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On a Rotor-Wing and a Prayer; The Final Flight of Rocky Laws

Rocky around 2007 at ASTREA Base next to a Cobra helicopter of the type he once flew in the USMC.Much has been written and said about Deputy Rocky Laws since he unexpectedly passed from this world on July 6th 2010 leaving a gigantic void in the hearts and lives of those who knew him. But perhaps no one is able to capture and describe Rocky’s personality better than his long time friend and co-worker Dan Megna. In an article for the San Diego Deputy Sheriff’s magazine the Silver Star, Dan wrote…

Rocky had a very genuine, seemingly innocent way about him. It was easy to forget what an incredibly intelligent, cunning, near-genius he really was.” “He certainly had a quiet wisdom and gentleness about him that inspired confidence, trust, and respect. I admired how Rocky was always the source of optimism and sensibility even when faced with the most difficult situation. He would always seek the proverbial silver lining.”

There is one story about Rocky that has yet to be told. The story of Rocky’s final helicopter flight, On a Rotor Wing and a Prayer.

Up to now it had been a fairly typical Tuesday morning. We were just clearing an auto theft call in San Diego’s North County when dispatch hailed us on our regional air frequency. I was working the TFO side of the ship so I answered right up. The dispatcher seemingly hesitant, advised that they had a medical aide of a “person down” out in Pine Valley, she then advised “it’s Rocky Laws.”

My heart immediately sank for a couple of reasons. First, as a patrol helicopter we do not get “routine” medical aide calls unless it is a rescue situation. Second, Rocky had recently experienced a somewhat minor medical setback that had caused him to be off work, and to consider retiring a year or two earlier than he would have liked to.

My pilot Lt. Dave McNary, pointed the helicopter toward the mountain community of Pine Valley which is a full 50 miles east of downtown San Diego, and about a 20 minute flight from our current location. Within a minute or so the dispatcher’s voice came back on the air and advised that Mercy Air (the regional medical helicopter) was also responding. This too confirmed the seriousness of the call.

The cockpit was fairly quiet until once again the dispatcher broke the silence. This time however she advised that Mercy Air had been cancelled. At this point there was nothing else that needed to be said. The fact that Mercy Air had been cancelled only meant one thing. For the final time the dispatcher’s voice came back on the air and told me what I already knew, “ASTREA I am sorry to tell you this, but Rocky didn’t make it.”

As a young member of the department I can recall the first time I heard Rocky’s name. It had to do with a patrol deputy from the Fallbrook Sub-station, who was getting transferred to our aviation division known as ASTREA. I recall someone saying that he had flown helicopters in the military, so they wanted him in the aviation unit. Over the years I would bump into Rocky at various venues and always talk to him about ASTREA and helicopters. But I would not really get to know Rocky until I received my own transfer to the air unit in 2005.

And yes, Rocky indeed flew helicopters in the military. Quoting from Dan Megna’s article again… “Prior to joining our department in the early 1980s, Rocky served with the United States Marines Corps (USMC) where he earned his wings as a helicopter pilot. He saw action in Vietnam flying Hueys, and, later on, Cobra attack helicopters. As a result of his actions during the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975, Rocky was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with V (Valor). In 1980, just prior to leaving the Marines, Rocky’s squadron supported Operation Eagle Claw in the failed hostage rescue effort in Iran.

Upon arriving in Pine Valley we quickly located the cluster of fire engines, patrol vehicles, and the ambulance in the street about a half a block from Rocky’s house. One of the ground units advised that if we landed in the “meadow” in the center of town he would send a U.S. Forest Service Officer over to pick us up. As we made our approach to the meadow I was not looking forward to coming face to face with the reality that Rocky, had within the past few minutes slipped the bounds of this earth.

The USFS Officer met us as planned and we began our short drive through the small tree covered streets toward Rocky’s address. It is quite common in the back country for the various law enforcement and fire agencies to not only work closer together, but to form a fairly tight community among themselves. I was surprised as we pulled up on scene to see that virtually every agency, local, state and federal who serves the area was present. It literally appeared that every person in a uniform in the vicinity of Pine Valley had made there way to the scene. Pine Valley Fire Station #84 and AMR Ambulance had responded to the initial call, but also present were California Highway Patrol, U.S. Forest Service Officers, members of Cal-Fire, and of course the Sheriff’s Department.

Through conversation at the scene I learned that Rocky had been out for an hour or so on a ride on his mountain bike, and was almost back home when he collapsed off of the bike. I also learned that a number of the firemen who responded knew Rocky; Some from town, and at least one young fire fighter who had flown on Rocky’s helicopter as a member of the Heli-Tack crew a few summers back.

Rocky’s fellow deputies from the Pine Valley Sub-station coordinated with the F.D. and the Medical Examiner’s Office to move Rocky back to the fire station. Rocky’s wife Louise was on scene and accompanied the contingent to the station.

As the word spread others began to arrive at the Pine Valley F.D. Former ASTREA pilot Ron Hobson arrived from even further in the back country. Cal-Fire Air Ops Battalion Chief Ray Cheney responded from Cal-Fire headquarters in El Cajon, (the Sheriff’s fire helicopters Rocky flew for the past 5 years are operated in conjunction with Cal-Fire, and with their personnel on board.)

Over the next hour or so it was determined that the Medical Examiner would have to respond and pick up Rocky. The idea was already in my mind, but in was Chief Cheney who first verbalized that Rocky should be flown back to ASTREA base in one of our Huey helicopters. It was obvious to me that this had to happen for two reasons. First, It would speed up the long and painful wait for the ME to drive all the way from San Diego, and second, Rocky’s service to his country and to the citizens of San Diego County demanded it!

