Police Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter Aviation & Beyond:

We take you inside the cockpit of law enforcement helicopters around the world while sharing knowledge and insight on how to become a police or sheriff helicopter pilot.

Final Report On 2009 New Mexico State Police Helicopter Crash Is Published

The long awaited report on the New Mexico State Police- fatal helicopter crash (June 9th, 2009) was released late last month by the NTSB.  In many ways there are no real surprises in it.  It was expected that the NTSB would find fault with the pilot's decision to take off from the remote mountain landing zone, while surrounded by inclement weather and darkness.  I don't say that to be harsh on the pilot, it was just obvious that they would find fault with it.  But the report goes much deeper than that, examining every aspect of the New Mexico State Police aviation program, the pilot's duties within the State Police, sleep habits, etc.  Essentially no stone was left unturned.  The aviation community and particularly the police aviation community should welcome such thorough investigations.

It seems so redundant to say that we must learn from others mistakes, because that is what we say each and every time we discuss one of these cases.  But it is emphatically true.  To not study, learn, and discuss incident's such as this would be simply unprofessional. 

Each of us make mistakes on a daily or weekly basis, whether flying or on the ground, that potentially could cost us our lives.  The annual death toll on our nations highways proves this to be true.  Hence the old saying "There but for the grace of God go I."  It is in that vein that we look at this report.

The number of lessons that can be drawn from it are almost to numerous to mention.  One of the most glaring however is that this rescue mission into high altitude rugged terrain, in deteriorating weather conditions, in a complex aircraft, with darkness closing in, was undertaken essentially as a single pilot operation, and without the help of NVGs.  Yes there was another officer on board.  But that officer was an un-trained air crew member who had never been up in New Mexico State's police helicopter before that fateful day.  Be assured, one cannot place any blame at his feet.  The vast majority of patrol officers on any agency would have gladly stepped up and accepted the same mission.

As an un-trained air crew member this officer likely had no idea that he was an integral part of the air crew, who has equal authority to decline a mission or decline that take off from that mountain top landing zone in inclement weather.  Even if he had understood this, he did not have any air crew experience on which to base a decision. 

True the FAA gives final authority to the pilot in command.  But as a member of an air crew, with your life as much on the line, the TFO has absolutely as much say so as the pilot.  The saying "two to go, one to say no" means that both crew members have to agree before they can launch on a mission, but it only takes one crew member to say "no" they are not comfortable with the mission.  This rule can of course be invoked at any time, during any air mission.  Just because the TFO has not yet mastered the controls of a helicopter, or passed a check ride, does not mean that his or her concerns on the safe operation of the helicopter are any less valid. 

The NTSB seemed to find plenty of fault within the New Mexico State Police air unit and command.  To include; an attitude among some of the command that was not compatible with aviation safety, staffing issues within the air unit, specifically the lack of trained TFOs, the pilot in command having split duties as public information officer, and the complete lack of any type of risk assessment. 

I will not re-hash the entire report here.  Instead I would encourage anyone who flies, whether you are a member of an air crew or not, to read the report and take your own lessons from it. 

The entire 77 page report can be read here

R.I.P Sgt. Andrew F Tingwall, and Megumi Yamamoto (student from Tokyo)

Seal Teams, Helicopters, And A Late Night Call

Since the death of Osama Bin Laden and the heroic rise of Seal Team 6 to well deserved superstar status, there has been a whole new interest in the U.S. Navy Seals and even super secret helicopters for that matter.  Who the hell knew we had super secret stealth helicopters anyway?  I like to think that our government has a whole host of super secret stealthy weapons that are about 10 to 20 years ahead of where you and I think we are, in the technological and aerospace realms. 

But all of this buzz did remind me of a call my partner and I received one night while on patrol.  Now any true Seal Team fan knows that at least initial Seal Team training occurs right here in San Diego County at the Navy Seal Training facility on Coronado Island.  For those of you not familiar with San Diego, Coronado Island is actually connected to the mainland by a long strand of earth known as the silver Strand, and by the Coronado Bay Bridge. 

Also in recent times alien smuggling has taken more and more to the ocean here in the south western corner of the U.S., whereas in the past the majority of smuggling routes were over land.  It is not uncommon these days for our deputies in Encinitas or Solana Beach to get a call of a boat that just beached on the shore line, with 30-40 undocumented immigrants running through the city's upscale neighborhoods at 4:00 in the morning.  Not a tactic that really works well by the way.

