In a little more than a month, the Georgia State Patrol’s aviation division will finally be able to call a hangar at Gainesville’s Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport a comfortable home.
For the last few weeks, construction crews have been renovating office space in a hangar that will serve as base for the state patrol’s emergency helicopter unit.
“It’s super,” said Sgt. Kevin Thompson, the unit’s commander and one of two pilots who will operate out of the hangar. “To be able to respond to the calls in the Northeast Georgia area, being centrally located here in Gainesville now instead of Athens, it’s tremendous. We’re excited about getting in here.”
The unit moved to Gainesville from Athens earlier this year for a more central location in its coverage area.
A few months ago, the Gainesville City Council approved spending nearly $135,000 from the airport budget to renovate the 1,700 square feet of office space in the hangar.
That work is slated to wrap up by the end of November.
“A couple more weeks go by and it gets to where they’re finishing up, we’re in good shape,” said Thompson. “It’ll be fully operational sometime at the first of December.”
The crew already is operating out of the hangar, but its work was being done in a makeshift office.
Now that construction has started, the work is being done mainly out of the crew’s vehicles.
But, Thompson said, it has not really slowed operations.
“We haven’t really had any real challenges,” Thompson said. “We’ve been able to pull the helicopter in and out. ... It really hasn’t hindered us at all. We’ve been able to still perform the duties we need to do day in and day out, so we haven’t had any problems.”
The Gainesville division will cover more than 20 counties in Northeast Georgia. The new location, officials said, will enable it to do that more effectively.
Before the move, a flight to Rabun County would take some 45 minutes. Now, it would take less than a half-hour.
Mainly the two helicopters are used to assist local agencies with searches for missing people or fugitives. But, Thompson said, their objectives vary and the unit is flexible.
“There’s a lot of different functions that we do,” he said. “Whatever law enforcement needs, we can assist them.”
The aircraft can assist firefighting efforts with the help of an attachable 210-gallon water tank.
Pilots won’t stay on-site all the time, but the new space will provide them with the capability of staying longer periods of time in close proximity to the aircraft.
With plenty of space, including office and living space, the pilots will have an abundance of elbow room.
“We won’t be here 24/7 all the time,” said Thompson. “But we will be here a lot.”