Pilots pledge to pay for plane

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sheriff Dennis Meeks, along with assistance of the Andalusia Pilot Club, unveiled the much-discussed Ximango Power Glider Tuesday.

Meeks, along with fellow pilots Lee Weaver and Ronald Barton, showed off the plane to eight Pilot Club members and the local media. The plane is being housed in a hangar at the South Alabama Regional Airport and was acquired in a “lateral transfer” from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, who originally obtained the plane from the U.S. Air Force. No funds were required to obtain the plane.

The Pilot Club donated approximately $8,800 to cover the costs of the aircraft for the next 1.5 years, and members announced Tuesday an annual appropriation will be budgeted for future training and operational costs of the plane.

“Project Lifesaver is our signature project,” said Pilot Club member Angie Kelley. “We don’t want to put a number out there (as a committed dollar amount), but we’re going to take care of this plane. It fits in so well with the scope of what Project Lifesaver is and is a tremendous benefit to this community.”

The Project Lifesaver program provides clients, who are suffering from brain-related disorders such as dementia, with state-of-the-art wristbands that work by emitting a unique radio signal. That signal can be tracked by local law enforcement agencies when a client has wandered from home. When caregivers notify the local agency that the person is missing, a search and rescue team responds to the wanderer’s area and starts searching with a mobile tracking system.

Carolyn Davis, another Pilot Club member, said when a loved one is missing, time is of the essence.

“And by having this plane and Project Lifesaver, the search and rescue time of a missing person can go from days to minutes,” Davis said. “It will also be used in any instance where there is a missing person and help from the air is needed in locating that person.”

Meeks said he had received heavy criticism for obtaining the airplane instead of a helicopter, but he said there was much thought put into his decision.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but the Sheriff’s Office was offered a helicopter a little over a year and a half ago,” Meeks said. “But you have to take into consideration that, at that time, operating costs and insurance were in the ballpark of $27,000 a year. Today, you’re looking upwards at $50,000. It costs approximately $500 an hour to operate a helicopter.

“Now, this plane — operating costs are approximately $750 a year, and it costs less than $10 an hour to operate it,” he said. “Having a helicopter here just isn’t feasible — any way you look at it.”

Currently, Project Lifesaver has eight clients throughout the county ranging in age from 15 to 70-plus, and the availability to handle more, Meeks said.

“Members of our Senior Reserve go out and check on these people and their bracelets often,” he said. “The partnership between the Sheriff’s Office and the Pilot Club is longstanding and we are thankful of their support.”

The bracelets are given to clients at no cost to the family. However, if a family is able and willing to provide for the cost of the bracelet, it is greatly appreciated, Pilot members said.

“As a civic club, we take great pride is working for our community,” Davis said. “Each year, we hold the South Alabama Charity Horse Show. The money that is raised at that event is designated for Project Lifesaver. Our goal is to never have anyone on the waiting list to receive a bracelet, so this money we raise goes back into the community. It’s not sent anywhere else.”

This year’s horse show is scheduled for March 13 and 14 at the Covington Center Arena.

For information on Project Lifesaver or to apply, contact the Covington County Sheriff’s Department at 428-2640.