During an open house for local law enforcement officials Wednesday at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, Sgt. Craig VanBerkom showed several grainy, infrared surveillance videos shot in shades of gray.
"The plane gives you a different perspective," he said as about 30 invitees watched a white thermal image of a person whom police were chasing suddenly materialize in the middle of a darkened cornfield.
State police moved the flying unit that covers the 36-county region of Southern Illinois -- including St. Clair and Madison counties -- from Carbondale to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in December.
Flying a Cessna 182 series single-engine plane, the two-man unit will be available to support local law enforcement agencies with manhunts, surveillance, marijuana eradication efforts, aerial photography, missing persons searches and airspeed checks. The officers will be on duty Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"This aircraft is a testament to the dedication and willingness to supply safe, reliable air support to the counties and citizens of Illinois," said Lt. Col. Richard Woods, who oversees the 41-county state police region that encompasses the area south of Springfield.
Explaining why the agency decided to move the unit, Woods said: "This is a larger population here, so close to the St. Louis area with more people and more police agencies."
The central location, he added, will lead to faster response times.
Law enforcement officials were impressed by the presentation.
"We can envision using them on special tactics with our drug units and in cases of vehicle hijackings, which we're having a rash of right now," said East St. Louis Police Lt. Col. Bobby Cole.
Air Operations Unit officers use some of the latest crime-fighting technology, including night-vision goggles, stabilized binoculars, digital cameras and portable CD burners. They can feed live video from the plane to squad car video monitors or to officers in the field using portable monitors.
Operating on an annual budget of nearly $500,000, the statewide Air Operations Unit includes 13 officers, five single-engine planes and one twin-engine plane.
By the end of the summer, the 5-year-old plane stationed at MidAmerica should be equipped with an infrared video camera and spotlight for use during night searches.
Woods said the agency would like to purchase another fully-equipped plane for this region at a cost of $775,000. Officials also want to expand the crew to run an afternoon shift.
Master Sgt. Jeff Regan, the air unit commander, said local agencies must call his office in Springfield to request assistance with a project and to schedule time with the plane. With only five planes to cover the entire state, requests for help are prioritized so that the most urgent needs are met first, he said.