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By Steve Goldsworthy - Sensory overload is all I can think of as I strap on a Gentex helmet, hook up my full body harness to a restraint hook, and sink into my seat as the giant Sikorsky H3H helicopter lifts off into the fog.

 

In seconds that big open sliding door reveals nothing but grey as we climb out IFR from KLGB. From my seatLASD I can watch the pilots as they call out altitudes, turns and VOR headings. A few seconds later, we are on top, but since we are still on an IFR departure, we’re still flying on the gauges.

 

It’s only one minute later when we get our first call. A traffic accident victim is down below us in the fog. He was working on his broken down car on the right shoulder of the Pomona freeway when he was rear ended and trapped under his own car. With some major injuries he needs to be flown to a trauma center. In just minutes we find a route under the fog layer and we are circling, of all places, a large parking lot at a mortuary where the LA County Fire Department has set up our LZ. We don’t even shut down as the victim is wheeled on board and we leave earth in a rather steep departure. “Advise USC we are 4 minutes out,” I hear one of the pilots telling Sgt. Kubly, our crewchief. Only with a helicopter could you travel those miles in 4 minutes. Anyone who has tried to drive the Pomona Freeway in Los Angeles can vouch for that.

 

There are six of us on board Air Rescue 5 today. Three are members of the elite Special Enforcement Bureau. Sgt. Kubly is the crew chief. He not only runs the winch, he runs the entire rescue operation on board. Two SEB paramedics are on board to treat any victims. SEB is also home of the LA County Sheriff’s SWAT team, rescue dive team, a group of ground based rescue paramedics, armored vehicles and a slew of high tech ways to put a bad guy into custody. The two pilots on board are both senior members of the Aero Bureau. So in a sense, the department has taken the best of both worlds, and combined these units into one very special and very elite rescue helicopter crew. Sheriff’s Air Rescue 5.

 

The sixth person today is, well, me.

 

We depart the hospital and are en route to a missing person in the Angeles National Forest. The 77 year old man is an avid hiker and ground teams have located his vehicle on a mountain road. After searching for 45 minutes we have exhausted all possible routes he could have travelled and we head to home base, Barley Flats. At an elevation of 5600 feet, it offers wide views of the mountains and serves as a launch pad for Air Rescue 5 – appropriate since the entire mountain top used to be a Nike missile base. But Aero Bureau is not only about rescues.

 

Los Angeles County is a big place. If it were a state, it would be the 9th largest state by population. It covers 4,084 square miles. LA Sheriff’s Aero Bureau serves over 4 million residents in the unincorporated county areas with a fleet of H3’s, Cessna fixed wing and the workhorse AS350 B2.

 

They handle this diverse area currently with twelve B2’s and are in the middle of a replacement project to bring on a total of fourteen new ships. When asked about the additional two new aircraft Aero Bureau Captain Louis Duran said, “This will allow us to expand our operation and place two B2’s up at Brackett Airport. There are times when Long Beach is IFR and we can’t get up into the northern areas where the weather is VFR.”

 

Captain Duran is not your ordinary unit commander on the department. You see, Captain Duran is himself a helicopter pilot. I asked one of the deputies about that. “Captain Duran is willing to suit up and go 10-8 anytime,” I was told. “He tries to work to fill in some of the missing shifts,” explains another. No overtime and unfilled slots are a reality in today’s economic times. I’m immediately impressed by those statements. Asking around, I hear how important it is that the man at the top of their unit also be a pilot.

 

So what does it take to become a member of the LASD Aero Bureau? “We start with deputies, you have to be a patrol deputy first, and then you can apply into our unit,” says Sgt. Morrie Zager. “We require applicants to LASDpay for and receive their FAA Rotorcraft at the private level. If they are accepted into our unit, we will take them up to their commercial rotorcraft certificate. Then they work as Tactical Flight Deputies (TFD) for as long as five years, just depending on when we have a pilot position open up. Once in as a pilot, you will receive extensive training in the AStar B2 aircraft. After 5000 hours of AStar time, you are eligible to start flying the H3 aircraft,” Zager explains.

