WILMINGTON – The Wilmington Police Department presented to the council Monday on the value of the Southeastern NC Air-Borne Law Enforcement (SABLE) aviation unit for the city and surrounding areas.
In 2020 the aviation unit flew a total of 264 hours, a slight increase from the previous year.
In 2012 and 2013, the numbers of hours flown were in the 400s but for the next several years, the usage dropped off to the low 200s.
“They were up there a while, and they’re starting to climb again,” Assistant Chief of Police David Oyler said in the meeting.
The SABLE aviation unit consists of the Wilmington and Leland police departments and the New Hanover County and Pender County sheriffs’ offices.
The team has two full-time pilots – one with Wilmington Police Department and one with New Hanover Sheriff’s Office – as well as two full-time tactical flight officers from each agency who communicate with ground units from the air.
Currently, the unit is training a second internal mechanic to save up to $25,000 a year on maintenance of the two 1970s model helicopters.
“We can keep inspection costs and things like that down by doing it on site and in house, and it keeps an aircraft there readily available to use when needed,” Oyler said.
Between June and December, the SABLE unit flew drones in response to 34 calls. The drone unit has five licensed and mission qualified operators and runs under a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing the officers to fly at night and within the airspace of Wilmington International Airport.
From the inception of the program in 2008 to 2020, the unit responded to 4,433 calls, found 94 people and directly assisted with an arrest in about 1,000 calls.
The positive assist rate from 2019 to 2020 jumped from 39% to 54%. Oyler said it is likely higher than that, though, as the department does “err on the side of caution” and is selective about what is counted as effective.
Oyler shared with the councilors two success stories from the previous year. In one case, SABLE rescued a missing kayaker who was stuck in a Pender County marsh for two hours. Pilots were able to find him through aerial observation and direct ground units to his location.
In another instance, a dangerous and wanted suspect jumped into a car as officers were attempting his arrest and led authorities into a chase.
“He was driving erratically, putting the public in danger, putting officers at risk,” Oyler said. “The officers pulled back, said, ‘We can follow him from the air and see where he’s at.’ It’s kind of hard to outrun an aircraft.”
Once the suspect was in a place that was safe from the public, officers were able to take him into custody without an incident.
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