Wichita — Steve Saffell keeps a Taser tucked by his seat in the cockpit and a handgun holstered underneath his right arm.
As pilot of the Sedgwick County sheriff’s airplane, Saffell’s passengers are usually wearing handcuffs and leg irons.
Neither he nor Nathan Bevis, the county’s other deputy pilot, has ever had to pull a weapon at 25,000 feet while returning people wanted on felony warrants to Wichita.
Even in a time of economic crunches and county budget cutbacks, the Sheriff’s Office says flying saves taxpayers money about $3 million since 1986, according to cost analysis reports.
“We’ll be doing the work of six deputies today, if they had to drive or fly commercial airlines,” Saffell said, just after the Rockwell Turbo Commander dual- propeller airplane left the runaway at Jabara Airport on a recent morning.
It would take more work hours than there are in a year for a squadron of deputies to equal the work of Saffell and Bevis, who fly two to three times a week, “border-to-border and coast- to-coast,” as they say.
Last year, the two extradited 196 inmates to face felony charges or probation violations. They flew 449 hours.
Using Google Maps, Saffell figured out the equivalent in driving would have been 231,290 miles and taken 3,530 hours.
“That’s without stopping,” Saffell said.
No bathroom breaks. No meals. No waiting at jails for inmates to be transferred into their custody.
“We could have driven around the circumference of the Earth more than nine times,” Saffell said.
Each trip would have taken two deputies to escort each individual.
Last year, the county reported saving $113,112 by using the plane for extraditions.
A recent day’s schedule called for stops in Denver, the border town of Laredo, Texas, along with Oklahoma City and Vinita, Okla.
A deputy at the Denver County Jail looked at Bevis and Saffell wearing their military-green flight coveralls with the Sedgwick County sheriff patches on the shoulder and “deputy pilot” above the chest pocket.
“You have your own plane? Sweet,” the Denver deputy said. “We have to fly commercial. It sucks.”
Flying commercial is especially problematic for law enforcement officers.
First, the deputies carry guns and walk with people in shackles, who can be uncooperative.
“The least amount of time the individual we’re bringing back has contact with the civilian population means better security,” Saffell said.
“With the airlines, you have to show up two hours before the flight,” Saffell said. “If you miss a connecting flight, you’re stuck at the airport with an inmate, which is a safety concern.”
Of the 183 airports they landed at last year, only 78 had airline service.
“Nearly all the trips would take two days,” Saffell said. “With that, you’ve got hotel and meal expenses. So that’s another way we’re saving the taxpayers money.”
The Rockwell is paid for, so the costs are hangar fees, fuel, maintenance and insurance.
Bevis and Saffell work 8-hour days, Monday through Friday.