By Cpl. Ken Turner
It all began back in 1946 with one seaplane and a crew of officers dedicated to protecting Maryland's natural resources. Over time, the faces and the equipment have changed, but the dedication to the work has not. The officers of the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) Aviation Section, based at the Easton Airport in Talbot County, are tasked with enforcing the state's natural resource laws just as any other officers would - only from 1,000 feet above the ground.
While the aviation crew has grown in nearly 50 years to include three light helicopters and one twin-engine airplane, what really makes the unit "fly" is its people. The staff consists of two pilots, Sgt. Brian Martin and Cpl. John Buchanan, a civilian mechanic, Mr. Greg Lantz, and three NRP Reserve Officers.
Sgt. Brian Martin is a military-trained pilot with active duty experience. He received a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Daytona Beach, and before joining the NRP he flew for the Baltimore County Police Department. Martin recently returned from a 16-month stint in Iraq.
Cpl. John Buchanan also has a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Buchanan started his career with DNR as a civilian mechanic for the Aviation Section in 1993, and in 1996 became a Natural Resources Police Officer. In 1999, he returned to the Aviation Section as a pilot.
When asked to state the main mission of the Aviation Section, both pilots said conservation law enforcement. And what does conservation law enforcement entail from the cockpit of a Bell Jet Ranger? Their assignments vary as much as the laws and regulations they enforce. Morning may find them watching commercial clammers to make sure they harvest in designated areas only. Next, they might swing by some pound net sites to keep an eye out for striped bass violations. Later that same day, they may be back up in the air, checking waterfowl hunting activity.
The type of missions the crew flies depends on the activity. On the water, there are fishing regulations to be enforced, both commercial and recreational. Commercial fisherman work many different areas and harvest a wide variety of species. Clams, oysters, crabs and finfish all require different methods of harvesting, and each method involves a different type of gear and designated area of harvest. Compared to an officer on the water, the aviation crew has two advantages: speed and a birds-eye view. Once a violation is detected, the crew stays on the scene, directing an officer in a patrol boat to the violator.
One of NRP's primary responsibilities is ensuring boating safety. The aviation section plays a big part in that mission with patrols covering the Chesapeake Bay and other state waterways, on the lookout for reckless and intoxicated boaters. Again, the crew has the advantage of sight and speed. There are quite a few high performance vessels on the waterways that can outrun a patrol boat but not many, if any, can outrun a helicopter. The goal is not only to catch the violator but also to stop a violation before an accident happens and someone is injured... or worse.
Hunting is another area of enforcement where the aviation crew has the upper hand. Aerial patrols are conducted to seek out violations such as hunting on closed areas, field baiting (an illegal practice to lure migratory game birds into an area), and poaching and hunting over the bag limit, in safety zones or at night (jacklighting).
Jacklighting is a particularly dangerous practice: A person shines a light into a field or wooded area to illuminate deer which, temporarily blinded by the bright light, are then shot. The violator has total disregard for the backdrop of his target.
The aviation crew owns the night. With their thermal imagery, night vision goggles and 30 million candlepower search light, those out to break natural resources laws can run but they can't hide.
Other aviation responsibilities include flying wildlife and fishery surveys, personnel transport and aerial photography. As stated earlier, conservation is the aviation section's main mission but their work doesn't stop there. Other state and federal agencies also rely on the crew's expertise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI, U.S. Customs and the Secret Service are just a few of the law enforcement agencies this section has assisted. Their assignments vary from transporting investigators and extradited fugitives, to marijuana eradication flights and maritime drug smuggling surveillance, to assisting the Maryland Film Commission or Maryland Public Television's Outdoors Maryland crew.
When asked about their most rewarding moments, Sgt. Martin remembered the rescue of two lost hunters and their 8-week-old puppy in Dorchester County. By the time the hunters were reported missing, it was late in the day, the sky was black and the temperature was below freezing. Patrol boats could not reach the hunters because of icy conditions. Sgt. Martin landed the helicopter on the marsh and Ofc. Mark Wright led the two hunters and puppy to the safety of the helicopter.
Cpl. Buchanan didn't have a rescue story that could top the puppy; instead he spoke solemnly of the many body recoveries that he has been a part of. While recovering the body of a victim of a tragic accident is stressful and often difficult work, it is a profound act of compassion that cannot be underestimated and is deeply appreciated by grieving family members.
Their most exiting moments are assisting fellow officers in the enforcement of state and federal laws. In one case, a jacklighting detection was going slowly and all were about to call it a night when a pickup truck pulled into the field where an NRP officer was set up. The truck lit the field, the officer tripped the emergency lights and the chase was on. As the truck started to put some distance between himself and the ground units, the aviation crew closed in. Their helicopter continued to follow the truck to a house where two subjects were observed jumping out and running into the house. The pilots directed the ground units into the scene. It wasn't until the violators were apprehended that the crew realized their pursuit had taken them into Delaware.
Which brings up another interesting fact about the aviation section. They routinely assist officials in our neighboring states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Delaware. They have flown assignments from Maine to Florida and as far west as the Mississippi. Service-wise, they are right were they should be. While their missions take them to most of the state's more rural areas, the majority of their calls come from the Eastern Shore because of all the waterways.
Is there anything the aviation crew doesn't do? In the words of Sgt. Martin, "We are limited only by our imaginations and the limitations of the aircraft." On land, water or in the air, always in keeping with the NRP tradition -- Protect and Serve.
Cpl. Kenneth B. Turner is an Information Officer with Maryland's Natural Resources Police. Ken provided the photo for this article.
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