We are the aircraft that fly day in and day out on fires, rescues, floods, etc. We are the pilots and paramedics that staff the aircraft. We are the tireless mechanics that “keep ‘em flying” day after day. We are the command and support staff that make the daily operation possible, ordering the parts, fuel and supplies necessary to fly and staff the aircraft on a daily basis. We are all of these and much more.
The Air Operations Section is comprised of 52 dedicated and hard working uniformed and civilian personnel. With a very humble beginning in 1957, including one pilot and one mechanic, the section has grown to what it is today, a leader in the fire service aviation industry.
Today’s fleet of aircraft consists of 3 Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks (civilian versions of the UH-60 Blackhawk), 4 Bell 412’s (twin-engine, four bladed Huey’s) and a Bell 206 JetRanger. This high powered squadron is a far cry from the original Bell 47 that was used by Roland Barton to start the program almost 50 years ago. Through the years, the section has seen the likes of the Bell 204, the Bell 205, the UH-1F, along with the current makes and models. Each new model brought an increase in capabilities and accomplishments.
The Sikorsky Firehawk is equipped with a 1000 gallon water tank that uses a “constant flow “ delivery system as compared to the “two door” 360 gallon “LA County” tank on the medium category Bell 412. The Bell 206 is used for command, mapping, FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared), photography and HELCO (Helicopter Coordinator) duties. Both the Sikorsky and the Bell 412 are also used as Air Squads in the county’s EMS system. They can respond in minutes to the field and transport patients to the nearest trauma center or receiving hospital as the situation dictates.
The section responds anywhere in the geographical boundaries of the county, some 4000 square miles. With a population of over 10 million people, Los Angeles County has every type of terrain imaginable. The late Jerry Dunphy, a longtime LA television newscaster, used to open his broadcasts with the famous line, “From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California.” In addition to the vast stretches of desert and beautiful ocean coastline, Los Angeles County also has miles and miles of mountainous, rugged terrain. The famous Santa Monica mountains, the San Gabriel Mountains with Mt. Baldy (10064’ MSL) and the numerous foothill stretches in and around the county provide for scenic vistas and recreation areas that draw millions of visitors year after year.
In addition to the mainland portion of Los Angeles County, the Air Operations Section also responds to Catalina Island. Catalina Island, although a private/public piece of land some 25 miles south of Long Beach, is served in its entirety by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The Air Operations Section responds to all types of calls for service on the island. Examples of the more common types of calls include: brush fires, scuba diving incidents, trauma calls, maternity calls, medical incidents, searches, rescues, and downed aircraft.
The section provides three 24/7 Air Squads to the county. During the designated “Fire Season” an additional “Fire Ship” and the “HELCO” aircraft are staffed daily to augment the 3 Air Squads. All of the Air Squads are multi-mission equipped and ready to respond to anything. All of the aircraft, except the Bell 206, are equipped with external hoists for “over the side” high-angle rescues. In addition, each aircraft is equipped with “fixed line, short haul” systems to supplement the external hoists for swift water rescues. Patient loading systems allow the Sikorsky Firehawks to transport as many as 4 patients. The mixture of critical patients to moderate patients in the aircraft is determined by each incident and the on-scene EMS personnel and the Air Squad crews.
The section has been operating for years at night through the use of on board lighting systems and external high power searchlights. The Night Sun, with over 30 million candlepower, is the mainstay of the the night lighting system. Back in the spring of 2001, the section adopted new technology aided lighting systems in the form of Night Vision Goggles (NVG’s). All of the crews have access to this technology and the increase in night operations through their use has skyrocketed in the last 4 years. Crews are now able to see night hazards such as unlit towers, powerlines, mountainous terrain, lakes, and streams. The addition of NVG’s has allowed the Air Operations Section to truly “own the night”!
The future of the section is showing great promise in the years to come. First on the list is a refurbished/revamped facility at the Whiteman Airport. The existing facility was built in 1970 and the section has outgrown it tenfold in size and storage. The new facility will feature larger hangers, dorms, offices and aircraft parking and storage for the present and future fleet of helicopters. Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2005 early 2006.
No matter what type of call, the Air Operations Section will handle it and handle it well. In 48 years of flying and over 100,000 hours of flight time, the section has one of the best safety records in the world. The one flight related fatality and one rescue related fatality will never be forgotten nor, hopefully, will it ever be repeated. The experience of the section in Aviation Firefighting and Rescue make it one of the world’s best!