HARRISBURG - Local lawmakers feel they are closer than ever to bringing the state police aviation center back to the Williamsport Regional Airport.
State Reps. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, and Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, held a news conference in Harrisburg Tuesday to make it known that next year's state budget should make a provision for the aviation unit.
The lawmakers appeared in the Capitol Rotunda along with various area officials who spoke out on the importance of having a helicopter manned by police at the airport.
Until the past year state police operated a helicopter and a fixed wing airplane there to provide aerial support to federal and local law enforcement agencies and assist in non-emergency situations.
Retired state police pilot Dave Frey said the helicopter proved invaluable for various purposes including during the 1977 Johnstown Flood when other law enforcement helicopters could not reach that part of the state.
"We were the first helicopter there," he said. "We were able to use the terrain to get there."
Officials have long questioned the reasons for transferring the helicopter to Hazleton, where the higher elevation brings more frequent low cloud cover and a greater chance for aircraft to be grounded.
Everett said he and other officials are still awaiting viable explanations as to why the decision was made to close the local aviation center.
The good news, however, is that Republican leaders who control the state budget process have indicated they will include the aviation unit in the fiscal code, according to Everett and Mirabito.
"This is not a political issue," Mirabito said. "It's a matter of policy."
The aircraft provided search rescues, vehicle pursuits, criminal surveillance, crime and traffic scene photography, and transports.
DuBoistown Borough Council President Michael Caschera said he is an advocate of law enforcement and emergency services and questioned why the aviation unit ever left the airport.
"If it's not broke why fix it?" he said. "I believe in change if it's good change."
Retired pilot Dennis Hoak, who flew out of the airport for 10 years, said a helicopter's presence is a great asset during disasters such as floods.
He used a map to show how hundreds of miles of the state's Northcentral Region will be left without a helicopter. As a result, it will mean precious lost time during emergencies and other situations when a helicopter is needed.
"It will take a long time for anyone to get there," he said.
Hoak said with Marcellus Shale drilling in the region, state police in Mansfield and Towanda are becoming busier responding to incidents and investigating crimes.
Muncy Police Chief Richard Sutton said a helicopter can prove invaluable in search and rescues, including child abductions.
Geoff Knauth, of Williamsport, a civilian pilot, said helicopters can provide water rescues and be used to track down criminals.
Everett and Mirabito said they are optimistic that the return of an aviation unit will be part of the budget process.