At 1,500 feet in the air, Colorado State Patrol pilot Ryan Carlson can spot a lot of dangerous drivers on the state's highways.
Carlson, a sworn trooper, is one of five pilots in the State Patrol's aircraft section, and a big part of his job is speed enforcement - from the air.
He sees a lot of speeders, tailgaters and weavers during his daily traffic operations.
"I look for anything that just shocks my conscience," he said while gliding above Pikes Peak International Raceway in a single-engine Cessna 182.
His eyes were focused on bugsize cars driving on a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 25 below him.
"My eye is naturally attracted to anything that's moving out of place," he said.
He pointed out an example.
"There's a white car coming just under my wing right there," Carlson said, looking down at the southbound lanes of the highway. "You can see how he just passed that truck, how fast it's moving compared to the truck.
"It's really easy to pick out those drivers."
Minutes later, he spotted a silver car and had quickly grabbed one of two digital stopwatches attached to his yoke. Carlson banked his plane in a sharp turn to track it.
He started the time on the stopwatch as the car passed a white strip painted on the southbound shoulder of the highway and stopped it as the car passed another mark a half-mile away. Carlson clocked it at 88 mph; the driver had traveled between the marks in just about 20.5 seconds.
A trooper on the ground was waiting to catch up with the driver and issue a citation. Carlson tracked the car as it approached the trooper.
"Just coming under PPIR bridge right now. . No. 2 in the left lane."
A beat of time passed.
"All right. Out your left door."
Within seconds of receiving detailed information about the driver's behavior from Carlson, the trooper pulled out, flipped on his lights, ran the plates and issued a ticket.
At the same time the trooper in the ground was doing his part, Carlson confirmed he was behind the right car and provided more details about the violation.
"The SUV was traveling half way on the shoulder, and then when it saw you, it weaved halfway into the left lane, back into the right lane, and then over to the left lane," Carlson reported.
"Gotcha," the trooper said and then radioed up the plate number for Carlson to write down.
Those details are important, Carlson said, not just because he might use them in traffic court but also because he wants people to understand what led to the citation.
"A lot of times people don't understand the airplanes," he said. "They don't understand how we clock them with stopwatches and distance and time and how that formula works," he said. "I always give (troopers) the opportunity to explain everything so people understand what I do.
"It really helps because people really just think we're magic up here."
Looking for speed
It might come as a shock to many Colorado drivers, but the "speed checked by aircraft" signs that dot the highways are telling the truth:
Someone is really up there watching.
Drivers may be unaware and even skeptical, but this type of enforcement is not unique to Colorado, and it's not new. Troopers have patrolled the airspace above state highways since the 1960s.
"We're really trying to find the most aggressive drivers that are on the highway," said Colorado State Patrol Capt. Matt Secor, a former Army pilot who oversees the State Patrol's aerial enforcement unit.
"We want to get those guys that are just menaces to people," he added. "We don't get them all, but we try."
Weather permitting, the unit conducts about 1,000 hours of traffic enforcement every year, he said, The unit tries to put two of their three single-engine Cessna patrol planes in the air every day, and on days where pilots don't go up, they're assigned patrol duties on the ground.
Two planes are stationed in the Denver-metro area, and another is based in Grand Junction, but they patrol the entire state, Secor said.
"Typically, we will be over an area for about three hours to do enforcement," he said. "Sometimes we'll hit multiple locations in one day."
Last year, state troopers wrote 127,910 citations, the State Patrol reported.
In a good year, the aerial enforcement unit assists with around 5,000 of those, Secor said.
That's a small number in the grand scheme of things, but it's not meant to be an all-encompassing solution, he said. The aircraft unit, which is budgeted to operate on about $400,000 a year, is one tool in a public safety toolbox designed to change drivers' attitudes, he said.
"Since speed is a leading cause of crashes, we find areas where drivers consistently violate the law and cruise well above the posted limits on their daily commutes," State Patrol spokesman Capt. Jeff Goodwin said in an email. "Anything we can do to get voluntary compliance from drivers and reduce injury crashes is what it is all about."
Secor has seen problem areas get better.