On this cool winter night Cornonado PD called and asked if we could respond to their city and check a report of a suspicious boat somewhere off shore of the Silver Strand.  We advised that we would be en-route to check the area.

Since we don't fly IFR equipped or rated helicopters, flying out over the darkened ocean at night time is a sure fire way to crash and die.  Our tactic is to fly up and down the coast while searching the ocean waters as far out as possible with our FLIR, heat sensing camera. 

On this night I was working the TFO side of the helicopter so my pilot fired up the ship, I fired up the FLIR and we were off to search out potential alien smuggling boats off of San Diego's coast.  We arrived on scene at the north end of the Silver Strand, and at the south end of the City of Coronado in the general area where the reports had come in.  My FLIR was producing a beautiful black and white, crystal clear picture of the coast line below us. 

A search of ocean waters just off shore revealed nothing, but a quick glance at the U.S. Navy Seal training facility revealed a flurry of night time activity involving the use of boats, momentarily beached on the sand.  Mystery solved.  We quickly concluded that instead of undocumented "international travelers" is was America's future elite commandos becoming one with the sea. 

Thanks guys for all you do and to borrow a line from a now retired ASTREA pilot (Danno) "I love your show!"

Feds Don't Take Kindly To Messing With Aircraft

I am not sure what the atmosphere was like prior to September 11th 2001, but I can tell you that post 9/11 the Federal Bureau of Investigation takes any incidents of assaults on aircraft seriously.  Whether that is shooting at an aircraft, or pointing a laser at an aircraft.

Now to be honest, there are so many laser incidents that I don't really get excited about reporting them anymore.  You sometimes wonder if reporting them does more harm than good anyway.

Regardless, an Orlando Florida man just felt the wrath of the Federal Justice System when he was sentenced this week to 12 1/2 years in Federal Prison for shooting at an Orange County Florida Sheriff's helicopter back in March of 2010.  The suspect, 27 year old Jason Dennis McGuire, was presumably upset about the helicopter noise, but tried to convince the jury that he was suicidal and just fired the gun up in the air, and into a palm tree. 

Not buying his argument the jury convicted McGuire on charges of attempted destruction of an aircraft, being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and for using a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. 

Twelve years in prison is a pretty serious (although well deserved) price to pay for one moment of felony stupidity. 

Source:  Orlando Sentinel

LAPD Helicopter Struck by Gunfire Over Van Nuys

Glen Grossman photo: LAPD Patrol HelicopterAn 18 year old Van Nuys resident was in custody just after 6:00 am on Easter Sunday morning after police received a call of the subject firing a gun into the air from his front lawn.  As police officers arrived on scene, along with the Los Angeles Police Helicopter, the subject began shooting at the helicopter.

According to an L.A. Times report, officers on the ground witnessed the suspect firing at the helicopter.  The suspect, Danny Lopez, was quickly tackled by his own family members  preventing further violence.  The helicopter, struck in the fuel tank, made an emergencly landing at near by Van Nuys Airport.  The police pilot and tactical flight officer were uninjured, but confirmed that the helicopter was hit by rifle fire. 

LAPD maintains one of the largest municipal police helicopter fleets in the world with the following helicopters; 12 Aerospatiale B-2 Astars, 4 Bell 206 Jet Rangers, 1 UH-1H "Huey" heliocpter, and 1 King Air 200 Fixed Wing.  In the last few years LAPD returned to a more traditional black & white patrol car type paint sceme for their fleet of patrol helicopters.

Police Helicopter Crews "Tweeting" From All Across The UK

South Yorkshire Police Helicopter: Photo- BBC NewsLaw Enforcement helicopter units have often sought ways to improve public relations, particularly when it comes to budget crunch time.  In fact many units no longer in existence wish they would have done a better job at garnering public support while the opportunity existed.   Understandably, it would not have saved every unit that has been cut due to budget issues, but strong public support for your air ops unit can never be a bad thing.

Many police aviation units in the UK have been under the budget ax just like units on this side of the pond.  In an effort for the public to better understand exactly what these police aviation units are doing, many in the UK have taken to tweeting about their routine calls, to include rescues, suspect searches and vehicle pursuits. 

