The Georgia State Patrol (GSP) is a team of 21 pilots, maintenance technicians, and general support staff. We serve all 159 counties in Georgia. We answer the call for any local law enforcement agency in need of aerial support to catch criminals, fight fires on private lands and state parks, 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 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 like ours to handle all aerial service requests for the state is a literal lifeline to many of these communities.
For example, a few years back, the GSP fielded a call from McDuffie County about a missing Alzheimer’s patient. For three days, thunderstorms made it difficult for ground crews to effectively search the area around his home. Finally, one of our pilots flew over the densely wooded area and spotted a man in a white t-shirt lying on the forest ground near his home. We transported the individual to an off-site ambulance to receive emergency care. Cases like this are prevalent within our division. We are constantly receiving calls about missing hikers, runaway children, and patients with mental illnesses.
General aviation also serves large metropolitan areas. During the Super Bowl this year, the Atlanta Police Department relied on our aviation unit to conduct crowd monitoring and traffic control. We were able to send a live look-in of visitor activity to authorities in the city. From there, they could appropriately plan and make decisions to keep the city safe.
With large mountain ranges and swamplands, our aviation unit is constantly active in fire-fighting missions. The Okefenokee Swamp in particular is at risk of wildfire almost every year due to its plant material and shallow waters. When the fire stretches out to the edge of the swamp, it can threaten communities and infrastructure. Back in 2016, a fire at the swamp had been raging for over two weeks. In response, we equipped our helicopters with bambi buckets, which are large tanks that can hold about 210 gallons of water. Our crews prevented the fire from spreading throughout the state, 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 like Atlanta-Hartsfield, there are over 5000 airports around the country that serve as a lifeline to communities, 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.
Paul Wofford is a Corporal with the Georgia State Patrol.