Helicopters essential in Ga. State Patrol

By Amy Leigh Womack
The Macon Telegraph
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PERRY, Ga. After graduating from high school, Hamilton Halford's heartfelt desire was to become a state trooper.

Little did he know that while assigned to his first post in Thomson the course of his career would eventually shift to also include his fascination with aviation.

While driving to his hometown in Arlington after work, a helicopter landed in front of him and a state trooper stepped out wearing the same blue-colored shirt he was still wearing after finishing a shift behind the dispatching console.

The trooper was part of a manhunt in Wrightsville searching for someone who shot a deputy.

A Bell 407 Helicopter. (AP Photo/steve miller)
"He asked if I wanted to be his spotter, and I jumped in there with him," said Halford, now a Georgia State Patrol sergeant and one of 14 helicopter pilots flying for the GSP.

Assigned to a hangar at the Perry Airport, Halford and state patrol Cpl. Wayne Wiley provide search-and-rescue assistance to a 26-county area while flying a four-seat, forest-green military surplus helicopter.

"We do anything in the state of Georgia you see on TV as far as search and rescue goes," Halford said.

Recently, Wiley and his spotter, Houston County sheriff's deputy Cpl. Glenn Goodman, located a missing Monroe County man from high in the air.

Wiley said the pair was dispatched about 1 a.m. Aug. 18 after the man had been expected home at 6 p.m.

"We flew up and did an initial pass and we tried to figure from his home where he would have gone," Goodman said.

Using a search light and thermal imaging device mounted underneath the body of the helicopter, Goodman said they spotted the man's all-terrain vehicle in a wooded area behind his home off Ga. 87 within about 20 minutes of being in the air.

"You could see it overturned, and he wasn't far from it," Wiley said.

After determining the man's location, Wiley said he and Goodman directed rescue crews on the ground to where the man lay, unable to walk.

"It's a teamwork thing," Wiley said. "We work together well."

Goodman said the thermal-imaging technology, known as a forward looking infrared system, allows helicopter crews to spot heat signatures as slight as the pattern where someone has swum through a river or lake.

"You leave that heated water behind," he said.

Seated on one side of the helicopter, Goodman said his sole job is to be the helicopter's eyes as he scans the ground and watches a thermal imaging LCD screen.

"When I see something, I'm going to stop (the pilot) and we're going to figure out what it is," he said.

Although there are times when it's hard to distinguish between an animal and a human, Goodman said in ideal weather he can identify suspects hiding under leaves and debris.

"It's a great device for law enforcement," Goodman said.

In all, Halford said he and Wiley have flown 171 flights since the first of the year, logging 374 flight hours between the two of them.

Statewide, crews located at hangars in Kennesaw, Athens, Thomson, Reidsville and Albany have flown a collective 1,127 flights since Jan. 1.

"We stay pretty busy," Halford said.

While many of the state patrol helicopters' missions are ones searching for missing persons, jail escapees and suspects running from police, Halford said the helicopter crews also are dispatched to help law enforcement get an aerial view of crime scenes.

Often, he said, the helicopters take to the air to provide rides for officers taking pictures of the scene of a traffic fatality or for SWAT team leaders wanting to know the lay of the land around a house where someone has barricaded themselves.

"You get a bird's-eye view of things you wouldn't see driving or walking," Halford said.

Flights aren't limited to crime and missing people.

Halford said the helicopter also is used as a crowd control tool during events such as the Georgia National Fair. Pilots give security officers a ride so they can see where crowds are moving and where best to direct traffic.

After natural disasters, such as the March tornado that struck Americus, state patrol pilots take decision-makers for flights to survey the aftermath.

"It allows them to assess what needs to be done," Halford said.

In partnership with the National Guard, he said state patrol helicopters also survey Georgia's landscape looking for signs of marijuana cultivation.

Although helicopters designed for rescuing people from rooftops aren't typically housed in Perry, Halford said they can be brought in if someone needed to be rescued.

He said the helicopter housed in Perry can fly for three hours on a tank of fuel, meaning it can fly anywhere in the state and search for an hour without needing to fill up.

While flight altitudes vary, Halford said, the helicopters generally stay between the treetops and 1,000 feet.

To become a state patrol helicopter pilot, Halford said troopers must have three years of patrol experience on the road and flight training.

Although Halford and Wiley no longer patrol Georgia's roads in a car, they still undergo the same training as other troopers and maintain arrest powers.

Halford said he and Wiley alternate shifts staffing the hangar Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. On nights and weekends, pilots across the state take turns being on call for emergencies.

For spotters, Halford said all that's needed is a willing officer or deputy who doesn't get airsick, has a good eye and works for a participating agency.

In Perry, Halford said the Houston County Sheriff's Office pays Goodman and another spotter, Cpl. Joe Middlebrooks, who is assigned to the criminal investigations unit, to fly with the troopers.

"It's fun," Goodman said. "It's a great job."

Copyright 2007 The Macon Telegraph

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