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After Heath Lowry went through his safety checklist, put on his headphones and strapped on the seat belt on Thursday, he slowly drove his gyroplane — a small, helicopter-like aircraft — toward the end of the runway at Custer County Airport. 

After taxiing down the runway, he pulled the throttle and the gyroplane soon was flying high above Custer. 

"We're going to pretend for a minute that's where the bad guy is hiding," the 52-year-old Custer County sheriff's deputy said as he circled around a building. 

It would be easy to spot a suspect through the giant see-through doors or with the plane's camera that can track moving objects with infrared technology, Lowry said.  

Lowry is hoping to find a law enforcement agency, ideally in the Black Hills, to adopt his gyroplane so officers can use it to find suspects, locate missing people and assist with other public safety operations. 

He would provide a pilot and cover all costs for the plane through BLENDABLE, a nonprofit he started last year. He said all the agency would need to provide is someone to sit next to the pilot to serve as a spotter. 

Lowry, who's worked in law enforcement for 27 years, created the nonprofit in honor of his brother, Edward Lowry, a 56-year-old Journal employee who was stabbed to death in 2015 in Rapid City. 

"When it hit home with my own brother being murdered, it became real," Lowry said as he aligned the gyroplane with the runway in preparation for landing. 

Back inside the airport's building, Lowry explained that the nonprofit, made of letters from his brother's name, also provides grants to law enforcement. As its first grant, BLENDABLE recently gave Custer County Search and Rescue an old firetruck to use as an equipment vehicle. 

Lowry said any agency is welcome to use his gyroplane by request, but ideally one would adopt it full time because the plane is most useful when it can be launched immediately.

Alan Dubbelde, a friend of Lowry's and the vice president of BLENDABLE, said he joined the nonprofit because he's always been "very supportive" of law enforcement and he was intrigued by the gyroplane. 

Dubbelde, a 68-year-old retiree from Custer, said he was supposed to meet with Lowry on Sept. 17, 2015, but his friend never showed up. It was the day Edward was found stabbed to death. 

Lowry recently gave a presentation about the benefits of gyroplanes to the Custer County Commission and has reached out to the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. 

"You can see so much, so fast" from the sky, he said. 

Studies show that one aircraft is equivalent to 6.1 officers during normal patrolling, and 23 officers during an active search, he said. 

Right now, no police or sheriff department in the state owns aircraft, Lowry said. The South Dakota Highway Patrol has a helicopter and airplane in Pierre that can be used to assist other agencies. The National Guard can also deploy a helicopter, but that process takes about three hours, Lowry said. 

Police helicopters are "incredibly expensive" at a minimum of $3 million, Lowry said. Pilot training is about $75,000 and costs range between $1,500-$1,800 per flight. 

Lowry's gyroplane, plus its radios, cameras and other technology, cost less than $175,000, he said. Operation costs are $60 an hour. 

Gyroplanes can do 95 percent of what helicopters can at 5 percent the cost, he said. One thing they can't do is extractions since there is only room for two people. 

He said while gyroplanes are just starting to be used by law enforcement agencies in the U.S., they're common across Europe. 

Lowry called unmanned drones, which are increasingly being used by law enforcement, "another tool."

"They have their own place, and they have their own advantages" such as a low cost and no risk to a pilot, Lowry said. 

But he said drones can only fly about 400 feet into the air for 20 to 30 minutes, and no more than half a mile from the operator. He said drones can only look where the camera is pointing, but people in the sky can quickly scan a scene. 

Gyroplanes, he said, can travel up to 125 miles per hour and up to 12,000 feet for up to 3 1/2 hours. 

Lowry said he's anxious to find a partner agency for his plane so he can help prevent violent crime, like the fatal robbery and attack on his brother. 

"Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent this from happening to someone else" or collect evidence that makes the difference between an acquittal and conviction, he said. 

For more information about BLENDABLE, email Lowry at heath_lowry@yahoo.com


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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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