West Midlands Air Support Unit

One of the units leading the “tweeting” charge is the West Midlands Police Air Support unit who began posting updates earlier this month.  In as little as 10 days the unit had more than 500 followers and had posted over 100 messages on their Twitter Account. 

West Midlands Air Support Unit Sgt. Dave Mitchell states that it gives the public and taxpayers insight into what the unit does and how their tax money is being spent.  He goes on to point out something that anyone who has ever been a member of a police air unit knows, that the crew members of law enforcement helicopters have very little public contact during normal operations. 

Think of it this way;  Most law enforcement air units are located at secure airport facilities where the public there is little to no access.  Most police air unit members show up on calls at 500’ agl, and leave the scene at the same altitude.  Even when the helicopter lands and makes contact such as in a rescue situation, the helicopter noise along with the air crew’s helmets with face shields often prevent the victim from knowing the names of their rescuers, or even what they look like. It would seem that giving the public a way to interact with law enforcement air crews would have a net positive result.

In the case of West Midlands Police, who fly a Eurocopter EC-135 worth about $5 million, Sgt. Mitchell believes that it is not only important to provide the public with more information, but also a way for the public to provide feedback.  Twitter helps to do both of these.  Lastly, Sgt. Mitchell points out that all Twitter updates are done after the crew lands, and the helicopter is shut down.  No Tweeting from the cockpits of police helicopters. 

South Yorkshire Police Helicopter Unit

Another UK police helicopter unit tweeting about their work is the South Yorkshire Police Helicopter Unit.  According to Sgt. Helen Scothern- Head of the South Yorkshire Police Air Ops Unit, most people associate the helicopter only with car chases and criminals on the run, but just as important is the role the helicopter plays in curbing anti-social behavior and intelligence gathering.  The South Yorkshire Police Air Unit covers Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster.  Last year the unit flew for around 1200 hours and responded to over 5,000 calls or events. 

East Midlands Air Support Unit

The East Midlands Air Support Unit is also getting in on the tweeting action.  Patrolling Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire from their MD902 and EC 135 (based out of Shoreham Airport & RAF Odiham respectively) the crew of East Midlands Air Support recently tweeted; ” Lutterworth waste recycling centre:  Report of crime in progress – burglary.”

Twitter search

A quick search of Twitter revealed a total of at least 7 UK police helicopter units currently tweeting about their patrol activities.  Here are the units I found along with their Twitter address;

West Midlands Police Air Support-           @WMP_Helicopter

South Yorkshire Police Air Ops Unit-        @SYP_Airops

East Midlands Air Ops Unit-                      @EMASUHelicopter

Cheshire Police Helicopter Unit-               @Cheshirecopter

Kent and Essex Police Helicopter-             @QH99

South & East Whales Air Support-             @Helicops

Wiltshire Joint Police & Ambulance Helicopter-  @Wiltsairambo

During the same Twitter search I was unable to locate even a single Police or Sheriff’s Unit in the U.S. where the actual crews are posting their activities to Twitter. 

Since most U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies have embraced social networking on some level, even if it is only to post traffic conditions, or missing persons at risk, I predict that it is only a matter of time before we see police air units in the U.S. using Twitter as a way to connect with the public about their law enforcement activities.

Sources:  The Coventry Telegraph; BBC News; Twitter.com

Enstrom Helicopters Meeting The Helicopter Demand Worldwide

Enstrom helicoptershave always struck me as the ugly duckling of the helicopter world.  But I have always liked the rugged simplistic look of the Enstrom as well, and who doesn't like an ugly duckling story anyway? 

It really makes you think that upon initial design the engineers said "screw esthetics, let's build a helicopter that will get the job done."  More and more helicopter purchasers around the world must be thinking along the same lines.  I recently received a couple of photos and press releases from Jackie Kamps at Enstrom Helicopter Corporation.

Enstrom 480B Turbine Helicopters bound for The Royal Thai Army.

