Interview with a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter pilot

Firefighting, rescues, and medical aids using an Agusta Westland 139

Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters
Two Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters prepare to take off on a mission to rescue a hiker in distress.

I interviewed one of the pilots that fly multi-mission helicopters for the Los Angeles Fire Department with the goal of obtaining enough information to write an article about the Department’s aviation program. I recorded the interview, with Pilot Brandon Prince’s permission, so that I would not have to attempt to take detailed notes and in doing so miss some of what he was saying. But in playing the recording back it was obvious that Mr. Prince was very well-spoken and eloquent. He was describing the program better than an article I would have written.

So I put the interview in a video, and dressed up the audio with still photos taken at the Department’s base at Van Nuys Airport and 28 seconds of video showing two of their Augusta Westland 139 helicopters warming up before they departed on a mission to assist a hiker in distress.

(If you’re having trouble viewing the video you can see it on YouTube)

MIL-8 MTV helicopter filmed in Australia

MIL-8 helicopter
The MIL-8 helicopter operated by Hevilift. Screenshot from the video.

The video below published January 10, 2020 features a  helicopter operated by Hevilift that was becoming available to help firefighters in Australia.

The on scene reporter said the helicopter can carry 5,000 liters (1,300 gallons), which is half of the capacity of an Air-Crane helicopter. Large and very large air tankers can carry 3,000 to 19,000 gallons.

The MIL-8 MTV did not extract the UH-1H helicopter that earlier ditched into a lake, as stated in the video. The Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Army pulled it out of the water.

Heat from helicopter’s landing light starts fire in Australia

Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter
File photo of a Royal Australian Navy NHI MRH-90 Helicopter. Photo by Duan Zhu.

(This article first appeared on Wildfire Today)

Several bushfires in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have kept firefighters busy in recent days. The Department of Defense admitted that one of the fires two weeks ago was caused by heat from a landing light on an MRH-90 Helicopter. It burned within a kilometer of Tharwa, a suburb south of Canberra.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

“The fire started during routine aerial reconnaissance and ground clearance work being conducted in the area in support of our local firefighters and authorities,” Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said on behalf of the Department of Defense.

Lieutenant General Greg Bilton said the helicopter was using the lights to help it land in smoky conditions, but the heat set a fire that grew rapidly and damaged the aircraft. He said defense was investigating the issue but operating procedures would be changed so that the landing lights were not used in extreme conditions.

It is reportedly the first time a fire has been started by a helicopter landing light.

Smoke from another fire in the ACT that shut down the Canberra Airport for a while was caused by beekeepers checking hives. The fire started January 22 and for several hours threatened homes and businesses.

From the ABC:

The Beard fire jumped the Molonglo River on Thursday and came close to the suburbs of Beard, Harman and Oaks Estate. It also merged with a second fire on Kallaroo Road, which began in the same suburb of Pialligo earlier in the day.

The combined fire reached 424 hectares in size and was at emergency alert level for much of the afternoon, but by 9:00pm was down to 379 hectares.

The hives are part of a national honey bee surveillance program that regularly checks for the arrival of exotic pests that might threaten Australia’s bee population.That process uses smokers to calm the bees so the hives can be inspected, which requires lighting fuels to generate the smoke. The hives are maintained on behalf of the ACT Government by Canberra Region Beekeepers — the program is usually run through state agriculture departments in other jurisdictions.

Air tankers based in Richmond, New South Wales have been busy recently. Between January 26 and 31 a DC-10, Tanker 911, flew 22 missions, while T-137, a 737, flew 12. Their destinations were in or near the ACT and in southern NSW.

Tanker 131, a C-130Q based in Avalon, Victoria completed several missions north of Melbourne and along the Victoria/NSW border.

