Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations receives Humanitarian Service Award

LA County Fire Blackhawk helicopter S-70
LA County Fire photo

Helicopter Association International (HAI) announced November 8 that the Los Angeles County (California) Fire Department Air Operations Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk helicopter teams are the 2020 recipient of the Salute to Excellence Humanitarian Service Award. The award honors the person or persons who best demonstrate the value of helicopters to the communities in which they operate by providing aid to those in need. The award will be presented January 29 at HAI’s Salute to Excellence Awards luncheon at HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 in Anaheim, California.

As wildfires once again burn throughout Southern California in 2019, this award recognizes the efforts made by the flight and ground crews of the four S-70 Firehawk helicopters while battling the 2018 Woolsey Fire, the largest wildfire on record in Los Angeles County. The fire destroyed nearly 97,000 acres, with 1,643 homes lost and more than 295,000 people evacuated at its peak.

The Woolsey Fire began midafternoon on Nov. 8, 2018, just outside of Simi Valley near the borders of Ventura County, Los Angeles County, and the City of Los Angeles. The four S-70s joined multiple other aircraft and ground crews battling the conflagration over the next four days. While the flight and ground crews rotated as necessary, the helicopters themselves were shut down only for refueling and inspection. This resulted in the four LACFDAO helicopters totaling 119.4 flight hours in the first three days—equivalent to almost an entire month’s worth of flying and maintenance in one week—completing more than 350 water drops amid winds ranging from 40 to 70 knots.

Operating on the leeward side of the flames due to high winds, LACOFD helicopters and crews were often the only aircraft working the lines. The winds kept the smoke low across the terrain and homes, forcing the crews to fly and refuel within the smoke as they realized that the only way to attack the fire was to become engulfed in it. Flying conditions quickly became almost nightlike because of the reduced visibility.

In addition to the efforts of the flight crews, the maintenance and support crews worked tirelessly on the ground. Operating in 24-hour shifts, the maintainers kept the aircraft available for every launch, ensuring they were always safe and ready to go. A majority of the 20 people on the maintenance team volunteered into the night and weekend to ensure that routine maintenance was performed efficiently and safely.

From Helicopter Association International

Progression map Woolsey Fire
Progression map of the Woolsey Fire, November 17, 2018. Perimeters produced by the Incident Management Team. Adapted by Wildfire Today.

L.A. County to purchase two new Firehawk helicopters

Tom Short
Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with Los Angeles County Fire Department, at Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department announced that they are going to purchase two additional Firehawk Helicopters. Adding two to their fleet will bring the total number of Firehawks up to seven. The Department also has five Bell 412 ships — three are the EP model and two are HP.

The last two Firehawks LA County ordered are still being outfitted for firefighting and should be operational in the next two to eight months.

Two scooping air tankers on lease from Canada are due to arrive in the County September 1.

Pilot’s view from a Firehawk

Dropping water on an active brush fire

Star Fire Los Angeles County
Pilot’s view from a Firehawk helicopter while dropping on the Star Fire in Los Angeles County, July 28, 2019. Screenshot from Mike Dubron video.

Michael Dubron, a helicopter pilot with Los Angeles County Fire, posted this impressive video shot during a drop on the Star Fire July 28, 2019. Mr. Dubron was flying a Sikorsky Firehawk, a variant of the Blackhawk converted for firefighting.

And, another:

As a bonus, below we have video posted by Mr. Dubron of cockpit video shot on the Skirball Fire in December, 2018:

14 things to know about Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations

Tom Short
Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with Los Angeles County Fire Department, at the Sikorsky display at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

On Tuesday while at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, I met Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I found him at the large Sikorsky display talking with their representatives about technical issues. Thankfully he was able to carve out some time from his schedule to talk with me.

Chief Pilot
The agency does not have a Chief Pilot; instead they have three Senior Pilots. The most senior in terms of longevity is Tom Short, who has 14,000 hours of helicopter flight time.

Number of helicopters
The fire department has ten helicopters.

Multi-mission
The ships are used for a wide variety of missions: wildfire suppression, hoisting victims, short-haul, medical transport, swift-water rescue, large animal rescue, transporting firefighters, high-rise rescue, ocean rescue, and command and control.

 Los Angeles County Bell 412
Three of Los Angeles County Bell 412 helicopters. LACFD photo.

Bell 412s
Five of the ten helicopters are Bell 412 ships. Three are the EP model and two are HP.

Firehawks
The other five are Firehawks. Two of those, S-70i models, were received in December, 2017 and are still in the process of being converted.

Converting Blackhawk to Firehawk
The primary tasks to convert a Blackhawk into a Los Angeles County FD Firehawk are to extend the main landing gear in order to install a 1,000-gallon  belly tank. The helicopters also have a 30-gallon tank that carries Class A foam concentrate which can be mixed into the main water tank. They also receive hoists, Nite Sun searchlights, and an assortment of radios.

Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopters
Three of Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopters. LACFD photo.

Retractable snorkel
The department began using retractable snorkels in 2001. The collapsable large-diameter hose flattens when rolled onto a spool.  There are two major advantages of the retractable snorkel:  the aircraft can taxi (without dragging the hose and pump on the ground) and there is no artificial speed restriction (you don’t have to worry about the hose and pump banging against the helicopter in flight).

Water pump
The snorkel hoses have an electric water pump at the lower end that pumps water up the hose and into the belly tank, filling it in about a minute.

Adding more Firehawks
The department has a plan to get five more Firehawks, but there is no funding for the acquisition.

Their first Firehawk
The department operated a Firehawk for the first time in 1998 when for four months they leased a Blackhawk with a belly tank from Sikorsky.

Single pilot certification
The Los Angeles County Fire Department is the only organization certified by Sikorsky to operate Blackhawks with a single pilot.

Contracted aircraft
For years the department has contracted for two CL-215 or CL-415 scooper air tankers and one Air-Crane helicopter during the busiest part of the wildfire season.

Night-flying
All of the department’s Firehawks are equipped for night-flying after they are fully modified.

Bonus
Los Angeles County has a population of over 10 million and encompasses 4,000 square miles. The County Fire Department has 163 fire stations.

Videos of Firehawks working the Woolsey Fire along Malibu coast

The above video shot from a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter at the Woolsey Fire as it flies near the coast at Malibu, California is very impressive — especially if you watch it in full screen.

I certainly feel for the residents of the homes seen in these images.

The next two videos show the LA County helicopters borrowing water from residential swimming pools. I expect the homeowners are more than willing to give up some of their water if it can help save their residence.

LA County FD helicopters are supporting firefighters on the ground 24-hours a day.

More information about the Woolsey Fire.

A salute to LA County Air Operations

The Fox TV station in Los Angeles honored the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Section in this video clip.

Video: LA County helicopter drops on Skirball Fire

The Skirball Fire burned 475 acres early Wednesday morning in Los Angeles and forced the closure of the 405 freeway, one of the busiest highways in the nation.