Enstrom Helicopter Corp. Begins Royal Thai Army Aircraft Production

Menominee MI, March 3, 2011 – Enstrom Helicopter Corporation would like to announce that the first three, of a contracted sixteen, 480B advanced turbine training helicopters for the Royal Thai Army have been completed at the Enstrom factory.  The aircraft have been equipped with a number of advanced features, including NVG compatible cockpits, Chelton EFIS systems, and dual Wulfsberg RT-5000 tactical radio systems.

“These represent some of the most advanced aircraft we have built to date,” commented Enstrom’s Director of Engineering, Bill Taylor.  “That we were able to get them engineered and into production so quickly is a testament to our team in Menominee, and our support from the FAA’s Chicago Aircraft Certification Office.  The Royal Thai Army is going to have some very capable helicopters.”

The First Enstrom 480B on patrol with the Japan Self Defense Force.

Enstrom Delivers First Helicopter to JGSDF

Sendai, Japan, February 25, 2011 – Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has delivered the first of a planned 30 TH-480B turbine training helicopters to the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force.  The stunning blue and gold helicopter was handed over to JGSDF pilots at Enstrom’s Service Center in Japan, JAMCO, during an elaborate handover ceremony attended by JGSDF officials and the Japanese Ministry of Defense. 

“This is a great day for Enstrom,” said Enstrom Helicopter Corp. President and CEO, Jerry Mullins, who attended the ceremony.  “The 480B was originally designed as a training helicopter.  To be chosen by a highly regarded organization, such as the JGSDF, is verification of what we started out to do with the aircraft.  This is the beginning of a long relationship with the JGSDF and we couldn’t be more excited.”

For Mitsuo Hattori of Aero Facility Co. Ltd, Enstrom’s representative in Japan, it has been a long road up to this point.  “Since we won the program 12 months ago, it’s been an exciting year.  Aero Facility has expanded in size and contracted with Japan’s premier maintenance organization, JAMCO, to support the JGSDF.   Now that the infrastructure is in place, and the first aircraft is delivered, we can look forward the next 29.”

As JGSDF pilot Hiromichi Irifune departed Sendai airport in the TH-480B, with a Kawasaki OH-1 attack helicopter in tow, Mullins commented, “There’s no doubt the 480B has been recognized as a great training helicopter.  The pilots really like the helicopter and that’s the most important thing.”

There are a handfull of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. who fly Enstrom helicopters, including the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana. 

NTSB Updates Factual Report On Fatal CHP Air Crash

 CHP Officer Dan Benivides Pictured with his Cessna T206.

On February 23, 2011 the NTSB updated it's Factual Report on the fatal crash of a CHP Fixed Wing Cessna aircraft that crashed on May the 7th 2010 while on patrol in the area of Borrego Springs California.  

The pilot and sole occupant, CHP Officer Dan Benivides (39), stopped communicating with dispatch after working a speed detail with ground units.  A report of smoke eventually led searchers to the crash site on the side of a mountain in the area of Borrego Springs, in the north eastern portion of San Diego County.  Officer Benivides was fatally injured in the crash.

According to the NTSB's February 23rd update, Officer Benivides likely suffered a "cardiac event" prior to the crash, according to the San Diego County Coronor's Office.  The NTSB's factual report reads in part;

"In the medical examiner's opinion section of the report it states ".. it is possible that a cardiac event due to fibrosis and/or ischemia due to his longstanding coronary arthrosclerosis could have precipitated the crash." Updated on Feb 23 2011 2:00PM"

The following excerpt from the NTSB report talks about the final 4 minutes or so of the airplane's radar track just prior to the accident. 

"At 0940:43, the track turns southwest on a steady course of 225 degrees magnetic at 1,200 feet msl. This route was away from the highway and towards the rising mountainous terrain. The final radar return was at 0943:55, 1.7 miles northeast of the accident location. The accident location is located directly on the extended course line of 225 degrees from the last radar return, at the 1,070-foot elevation level. The highest terrain elevation in the vicinity of the accident site is 1,500 feet msl." 

The aircraft was also equipped with an auto pilot and according to CHP Officials the pilots are encouraged to use the auto pilot to lessen workload. 

The radar data coupled with the information from the San Diego County Coroner's Officer certainly leads one to conclude that the crash was most likely the result of a medical incapacitation of the pilot.  While this in no way lessens the tragedy of the loss of Officer Benivides, his family and co-workers can know that the crash was probably not pilot error, and that Officer Benivides was a professional and capable pilot and CHP Officer.