In a 5-year period two helicopter crashes during aerial ignition operations resulted in three fatalities

The risk of flying low and slow with a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 incident in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

(This article was first published on

After seeing the wildland firefighter accident and injury stats for 2019 I checked to see if the National Transportation Safety Board had any additional information about the helicopter crash on a prescribed fire in Texas March 27, 2019 that resulted in one fatality and two people with injuries. Here is an excerpt from their preliminary report:

On March 27, 2019, about 1435 central daylight time, an Airbus AS350B3 helicopter, N818MC, was substantially damaged when it collided with trees and terrain following a loss of engine power near Montgomery, Texas. The commercial rated pilot was seriously injured, one Forest Service crew member was fatally injured, and another crew member sustained minor injuries. The helicopter was owned by Mountain Air Helicopters, Inc and operated by the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a public use helicopter. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight which operated without a flight plan.

The helicopter and crew were conducting plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) applications in support of controlled fire operations in an area of the Sam Houston National Forest. Initial information provided by the pilot and surviving crew member report that after completing the application, the helicopter began flying back to the helicopter’s staging area when the engine lost complete power. The helicopter descended into trees and subsequently impacted terrain, coming to rest on its right side. One crew member and the pilot were able to exit the helicopter, however one of the crew members was partially ejected from the helicopter and sustained fatal injuries.

One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital after rescuers extricated them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.

It could be another six months or so before the final report is released.

The prescribed fire was in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.

In 2015 two were killed in Mississippi under similar circumstances on a prescribed fire when engine failure brought down a helicopter conducting aerial ignition operations. A third person suffered serious injuries.

march 30, 2015 helicopter crash Mississippi aerial ignitions
The helicopter involved in the March 30, 2015 incident in Mississippi, N50KH, is shown with doors removed and Pilot and PSD operator positions visible.

Flying low and slow in a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire below the aircraft is obviously very, very dangerous. These three fatalities offer very compelling justification for using drones for aerial ignition instead of manned aircraft.

Below is an excerpt from the final NTSB report for the 2015 crash in Mississippi (Accident #ERA15FA173):

The purpose of the flight was to assist in the scheduled burn of an 800-acre wooded area. The helicopter was under contract with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. A Forest Service employee reported that, as the helicopter neared the conclusion of a 61-minute controlled burn mission, he observed it complete a turn to a northerly heading at the southwestern end of the burn area. About 7 seconds later, he heard a sound that resembled an air hose being unplugged from a pressurized air tank. A crewmember, who was the sole survivor, reported that the helicopter was about 20 ft above the tree canopy when the pilot announced that the helicopter had lost power. The helicopter then descended into a group of 80-ft-tall trees in a nose-high attitude and impacted terrain. Witnesses participating in the controlled burn at the time of the accident did not observe any other anomalies with the helicopter before the accident.

The fuel system, fuel pump, and fuel control unit were destroyed by fire, which precluded a complete examination. During the engine examination, light rotational scoring was found in the turbine assembly, consistent with light rotation at impact; however, neither the turbine rotation speed nor the amount of engine power at the time of the accident could be determined. The rotor blade damage and drive shaft rotation signatures indicated that the rotor blades were not under power at the time of the accident. An examination of the helicopter’s air tubes revealed that they were impact-damaged; however, they appeared to be secure and properly seated at their fore and aft ends.

On the morning of the accident flight, the helicopter departed on a reconnaissance flight with 600 lbs of JP-5 fuel. The helicopter returned with sufficient fuel for about 133 minutes of flight, and the helicopter was subsequently serviced with an unknown quantity of uncontaminated fuel for the subsequent 60-minute accident flight. Based on the density altitude, temperature, and airplane total weight at the time of the accident, the helicopter was operating within the airplane flight manual’s performance limitations.

Most of the cockpit control assemblies were consumed by fire except for the throttle, which was found in the “idle” position. Given the crewmember’s report that, after the engine failure, the helicopter entered and maintained a nose-high attitude until it impacted trees and then the ground, it is likely that the pilot initiated an autorotation in accordance with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook engine failure and autorotation procedures. A review of the pilot’s records revealed that he passed the autorotation emergency procedure portion of his most recent Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 examination, which occurred 1 month before the accident, and this may have aided in his recognition of the engine failure and decision to initiate an emergency descent.

