly at night. Sometimes pilots get airborne and determine the wind is too gusty and take it right back down. “Above 15 miles per hour (wind speed), we won’t fly it,” Merchant said.

In recent years, budget tightening took the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department helicopter out of action. The nearest helicopter available to Ripon is from the California Highway Patrol office in Sacramento, 90 miles distant.
A helicopter costs $1,200 to $1,500 an hour to maintain. The powered parachute, running on standard gasoline, is estimated at $30 an hour, and Merchant suspects that estimate is a little high.

Ripon police, who have been using Air One for 14 months, think it’s a major factor in a decline in daytime burglaries in recent years. The police help the word get around on the criminal grapevine by deploying the powered parachute overhead when they knock on a door to check on a parolee or probationer. They point out the aircraft’s utility to the parolee, Merchant said.  

Several months ago a woman in her sixties and her grandson were tubing in the Stanislaus River. There was a puncture and the grandmother was in the river from her chest down for two hours in an area of high banks and remote access. The woman, a retired physical therapist, knew she was in the beginning stage of hypothermia.

The powered parachute located the tubers and directed a fire rescue boat to the remote location, Merchant said.

“We’ve had dozens of other successes on a small scale,” Merchant said.

Residents were reporting a foul smell in a dense underbrush stretch of the river but responders couldn’t find anything on foot. The powered parachute found a ravine where someone had dumped some dead cattle, and animal control was called.

One was taking aerial photos to go with evidence in a murder trial for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office. Air One also provides support of patrol cars on local roads.

The “flying go-cart” is a popular police display at community festivals. Kids want to climb into the pilot’s seat.

“If and when the government takes it back, we are definitely looking at the possibility of purchasing one,” said Merchant after discussions with acting Chief Ed Ormonde. Merchant and Ormonde are the two trained pilots in the Ripon department.