Aviation gives Marine Patrol an eye in the sky

Author: Patricia Smith

Marine Patrol Pilot Mark Daniels taxied the 2004 Cessna 182 to a runway at Carolina Regional Airport in New Bern.

After a short wait in line behind other plans, he is cleared for takeoff. Then he is up in the sky on a beautiful summer day, watching the Trent River disappear into the Croatan National Forest.

As beautiful as the scene is, it is not a pleasure flight. Daniels is protecting North Carolina’s vast coastal marine resource from above the water.

Air patrols are an integral part of Division of Marine Fisheries law enforcement, and the pilot is Marine Patrol’s eye in the sky.

“He can cover so much more area than other officers can in a boat,” said Marine Patrol Col. Carter Witten.

This helps law enforcement on the water in many ways.

For instance, not long into Daniels’ flight, he sees a group of shrimp trawlers fishing on the Neuse River. He counts at least 26 vessels just off Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

A group of shrimp trawlers working in the Neuse River.

“It’s unusual to see so many trawlers that far up the river,” Daniels said, and he reasoned the rough water conditions was why.

He contacted his Marine Patrol colleagues who are in boats to let them know where they can find the fleet, then he radioed the air station’s tower to get permission to enter Cherry Points air space and take a closer look.

Had he seen a violation, he would have stayed on the scene until a Marine Patrol vessel arrived.

“My job is to witness the violation as much as I can and take notes,” Daniels said. There is always the chance he will get called to court.

A Marine Patrol officer prepares to board a shrimp trawl vessel while pilot Mark Daniels watches from above.

Air support is also useful for patrolling polluted areas that are closed to shellfish harvest. Daniels uses an app on his phone to see up-to-date closure lines.

“An officer on a boat could spend three or four hours looking for violations in polluted areas, whereas he might fly over it in 30 minutes and see them,” Witten said.

Occasionally, Daniels may fly at night to help his colleagues find where gill nets are set, Witten said. And he also helps with search and rescue cases.

The Cessna 182 is one of two planes Daniels flies for Marine Patrol; the other is a 1985 Cessna 185, which has been retrofitted with a loud PA system.

Daniels has been with Marine Patrol for 24 years, 18 of them as a pilot. He started in 1996 as a patrol officer in Brunswick County, but left in 2001 to go to flight school at FlightSafety International in Vero Beach, Fla. He returned to work for Marine Patrol in 2003 and was promoted to pilot a few months later in 2004.

“For the most part, it’s been a good job,” he said. “I like being able to work all over the state and see all the different types of fishing and work with different people.”

Daniels holds single engine and multi-engine land ratings, is a certified flight instructor, a multi-engine instructor, and instrument instructor. He has logged more than 5,800 hours of flight time.

He also holds a degree in Criminal Justice from East Carolina University.

Marine Patrol pilot Mark Daniels stands beside the Marine Patrol's 1985 Cessna 185.

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