The Virginia State Police, which for years regularly used planes to catch speeders, has all but stopped the practice.

This year, the agency has not run a single “aerial enforcement” mission and since 2008, it has sent up a plane just six times to catch speeders.

Officials say the dramatic drop-off was driven by the effects of the recession. But the agency, responding to a series of news reports, said Monday it is not discontinuing its missions.

State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller attributed the scant use of planes to state budget cuts, decreases in federal funding and a shortage of staff.

In addition, Geller said some scheduled aerial speed enforcement missions, including one this year, have been canceled because of weather.

“When you have to cut the budget you always have to prioritize,” Geller said. “Where can we get the biggest bang for our buck when it comes to enforcement out there?”

For the state police it has meant cutting back on the frequency of aerial enforcement missions to monitor speeding on interstates.

The six missions since 2008 have resulted in 87 tickets, 53 of them from 2010 when the agency flew four missions, Geller said.

By comparison, between 2000 and 2008, missions resulted in 5,117 tickets, Geller said.

Aerial speed enforcement is most effective in targeting the lane-changing reckless driver, especially on interstates where traffic is more concentrated, Geller said. The aerial vantage point makes it easier for such vehicles to be spotted and tracked, she said.

The declining use of aerial enforcement has been described in several news reports, including a story Sunday in the Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Similar programs in California, New York and Pennsylvania also have been trimmed because of budget challenges, according to the Associated Press.

Geller said that aerial enforcement is more costly than radar and laser use. Operating the aircraft, including fuel and maintenance, costs about $150 per hour, Geller said. Missions can run up to six hours and require a pilot, a trooper to compute speed and at least one trooper on the ground to stop the speeder.

“Because it is expensive to operate the aerial speed enforcement, we decided to utilize other speed enforcement methods to maximize the funding and still maintain our presence and safety,” Geller said.