Although a weather study indicated that smoke and particulates were present in the area before, during, and after the accident, witnesses reported an absence of smoke near the area where the helicopter lost power and impacted the ground.

Probable Cause and Findings
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
A loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined due to post-accident fire damage.

Orange County plans to upgrade helicopter fleet

And, background on how the helicopter crews for Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Fire Authority have divided the responsibilities for rescues

Orange County Fire Authority flight crews
Orange County Fire Authority flight crews: L to R: Joey Heaslet, Danny Moorhouse, Jason Trevino, Desiree Horton, & Robert Bucho.

When Desiree Horton was hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2013 she became, as far as we know, the only female firefighting helicopter pilot working for a government agency. Her first posting with CAL FIRE was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.

Desiree Horton, Fire Pilot
Desiree Horton, Fire Pilot for the Orange County Fire Authority.

The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in Southern California became available she couldn’t turn it down.

“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.

CAL FIRE has started replacing their UH-1H Super Hueys with Sikorsky Firehawks. One or two of them have been physically delivered from Sikorsky and the after-market conversion company United Rotorcraft, but none have been officially accepted from the contractors yet.

If you are having trouble playing the video, you can view it at YouTube.

The OCFA helicopter fleet

The OCFA has four helicopters, two military surplus UH-1Hs and two Bell 412EPs based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California. They both can carry up to about 360 gallons of water but are limited to around 200 gallons if the fuel tank is close to full.

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, helicopters 1 and 4

In July of last year the OCFA received a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison for Coulson Aviation to supply two helicopters that were based at Fullerton Airport. One of the ships was an S-61 with a collapsable external tank capable of night flying and hover-refilling at night. The second helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76 that worked with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The two helicopters were staffed 24/7 and available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Night flying

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to perform rescues and fight fire. They spent $25 million to purchase two Bell 412 helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.

But fast-forward to 2015 and the agency had four helicopters equipped for night flying and began a six-month pilot program in which helicopters rotated 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

Pilot Joey Heaslet said most of their flight training now is conducted at night, explaining that if you can perform a task well at night it’s even easier in daylight.

Chief Brian Fennessy

Brian Fennessy, Chief of Orange County Fire Authority
Brian Fennessy, Chief of Orange County Fire Authority

Brian Fennessy was the Chief of the San Diego Fire Department before he became OCFA Fire Chief in March of 2018. He said the UH-1Hs built in 1966 are showing their age, are challenging to maintain, and parts are becoming difficult to find —  the same issues that were identified by CAL FIRE when they made the decision to replace their Super Hueys with Firehawks. The Bell 412EPs were manufactured in 2008.

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, Helicopter 3, a UH-1H

“All four of our aircraft need to be replaced,” said the Chief who has served as Air Operations Branch Director on Incident Management Teams.

As part of the process of evaluating what the agency’s next step is after retiring the Hueys, he talked with several vendors last week at the HAI HELI-EXPO a few miles from OCFA’s headquarters. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center and about 700 exhibitors.

That evaluation process also includes a Fleet Replacement Analysis by an aviation consultant, Conklin & de Decker Associates, an organization that completed a similar study for San Diego in 2017 when Chief Fennessy was the chief there. After that study and one for Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2000 both departments purchased Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks.

The Chief said the study for OCFA has been underway for about a year and a half and he believes it is nearing completion.

Below is a table from the Conklin & de Decker study for the San Diego FD, comparing five models of helicopters:

Conklin & de Decker helicopter study
An excerpt from the study conducted by for the San Diego Fire Department in 2017.

