Operation Soar: Paragliding Police

Operation Soar is a pilot paragliding program for police officers in Palm Bay, Fla. Police Chief William Berger explains how officers will make use of the gliders.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's a bird. No. It's a plane. Well, not exactly. It's a Palm Bay, Florida, police officer in a paraglider. Law enforcement is about to take wing in the community to look primarily for lost kids and senior citizens who've wandered off.

To tell us why his department will journey upward, we're joined now by Police Chief Bill Berger.

Welcome to the program.

Chief WILLIAM BERGER (Palm Bay, Florida Police Department): Thank you very much.

NORRIS: You're going to use these primarily to look for lost people? You're not planning to chase criminals with these, are you?

Chief BERGER: No. No, not. No. Somebody had asked me about, are these the new Batman?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Chief BERGER: I mean, maybe down the road sometime. But we're a semi-retirement community. I say that because there's a lot of folks move from the Northeast. So therefore, we have folks that develop Alzheimer's and dementia, and we have situations - and we've had four in the last six weeks - where they've walked away. And traditionally, we would use a helicopter. We don't have one. We share one with the sheriff's office. But under FAA guidelines, they can't go below 1,000 feet. But we have a lot of canopy from trees. So these paragliders - and there'll be eventually five of them - will be able to get down to about 100 feet.

NORRIS: And do they have to take off from mountaintop or a very tall…

Chief BERGER: No. No.

NORRIS: …building?

Chief BERGER: No. Actually, they take off from the ground. As you know, Florida is pretty flat. And that's the beauty of these paragliders, 10 to 20 feet, and basically, they get either a running start, or because of the engines that are in the back, the cart that - almost envision a go-cart, that particular vehicle only needs less than about 70, 80 yards.

NORRIS: Are they noisy?

Chief BERGER: Not really. I say that, you know, they have a blade. It's not like an airboat or anything like that. You see them and you may hear the noise if you concentrate on them, but they're pretty silent.

NORRIS: Wow. Does this require special training or some sort of special license? Do they need a Class P license of some sort?

Chief BERGER: The answer to that, no license. The training is certainly we are going above and beyond here. It's extremely safe. I personally have not gone up yet, but I plan to, but I'll go as a passenger not as a trained pilot.

NORRIS: Now, I must ask, are you using stimulus money to fund this?

Chief BERGER: The answer is no. The industry has come to us. There's no cost for the first six months. And if everything works out well, they can get five other departments, whether it's fire, police, and everything will be donated to the city of Palm Bay.

NORRIS: What's the response from the community?

Chief BERGER: It's been mixed. And a lot of the mix is based on the fact that on the downside, people say why are you spending taxpayers' dollars for this foolishness? And again, too, they're just not listening to what we're saying. They're not reading the story that's being put out, that there is no money involved in this. On the positive side - and it's probably about, I would say, three-to-one on the positive side - people are saying, wow, this is really innovative. This is something that's kind of space age.

And people like that, I think the fact that, you know, as I said, I've always been known for thinking outside the box. And technology is something you have to grasp. You just can't do what you've always done because you're going to get the same results.

NORRIS: And Chief Berger, you noted that you have a lot of older people there in Palm Bay. Has there been any confusion, any UFO sightings, people wondering what the heck is that up in the sky?

Chief BERGER: So far, no. Generally on the weekends, you'll see folks, hobbyists that actually do this paraflying. So it's not something that's completely unique. Thus far, we haven't had any sightings of the Palm Bay parasailors so far.

NORRIS: Well, Chief Berger, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best with this.

Chief BERGER: Thank you very, very much.

NORRIS: That was Chief Bill Berger with the Palm Bay, Florida Police Department.

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