The following excerpt is from the Police Helicopter News Page and was written by me in the days following the crash:

"Officer Danny Benavides attended the 2005 CHP Air Crew course in San Diego with this writer.  Officer Benavides is the second law enforcement officer from the class of 2005 to lose his life in an air crash, the first being Deputy Kevin Patrick Blount of the Sacramento Sheriff's Office killed in the crash of his Eurocopter EC-120 helicopter on July 13th 2005.  The cause of that crash was determined to be a fuel control valve that was installed backwards at the factory.  Since 2005 Officer Benavidez had stopped into ASTREA base in his CHP fixed wing on several occassions all of which involved great conversation, swapping of airborne law enforcement stories, and a many laughs.  On at least one occassion I had taken over a vehicle pursuit from Officer Benavidez south bound on the I-15.  His voice was one that I could always recognize when it came up on the air.  It will be missed.  Police Helicopter Pilot.com sends it's condolences to the Benavides family."


NTSB Releases Preliminary Report On Pima County Sheriff Helicopter Crash

While I know it is best to wait for the full report and all of the facts.  It is still human nature to ask what went wrong.  I am asking myself if this was a tail rotor strike.......

NTSB Identification: WPR11GA115
14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Monday, January 31, 2011 in Marana, AZ
Aircraft: MCDONNELL DOUGLAS HELI CO 369FF, registration: N530RL
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 2 Serious, 1 Minor.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On January 31, 2011, about 1115 mountain standard time, a McDonnell-Douglas 369FF helicopter, N530RL, was substantially damaged during an attempted pinnacle landing on Waterman Peak near Marana, Arizona. The pilot received fatal injuries, two passengers received serious injuries, and one passenger received minor injuries. The public-use flight was operated by the Pima County Sheriff's Department (PCSD) in support of the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network (PCWIN) communications development project. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the flight.

The purpose of the flight was to enable PCWIN personnel to conduct a site survey for the planned installation of a communications-repeater tower. The helicopter departed Tucson International Airport (TUS), Tucson, Arizona, about 1050, with the PCSD pilot/deputy in the left front seat, two Pima County employees in the right front and rear seats, and a private contractor in the left rear seat. Initially, the flight was in communication with, and being tracked by, TUS local and TRACON air traffic control (ATC) facilities as it headed for the peak, located about 30 miles west-northwest of TUS.

The 1053 TUS recorded weather observation included winds from 300 degrees at 9 knots with gusts to 16 knots; visibility 10 miles; and a broken cloud layer at 7,000 feet.

The passengers reported that during the landing attempt, the helicopter either bounced or the pilot lifted off again, the nose pitched down, and then the helicopter began to spin to the right.

The helicopter tumbled and slid about 120 feet down the northeast face of the peak before it was halted by rocks and scrub vegetation.

A ground-based witness located about 1,000 feet west of and below the peak stated that the helicopter completed about four or five rotations before it disappeared from his view.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records indicated that the pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument-helicopter ratings, and a private pilot certificate with airplane single and multiengine land ratings. According to the pilot's personal flight log, he had approximately 11,500 total hours of flight experience, most of which was in helicopters. His first recorded flight in the accident helicopter make and model was in August 2008, and he had logged about 186 total hours in that equipment. In January 2011, excluding the accident flight, the pilot logged 6 flights, for a total of 7.5 hours, in the accident helicopter make and model. His most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued in February 2010. According to PCSD information, the pilot joined PCSD in November 2008, and had about 30 years experience flying helicopters for the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.

The helicopter was manufactured in 1998, and was registered to Pima County in 2008. The helicopter's most recent annual inspection was completed in April 2010, and it had accumulated about 115 hours in service between that inspection and the accident. The helicopter was equipped with an Allison (Rolls-Royce) 250-C30 series turbine engine.

During the follow-up investigation, the engine was removed and prepared for a test-run. During the test run, the engine developed rated power, and engine performance exceeded minimum values for overhauled engines, and no anomalies were noted.

San Diego Sheriff's Copter 10 Responds To Riverside County For Hoist Rescue

Rocky Laws photo, San Diego Sheriff Bell 205 Huey hoist ship.On 02-05-11 at 1239 hours, San Diego Sheriff's Copter 10 received a request from Cal Fire in Riverside County for a hoist ship. The request was for mutual aid assistance in the rescue of an injured hiker in the Aguanga area of Riverside.

