You might not know it, but the Pima County Sheriffs Department has search planes that patrol every night, around the county.

It doesnt mean they just fly for really no reason, Lt. Patrick Hilliker, the tactical response section commander for PCSD said, adding Were going out there to save lives.

The Search Planes

The two search and rescue planes are small, single-engine aircraft that can fly higher than Mt. Lemmon, and as low as 1,000 feet over the city, all-the-while using an advanced camera system to find whoever deputies are looking for.

They can see things that we can’t during the night time — even during the day, Lt. Hiliker said, adding they can lead us right in there.

Thats possible thanks to the versatile camera mounted on the bottom of the planes. It has a daytime camera, a spotter scope for magnification, and an infrared camera to use at night.

Despite being mounted to a plane, the camera can maintain incredibly stable video, even when zoomed in on something like a car chase.

That allows pursuing deputies to focus on driving, leaving it to the planes camera operator to relay information like what roads the pursuit may be turning on to, and descriptions of a chase vehicle and the occupants, to dispatch.

Deputies may even stop pursuing a suspect, allowing the search plane to take over entirely. PCSD said this sometimes allows a suspect to slow down and drive safer because they arent feeling the pressure of a chase. Meanwhile, a plane is still tracking their whereabouts.

I can tell you this unit and this equipment right here are probably the best assets we have in our profession, Lt. Hiliker said. When it comes to saving lives, not only citizens, but police as well as suspects everybody whos involved this absolutely saves lives.

But these planes arent just used for tracking suspects. Theyre also incredibly important assets when it comes to search and rescue operations.

That can vary from a small search for an Alzheimers patient who may have walked away and gotten lost to a hiker, for whom rescue teams are searching across miles of desert.

The infrared camera can get confused when its really hot out especially during the day but it is still an invaluable asset to picking out a persons heat source.

But the cameras ability does not stop there. It can also help the pilot navigate.

“When we are going to a call for service, we can type in the address in the mapping, and then it’ll drive the camera to that location, Deputy Pilot Chris James said, adding it will give us the distance on how far we need to travel, and the time, and the heading that we need to fly.

Thats all visible to both the camera operator in the back, and is displayed on an iPad for the pilot up front.

The Rescue Helicopter

While the plane fulfills the search, its up to the helicopter to finish the rescue.

The single-engine helicopter doesnt have a fancy camera like the plane, but it has equipment to help track avionics, weather, and terrain plus a special hoist that can carry around 500 pounds.

That can be used to lower deputies to the ground and lift up stranded hikers. They even have a special harness to lift up pets.

The helicopter then takes them to an ambulance or another air-rescue craft if needed.

Another tool pilots and rescue deputies have are night vision goggles that can be mounted to their helmets. They can use this to help fly at night.

Of course just because they can, doesnt mean they should.

James said in the past, if a person isnt in immediate danger during a nighttime rescue, they have lowered a rescue deputy down to stay there with them overnight, then finish the rescue when its bright outside.

Each rescue deputy has a survival pack on their person at all times.

Nonetheless, James said if they had to do a night time rescue with the night vision goggles, they could.

The People Behind the Equipment

Of course, fancy toys arent much good on their own. All this expensive and extremely complicated equipment is maintained by a highly skilled maintenance team, and operated by rigorously trained pilots and deputies.

Lt. Hiliker said PCSDs Search & Rescue pilots are some of the best in the state, and often work with other agencies.

He said they constantly train so they are ready to save lives, and it’s the mechanics that keep their aircraft in the air.

Between the rescue deputies, pilots, and mechanics, Lt. Hiliker said PCSD’s Search & Rescue team is constantly working to keep everyone safe from the flight crew’s safety to the citizens in the city below.