 

It’s a long road, no doubt. And with 10,000 sworn personnel and only 14 TFD positions, it’s a very long shot. But now it’s my chance to jump in for an evening shift on board one of the patrol ships. We take off and fly the night skies looking for trouble. With as many as ten radios blaring into my headset, it doesn’t take long for us to find it. In the Pico Rivera area, now out comes a burglary call. Two subjects were seen entering a back yard, resident not at home. In seconds we are diving down to 300AGL and in a left orbit over the house. Deputies are coordinating their response on the radio, but we are already overhead watching both subjects. After a few minutes, a perimeter is established, both subjects are taken down at gunpoint and handcuffed. We don’t stick around to see the eventual outcome, as we’re off fishing in another spot.

 

I ask my pilot what he learned to fly in and I’m not surprised when he tells me a Robinson R22. “What was that transition like?” I ask. “Just more systems in the Astar, hydraulics, of course, learning the turbine. It didn’t take long to get used to,” he says.

 

It’s obvious why they fly the B2. It’s a very stable platform. It’s fast, it’s very powerful, yet small enough to be very nimble in the air. It lands in just a fraction of space off your standard sized helipad. There is room for six, but normal patrols are just with two deputies.

 

“All the ships are exactly the same,” explains Sgt. Morey Zager. “Except for one which is equipped with pop out floats and a turn/bank indicator. We use that ship for Catalina Island.”  LA is a diverse place. Islands, mountains, deserts, national forests – not what most people think of Los Angeles.

 

It’s dark. The criminals think their getaway is assured. Then, out of the night sky comes a light moving straight at them at 120 knots and suddenly 16 million candlepower puts them in the spotlight they were hoping to avoid. It’s another burglary call and this time we spot two suspects at a nearby park. Deputies are on them in seconds. I ask my TFD about his job. “I guess any job becomes routine after awhile, but I still love catching the bad guys, we all do,” he says enthusiastically.

 

To find out how they operate all these aircraft safely I sit down with Sgt. Jonathan Brick. He administers their SMS system and he shows me some recent mechanical incidents. “Anyone can log in and see the incident, what was reported, and eventually what our mechanics found,” he says. He uses the system that HAI promotes on their website and has found it effective. We talk about the re-current training and the use of simulators for the H3 pilots.

 

“You should have been here the other day,” says one of the Sikorsky pilots. “We had sixty four firemen we had to transport to Catalina (Island). We took them over sixteen at a time, with all their gear.” Add in a crew of five and there are not many helicopters that can do that. I ask the pilot about his available power when he’s loaded with personnel like that. “Down here at sea level, this ship is a workhorse, no problem with power at all. When we get up into the higher mountains, that’s when we start shedding excess weight,” says the pilot. I mention that some of the peaks just outside of Los Angeles approach 9000 feet. “Yeah, but that’s just altitude, it can get hot up there as well,” the pilot explains.

 

I ask how he learned to fly. “I started out getting my fixed wing, then transitioned into the R-22. I knew I wanted to get into this unit from the start,” he said. I ask another Sikorsky pilot what his one most memorable event is in Air 5. Without hesitating, he answers, “Hurricane Katrina.” The LA Sheriffs flew their ship and crew out to support the gulf states when the hurricane struck. “It was constant rescues for days,” he recalls.

 

But what about maintenance on the big ship? With costs mounting and some multi-million dollar inspections creeping up on the old H3’s, Captain Duran sees a better use of taxpayer funds to simply buy a few new ships. The H3, originally conceived in the mid-1950’s and first flown in 1959, is just too old to keep airworthyLASD anymore. “We just cannot afford to keep the H3’s in the air. I can actually save monies by moving into another aircraft,” Duran says.

 

Last summer, Air 5 pilots Tom Bogdan and Mark Burnett were doing a check flight after some major maintenance had been completed. The ship, originally built in 1967, had accumulated just over 13,000 hours of flight time. They were in a hover at 1000AGL over the water just south of their base at Long Beach, CA.  Pilot Tom Bogdon was seated in the left seat and at the controls while Pilot Mark Burnett was right seat (PIC) executing the maintenance procedures and controlling the throttles. As he was advancing the #1 engine and reducing the #2 engine, he heard a loud whirring sound. Mark told me his first thought was, “It’s about time these strange sounds happen when there are some maintenance staff on board!” Seconds later a loud snap was heard and Mark said he began to feel the aircraft settling and rocking from side to side. Mark, the senior of the two pilots with 8 years flying the H3, said, “I have the controls,” and immediately dropped collective and pushed the nose over to obtain an autorotation profile. Looking around all Mark could see was water. “It looked like we would be making a water landing, and water landings have uncertain outcomes,” he said. He remembers his partner Tom making a mayday call that they were going in.

