The HCSO acquired the 1968 model helicopter as federal government surplus in 1996, and for nearly a decade it patrolled the skies over Hawkins County — and across the region — helping law enforcement spot marijuana plants from above.
The HCSO began its marijuana eradication helicopter program in 1997. In the early years, the helicopter was responsible for the seizure of an average of 10,000 to 12,000 plants per year.
As a result, outdoor marijuana growing declined drastically, and by 2006, the last year it was operated, the helicopter was responsible for only about 1,300 marijuana plants being seized.
It was widely assumed that the helicopter and its crew was so efficient at eliminating outdoor marijuana growing in Hawkins County that the growers simply stopped or moved indoors.
The helicopter was grounded in the 2007-08 fiscal year as part of budget cuts enacted by former sheriff Roger Christian.
According to federal rules, if an aircraft donated to a local agency by the federal government isn’t used, or doesn’t fly, it must be reallocated.
In recent months, a mechanic from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the HCSO former pilot Bob Crumley had looked over the helicopter, which actually started right up after being idle so many years.
But Lawson determined that it wasn’t economically feasible to put the helicopter back into service.
On April 23, Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson received federal notification that the helicopter had been listed as “non-flight” for the past six years and would be transferred to the Jackson Police Department no later than May 27.
Lawson told the Hawkins County Commission on Monday that on May 11 the Jackson Police Department received the marijuana eradication helicopter and an extra parts helicopter.
There was equipment on the helicopter that was purchased with HCSO drug fund money, and Jackson paid the HCSO $10,000 for that equipment.
“I didn’t see the need to spend any more of the drug money trying to get us airborne again,” Lawson told the commission. “A lot of time and effort was put into this program. A lot of money was brought into the program, and a lot of arrests were made. ... We didn’t have anybody to baby sit this aircraft ... and I didn’t see any sense in spending that money.”