When the Georgia State Patrol’s Aviation Division was created in 1974, it was a small unit of four aircraft and a few pilots. As the state’s population increased during the 1970s, general aviation was used mostly for search and rescue missions. As state leaders appreciated the value that general aviation could bring to public services, the Aviation Division expanded.
Today, we are a team of 21, composed of pilots, maintenance technicians and general support staff. With six hangars strategically placed, we serve Georgia’s 159 counties. We answer calls for any local law enforcement agency in need of aerial support to catch criminals, fight fires, conduct crowd control for large events and rescue at-risk individuals in remote areas.
As the largest state by land area east of the Mississippi River, our communities and geography are diverse. While we have large metropolitan areas in Atlanta and Augusta, most of the state is made up of small towns and rural communities. Having a centralized agency such as ours to handle all aerial service requests for the state is a literal lifeline to many communities. Search-and-rescue is one of the most needed services.
A few years back, the GSP fielded a call from McDuffie County about a missing Alzheimer’s patient. For three days, massive thunderstorms made it almost impossible for ground crews to effectively search around his home. It wasn’t until one of our pilots flew over the densely wooded area that he spotted a man in a white shirt lying on the forest ground. His dog was at his side for those three days to look after him. We were able to transport the individual to an off-site ambulance to receive care.
Cases like this are prevalent within our division. We receive calls about missing hikers, runaway children and patients with mental illnesses. Often, general aviation saves lives.
General aviation provides services for large metropolitan areas too. During the Super Bowl this year, the Atlanta Police Department relied on our aviation unit to survey city centers to conduct crowd monitoring and traffic control. Linking our communications to patrol centers in Atlanta, we sent a live look-in of visitor activity to other authorities. From there, they were able to more appropriately plan and make decisions to keep the city safe.
With large mountain ranges and swamps, our aviation unit is active in firefighting. The Okefenokee Swamp in particular is at risk of wildfire almost every year because of its plant material and shallow waters. In some cases, it is beneficial to let the fire burn out in the center of the swamp. But in times when the fire stretches to the edge of the swamp, it can threaten communities. In 2016, a fire at the swamp had been raging for two weeks, at times growing larger than entire counties. In response, we equipped helicopters with bambi buckets – large tanks that can hold about 210 gallons of water. Dumping water for weeks on end, our crews were instrumental in preventing the fire from spreading, possibly saving the state millions of dollars in damage.
Our aviation unit would be nothing without the network of local airports in the state – 95 to be exact – that allow us to station our aircraft strategically. And the picture is the same throughout the country. While most commercial traffic goes through the 30 biggest airports such as Atlanta-Hartsfield, there are more than 5,000 airports around the country that serve as lifelines to communities and support businesses, and allow for critical services.
As our leaders in Congress discuss the future of our infrastructure, let’s not forget the critical role of general aviation and local airports throughout our state and the country.
The writer is a corporal with the Georgia State Patrol.