The 61 year old victim, who was possibly suffering froma stroke, was in a steep canyon that was not accessible by ground. Copter 10, piloted by Sheriff's Cpl. Tony Webber, arrived on scene 27 minutes after receiving the call for help. Cal Fire Captain Jim Barthol operated the hoist while Fire Fighter Darren Sowa was lowered down to the victim.

Sowa secured the victim in a Screamer Suit and they were both hoisted up approximately 80 feet into the helicopter. The victim was flown to an airstrip less than a minute away and was handed off to Mercy Air for transport to the hospital.

Tragedy Strikes Pima County (AZ) Sheriff's Aviation Unit

Pima County Sheriff's MD530F & Helio Courier aircraft. This appears to be the same helicopter involved in the fatal crash on Monday.A Pima County Arizona Sheriff's Department helicopter with four souls on board crashed Monday morning around 1130 am while scouting an area for new communication towers.  The pilot, Loren Leonberger 60, was fatally injured in the crash.  Of the three other occupants on board the helicopter two were reported to be in serious condition and on was reported to be in critical condition. 

The civilian pilot, Leonberger, first flew helicopters with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1970.  Prior to coming to work for the Pima County Sheriff's Department he worked as a helicopter pilot for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.  The crash occurred approximately 40 miles northwest of Tucson International airport in a rugged area of Waterman Mountain, in the Ironwood Forest National Monument area.  The exact circumstances of the crash are uncertain at this time according to the FAA.

After the crash one passenger identified as Edwin Nettleton (58), a radio engineer, called 911 to report the crash and advise that he was afraid the helicopter wreckage would fall over a cliff if he attempted to climb out.  He also expressed his concern about fire.  Nettleton told dispatchers that he suffered a broken wrist in the crash.

According the rescuers on scene the helicopter did apparently tumble 100 to 150 yards down the side of the mountain before it came to rest against a tree. 

While the helicopter crash investigation is in the very early stages and it is unknown if weather played a factor, there were some reports of a hail storm approximately 3 miles from the crash site, around the time of the crash.  However, records at the Marana airport, closest to the crash site showed that winds there were calm.  

In the past the Pima County Sheriff's Department operated one MD 530F helicopter, which the same make and model helicopter reported to be involved in the crash. 

The MD 500 series helicopter is a reliable, and rugged 4 passenger helicopter well suited for off field and rescue work in- rugged terrain.  The MD 530F is the preferred patrol helicopter for many agencies including the San Diego Sheriff's Department.  One of the things that makes the MD530F popular among pilots is it's reputation for survivability in crashes. 

The Pima County Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit was featured in an article here at Police Helicopter Pilot.com back in January of 2010. 

Police Helicopter Pilot sends it's condolences to the family of the pilot, Loren Leonberger.  RIP


#6. The UFO at Flight Altitude: One day about 2 years ago I was on the pilot side of the helicopter flying patrol over the City of Escondido California when I see something go by my door. Always on the lookout for other air traffic, this unknown object sent me into a hyper vigilant state until I could determine what it was. After a little evasive action I entered a nice wide orbit and got the object back into view for both myself and the TFO to keep an eye on. Sure enough it was a standard beach variety kite, only it was flying about 800' agl over the city. It was not easy but we tracked the kite string back to a strip mall on the west side of the city. An Escondido PD motor unit contacted the wayward kite flyer. It was a Chinese business man trying to attract attention to the Chinese bakery he just opened. Don't know if kite string wrapped around the rotor head would bring a helicopter down, but we sure didn't want to find out on this day. Ok, that was not whacked out of your gourd crazy, (that's why it's number six) but still crazy.


#5 Mercedes Benz BBQ Style: One sunny morning my partner and I were on patrol when we got word that CHP was in pursuit of a car jacking suspect south bound out of Orange County. The suspect was driving a new Mercedes Benz sedan, 4 door, black. We picked up the pursuit in Carlsbad California and began tracking it S/B on the I-5 freeway. The pursuit was crazy fast hitting speeds well up around 100 mph when traffic allowed. The driver did an outstanding job of turning the inside shoulder into another high speed traffic lane. Eventually the Mercedes got caught behind a line of concrete barriers in a construction zone, and came head to head with several pieces of heavy equipment on the inside shoulder. He was completely trapped.

