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.
San Diego Fire-Rescue is not the only department that is adding new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopters to their aerial firefighting fleets. The finishing touches are being applied to one for Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD).
This new aircraft, Helicopter 21 (N821LA) was photographed while it was being tested in Colorado (above) on November 16 by Eric Lama, United Rotorcraft’s program manager on the Firehawk.
On November 23, 2019, the day it was ferried to LACFD’s Barton helibase in Pacoima, California it was photographed again. Helicopter 21 departed from the Denver area at 6:15 a.m PST and arrived at Barton at 4:19 p.m. PST.
United Rotorcraft converted it into a firefighting machine with extended landing gear, a 1,000 gallon firefighting tank, and a retractable snorkel system. The FAA registration number is N821LA.
Another Firehawk purchased by LACFD is in the process of being converted at United Rotorcraft in Colorado and should be delivered in the Spring of 2020. The Department announced in July that they were going to buy two more.
So if you’re keeping score, they had three Firehawks, the one delivered last week brings the number to four, the one expected next Spring will make five, and considering the July announcement there will be a total of seven. LACFD also has five Bell 412 helicopters.
It takes one or two years, at least, for an S-70i to be manufactured, painted, converted into a Firehawk, and delivered. It can also take additional weeks or months for the receiving department to further outfit the aircraft and train personnel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.