By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Near 91-year-old Jim Hamilton, a commissioner emeritus of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission and a S.C. Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, exchanged coins and reminisced about days gone by with longtime friend Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott at Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) headquarters, December 13.
The two men recalled a period of time in the history of South Carolina law enforcement when aviation assets – fixed wing aircraft and helicopters – were certainly available, but not considered assets under designated units within any law enforcement agency in central South Carolina.
“Jim and his aircraft were quite literally the air force for law enforcement,” said Lott who, reflecting on his time serving as a narcotics officer over 40 years ago, describes how Hamilton would fly overhead transporting officers from one position to the next while providing real-time reconnaissance as they pursued bank robbers and drug smugglers on the ground. “Jim was the beginning of our aviation unit here at RCSD. In fact, the Cessna 172 he flew back then is one of our RCSD aircraft today [which in 2022 also includes drones and helicopters as well as the pilots and aircrews to man them].”
Wearing his familiar leather jacket with U.S. Army aviator wings and Army airborne (parachutist) wings, Hamilton – for whom Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport is today named – produced his now-yellowed South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) credentials which were signed by the late SLED Chief J.P. Strom, a law enforcement legend in his own right.
Lott presented Hamilton with four “challenge coins” – The first was a Sheriff Leon Lott peace officer coin, then an official Office of the Richland County Sheriff coin, a S.C. State Guard commander’s coin (Lott serves as brigadier general – commanding general – of the S.C. State Guard), and an Association of the U.S. Army – Fort Jackson-Palmetto State Chapter coin (Lott serves as the AUSA chapter president).
Hamilton presented Lott with his S.C. Aviation Hall of Fame inductee coin.
The former chair of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, Hamilton years ago provided aviation assets not only to RCSD, but SLED, the FBI, DEA, and the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department before those agencies were able to field their own aviation units.
Hamilton is a previously named S.C. Aviator of the Year, FAA Southeastern Region Flight Instructor of the Year, S.C. Flight Instructor of the Year, and an inductee in the U.S. Army Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame, among other honors. He was honorably discharged from the Army at the rank of captain in 1958.
Among his many awards and honors, Lott was named 2021 National Sheriff of the Year, and was twice named S.C. Sheriff of the Year.
Both men are recipients of the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest award.
– Photograph of Hamilton and Lott by RCSD Deputy Nick Richter.