OCEAN COUNTY – The Jersey Shore’s iconic sights make for an exhilarating vision from 1,000 feet above – from sunbathers to Casino Pier to Old Barney and even the roadway traffic below.
The aerial imagery proves routine to a volunteer group known as the Ocean Air Support Squadron (OASS), which also goes by the moniker of Ocean County’s Black Sheep patrol. Experienced pilots use their own planes to conduct sunset patrols along two specified routes with 21-22 checkpoints.
OASS acts as the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department’s air wing and works in conjunction with the United States Coast Guard.
“We get up-to-date pictures from them concerning what’s going on in the area,” shared Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy. “The sunset patrols report back concerning activities in wooded areas and communicate with us when there are issues with boats and off-road vehicles in prohibited areas.”
The county provides the fuel for the small aircrafts that begin patrolling the area the weekend before Memorial Day and continue every weekend until the weekend after Labor Day. Two separate planes cover routes from as far north as the Manasquan Inlet to the southern end of the county at Little Egg Inlet.
A reporter who felt somewhat fearful about flying in a small airplane had a change of heart when she joined a recent sunset patrol this past Labor Day.
John Hermack of Toms River performed preflight checks as he described his plane and shared his credentials as a pilot. He flew fighters like F-16s in the United States Air Force and ultimately spent 34 years working as a commercial airline pilot.
Hermack’s personal aircraft is a Bonanza, a single-engine airplane. According to Hermack, it’s a little bit bigger than most single-engine airplanes like Cessnas and Cherokees because it has six seats. The fact that the Bonanza has retractable landing gear makes it go a bit faster than most of the other small planes.
Next, Hermack listed flight preparation instructions, which included informing the reporter that the best place to sit in the back of the plane was facing the rear. Hermack settled in the cockpit with Kurt Stofko, along for the flight to take aerial shots of the view below. The three strapped into their seats and put on headsets to communicate with one another.
The take-off from the Ocean County Airport was amazingly smoother than any larger aircraft. Almost immediately, one could count the number of homes in surrounding areas with swimming pools in their backyards.
Hermack kept constant contact with the OASS base manned by volunteer Debbie Hamilton. The first checkpoint on RAM 1’s flight was marked ASARCO on the list (formerly the American Smelting and Refining Company).
While some might find the crystal blue hole of the Heritage Minerals site in Manchester inviting, it represents a clear danger. Crystal Lake has claimed its share of drowning victims over the years. Drivers of off-road vehicles who take delight in the surrounding terrain also take risks in visiting the prohibited area.
Local authorities count on the sunset patrols to monitor activities at ASARCO. Reports of four off-road vehicles during the Labor Day sunset patrol resulted in a call to Manchester Township Police to put them on alert.
The sunset patrol continued and moved on to overlook the Toms River Plaza of the Garden State Parkway. Amazingly, despite it being a holiday weekend, traffic was light in both directions. The same proved true as RAM 1 flew over different bridges, including the Route 37 bridge leading into Seaside and the Route 72 bridge to Long Beach Island.
Sunbathers on different beaches looked like tiny ants from above, and only a small assortment of recreational boats were out in either the bay or ocean waters. It’s as if the summer was coming to an end all too soon.
“You can see the lighthouse out there,” pointed out Hermack as he flew past Old Barney, “It still has all the scaffolding around it.”
A banner plane flew over the ocean at a lower altitude. Hermack explained that aviation laws require a minimum of 1,000 feet altitude in areas where buildings exist. The mandate drops to 500 feet when over the water.
The Labor Day reports turned out to be somewhat benign for both of the sunset patrol flights. However, that’s not always the case.
Hermack recalled one of the most rewarding experiences he became involved with as part of the OASS. Authorities reached out to the volunteer squadron for help in locating a teenage girl who went out on a personal watercraft and was considered four hours overdue.
“We were down on the southern end of the patrol when Control called and asked if I was familiar with Brigantine,” Hermack said. “They told me about the young lady and asked for help searching for her.”
After calling the Atlantic City approach, Hermack learned that the Coast Guard planned to send a helicopter up in the next few minutes and would be on the same air frequency.
“I talked to the Coast Guard people when they came up,” said Hermack. “We actually found the girl, and I vectored the Coast Guard guys, into her.”
As it turns out, the teenager was on a jet ski and ran out of fuel. The greenheads had decided to make her a meal, but she was otherwise unharmed.
Hermack and Stofko took turns identifying various sights as they headed back to base. They spoke of sandbars growing in size, and sole buildings on at least two islands throughout the region.
The reporter prepared for landing and almost wished the flight had not come to an end. The glimpse of familiar sites from a higher vantage point proved more than a little exciting. Even better was meeting a select group of volunteers willing to give their time and expertise to add to the community’s safety.