The driver took the foot and toe express over the center median and dodged his way through north bound traffic, which caused my partner and I to wince several times as many a vehicle came close to sending him to that the big house in the sky. The driver made his way into a quiet upscale neighborhood going from house to house and yard to yard trying his best to avoid the pesky police helicopter doing tight felony orbits directly over his head.

At about two minutes into the foot chase I glanced back to where the Mercedes Benz set trapped on the freeway shoulder to see it fully engulfed in flames. It was crazy surreal. The car did nothing to deserve this fate, it was parked peacefully on the shoulder it experienced an episode of spontaneous combustion. The black smoke pouring from the fully engulfed Mercedes Benz added a nice ambiance to the rest of our foot chase. The suspect finished off his little run with a play date with the nice police doggy. This was crazy good.

#4 Car Falls Out of Space Through Roof of Building- Seriously: One balmy summers eve we were on patrol over the sleepy hamlet of Vista California when we heard the Fire Department and deputies from the Vista Patrol station respond to a fire alarm in a commercial district of the city. It certainly was not a call for the police helicopter so we went about minding our own business waiting for the big one to come in. As units arrived on scene however we began to hear mutterings of a vehicle that was setting inside the business. Even more interesting was that the vehicle apparently entered through the roof. Say what? This made it all the more suspicious since the commercial area was pretty much flat, and there were no multi story parking structures in the area. Well we just had to see what this was all about for ourselves.

We trotted right on over and put our big spotlight down on the roof of the building. Sure enough there was a great big hole. And setting right there at the bottom of the hole was a car. A stolen car to be exact. It seems that somebody drove the stolen car to the business then used a large industrial grade fork lift to pick up the car and maneuver it over to the side of the building- lifting it as high into the air as possible, then dropping it through the roof of the structure, (OK so it didn't really fall from space but it might as well have.) Who would do such a thing? I think an angry former employee was at the top of the suspect list!

#3 Incredible Crazy Meteor Shower On Night Vision Goggles: If you think about it there is only a tiny percentage of the entire worlds population who get to experience night flight on night vision goggles. That would mostly be helicopter pilots- and then only military, medical, and police helicopter pilots/crews. Yes I am sure there are a few others individuals who get to experience this amplified natural phenomenon, but for the most part that is it.

Remember now that night vision goggles work by amplifying the ambient light somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 times (just pick whatever number works best for you.) What this means is that on a clear night on patrol in San Diego we can look north and see the commercial air traffic lined up on approach to LAX in Los Angeles. Powerful stuff I say!

Now bring on the meteor showers. These meteor showers only come around so often and if you are lucky enough to be scheduled on the night crew, at the height of one of these events of nature then strap in, sit back and enjoy because you are in for one hell-uva light show! Let me explain it this way. Some of the meators appear bright enough and close enough that for a split second your mind is telling you to take corrective action with the helicopter to avoid a collision. Now that's crazy!

#2 Perp Takes AR-15 Round to the Head But is Unfazed: Ok "perp" really is not police jargon that I have ever heard, (at least on the west coast) so I just threw it in for you CSI fans. Ok, so bad guy steals truck and goes on a mid morning burglarizing campaign on the outskirts of Escondido California and he doesn't really seem to care who sees him. This is probably due to the natural diet of methamphetamines coursing through his blood stream.

So patrol deputy in car, bad guy in stolen truck, and Sheriff's helicopter crew all meet up at the same intersection at about the same time. You guessed it, short pursuit during which the meth head finds himself trapped up a long driveway that leads to a single residence where one little old lady lives. Realizing the situation he is in, the bad guy does what any of us would do, start ramming the patrol car!

Hey why does it look like the windshield of that truck is giving off powder puffs of glass. Perhaps it's .223 rounds creating this phenomenon I am witnessing. Why yes that's exactly what that is, little .223 rounds sent down range by the deputy who did not appreciate being assaulted. Thinking that the "perp" just checked out of this world I was shocked to see him open the door, step out, and politely prone himself out on the ground. Guess the deputy missed.

