When the Georgia State Patrol’s (GSP) Aviation Division was created in 1974, it was a small unit of four total aircraft and just a few pilots. As the state’s population increased during the 1970s, general aviation was utilized mostly for search and rescue missions. As our state leaders came to appreciate the value that general aviation could bring for a variety of public services, the Aviation Division continued to expand.
Today, we are a team of 21, comprising of pilots, maintenance technicians and general support staff. With six aviation hangars strategically placed, 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 on the run, 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 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 like ours to handle all aerial service requests for the state is a literal lifeline to many of these communities. Search and rescue continues to be one of the most needed services.
For example, a few years back, the Georgia State Patrol fielded a call from McDuffie County about an Alzheimer’s patient that had gone missing. For three days, massive thunderstorms had made it almost impossible for ground crews to effectively search the area 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 T-shirt lying on the forest ground near his home. His dog was even 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 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. Oftentimes, general aviation saves these people’s lives.
General aviation provides services for large metropolitan areas, as well. During the Super Bowl this year, the Atlanta Police Department relied on our aviation unit to survey the city centers to conduct crowd monitoring and traffic control. Linking our communications to patrol centers in Atlanta, we were able to send a live look-in of visitor activity to authorities in the city. From there, they were able to more 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. Unfortunately, the Okefenokee Swamp, in particular, is at the risk of wildfire almost every year due to its plant material and shallow waters. In some cases, it is actually beneficial to let the fire burn out in the center of the swamp. But in times 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, at times growing larger than entire counties in the state. In response, we equipped our helicopters with bambi buckets, which are large tanks that can hold about 210 gallons of water. Dumping these gallons of water for weeks on end, our crews were instrumental in preventing 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 5,000 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 throughout our state and the country as a whole.
Paul Wofford is a corporal with the Georgia State Patrol and guest columnist for the Times-Georgian this week.