Skip to Main Content

From the Field: Sgt. John Buchanan, Helicopter Pilot

“When I was about 7 years old, my dad—a former naval aviator—put me in the back seat of a small plane,” said Maryland Natural Resources Police Sgt. John Buchanan. “We took off and I was immediately fascinated. First he demonstrated his crop dusting maneuvers. Then, he told me to grab the stick in front of me. He was taking a break. What a sensation! That’s when I got hooked on flying.”

Later, young John tagged along to work with his dad at Downstown Aero in New Jersey. There he flew in a helicopter for the first time: “Just like the one on the television show M.A.S.H.“

John saw his future. He enrolled in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, graduating in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Technology, Aircraft Maintenance and Flying. “It was a rigorous academic environment,” he said. “But when I graduated, there were very few jobs in the industry.”

Returning home to Denton, Buchanan picked up summer work as an aircraft mechanic at Maryland Airlines in Easton, home-base for the Natural Resources Police Aviation Unit. Opportunity knocked when a friend moved and John became the aviation mechanic.

In 1996, John jumped at a chance to attend the Natural Resources Police Training Academy, followed by work on a patrol boat out of Tilghman Island. Before long, he returned to aviation as a helicopter pilot.

The primary mission was conservation law enforcement—flying surveillance to assist officers as they patrol 17,000 miles of waterways and nearly a half-million acres of public lands. But, as one of only two law enforcement agencies with statewide jurisdiction, the force also helps with search, rescue and recovery operations and sometimes assists other authorities by locating suspects and providing for the safety of officers on the ground.

That critical mission came to a grinding halt when the aviation unit was suddenly disbanded in 2009. Sgt. Buchanan stayed on as a District Supervisor for several different areas. “I missed flying a lot, but I was and still am committed to our mission: conservation. I worked in a job I was passionate about. It was both challenging and rewarding.”

A self-described “people person,” coaching Little League and high school baseball helped him learn how to teach and mentor. “It made me a better supervisor,” he said. “That’s where I learned how to build people up.”

Then in the spring of 2015, the department tasked John with devising a plan to revive the aviation capability. Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton learned the 1970 Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter that John used to fly was available again in the federal surplus program. With strong support from Gov. Larry Hogan, Belton was determined to bring it back home. And he did just that.

By this past November, the black-and-gold aircraft, Natural 1, resumed its place in the department’s roster with Sgt. John Buchanan back in the pilot’s seat—exactly where he wants to be, doing exactly what he was meant to do.


Article by Linda Wiley—webmaster and member of the Committee for Conservation History.
Appears in Vol. 20, No. 2 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, spring 2017.