Friday, November 18, 2011
Michigan made aircraft used to protect U.S. borders
HASTINGS, Mich. (WZZM) -- The federal government estimates roughly 1,600 tons of illegal drugs cross the Mexican border into the United States every year. One West Michigan company is hoping to help lead the charge in protecting US borders and create jobs here in Michigan while doing so.
"The mission of our company is to manufacture aircraft that costs less than a patrol car," said Craig Ewing, president and CEO of Silver Lining Aviation.
The company has been around for five years. Ewing says early this year, at the request of Homeland Security, he participated in a study for the southwest border counties and Border Patrol to see how the aircraft they manufacture in their Hastings plant would would help catch criminals.
"I started on January 15th in New Orleans and hit every county, the 28 counties, in between the southern tip of Texas all the way around to California. I met with 28 sheriff's and 22 border stations and gave demonstration flight in the aircraft and in every single case there wasn't a county that didn't say they love this thing," said Ewing.
The "thing" he is talking about is called a light sport aircraft (LSA) which looks to be about the size and weight of a golf cart. But Ewing says don't let its small size be deceiving.
"With this aircraft actually you could take off and go from here to New York. The top speed on this is about 140 miles per hour. It runs on regular car gas as opposed to Jet A fuel. So it is considerably cheaper to fly than any other aircraft that is out there. We can go about 450 miles on 15 gallons of gas. You can shut the engine off at 10,000 feet and land as soft and easy on the ground as any other aircraft by design. So yeah, it is extremely efficient and extremely safe," said Ewing.
He the planes can be used for recreational flying but he's marketing them to help fulfill a more important mission. He wants to make them available to law enforcement around the country to help protect our borders.
"We all know flying from the sky you have much better visibility than you do on the ground you see it all the time," said Ewing.
According to Ewing "only 20% of the country has law enforcement aerial coverage from the state police or a major metro area. The traditional helicopters or fixed wing aircraft that are used today for law enforcement are on average 16 years old, burn Jet A fuel, cost somewhere between $600 to $1,500 per hour to operate with a highly skilled pilot. Not to mention a mechanic, hanger space, and insurance. The cost of acquiring a single helicopter is in excess of 1 million."
He says their aircraft, of which they make several models, operates for $25 on the low side and no more than $50 per hour to operate. They use regular car gas that costs considerably less, can be flown with an on duty officer and can typically be deployed from a trailer in approximately 20 minutes.
"The goal of my company is to keep the cost of an airborne asset less than a fully equipped patrol car at $75,000," he said.
Ewing has video of demonstration flight he took along the Arizona-Mexican border with a drug task force officer with the Cochise County (AZ) Sheriff's Department. As he started his final pass over the area Ewing noticed several bundles of something along the canyons.
"What happens is the canyon here is where the illegals come across and they move the drug loads up through those canyons so they can't be seen by the unmanned aircraft and the cameras that are along the border," said Ewing as he starts to describe what's seen in the video.
"Off to the right I look and say hey John are those bundles off to the right at 3 o'clock. As you can see this is a deputy from Cochise County. In a second here you are going to see the bundles start coming across. There is one, two, three, four, five, six. These are bales of cocaine and marijuana. He pats me on the back and says 'good job man. We have to get down as close as we possibly can.' That is what makes this aircraft so great. It is basically an ATV that flies."
Ewing says they landed 20 feet away from the first bundle and recovered 10 bales of cocaine and marijuana.
"It was worth almost about $2 million. That was 220 pounds off the street. Now if a guy from Michigan with absolutely no training on how to find drugs in the desert can pull in a load within 2 hours of a flight. I think we have a problem on the border with drugs coming across," said Ewing.
Ewing says whether police are looking for drugs, illegal immigrants, car thieves or missing persons nothing is better than the light sport aircraft when it comes to covering large areas with limited resources.
"I currently have a proposal in for Homeland Security right now which would mean building 13,000 of these aircraft. This could provide significant job growth here in West Michigan," said Ewing.
However, he says his company has run into stumbling blocks.
"Where we struggle is getting the Federal Government to give the states the funding needed for the technology we provide. For example there are Grants out that do provide funding to border counties but they do not include modern technology like our aircraft," he said. "Of the 16,000 counties across the nation there is not a single Sheriff that's going to tell you they have the budget they need and they don't have a problem with crime in their county."
He says despite the evidence that shows how efficient and cost effective his aircraft are, the federal government is slow to recognize them as "a viable technology communities could use" and as such they do not qualify for federal grants that would make them affordable for local law enforcement agencies.
at 10:11 AM