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For these flying police, there's always another speeder.

Sky Cops

It's a bright spring morning on a recent Friday. Cars, trucks and vans that look as tiny as matchboxes file north along I-95, heading out of Richmond. Sun glints off their rooftops and into two pairs of eyes watching from the sky.

A blue car, passing a couple of RVs, seems to be going a little fast. It catches the attention of State Trooper Mike Clark. He can see it clearly from his vantage point a thousand feet above the traffic in a single-engine Cessna.

"He just might be a keeper," Clark says to his partner, State Trooper Sgt. Kerry L. Stiles. In less than 20 seconds, Stiles confirms it from the plane's back seat. The blue car is traveling 81 mph in a 65-mph zone. In moments, a trooper on I-95 has pulled over the driver of the blue car. Busted.

That's one down for the Virginia State Police Aviation Unit. There are many more to go.

Clark and Stiles move on to their next target. A cool breeze brushes the top of Clark's buzzed hair. The plane's engine hums. The propeller is a blur. Through a pair of sunglasses, Stiles gazes out the window. "What a beautiful day," he says.

The state police have used planes like this one for 17 years to do such things as chase suspects and look for missing people. But it wasn't until a little more than a year ago that the General Assembly approved their use to catch speeders. Clusters of three white lines, each a quarter-mile apart, were painted like stripes across highways around the state. Some cops got special training. By June 2000, warning signs were erected: "Speed Enforced by Aircraft."

Immediately, the police say, the program proved effective. There are four flying-police units across the state. From July until the end of April, police planes have gone up 136 times and caught 1,545 speeders. The local aerial unit has pulled over 408 speeders in its 33 flights.

"I love it," Stiles says. "It's a different tool that allows you to get people that you normally wouldn't get by radar."

Today's outing started before 8 a.m. at the Hanover County Airport. The forecast predicts an 80-degree day, but this early it's only 55. A chilly wind hits Stiles, 40, and Clark, 44, as they stride across the tarmac in matching blues. Virginia State Police badges are sewn on their upper sleeves. They each wear a cap and sunglasses. They're chewing Big Red gum.

Stiles climbs into the back of the white Cessna 182 that will be his office for the next three hours. Clark, a 20-year pilot, settles into the front behind the controls. It's snug; the plane is 28 feet from nose to tail, and carries only four people at a time. There's no air conditioning, either.

Clark and Stiles fasten their seatbelts. They put on headsets that allow them to talk to each other and their fellow troopers on the ground. Clark starts the plane, and by 8:06 he's heading south down the runway. He lifts off and climbs to between 1,000 and 1,500 feet. He flies over subdivisions in Hanover, past the Rebel Yell at Paramount's Kings Dominion and ends up in an area above Exit 98.

Stiles shares the back seat with a simple computer he's brought along. It's called the VASCAR-Plus III — a Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder. To work it, he holds a box the size of a deck of cards, which has a toggle switch marked "On" and "Off." A cord connects it to a machine, mounted on plywood, that measures time and distance. When a car crosses one line, Stiles flips the switch up to "On." When it crosses the next, he flips it down to "Off." A red LCD immediately registers the car's speed.

"All right," Stiles says. "Let's go to work."

Stiles and Clark will have help, of course. After they spot a speeder, they will keep their eyes on the vehicle until they can direct one of three troopers on the ground to it. Available troopers, waiting in a median crossover, are considered "in the hole."

Clark guides the plane through a counterclockwise circle pattern they'll trace for three hours, banking left at a 30- to 40-degree angle. They settle into a 90-mph airspeed. Around and around, they pass the Circuit City warehouse and the Bear Island Paper Co. They stare out the left window.

And they pick them off one after another, with ease: A green bus, 76 mph. A red car, 84. A white van, 82. After they tag a speeder, they send a trooper. After troopers write the tickets, they radio back to Stiles, who logs the driver's name, license number and court date. It's a smooth operation.

Until suddenly there's some kind of radio problem. On the ground, two troopers are writing tickets. Stiles has just spotted a speeder in a white SUV but for some reason he can't reach the third trooper.

"Who's in the hole?" he yells into his radio. "You gotta go — he's in the center lane at 87 mph. You gotta go, go, go!" Stiles tries to keep his eye on the SUV until he hears back from someone. But the radio is silent. "You get that 87?" he asks Clark.

"No, I lost him — he's gone," Clark answers.

"Oh well," Stiles says, disappointed.

"Oh well," Clark says. "Other fish in the sea."

"People get breaks and they don't even know it," Stiles says.

But not if Stiles and Clark can help it. There seem to be no lack of drivers who ignore the warning signs about aerial enforcement — not to mention the speed limit itself. "Sometimes the tough decision is which one to go after," Stiles explains. "You can only check but one at a time."

For now, though, Clark pulls out of his circling pattern and returns to the Hanover airport, a small shadow the shape of the plane following along below. The Cessna touches down at 11:02. The troopers have written 36 citations. Stiles and Clark will be back in the air after

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