Charlie Later has spent countless hours in the air during his career, patrolling the woods and waters of Maine as the state’s chief game warden pilot.
On Wednesday, the state officially unveiled a new addition to its air fleet that will make Later and two other warden pilots more effective. More important to the rest of us: The specially equipped Cessna 172 will likely save lives.
The plane is equipped with a FLIR — forward-looking infrared — thermal imaging system that the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife says will help in its search and rescue missions, as well as during law enforcement efforts and biological field surveys.
“We’re quite excited,” Later said on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve had a lot of game wardens interested in operating it and I think it’s going to be a real good fit for us. We were very fortunate to be able to come up with this.”
As part of the Maine Warden Service’s “Project Night Hawk,” the service worked with the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to obtain funding. The plane is a surplus aircraft that was transferred from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency. Grants were used to buy an overhauled engine and the FLIR system. Most repairs and improvements were done by two Warden Service pilots who are also certified aircraft mechanics.
Later said he had no doubt that in certain past cases he has worked, the presence of the FLIR-equipped aircraft would have helped the Maine Warden Service perform its job more quickly and efficiently.
“I am convinced. You remember the two children that were abandoned in the woods a few years back, in Albion?” he said. “When we found them the next day they were huddled in the grass near an old fence row. I’m absolutely convinced they would have been found that night.”
Those children were still alive. In other, more serious cases, the ability of pilots to fly the FLIR-equipped plane on search missions could mean the difference between life and death.
Later said pilots will fly in two-man teams with a field warden.
“The operator [of the FLIR system] sits in the back seat and has a 12-inch monitor and the controls to the camera,” Later said. “The camera will rotate 360 degrees horizontally and vertically, and it’s gyro-stabilized so it gives a very stable picture.”
In the front, the pilot also has a five-inch monitor that allows him to see what the FLIR operator is seeing, and to keep the plane over the proper spot.
Later said the Warden Service has been working with the FLIR system since the first of April, and received more in-depth training in the system on Tuesday.
And he said the addition of the Cessna 172 to the fleet of Cessna 185s was necessary for the FLIR initiative to work.
“It wasn’t suitable for our present aircraft,” Later said. “Our aircraft are strictly float planes. They are not amphibious. Landing in the dark, on water bodies, although we do it, is not an ideal situation.”
The new plane will be land-based, and will take off and land at airports with lights. That makes it the perfect fit for a system that will often be used during nighttime hours.
“[FLIR is] both a daytime and nighttime tool, but it was designed specifically as a nighttime tool,” Later said. “What this equipment does is actually pick up heat sources such as a human body, wildlife. You get a good picture that differentiates between different heat sources on earth, such as rocks, roads, buildings, trees.”
Eddington breakfast set
A final reminder for avid salmon anglers (and those who’d just like to enjoy a good meal and some camaraderie): The Eddington Salmon Club will welcome friends and visitors to breakfast on Saturday.
The Penobscot River is closed to Atlantic salmon fishing, but I’m sure a few fishing tales will be swapped at the event, which coincides with the traditional opening day of salmon season. Breakfast will be served from 5-9 a.m.
The club is located at the intersection of Routes 9 and 178 in Eddington.
Sugarloaf option: Ski and tee
Here in Maine, our seasons are sometimes hard to separate, no matter what the calendar might say.
So, what do you do about it?
Complaining isn’t really worth the effort, and there’s nothing you can do to change the weather.
Therefore, you might as well embrace our quirky weather and go skiing … or golfing … or both.
The folks at Sugarloaf are offering just that opportunity this weekend and are offering “Ski and Tee” packages.
The back nine of the Sugarloaf Golf Club is open, and guests can play nine holes for just $25 on Saturday or Sunday. And if you decide to ski for a bit on the same day, show your ski pass and you’ll golf for just $10. After the Ski and Tee Weekend, the course will close again until its scheduled opening day of May 28.
Spring lift tickets are available for just $35 through Sunday, the scheduled closing day for the mountain.
And if you’re looking for an added excuse to head for the ’Loaf this weekend, consider this: The summit of the mountain received eight to 10 inches of snow on Tuesday and Wednesday.