Real-time fire mapping

Another program Orange County was involved in last year was  a 150-day pilot program that makes real time fire mapping available to firefighters on the ground. The Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling. Chief Fennessy began exploring this technology when he was in San Diego. It became real when implemented September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

Using FIRIS, heat from the fire is detected by sensors on the plane where a technician interprets the imagery and manually draws a line around the perimeter. A map is then sent through WhatsApp to cell phones of firefighters on the ground. Within about three minutes a super computer in San Diego can add a projection of the anticipated spread of the fire.

This equipment could be a major step toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

Conflicts between aviation units of OCFA and the Sheriff’s office

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has five helicopters, AS350s used for patrol and UH-1Hs with hoists for rescue.

According to the Orange County Register, in 2017 Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens decided to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas. Until then the Sheriff Department’s air fleet had taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority handled rescues. During parts of 2017 and 2018 helicopters from both agencies were appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion. At times the pilots of the Sheriff’s helicopters ignored orders from Incident Commanders to stand down. According to the Orange County Register conflicts occurred twice on April 29, 2017. In a recording of the radio traffic a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”

The interagency battle escalated to the point where the 2017-2018 Orange County grand jury launched an investigation. Their report listed a number of recommendations including having the Sheriff Department helicopters move from John Wayne Airport to co-locate with the Fire Authority at Fullerton Airport where there is unused hangar space owned by the county. The report stated, “Colocating allows public aviation units to leverage each other’s resources, gain economies of scale in maintenance and training, and encourages use of best practices.”

Carrie Braun, Director of Public Affairs and Community Engagement for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said they have discussed co-locating with the Fire Authority and those talks are ongoing.

The grand jury report includes a copy of a July, 2017 Memorandum of Agreement drafted to establish responsibilities, frequencies, and procedures for incidents where more than one helicopter is at the scene. There were several interagency meetings held to work out the details. OCFA was invited to participate, but attended only one meeting and was the only air support unit not to sign the MOU. The document has signatures for representatives of the Sheriff’s office, Highway Patrol, and two local cities, but the line for the Fire Authority’s signature is blank.

On January 27, 2020 I asked Chief Fennessy about the issue:

“That was a very ugly chapter I think in both ours and the Sheriff’s history. When I came here [in March, 2018] that was pretty embarrassing… When I was named to be the Chief the very first thing I did before I even showed up for my first day at work was I met with Sheriff Hutchens… She wanted this thing to be behind her too… Let’s tell everybody this is how we’re going to behave and this is how it’s going to work and be done with this. And literally within days if not weeks of my arrival here, not just because of me but because of the willingness on the Sheriff’s side, we made a few necessary changes within our organizations and it ended.”

“We send three helicopters generally in the summer on the report of a fire,” the Chief said, “two of ours and one of their’s. They’ve got aircraft that are capable of dropping water, why wouldn’t we? If we need to put a spotter up, a HLCO [Helicopter Coordinator], they make one of their helicopters available.”

The solution they came up with is to split the responsibility for rescues. The Sheriff’s ships respond on weekends, Friday through Sunday, and OCFA takes Monday through Thursday plus, using their night flying capability, OCFA handles all fires and rescues at night.

Ms. Braun of the Sheriff’s Department said talking points their agency prepared for an August, 2018 press conference in which Sheriff Hutchens and Chief Fennessy discussed the resolution of the helicopter response responsibilities indicate that that the Sheriff thanked the Chief for his leadership and collaboration, and felt that, “Back in January, I wasn’t sure we would be standing here today. We had tried to mediate the situation and had come to an impasse. From the moment Chief Fennessy entered the conversation, bridges were being built.”

Erickson is working on a “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”

The company also announced improvements to the Air Crane

Erickson S64F+
Erickson image

Erickson, the manufacturer and operator of the S-64 Air Crane helicopter, has announced a new venture with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company. They intend to develop a new “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”, integrating Sikorsky’s MATRIX™ Technology into a digitally enabled fire management system never-before used in night firefighting. Erickson said it will enhance cockpit awareness and flight crew safety during day and night operations.

