A group of state lawmakers representing northern Pennsylvania is worried the removal of a State Police helicopter from its Lycoming County base will hurt their region.
State Police, citing personnel and financial concerns, moved the chopper about 75 miles to the southeast when its lease expired this past January.
David Frey is a former State Police helicopter pilot who was stationed for 25 years at the old aviation unit in Montoursville. He said the airport's low elevation made it the perfect place for a chopper to slip out under cloud cover and fly around the mountains and bluffs. "Running the valleys," is what Frey calls it, and in an emergency, the time it saves is crucial.
"We were able to use the terrain to move throughout that region," said Frey, "and we discovered we could go just about everywhere." So much so, that Frey said the Montoursville-based helicopter could often get to places well before the pilots based in Hazleton, Luzerne County, to the southeast.
But that's exactly where the State Police recently moved Frey's old unit. A spokeswoman said the agency doesn't have enough personnel to staff the Lycoming County location, and its lease was up at the end of December 2011.
State Representative Garth Everett (R-Lycoming) said the Lycoming County unit was in an ideal location for serving a wide swath of the state, including a region now bustling with natural gas drilling activity.
"It's not just about a helicopter at the Montoursville airport, even though that helicopter does serve a large portion of rural Pennsylvania," said Everett at a press conference in the Capitol on the Monday before the passage of the state budget. "It's also about how these policies are decided."
Everett and other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle unsuccessfully tried to use budget-related legislation at the end of the recent session to reverse the move.
"I can tell you that aviation is a force multiplier," said Everett, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, "and that's how we can get around in an area where the roads don't all hook up to each other and where the weather can be bad. This aviation is important to our super-rural area."
Now northern Pennsylvania lawmakers warn that getting rid of the Lycoming County state police helicopter has left the northern tier without nearby air assistance, at a time when the region is booming due to increased natural gas drilling.
"A lot of extra people, a lot of extra vehicles up there," said Frey, "i.e., more work."