RIPON — Look up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane.
No, it's the Ripon Police Department's powered parachute, an aircraft able to search for missing children and lost river rafters in a single bound.
The U.S. Justice Department is loaning the aircraft to the Ripon department as part of a program that provides smaller law enforcement agencies with equipment and technology.
The aircraft looks like a two-seat go-cart with a big fan at its rear. As it motors down the runway, the parachute fills with air and the craft becomes airborne. Ripon's powered parachute can fly as high at 1,000 feet, but officers plan to fly at 700 to 800 feet.
The aircraft will give Ripon police a bird's-eye view of crime, traffic and public safety hazards. The pilots can help officers in searches for missing people, crime scene investigations and traffic control.
"There's a lot of things we can do for just about anybody," said Lt. Ed Ormonde, one of two officers trained to go up in the powered parachute. "We don't know all the possibilities yet."
Ripon police received the aircraft last month. Already, it has been used to find an abandoned marijuana growing operation along the Stanislaus River east of town. The aircraft also has taken aerial photos of a crime scene.
Ormonde said Ripon also wants to provide information to other public safety agencies such as fire departments. He said they will be able use the aircraft to assess the size of a fire, its location, and the quickest and safest route for firefighters to get to the blaze.
The $22,000 powered parachute was provided by the federal Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center program. Ormonde said the total package was valued at $30,000 and included the aircraft's trailer, pilot training and other equipment.
Department covers the gas
He said the department pays only for fuel to operate the aircraft — unleaded gasoline the pilots buy at a local gas station.
Ormonde and police Sgt. Steve Merchant are the only officers trained to pilot the aircraft. But the department plans to train other officers.
It costs Ripon police about $30 an hour to fly the powered parachute. That's a lot less than a helicopter or an airplane, which can cost as much as $1,500 an hour to operate, Ormonde said.
He said there are six other powered parachutes in the country that are used for public safety, and Ripon is the only law enforcement agency in California that has one.
The aircraft has global positioning system and a radio for the pilot to communicate with dispatchers. The department hopes to attach a public address system to speak to people on the ground as well as a video camera so dispatchers can see what the pilots see.
The powered parachute has a 10-gallon gas tank, enough for about two hours of flight. Ormonde said the aircraft can fly about 35 mph in calm weather and about 13 mph facing a head wind.
Ormonde said a pilot can fly the aircraft with the wind faster than 10 mph, but it's not recommended.
Ripon police will not use the aircraft if the wind is 15 mph or faster; it's too dangerous and the pilot would not be able to direct the aircraft.
"The chute wants to blow with the wind," Ormonde said. "With wind gusts, it will rock you side to side, like a pendulum."
He said one person can get the aircraft ready for takeoff, but it's a lot faster and easier for two people. It can take off within 20 minutes, he said, but the goal is to do it within 15 minutes.
Can take off from park
The aircraft weighs about 400 pounds, can carry two officers and can take off within 100 yards. In an emergency, the pilot can use one of the city's parks or a school campus as a runway.
For now, Ormonde said, the plan is to use the soccer field at Mistlin Sports Park in Ripon for takeoffs and landings.
Ormonde served four years in the Air Force, maintaining F-15 fighter jets. He plans on taking a certified mechanics course, at his own expense, so he can make any repairs on the powered parachute.
Merchant said he once took the controls of his uncle's small plane for a few minutes. Other than that, he never had piloted an aircraft before he flew the powered parachute.
He said flying the aircraft has brought a new perspective to his work.
"I'm just an old street cop," Merchant said. "And when you're a police officer you want the best view you can get. And with this, you see everything."
He said they can see entire neighborhoods in the search for a missing child or drop in low to check on an abandoned raft in secluded areas along the Stanislaus River.
"It's kind of like using Google Earth (online maps), but in real time," Merchant said. "We routinely see eagles flying next to us."
Merchant and Ormonde say they will not incur overtime pay if they are called to pilot the aircraft. They also said they spent their money to buy a wind meter and duffel bags to carry their gear.
"We really believe in this program," Merchant said. "We're willing to do whatever it takes to get it off the ground."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.