 

“I wouldn’t describe what I was seeing as tunnel vision, it was more like looking through a straw,” Mark says. He glanced at the instrument panel and noticed the whole #2 engine panel was dead, but the gauges for the number #1 engine seemed normal. “When you’re the pilot with your hands on the controls you can feel the helicopter speak to you. I could tell as I started raising the collective that the ship was responding. I was watching the gauges, and then I realized I haven’t lost both engines, I still have one,” he remembers.

 

Mark realized Tom couldn’t feel what he could, so he updated Tom on their situation and Tom revised his Mayday call to Long Beach Tower. Cleared to land on any runway, it seemed for a second that the worst was now behind them.

 

Two mechanics were along for the checkride and one noticed the oil which was now gushing out of the main rotor gearbox, spilling outside the ship and several gallons pouring inside.

 

“I remember the mechanic coming up on the ICS. I distinctly remember him saying, ‘You have to land now,’” he recalls. At this point they were less than three minutes out from the airfield. What they didn’t know was they were losing gear box oil at an alarming rate. I remember checking the gauges; I never got a chip light or any indication that we were losing fluids. My partner Tom looked over his right shoulder and could see the oil. “It wasn’t dripping,” says Mark, he told me it was “gushing out.”

 

“Just when you thought it was all under control,” I said. What did you do then? Mark looked immediately under him and to his right side. “I saw houses, wires, everything that you don’t want to see when looking for a place to land.” He knew he had to get it on the ground, and fast. Tom was doing an emergency drop of fuel to offload 1500 pounds of weight they wouldn’t need.

 

It was then that Mark spotted the fields. The Long Beach Polytechnic High School has two fields side by side. “One is the football field and the other the baseball field. I turned almost due east and I would have had to land across the short end of the football field. The baseball field had this huge outfield area, no wires, no people on the ground, nothing to get in the way, so I headed for that. I flared hard near the ground because I knew I might not have enough power from the one engine to hover. So we did a short run on landing, about 30 or 40 feet,” Mark explains.

 

The mechanics jumped out of the side cargo door to look for fire. They had seen some sparks coming from the MGB and wanted to make sure there wasn’t any fire starting. Both pilots went through the shut down procedure and exited the aircraft.  Nobody hurt, nothing bent – I would have to say it was a perfect landing.

 

LASDThe entire event lasted sometime around two minutes. In that short time, it was estimated that eight of the 12 gallons of oil in the main rotor gearbox was gone. Later investigation revealed that the driveshaft of the #2 engine was sheared at the main rotor gearbox. The T bolts on the gearbox input coupling were missing, having been turned into ballistic missiles when you’re part of a system that is turning at 19,000 RPM.

 

Theories exist as to why it happened, however, “When that shaft broke, suddenly the engine has no load, so the RPM increases,” explains Mark. Once it hits the upper limits, the fuel control shuts the engine down. In a unique twist, had the other engine tried to take on the entire load of the aircraft, the coupling may have disconnected itself, leading to the #1 engine exceeding RPM and shutting down.  “Surely there must be a way to relight the turbine in that event,” I inquired. Nope, the H3 does not have an auto relight system.

 

Mark sighs momentarily and says, “It sure would be nice to fly a certified aircraft that the manufacturer still supports. Remember the H3 was designed in the 1950s. Not exactly the latest technology. The problem is it’s hard to replace. Not just due to monies, but due to its capabilities.”

 

Last month, Aero Bureau got their wish when the LA County Board of Supervisors approved a $43 million dollar acquisition of three previously owned Eurocopter AS332L1 Super Puma Helicopters. Included in the deal was over $1 million dollars worth of spare parts, tooling and an on going maintenance package for the turbine engines.

 

I asked Mark for some advice for pilots in emergency situations. “Just fly the aircraft,” Mark says. “Forget everything else and just fly it. With twin engines we tend to forget some of the EPs we were taught in single engine ships. When you’re hit with a major failure like this, you need to get the ship on the ground now,” he comments.

 

 

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