The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department has been operating a plane – or, in sheriff’s speak, an “Air Support Unit” – for about a decade and a half and would like to continue doing so by buying a newer plane that’s estimated to cost $450,000.

The county acquired the first plane it owned at the request of former Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, who started the aerial program in order to have some eyes in the sky for things like drug busts, vehicle pursuits and searches for people lost in the woods.

That plane has been on its last legs for quite a while, and, on Thursday, Nov. 2, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to approve the purchase of a newer used plane at the request of Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers.

According to department officials, the current plane is still constantly used to help with investigations and operations. The department reported that, between January 1, 2023, and the end of May, the plane was in the air for over 360 hours.

The Sheriff’s Department calls the plane “a vital resource to aid in the detection and the combating of criminal activity,” and adds that “It is also a tool in emergency situations, such as missing persons and crimes in progress.”

The county first began using a Tecnam Eaglet, Light Sport plane in 2008 and now the engine has reached the “maximum allowable flight hours.” So, the choice is get a newer plane or replace the engine on the old plane that has a lot of wear and tear.

Also, the Tecnam Eaglet is an Italian-made airplane which means finding replacement parts is difficult – and buying them, when they can be found, is expensive. In addition, the department reports that “the only technician in the entire eastern portion of the United States capable of completing repairs to this airplane will soon be retiring.”

Which is why a newer plane makes sense to county officials.

Two years ago, when this issue was discussed, some commissioners were skeptical of the need, but the fact that the item is on the agenda for the Board of Commissioners’ November 2 meeting means that most, if not all, of the commissioners have decided that buying a newer plane is the right move.

The Sheriff’s Department has priced several different planes as well as discussed leasing a plane and here’s the outcome of those discussions and the reasoning behind buying a newer plane:  “It was determined, that leasing an airplane would not be a cost-effective use of funds. The Sheriff’s Office has determined the Cessna 172 is the type of airplane, which would offer the needed flight capabilities and allow better repair and maintenance resources. The Cessna 172 is an extremely common airplane in the United States. As such, parts and mechanics are more readily available, when repairs and maintenance are necessary. Also, the Cessna 172 is one of the safer and more durable airplanes in the desired price range. It is also one of the most common type of trainer airplanes.”

A suitable Cessna 172 ranges in cost from $300,000 to $600,000. The department is requesting to use money from Federal Forfeiture Funds and estimates that $450,000 will cover the cost of the plane, the estimated sales tax and the cost of “upgraded avionics, gear and instruments, should these items be necessary.”