Troopers trade blacktop for blue skies in KHP's air support unit

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The Kansas Highway Patrol has had an aircraft since 1961. Since then KHP's air support unit has grown to four single-engine planes, an executive aircraft, a helicopter - and they'll soon be in charge of KHP's drones.

Captain Jason Vanderweide runs the entire operation from the Topeka headquarters building at Billard airport.

"We can usually be anywhere in the state of Kansas within an hour," he said.

It's a unique branch of the highway patrol.

"We are a very specialized unit being the aircraft unit, it is a busy unit to work in. We ran over 800 calls last year," he said.

"It's great pride to be able to serve the citizens of the state of Kansas in that fashion where when something important or something major goes down we're going to be involved in it."

Vanderweide had dreams of flight since he was a kid, but the Kansas Highway Patrol, known more for asphalt and blacktop than blue skies and clouds, gave him his wings.

"When I joined the highway patrol as a trooper and found out they had an aircraft unit, that was my goal, to get to the aircraft unit and here I sit as the aircraft unit commander," he said.

Vanderweide's kept Troop T in the air as the head of the statewide air support unit since 2017 but he's been serving with KHP since 2003.

"When I transferred to the aircraft division in 2008 it completely switches gears because now ... you're circling above the scene at 500 or 1000 feet where the year before you were on the ground," he said.

After flying for four years he became the Topeka base supervisor in 2012.

Now in charge of the two other bases in Hays and Wichita as well - there's a lot more paperwork.

"I have all the administrative duties. I take care of the budget work and the policy work," he said.

But he never stays grounded too long.

"I also serve as a line pilot, so I'll fly with the other pilots and respond to calls," he said.

"Law-enforcement flying is different than most other places. We're not just flying from A to B we're flying to a location to do low-level orbits to search for something and to take pictures of something."

KHP's air support unit flies a host of different missions - from missing persons searches and manhunts - to pursuits and damage assessments.

"We assisted over 100 different agencies in 2018 so it's not just a highway patrol response, it's assisting all of our local partners whether it's local, state, or federal agencies," he said.

Vanderweide says there's a special connection between the troops on the ground - and those flying above.

"We provide that overwatch element when we're overhead. I've been on the ground when that aircraft circles above. They may not be on the ground here beside me but they're in a position to observe more things than I can from the ground," he said.

"It does give you that feeling of security that, 'Okay, they're watching out for me.'"

All of the pilots that fly for KHP are of course road troopers too.

On icy or stormy days when they can't fly, they trade in their wings for wheels and respond to highway calls.