"Years ago, we had a problem with the Fourth of July celebrations at Granby Reservoir. I was the pilot over in Grand Junction," he said.
For two years, the State Patrol cracked down on reckless holiday drivers. By year three, Secor said, "you couldn't buy a contact."
It was the same story for traffic enforcement operations on U.S. 24 north of Colorado Springs.
"We hit it really hard for 90 days, then it dried up," Secor said. "We made enough contacts, and we were able to change the attitudes of the folks up there driving."
A bird's-eye view
Aerial troopers get a more complete picture of what's happening on the roads, Carlson said.
In the air, he can identify the kind of driving behavior that leads to crashes, stems from intoxication or even medical issues, he said. In two years of flying, Carlson said, he has witnessed two drivers have heart attacks, and because of his vantage point from the sky, the trooper was able to radio for help as soon as he realized something was wrong.
When a pilot is in the air, a speeder who hits the brakes when they spot a trooper on the side of the road won't necessarily dodge a ticket, either. While the trooper on the ground might not have observed wrongdoing, a pilot in the air might have watched the same driver commit a string of violations.
Carlson makes sure he gives that information, and more, to the trooper on the ground.
"That way, when the (driver) starts to argue and says, 'No, that wasn't me. You have the wrong car, I was in the right lane the whole time,' the trooper can go, 'No, you were in the left lane, that's when the trooper clocked you at 90 in the airplane. Then you were following too closely, then you moved to the right lane to pass, then you saw me and slowed down,'?" Carlson said. "When (the trooper) can describe the whole thing to him, the (driver) knows I gave him the right car."
From hundreds of feet in the air, pilots can also keep an eye out for fire hot spots, illegal marijuana grows, stolen property and even freshly buried bodies, Carlson said.
"You'd be surprised how easy it is to spot where dirt has been dug up from the air," he said.
They also assist with aerial photographs of crime scenes and pileups and have helped search for cars that have crashed into embankments or valleys.
And while the planes aren't equipped to do speed enforcement at night, pilots have plenty to keep them busy after the sun goes down. Troopers look out for street racing operations in metro areas, track stolen vehicles with a LoJack system installed in the plane and, when the situation warrants, fly over suspects during a foot chase.
A resource for the state
Several years ago, when the pilots weren't tracking criminals, they were helping wildlife officials track dwindling lynx populations. They frequently work with geology officials to enforce mining permits because they can see if mining operations are staying within their allowable acreage.
In addition to the three single-engine Cessnas used for patrol, the State Patrol's aircraft section is made up of a dual-engine Cessna 340 and a Beechcraft King Air twin engine that seats up to eight people. The two bigger planes, available 24 hours a day, are used to transport officials with various state agencies, including the governor.
The on-call air pool services run about $500 an hour for the bigger plane and about $250 for the smaller plane, Secor said. The services are available only to state agencies.
Pilots often transport officials who need to quickly get to the scene of a crime. Sometimes they escort a high-profile inmate who is too dangerous to transport on the roads.
"I've had some of the very worst people who've done things you can't even imagine on the plane," Secor said. "This year, we've had three so far."
Until recently, the pilots have also transported doctors, including oncologist Mike Glode with University of Colorado Cancer Center, who has flown to treat patients in Montrose and Alamosa through the hospital's community engagement program. For more than a decade, the program has allowed Glode and other doctors to travel to rural hospitals, where they provided specialty care and access to clinical trials for patients who would otherwise not have access to it.
Hospitals in both areas have since hired oncologists, Glode said, but when they used the State Patrol program, doctors from University of Colorado Hospital flew down monthly to help fill the void.
"Although we try to provide expertise and care for the whole state, it's very hard to take three days off and drive to Montrose," Glode said. "When you can go to the airport at 5 in the morning and get back at 6 at night, it's a lot easier."
Without access to the planes, he said, the hospital's involvement in the program would have been limited and doctors would not have had the manpower to conduct clinical trials with more than a dozen cancer patients from that part of the state.
"Patrol is big into assisting other agencies," Carlson said. "We like to be behind the scenes helping out as much as we can."
"Anything we can use an airplane for, chances are, we've used it for that," he said.