Colorado State Patrol uses airplanes to monitor car speeds along US Highway 40
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Drivers heading eastbound might notice a sign on the right side of U.S. Highway 40 just before the final straightaway outside city limits: “Speed Checked by Aircraft.”
They also might wonder if aircraft actually monitor their speed.
“They do indeed,” said Josh Lewis, a trooper with Colorado State Patrol, the agency that oversees the state’s aerial enforcement unit.
State Patrol operates a fleet of four turbo-charged aircraft, each with its own pilot who assists troopers with traffic enforcement. This is unique among other states, which primarily use helicopters.
While the planes mostly monitor vehicle speed, they also have been used in more intense situations, like finding felons on the run.
This is not a new practice, either. Troopers have patrolled the skies above state highways since the late 1960s.
It works like this: Those aircraft-monitoring signs delineate the beginning of an aerial speed-check zone. Each half-mile after that sign is marked with a white line several feet wide on the shoulder of the highway. Pilots use these marks to measure vehicle speed.
When a driver is suspected of speeding, the pilot will time how long it takes the vehicle to travel between two of the white marks and then calculate its speed. If the speed exceeds the limit, the pilot will notify a trooper on the ground. The trooper then identifies the vehicle, flips on the rooftop lights and pulls the car over.
Lewis said he often gets an open-mouthed response when he tells drivers that a plane was watching them.
“Not everybody believes us,” he said.
Most of the time, troopers can point out the planes to skeptical drivers. The planes typically cruise at an altitude of 1,000 to 1,500 feet to make it easy to spot wrongdoers. By comparison, light aircraft without pressurized cabins usually travel at an altitude of 10,000 feet, according to a report by USA Today.
In more mountainous areas, State Patrol pilots fly at higher elevations.
Colorado’s fluctuating terrain makes airplanes the most efficient aerial monitoring vehicle, as opposed to the helicopters that other states favor.
And just because a driver slows down after seeing a State Patrol car doesn’t mean he or she will dodge a ticket. While the trooper on the roadside might not have seen anything, any violations that the pilot saw are enough to justify a citation.
Capt. Matthew Secor flew military helicopters for the U.S. Army before joining the State Patrol. He worked as a pilot in the aircraft section from 1998 until 2017, the last 12 years of which he was State Patrol’s chief pilot.
Each year, pilots assist in about 5,000 citations, he said.
Secor got a bird’s-eye view at some interesting cases during his tenure.
In summer 1998, he helped pursue three men who killed Cortez police officer Dale Claxton. The infamous search mobilized more than 75 law enforcement agencies as well as the Army’s Special Forces.
One of Secor’s more comic memories from his pilot days is of a man who got pulled over twice for speeding while driving to California. The first time, a trooper stopped the man in Denver. The second time, Secor was flying over De Beque Canyon when he clocked the same vehicle hurtling around the tight turns. He notified a trooper on the ground.
When the trooper pulled the man over and told him that a pilot had caught him speeding, the man scoffed.
He replied, “What do troopers in Utah have — a submarine?”