Within a minute after takeoff from Miller Air Park in Berkeley Township, pilot Bill Denlinger made a pass over the Sarco sand pits deep in the pines of Manchester.
It was the first of 14 checkpoints Denlinger would fly over between Manasquan Inlet and the tip of Mystic Islands in Little Egg Harbor during his volunteer aerial sunset patrol of Ocean County.
On this night, a couple of people could be seen illegally operating ATVs in the sand pits, but that would be the only suspicious activity detected during the approximately 90-minute-long patrol.
A week earlier, however, a patrol flight spotted a sizable fuel leak in a lagoon in Little Egg Harbor that was reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and other recent patrols have yielded finds ranging from a woman stuck on an uninhabited island with a disabled jet-ski to the location of a boat that had caught fire in Barnegat Bay. All were reported to authorities, who led rescue missions.
Denlinger, of Manchester, assisted by flight observer Mike Maino, of Brick, kept keen eyes on the channels of Barnegat Bay, the beaches of Long Beach Island, traffic on Route 37 in Toms River and boaters traversing the Point Pleasant Canal during their flight – and just about everything in between.
Known as the Ocean Black Sheep, the group of volunteer pilots and communications officers back at Miller Air Park assist the Ocean County Sheriff's Department, US Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies do their jobs on a frequent basis, including the regular sunset patrols during the summer months.
"The name 'Black Sheep' stuck because a lot of the things you read about in the paper start with us, but people never hear about it" explained Maino.
The Aug. 24 sunset patrol consisted of two planes – callsigns Ram 1 and Ram 2 – each carrying a pilot and an observer (plus, on this night, one reporter on Ram 2).
Pilot Fred Singer and Observer Pete Murphy manned Ram 1, covering an opposing set of checkpoints during the mission so all areas of the county would be covered twice.
Denlinger offers up his plane – a 1960s model Piper Cherokee 180 that has been outfitted with an ample array of modern gadgetry – for free to be used in the patrols. The Ocean County Sheriff's Department reimburses him only for the 10 gallons of gasoline burned during the flight.
The pilots, observers and communications crewmembers on the ground dedicate a hefty amount of hours to the program each week, and are often on call in case they are needed to search for a missing person, guide emergency responders to fires or accidents deep in the woods, monitor traffic on local highways or assist a police department in surveillance of criminal activities.
"The weather is the only thing that would stop us," said Maino, stressing that safety is the top priority for all of the volunteers.
For the most part, members of the squadron are amateur pilots. Denlinger, for example, sells computer software but got into flying when his children went off to college.
"It was something I always wanted to do, but never got around to it," said Denlinger. "Then when my kids went to college far away, I figured I would take lessons and have an easier way to visit them."
Denlinger rented planes for a while, then went in with some friends on the small Piper.
Maino, a Navy veteran who worked as a mechanic in the service, worked as the manager of a used car dealership and then ran a skydiving plane professionally before joining the Black Sheep.
Maino said the sunset patrols will continue through Labor Day, but the other activities in which the group participates continue year-round.
Maino said the squadron's goal is to be able to have a plane in the air within 30 minutes of being requested.
After a successful and safe flight, the crews returned to their small office in Miller Air Park to debrief. A sign on the wall reminds them of what it's all about: "So Others Might Live."
For more information on the Ocean Black Sheep, formally known as the Ocean Air Support Squadron, check out the group's website.