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Georgia State Patrol Aviation Division
Necessity is the Mother of Invention…or is it?


By Lyn Burks
Photos by Dana Maxfield and the GSP
Video by Lyn Burks

There are hundreds of law enforcement helicopters operating in the US today and most fly traditional law enforcement missions. Naturally, you might be thinking, what is a traditional mission? Some might think it’s to take off from a dolly, fly little circles, patrol a highway, and then land back on the dolly. Well, in a general sense, if you throw in some pretty cool technology like a FLIR (forward looking Infrared), an impressive stack of radios, and a few other high tech gadgets, that description might define a traditional law enforcement helicopter mission.


There are a select few however, who live by a modified version of the axiom, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” They live by the mantra, “Diversity is the key to survival.” In a world of shrinking federal, state, and local budgets, law enforcement agencies nationwide have been fighting for their existence, especially when it comes to aviation units. Although times have been tough for the Georgia State Patrol Aviation Division, their ability to diversify and adapt to the needs of their State has positioned them to maintain an impressive level of capability not seen by many helicopter operators, let alone a law enforcement agency.

HISTORY

Believe it or not, the Georgia State Patrol Aviation Division began organizing in the early 1970’s.  The first helicopter purchased was a military surplus Bell 47. In 1973 Colonel Herman Cofer, Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety at that time, published a memorandum soliciting applicants for Aviation personnel and pilots.  So with one helicopter, one airplane, one supervisor and three pilots, the GSP Aviation Division was born.

The unit was originally headquartered at the Georgia Department of Air Transportation Hangar located at the Fulton County/Charlie Brown Airport in Atlanta, Georgia in 1975.  Shortly thereafter, the unit moved into a mobile home for office space and then into the Georgia Army National Guard hangar facility at the Fulton County/ Charlie Brown Airport.  The unit remained at this location until June of 1995, when the Aviation Division headquarters moved to the Cobb County/McCollum Airport in Kennesaw. As of this writing, in July, 2012, the Aviation HQ will again be located at the Fulton County Airport located about ten miles west of downtown Atlanta.  The Kennesaw Hangar will remain as a field hangar for support to NW Georgia.   

GROWTH

As the usefulness of aircraft became more apparent, the Georgia State Patrol Aviation Division continued to grow since its humble two aircraft beginnings. Today the GSP Aviation Division staffing consists of a Director of Aviation, Assistant Director, 13 Pilots, 20 Tactical Flight Officers, a Maintenance Supervisor, 3 Aviation Maintenance Technicians, and 1 Administrative Assistant. The Unit fleet of helicopters currently consists of 2 UH-1H Hueys, 3 Bell 407s, 6 OH-58s, 4 Bell 206s and 1 Cessna 182 airplane.  The Aviation unit has 5 FAA Certified Rotorcraft Instructors and a FAA Designated Pilot Examiner.

Sometimes, it’s not slow, planned growth that determines the life course of an aviation unit. Occasionally, there are odd twists of fate beyond the control of a program that will determine its future and such is the case with the GSP.  In the early 90’s, the decision by the U.S. Olympic Committee to hold the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta would not only place new demands on the growing aviation unit, but force them to stretch beyond their comfort zones and provide valuable new services.  Fast-forward two decades, and it was clear that those new skills learned in the mid 90’s, were the same skills that defined its value to the State during a time when many agencies were slashing budgets. Skills that have remained so productive for the State residents, that GSP has not had to decrease the level of service even during tight times.


During the 1996 Olympic Games, the GSP Aviation Unit provided 24/7 support and was the primary aerial security for the Olympic athletes transitioning to and from different events.  With the acquisition of UH-1H Hueys and Bell 407s, the unit began providing assistance to the (Georgia State Patrol) SWAT Team.  This included transport of personnel and equipment to high risk, public danger situations that required proficiency in fast rope, rappel, SPIE rig and airborne sniper platform training.   Later on, the Hueys and Bell 407’s were configured to assist state and local authorities in suppressing wildfires, hoist rescues and long line operations.

The Bell 407 has become the backbone of GSP when it comes to aviation assets. When I asked Billy Smith, the Director of Aviation for GSP, why he chose the Bell 407 as their new platform, he replied, “The 407 meets all the requirements for the missions we fly. The considerations are speed, range, payload, passenger seats available, cargo space, and handling qualities. Our area of operations is generally the geographical limits of Georgia.  With seven hangars strategically located across the state, we can be on site for most calls within .5 flight hours in a 407.”

LAW ENFORCEMENT SKILL SETS

Although traffic enforcement, surveillance and marijuana eradication were the primary functions of the GSP Aviation Division, as knowledge improved and aircraft/equipment updated, the list of services provided by the unit dramatically increased.  The unit quickly learned to use the advantages of airborne operations and became the leader nationwide in innovative use of helicopters for marijuana suppression.  This activity earned the unit the coveted ‘Helicopter Association International Hughes Law Enforcement Award.’

SPIE - The Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) system was developed as a means to rapidly insert and/or extract a team from an area that does not permit a helicopter to land. SPIE has application for rough terrain as well as water inserts/extracts. Generally, the SPIE rope is lowered into the pickup area from a hovering helicopter. Patrol personnel, each wearing a harness with an attached carabiner, hook up to a D-ring inserted in the SPIE rope. A second safety line is attached to a second D-ring located above the first. The helicopter lifts vertically from an extract zone until the rope and personnel are clear of obstructions, then proceeds in forward flight to a secure insert zone. The rope and personnel are treated as an external load and airspeeds, altitudes, and oscillations must be monitored.

