The Highway Patrol's aviation section began in the early 1960's when a highway patrol pilot utilized a stop watch to time vehicles over a known distance to derive a speed. The early program was successful. The program ended when the Highway Patrol no longer had any licensed pilots.
The program was revived in 1973 using federal funds. The Highway Patrol leased a Piper Super Cub. The leased aircraft was then used to work in conjunction with Selective Enforcement Teams (STEP) for traffic law enforcement. The successes of the STEP program lead the Highway Patrol to purchase a used Cessna 182 Skylane. Owning the aircraft allowed the department to respond faster to emergency situations. It also permitted better communication by equipping the aircraft with radios and other tools to work with ground law enforcement units. The aviation section continued operating with the used Cessna 182 Skylane until 1981. In October of that year the older aircraft was replaced with a new 1981 Cessna 182 Skylane RG.
Missions of the aviation section are very diverse. The primary use of the aircraft is to assist troopers on the ground enforce traffic laws. Traffic violations include speeding, no passing zone violations, stop signs, and reckless driving. The pilot assists the motor carrier enforcement officers by locating trucks that are by-passing scale sites. Over the years the aviation section has contributed to a variety of other law enforcement operations. Those include searching and assisting in the apprehension of criminal suspects; observation reports during times of natural disasters; transportation of blood, medical supplies, and rabid animals; aerial photography of accident and criminal scenes; monitoring vehicle pursuits; searching for lost people and transporting tactical team members to hostage situations. Toward the end of the 1980's, the aircraft section began assisting with counter drug operations including marijuana identification for the purposes of spray eradication or investigation of cultivated gardens for prosecution.
During 1995 and 1996, the aviation section added two aircraft. In 1995, the section acquired an OH-58C Bell helicopter. The OH-58C Bell helicopter was acquired through Department of Defense Federal Surplus at no expense to the citizens of South Dakota. The helicopter is used for marijuana eradication programs, emergency relays, natural disasters, aerial photography, criminal apprehension, search and rescue operations and motor carrier enforcement. The helicopter is capable of transporting 4 individuals with a range of approximately 287 miles.
In April of 1996, a Cessna 310 aircraft was declared excess by the United States Marshal’s Service and was requisitioned by the Highway Patrol. The acquired Cessna had a rather colorful history. It once belonged to Colombian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar. The Cessna was seized by federal authorities in a drug arrest. Both the Cessna 310 and the OH-58C were obtained at no cost to the taxpayer.
In 2003, the Cessna 310 was turned over to the South Dakota Department of Transportation. Since that time it has been sold and is no longer owned by the State.
In 2007, the Highway Patrol sold the Cessna 182 RG and purchased a used 2004 Cessna T206 to replace it.
The Highway Patrol currently operates the Bell OH-58C helicopter (below) and the Cessna T206 (pictured above).