SLED helicopter crash (copy)

A State Law Enforcement Division helicopter crashed at Summerville Airport on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. SLED just won approval to purchase a replacement helicopter. File/SLED/Provided

COLUMBIA — The State Law Enforcement Division is on track to replace a helicopter that crashed in Dorchester County last month after a panel of state lawmakers approved the agency's $2 million request Tuesday.

The agency's aviation unit currently has just two available helicopters, a number that officials say is not sufficient to fulfill mission needs that include personnel transport and heavy lift operations.

"An additional aircraft is necessary to ensure that aircraft are available while others are down for maintenance, inspection and multiple aviation missions," the agency said in its request.

SLED chief Mark Keel told the lawmakers that the Federal Aviation Administration is still investigating the cause of last month's crash at Summerville Airport and he would share the report when it is ready. The incident was the first helicopter crash in SLED's history.

Keel emphasized that agency pilots go through extensive training and are fully certified by the FAA's requirements.

By South Carolina law, state agencies are required to get authorization from the Joint Bond Review Committee, a joint panel of state legislators, before moving forward with an aircraft purchase. 

The request will still need to be signed off by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, which oversees the state government's financial decisions.

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SLED said it plans to buy a "used, late model helicopter similar in mission capabilities to the two remaining helicopters it currently operates," which it estimates will cost $2 million, funded by insurance proceeds and other money at the agency's disposal.

Prior to 2016, SLED owned five helicopters, but they gave up two of them through the federal government's military surplus program because of rising maintenance costs and the age of the helicopters.

The helicopters are used to move heavy materials across the state, particularly during disaster relief efforts, as well as during support missions to locate missing children, old people suffering from dementia, fugitives, stolen materials and drugs.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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