The plan was approved by the M.E. and by Sheriff’s Aerial Support supervisors. Sgt. Jon Shellhammer and Deputy Dave Weldon went to work at the base to set things in motion. Deputies Tony Webber and Gene Palos were notified at home of Rocky’s passing, and of the plan to fly him back to the base. This was the perfect crew to respond. Of all the active members in our unit, Shellhammer, Palos, and Webber had worked with Rocky longer than anyone, and were as close to him as anyone.

While waiting for Webber and Palos to arrive at the base, Shellhammer, Weldon and others began making phone calls to every active and former unit member. Word also began to spread around the department that Rocky was to be flown home to ASTREA base in an hour or two. As the phone calls went out people began to respond.

Virtually every member of ASTREA (many on their days off) dropped whatever they were doing and responded to the base. Retired ASTREA pilot Dan Megna responded. Former ASTREA pilot and now Sheriff’s Sergeant Rob Smith arrived in his patrol car. Retired deputy sheriff and ASTREA fuel truck driver Catfish Williams responded from his home. ASTREA helicopter mechanics who were on their day off responded from home.

Word also spread quickly through the other units assigned to Sheriff’s Emergency Services Division at Gillespie Field; The Sheriff’s SWAT team, Bomb Arson, Reserves, Search & Rescue, and of course the entire Cal-Fire Gillespie Field Air-Ops unit. Still others responded, such as members of Sheriff’s Command Staff and deputies who knew Rocky or had worked with him somewhere in the past.

Back in Pine Valley, as we waited for the Huey that would take Rocky back to Gillespie Field, we were unaware of just how much word had spread and how many people were making their way toward the airport. After what seemed like a couple of hours we heard the familiar and unmistakable sound of Huey helicopter blades chopping their way through the air, descending into Pine Valley. A few minutes after the Fire/Rescue helicopter settled into the meadow, Deputies Palos, Webber, and Sgt. Shellhammer arrived at the fire station to greet Louise and offer their condolences.

Members of the Pine Valley Fire Department treated Rocky as one of their own. An American Flag was requisitioned and draped over Rocky as he was placed on the back of a fire truck and surrounded by firemen. We all made the 100 yard trek from the fire station to Copter 10’s location in the meadow. Rocky was transferred to the aft cabin where he would be accompanied by fellow fire pilots Webber and Palos. Louise was buckled into the front left seat in what would be her first ever helicopter ride. Sgt. Shellhammer would be piloting the ship back to the base. Lt. McNary and I climbed into the 407 and got the rotors turning as Copter 10 also came up to flight idle. The contingent of Pine Valley Firemen along with a handful of other uniformed peace officers, and even a few civilians formed a line and stood at attention next to their the fire truck as we prepared to lift off. As the skids left the ground Rocky was saluted one last time by the citizens and public safety professionals of Pine Valley.

Deputy Palos had worked it out with the Sheriff’s Communication Center that upon our arrival at the base one of us would announce over the regional air frequency that “10E51” (Rocky’s assigned ESD number) was “logging off” one final time, and was now “EOS“ (End of Shift.) Lt. McNary volunteered to handle the announcement.

The 18 minute flight back to the base was quiet. As we neared Gillespie’s air space Copter 10 and ASTREA 1 took up a loose formation, and was cleared into the air space as a flight of 2. I radioed the base that we were about 5 minutes out. We made a north arrival flying down the centerline of runway 17 to the south end of the field where A/B is located abeam the numbers 35, on the west side.

Flight of 2 landing at ASTREA Base with Rocky.As we descended toward the base I was taken back by the sheer number of people present on the ramp waiting to meet Rocky. San Diego Police Department’s ABLE helicopter and crew had responded and was parked on the ramp. All of the off duty ASTREA personnel had donned their flight suits. The entire SWAT team was wearing their issued flight suits, and all Cal-Fire members had changed from their fire fighting gear into their Class B uniforms. Sheriff’s helicopter mechanics stood in formation along with both the Reserve and Search & Rescue Sergeants along with others. Everyone had formed two opposing echelons beginning from inside the hangar and extending out onto the tarmac, leaving enough clearance for Copter 10 to land in the center of the ramp directly in front of the hangar door.

Once the rotors stopped turning the two echelons of personnel, commanded by Sgt. Rob Smith, moved out to close the gap between Copter 10 and the hangar. Upon command each echelon made a right face and stood at attention. Six of Rocky’s fellow pilots slowly carried the flag draped liter across the tarmac, between the two echelons of saluting personnel. Rocky was gently placed on a table draped with white cloth, next to his blue flight helmet. Rocky’s character and distinguished service to both his country and to the citizens of San Diego County demanded nothing less.

Moments after Rocky entered the hangar an H-60 military helicopter made a midfield crossing from south to north, via runway 35, (directly in front of our hangar) at about 900’ agl. The timing was so perfect that I wondered if they had somehow heard the news, and were paying their respects to a fellow pilot. To this day I don’t know if it was a coincidence or a planned event.

Louise Laws insisted on hugging every single person who responded to the base to meet Rocky, and thanking them for what they did. It had been a long morning. Lt. McNary and I fired up the 407 and strapped Louise in the back seat to fly her home to Pine Valley. As we lifted off I glanced back at the base one more time to see the hangar door coming down.

Bolitha James “Rocky” Laws was interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on August 16th 2010.