As the founder and commander of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office aerial search and rescue unit, Paul Ehrhardt has always believed in leaving no stone unturned.
So when the 68-year-old realized he was nearing the end of his days as a pilot, Ehrhardt decided it was time to train his new replacement — a DJI Phantom 4 Drone.
Ehrhardt, a U.S. Army veteran and mechanic, founded the volunteer Benton County Sheriff’s Office Air Search and Rescue American Volunteer Group (also known as Sky SAR) in 2012 with the intent of utilizing untapped resources at the Corvallis Municipal Airport to aid in all search and rescue operations in the county.
“I will not rest if there is someone out there, and that means looking everywhere and that means exhausting every resource,” Ehrhardt said. “There are more resources out here and they were, for the longest time, sitting here doing nothing. I’ve survived by never leaving a stone unturned, and I wanted to apply that to search and rescue.”
Today, about 12 volunteer pilots and spotters headquartered at Corvallis Municipal Airport assist BCSO’s Search and Rescue operations in finding missing persons, locating downed aircraft and monitoring wildfires. The group, which trains regularly, has logged hundreds of hours and covered thousands of miles in search and rescue assistance in 2016 alone.
“It makes sense to use pilots with aircraft from the area that are used to flying here because they know the land,” Ehrhardt said. “But a big reason we use small aircraft is because I looked at what could happen during a disaster and found there’s a very good chance that a lot of our publicly-owned equipment is going to get destroyed. The small planes are going to survive.”
That’s why Sky SAR members keep a Cessna 150 airplane and Robinson 22 helicopter tethered outside the group’s hangar at Corvallis Municipal Airport.
While Ehrhardt said he’s always trying to stay prepared for any possible disaster, over the last several years he’s seen countless reminders of how dangerous and unpredictable it can be to fly. On June 19, 2014, John Larson, chief flight instructor for Corvallis Aero Service and first commander of Sky SAR, died when his small aircraft crashed in a remote area in southwestern Colombia.
“I’ve had 23 friends and relatives killed in airplane crashes in my lifetime. John was No. 22,” Ehrhardt said. “So I’m pretty interested in doing it right. And I want to do everything I can to make sure we’re as safe as we can possibly be.”
After taking over for Larson as commander in 2014, Ehrhardt said he realized “the handwriting was on the wall” and that someday he would have to retire.
“I’m getting old enough; I’ve got to bow out here one of these days,” he said.
For a long time, the idea of using a drone was like blasphemy for Ehrhardt. He has been an avid pilot for more than 10 years and, in fact, personally owns Sky SAR’s Cessna 150, which he has spent years and several thousand dollars restoring and maintaining.
“Being a pilot, I was kind of anti-drone for a while,” he said, “but I think we can use this thing to keep our pilots safe, and that’s a lot more important.”
After researching dozens of drone programs over the last several months, Ehrhardt purchased a DJI Phantom 4 professional drone. The quadcopter features tablet computer support that allows Ehrhardt to safely navigate the skies by taping his fingers on a touchscreen. In addition to providing a new resource to supplement the team’s work, Ehrhardt said there have been numerous occasions over the last few years where conditions did not allow pilots to take to the skies to aid in a search.
“There are a lot of times when it’s just too dangerous to put a plane in the air but we’ll still need to look for someone,” he said. “If I have it, I can send up a drone, and if the worst happens, I lose a drone. No big deal. At least we won’t have lost a person.”
Ehrhardt said the dozen members of the team collectively have thousands of hours of flight time logged and several decades of experience and the drone only allows for roughly 30 minutes of flight time over a 3-mile radius, so it won’t make pilots obsolete.
“There are many advantages to having a pilot in the sky,” Ehrhardt said. “There is nothing better than having people’s eyes on the situation.”
Ehrhardt said the team is so capable, he’ll likely retire soon anyway.
“Any one of these pilots we’ve got can come in and run this just as good,” he said. “I only go up about a couple of times a month unless we get a mission. I’m the commander, so everyone else gets to fly while I stand there with a walkie-talkie in my hand.”
Ehrhardt said he’s likely never going to stop working with Sky SAR in some capacity; he’ll just hold a less flashy title.
“I’m the commander right now, but I’m really the janitor, and I think that’s what I’ll be,” he said. “I’m going to sweep floors and watch everyone else leave and enjoy the fact that they’re doing it, knowing that we’re in the best hands with the best pilots in the sky. … If we need it, I’ll man the drone and make sure we’re not leaving any stones unturned.”