More than 100 people, including the state’s governor, helped officially welcome the Georgia State Patrol’s aviation division to its new home Friday at Gainesville’s Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport.
Gov. Nathan Deal, along with state, county and city officials, local and state law enforcement and community members joined the state patrol in officially opening the doors of an airport hanger that will act as the central office for the Gainesville division.
“It’s a big weight off my shoulders,” said Sgt. Kevin Thompson, the unit’s commander and one of two pilots who will operate out of the hangar. “Now that it’s functional, we can get our stuff moved in and start operating on a daily basis and operating at 100 percent.”
The unit moved to Gainesville from Athens last year for a more central location in its coverage area, which spans 20 counties in Northeast Georgia.
The majority of the unit’s calls, officials said, come from Hall County and the area just north, so the move to Gainesville made sense.
Before the move, a flight to Rabun County would take some 45 minutes. Now, it will take less than a half-hour.
“The benefit to our local law and emergency management agencies is immeasurable,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “This is a win-win for not only Gainesville and Hall County, but for all of Northeast Georgia. The city of Gainesville is excited about having Sgt. Kevin Thompson and his aviation division located in Gainesville.”
The hangar houses 1,700 square feet of office and living space, as well as enough warehouse room for two helicopters.
The two helicopters are used mainly to assist local agencies with searches for missing people or fugitives. One aircraft can also assist firefighting efforts with the help of an attachable 210-gallon water tank.
“The one thing that I think speaks so highly of this operation today is signaled by the cooperation that we have among and between the departments and agencies represented,” Deal said. “Without that type of cooperation, we wouldn’t have the success that we are seeing.”
The four-man crew is staffed by two pilots — the commander, Thompson, and Trooper First Class Ryan Holloway — and two tactical flight officers — Trooper First Class Steve Mickels, who comes to the post via a partnership with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, and Trooper First Class Jay Shirahm. They will not spend every waking moment at the office, but, Thompson said, “we will be here a lot.”
The renovation cost the city of Gainesville about $135,000, which will be repaid through rental payments of a five-year lease.
“We’re happy to be here and we’re happy that the city of Gainesville has been able to accommodate us and get us put in here,” Thompson said.
The state patrol helicopters were the first emergency responders to arrive to a boating accident on the lake in June in which two boys, one of whom went missing under the surface, were killed. The incident may have been the first publicized benefit of having one of six posts of the patrol’s aviation division located in Gainesville.
“This is a great facility and a great place to have a state patrol helicopter hanger,” Deal said. “It is right here in the epicenter of Northeast Georgia.
“This is something that all of us should be very proud of.”