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Author: Nick Acevedo

Military instructors fly Santa in for quick visit

After circling the school multiple times, the Bell 206 “Sea Ranger” touched down in the middle of the school’s auxiliary field. Santa then made his appearance to cheers from dozens of young students. Sporting a big red sack full of candy canes, Santa greeted the children with high fives and festive peppermint treats.

Santa Claus arrives at Gulf Breeze Elementary in style thanks to the HT-8 Eightballers, a helicopter training squadron assigned to Training Wing Five at Naval Air Station Whiting Field. Photo by Nick Acevedo

According to Assistant Principal Kim McChesney, the helicopter training squadron reached out to the school first. Lt. Cmdr. J.T. Kadz, the “Ops Boss” of the HT-8 Eightballers, helped bring this event to fruition after some phone calls and numerous emails to school officials, local police and the fire department.

“We fly over this area every day and that’s one of the things I said to Principal Stevens,” Kadz said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m sure you guys see our helicopters flying overhead a lot. How would you like us to land and bring in Santa?’”

Kadz got the idea to bring St. Nick to Gulf Breeze Elementary after some friends from his church suggested it. He originally wanted to land at his children’s school, but they’re desensitized to helicopters from being around them so often, he said.

After circling the school a few times and enjoying a smooth landing, Santa waves to the dozens of cheering elementary students while carrying a big sack full of candy canes. Photo by Nick Acevedo

“I’ve got four boys and I asked them if they wanted me to fly to their school and they were like, ‘No, we’re OK. We’ve seen enough,’” Kadz said, laughing.

According to Santa, the flight from the North Pole was excellent, but cold. The helicopter was flown by two instructors, while student naval aviators waited on the ground to help answer questions from hundreds of children.

“This is our training helicopter. We train Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and international students. This is the first helicopter they fly,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Mazel of the United States Coast Guard. Mazel oversaw everything on the ground, ensuring a smooth landing by the helicopter team.

“It’s fun for us, it beats working for the day, right?” Mazel said, smiling.

Lt. Cmdr. J.T. Kadz, the “Ops Boss” of the HT-8 Eightballers and 1st Lt. First Lieutenant Dan Konieczny, a student aviator with the United States Marine Corps, answer questions from dozens of elementary students. Photo by Nick Acevedo

Dan Konieczny, a first lieutenant and student aviator with the United States Marine Corps, arrived at the unit earlier this month, and is already getting involved with the local community.

“It’s cool to see them all get so excited about this. I volunteered to come out and do this just because I was one of these kids once,” Konieczny said.

Governor visits, announces $3.4 million funding to support military missions

The following amounts will be distributed from state grants: $300,000 will go to Santa Rosa County for easement purchases around NAS Whiting Field to provide critical buffer zones, with another $60,000 to further develop Whiting Field Aviation Park. A total of $300,000 will be disbursed to Escambia County for easement purchases around NAS Pensacola to ensure operational sustainability. A total of $90,000 will go to Okaloosa County to encourage economic diversification around Eglin AFB, and to facilitate opportunities for entrepreneurs, defense contractors and the non-defense STEM sector. Lastly, $90,000 will go to Pensacola Chamber of Commerce for military members transitioning from active duty or government service.

“We are proud of what’s being done across the state to help the military footprint,” DeSantis said. “As we look to see the funding and where it would make the most sense, clearly this is one of the regions of the state that really stands out. We know the community will make good use of it.”

Many speakers stepped up to the microphone at the Wednesday morning press conference to thank DeSantis, county commissioners and the state of Florida for the financial help to help the area thrive.

Captain Paul Flores, the commanding officer at NAS Whiting Field, offered his appreciation.  

“NAS Whiting Field is the busiest Naval aviation complex in the world,” Flores said.

According to Flores, 60% of all Naval aviators come through NAS Whiting Field, while 100% of Naval helicopter pilots train there. In all, 1200 pilots will train there each year.

“Whiting Field flies almost 20% of all Naval aviation flight hours, so you can imagine the impact that it has on the greater Navy and that’s the direct impact that Santa Rosa County has on the Navy … So, you can’t underestimate the impact that this base has on the Navy,” said Flores.

District 4 County Commissioner Dave Piech offered thanks to the state for its continued support of Santa Rosa County.

“We truly appreciate all you have done and do for us here in the panhandle. Dating back to 2007, these grants have been there to safeguard the busiest naval training complex in the world, NAS Whiting Field,” Piech said.

“To date, the totality of all grant programs in the state of Florida have protected over 12,000 acres of land and expended over $35,000,000 in matching funds,” he added. “We are very fortunate to have the continued military support for military operations through these grants in our county. We will see the impact results of these initiatives for years to come.”

Dane Eagle, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, expressed appreciation to DeSantis for his commitment to ensuring that Florida “remains the most military-friendly state in the nation.”

In his closing remarks, DeSantis touched on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, the state’s continued support of first responders and law enforcement as well as new programs in the works to benefit them.

“One of the reasons why we are so supportive of our military and our first responders is that 9/11 reminds us more than maybe anything when things happen, tragedy strikes and people are in danger, it’s the people wearing the uniform that are going in,” he said. “You had the people running into the Twin Towers to help save however many hundreds, if not thousands of people, and yet many of them knew going in that they would probably never come out.”

DeSantis also announced a new program that will be brought before the state legislature that will offer $5,000 signing bonus for new law enforcement officers or officers moving to Florida from another state. This move comes in response to the “attacks on law enforcement” throughout the country.

“While other cities were trying to defund the police, we were funding them and then some,” DeSantis said.

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