We have asked Erickson for more information, but it sounds like it could operate with or without a pilot on board, in other words, remotely piloted or autonomous.

Sikorsky’s description of MATRIX:

Systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly their large rotorcraft safely, reliably and affordably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft.

Air Cranes, which are sometimes referred to as helitankers, can carry up to 2,650 gallons of water.

A new Air Crane model

Erickson also announced a new production line of the legacy Air Crane helicopter, introducing the S-64F+.

The upgraded model will include composite main rotor blades, an enhanced cockpit and flight control system, an improved water cannon, and what the company calls a modern engine enhancing range and fuel efficiency.

Images of helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention center at HELI-EXPO

At least 700 exhibitors and 60 helicopters were inside the Anaheim Convention center

HELI-EXPO 2020 at Anaheim
A view of one corner of HELI-EXPO 2020 at Anaheim.

As the Helicopter Association International HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California closes today, I have assembled a couple of dozen images from the event. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California and about 700 exhibitors. Needless to say, it was massive. On opening day Tuesday I logged almost 14,000 steps on my iWatch.

To see photos of helicopters during the fly-in as they landed in a parking lot outside the Convention Center, click here.

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter Firehawk
San Diego’s new Firehawk.

K_MAX HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new Firehawk, Helicopter 903.

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter
HAI photo
HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter
Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332L registered to Horizon Helicopters in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.
HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter
HP Helicopters’ Blackhawk appears to have a scooping system in addition to a conventional hover-fill snorkel hose. The version used on the Erickson Air-Crane is called a “scoop hydrofoil attachment”.

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 Anaheim helicopter
Sikorsky honored the chiefs of three fire departments whose organizations are operating Firehawks.

More photos:

Continue reading “Images of helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention center at HELI-EXPO”

Photos of helicopters arriving at HAI HELI-EXPO

More than 60 were on display inside the Anaheim Convention Center

helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
A Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332L arrives at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. It is registered to Horizon Helicopters in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Today I found time to go through some of photos from the Helicopter Association International HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California. Today, January 30, is the last day of the event that started on January 28. Most of the 60+ helicopters that are exhibited staged at the Fullerton Airport 6 miles northwest of the Anaheim Convention Center before flying to a parking lot just west of the Center.

At times there were dozens of helicopters parked at Fullerton waiting for their scheduled departure, occurring at 15-minute intervals. The convention center is across the street from Disneyland and the airspace is usually restricted over the Anaheim Resort District.

HAI HELI-EXPO at the Anaheim Convention Center helicopter landing zone
The HAI HELI-EXPO landing zone at the Anaheim Convention Center. Google Earth/Fire Aviation.

Many of the helicopters had to have their rotors removed before they were towed through one of four exhibit hall doors. The largest door is about 40 feet wide by 25 feet high. The pilots were told to arrive with “minimum fuel”, enough to return to Fullerton while abiding by FAA regulations. Towed-in aircraft had to be purged of fuel.

The 60+ helicopters will depart from HELI-EXPO Thursday, January 30, beginning at 4:00 pm following the conclusion of the show, and Friday, January 31 beginning at 7:00 am. Anyone wanting to observe may be able to get a view of the activity through a fence on S. West Street on the west side of the convention center.

helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
A Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332L arrives at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. It is registered to Horizon Helicopters in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
A Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332L arrives at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. It is registered to Horizon Helicopters in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
Helicopter arrivals at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
An AgustaWestland AW139 arrives at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
helicopter HAI HELI-EXPO arrival landing anaheim california
An AgustaWestland AW139 arrives at HAI HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California January 24, 2020. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The photos below were provided by HAI.

CAL FIRE’s new Firehawk, Helicopter 903. It has not yet been officially accepted.
Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Firehawk, Helicopter 21.
San Diego Fire Department’s new Firehawk, Helicopter 3.