Cool, moist air limited the visibility the morning of January 26 when I stopped by the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Barton Heliport in Pacoima, California. When I arrived at 9 a.m. to report on the helicopter program there was one small hole in the low clouds, trying to let a little direct sunlight reach the ground. About 45 minutes later I was in the flight crews’ ready room with five or six people. One of them was eating scrambled eggs from a bowl when the alert tones immediately got everyone’s attention. “Copter 12, that’s us”, said the flight crew member I was talking with. “Well sir, it was nice meeting you. There are others here who can answer your questions”, he said as he walked over to the bank of radios.
Most of the Barton facility is devoted to parking and maintaining helicopters, but also located there are county shops for welding, woodworking, plumbing, and heavy equipment. I drove past a huge D-9 dozer on the way to the hangar.
The LACFD has 10 helicopters — five Bell 412s and five Sikorsky Firehawks. They are all multi-mission helicopters, equipped for fighting fire, hoisting victims, inserting personnel, and can transport individuals injured in accidents. The Bells are classified as Type 2 by the Incident Command System and can carry 360 gallons of water after most of the fuel has burned off. With a full load of fuel they usually can drop about 200 gallons of water on a vegetation fire.
The Firehawks, which are Blackhawks converted for firefighting, are Type 1 helicopters and can almost always haul about 1,000 gallons. The ships are flown by a single pilot. Steve Smith, a firefighter/paramedic, said the crew chiefs are fighter/paramedics and recently started attending a flight safety course that includes flight simulator training. One of the objectives of that training is that if the pilot becomes incapacitated they would be able to use the controls at the left seat to get the ship safely on the ground.
Back in the ready room, after the tones the dispatcher said, “West County, West County, potential plane crash”. Additional units were dispatched “since vegetation is involved”. A minute or two later the information was updated to a helicopter, not an airplane, crash.
A printer quickly spit out a small piece of paper that was given to the crew as they left the room.
The location of the incident was about 16 miles southwest of Barton Heliport in the Calabasas area east of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that burned 97,000 acres from Simi Valley south to the Pacific Ocean at Malibu.
Not knowing exactly what kind of terrain or vegetation they would find, the three-person crew, a pilot and two firefighter/paramedics, prepared for the possibility of having to lower personnel by a hoist down to the site from the hovering helicopter. Two of the men stood next to their ship and put on the harnesses. After each had conducted a safety check of the other to ensure the complex harnesses were correctly configured, they climbed on board as the pilot started the two engines and soon were airborne heading southwest.
The three remaining men listened closely to the radio in the ready room. They all pulled out their cell phones and attempted to keep up with their colleagues using flight following apps, but as Copter 12 got closer to the coast in more complex terrain the flight tracking became inconsistent. They monitored a local television station hoping to find out more about the crash.
Realizing that the remaining personnel were going to be busy for a while, I figured my best option was to get out of their hair. When I left they had not yet learned that the other crew was going to the scene of a helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, one of his daughters, the pilot, and six other passengers.
May they all rest in peace.
I found out a couple of days later that when the helicopter arrived at the scene of the accident one of the firefighter/paramedics was lowered by hoist to the ground while the other operated the hoist. The firefighter on the ground sized up the scene and gave a report by radio to the Incident Commander.
Fire engines arrived to put out the small fire. The terrain and distance from the nearest road made it a challenge to get fire hose to the site so the crewman on the ground was hoisted back up to the helicopter and then the ship landed near some of the engines and obtained hose to haul back to the fire. Then a bundle of hose and a firefighter/paramedic were lowered by hoist to the ground. Soon thereafter plenty of other emergency services personnel were on scene so Helicopter 12 was released to return to Barton Heliport.