Fast-roping, sometimes known as Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES), is a technique for descending a thick rope. It is useful for inserting teams from a helicopter in places where the helicopter itself cannot land. Although the technique carries more risk, it is much quicker than abseiling (rappelling). The person holds onto the rope with his gloved hands and feet and slides down it. Several people can slide down the same rope simultaneously, provided that there is a gap of approximately 10 feet between them, so that each one has time to get out of the way when they reach the ground. It is essential to wear gloves, as sliding down a rope generates great heat from friction. With two ropes (one hanging from each side), the GSP can insert a six-person SWAT team in a matter of seconds.

One of the most unique capabilities in the GSP arsenal is to use the helicopter as an aerial sniper platform. It makes perfect sense. There are rare times when a public threat exists which needs to be neutralized and a sniper may be the appropriate tool to use. What happens when the threat holds a strategic position that cannot be reached by ground or structure? Under the right conditions, the helicopter itself may be used in order to create a superior position and put the threat in the snipers line of sight. Even though it is virtually impossible to hold the helicopter perfectly still, with training and coordination, the snipers have amazing accuracy.

OWNING THE NIGHT

As the sun sets on law-abiding citizens, the nocturnal criminals are more than happy to begin their work under the cover of darkness. With the implementation of FLIR technology and the installation of searchlights around late 1993, the unit was able to substantially diversify their role in law enforcement public safety missions. In 1995, the unit obtained ANVIS-6 NVG goggles and implemented a training program that forever changed the unit’s nighttime operations. Presently, all pilots and tactical flight officers are NVG trained and qualified and are using the ANVIS – 9’s / M949 goggles. After 17 years of using NVG’s, flying with them is routine and crews are very proficient in their use.

SEARCH AND RESCUE (SAR)

Georgia is blessed with hundreds of miles of saltwater coastlines, a myriad of rivers and lakes, as well as thousands of square miles of forests and parks. From dense mountain forests in the northwest, to the Atlantic coasts of the southeast, recreational activities are abundant across the state. Hiking, boating, fishing, rafting, hunting, kayaking, and rock climbing make up the shortlist of activities that occur on a daily basis. As such, recreational accidents often occur in hard to get places. The UH-1’s, which are outfitted with rescue hoists, are the perfect tool for such missions.

In order to keep operating costs down, the helicopters are not staffed around the clock with rescue personnel. Each of the six bases (spread around the state) has mutual aid agreements with local Fire Departments who provide personnel on an as needed basis. These personnel are on shift with their respective fire departments, available 24/7/365, and train regularly in order to keep their skills at a high level. When an SAR mission is dispatched, the helicopter with pilot/co-pilot, and crew chief will fly directly to the fire station and pick up the rescue crew prior to launching toward the scene.

FIREFIGHTING

Wildland fires at the urban interface are also a common occurrence in Georgia. Although fighting fires is not the primary mission of the GSP, they are often called in support of the Forestry Division and municipal fire departments when more firefighting assets are needed. Because of this demand, most GSP bases are equipped with short lines and Bambi Buckets and can be set up to fight fires in a matter of minutes.

THE CURRENT CHALLENGE

In order to provide a high level of service to the State in a cost effective manner, the GSP has relied heavily over the years on the purchase and use of military surplus aircraft. This worked well in the early days of the Division when aircraft and parts were plentiful. However, as the years have gone by, the landscape has changed. Not only are surplus parts more difficult to obtain, but also the agency has found itself with an aging mixed fleet. Even though they are operating all Bell products, they are still operating a variety of 5 models. This poses real challenges when it comes to maintenance and pilot training. As a matter of policy, GSP pilots are only allowed to be checked out on two models of aircraft.

In an effort to standardize and modernize its helicopter fleet, the GSP has begun to replace some of the older UH-1’s and B206’s with Bell 407’s. The three-year fleet upgrade plan is to turn in/sell the UH-1’s and 206’s, retain 5 OH-58’s for the marijuana program, and bring the 407 fleet to 8 aircraft.

“A standardized fleet can be maintained more efficiently and aviation maintenance technicians trained more efficiently.  Pilots can be trained more efficiently and maintain a higher level of proficiency in a standardized fleet.  All of this translates to the first consideration - safety”, said Mr. Smith when asked about the move toward standardization.

TRAINING

With such a variety of missions, and the myriad of personnel involved, every person in the GSP Aviation Division from the Aviation Maintenance Technicians to the Pilots in Command are constantly training. Regularly coordinated cross agency training is integral to safety and competence. I witnessed this first hand while working with the crews at the Kennesaw base where we went from SPIE rigging, to fast roping, to rescue hoisting, to dropping water from Bambi buckets, to nighttime NVG operations…….all in one day! In addition to regular mission and equipment training, pilots also receive semi-annual aircraft emergency procedures flight training.

Having been a working helicopter pilot myself for the last 20 years, one of the attributes that drew me to the career was the diversity of the work. I have had the chance to fly a variety of missions ranging from flight training, to EMS, to Corporate. I must say, as far as diversity is concerned, it’s rare to see a helicopter operation that is capable of being available at a moment’s notice with such a broad range of abilities. There is no doubt in my mind that the State of Georgia is getting its money’s worth from the GSP Aviation Division.

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