Now since the deputy was by himself, and the little old lady had all of her cars parked in the garage, and since she had a great big old drive way, my pilot momentarily parked our helicopter behind the patrol car long enough to let me climb out. I placed the handcuffs on said crook while the patrol deputy continued to hold him at gunpoint.

After all was calm and serene we noticed just a trickle of blood on the side of the parolee's face so I assumed it was just a small cut from broken glass. Wrong; Emergency room doctor advised that he took a round in the head, or a major part of a round, but it apparently did a little jig and did not penetrate the skull. And what did the non-courteous driver have to say? "You guys did the right thing- You guys did the right thing." Seriously, that's what he was mumbling. Crazy!

#1 And the number one craziest thing (that I can print) that I have seen from the cockpit of a police helicopter- involves a Sheriff's K9, a Man Hole Cover, and well yes- a Naked Man. The story goes like this.

Once again we are on patrol over that sleepy little hamlet of Vista California. We hear over the radio that a deputy is in a fight with a bad guy in a local park. Units are rolling code 3 to assist their fellow deputy, and we too are pedalling the helicopter as fast as we can. During the struggle and his attempt to escape the deputy, the suspect's shirt is ripped off. Just as cover units are arriving on scene the suspect breaks free and runs into a man size storm drain opening (where part of the city's storm drain system opens up into a creek.) One of the first units on scene is a Sheriff's K9 handler who releases his dog- just as the bad guy enters the darkened tunnel. Bad guy and police dog disappear into the dark underbelly of the City with K9 handler and cover deputy in foot pursuit to catch up.

For about the next five minutes the underground foot pursuit unfolds punctuated only by the occassional garbled transmissions from the pursuing deputies. After what seemed like forever a clear transmission made it through to dispatch. The deputies advised that they they had the suspect in custody and were coming up out of a manhole cover, but they had not idea where they were. The first deputy quickly obtained an address and radioed it to dispatch. A few seconds later and we were orbiting the tiny street and open man hole cover where the suspect and K9 deputy had yet to emerge.

What I saw next was damn near disturbing. Here comes the suspect up out of the man hole, stark naked, not even a sock- with his hands cuffed behind him. Now you are probably thinking what I was thinking. How do you climb a ladder with your hands cuffed behind you. There had to be somebody below giving him a push. I'm saying these deputies deserved an award for what they went through to get their man.

So where did the clothes go? Apparently every shred of clothing was ripped off of the suspect's body by the angry police dog, in the darkened bowls of the under city. The K9 deputy later said that the suspect was in a state of sheer terror, almost in shock from his encounter with the underground monster. Naked handcuffed man emerging from a man hole in the middle of the street; The #1 craziest thing I ever saw from the cockpit of a police helicopter!



Sheriff's Helicopter Experiences In Flight Emergency

A View From Above

A Guest Article by Scott Bligh

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

The book says you’re allowed to fly up to 152 knots in ASTREA’s MD-530F helicopter. But can you, really? Well yes you can, if you get up really high, lower the nose, point it at the ground and wait you may actually reach 152 knots or 175 MPH. That’s .25 Mach or about 1/5th the speed of sound. Impressive I know.

The ASTREA day crew was in the Valley Center area heading for San Marcos to assist with a 211 bank call when they did what’s called "trading altitude for airspeed." If you remember your physics classes, altitude is like potential energy. It’s like money in the bank which you can use when needed. As the altitude (potential energy) decreases, the speed (kinetic energy) increases. As the ASTREA 1 crew of Kevin Randall and Jay Pavlenko was turning this potential energy into kinetic energy to get to that 211 call quicker, Jay noticed a "windshield anomaly," a bulge in the windshield directly in-line with his head. The windshields on our helicopters are essentially Plexiglas. Not real thick and not super strong but, until this day, certainly able to withstand the wind.

Having only been in the unit a couple weeks, he wasn’t too sure what to make of it but thought it a good idea to bring it to Kevin’s attention. Jay asked, "Is this normal?" Kevin looked over to see the windscreen bulging into the cockpit. Noting the airspeed at 122 knots, well within published limitations, Deputy Randall lowered the collective and eased back on the cyclic, essentially raising the nose to reduce the airspeed. He was too late, however, as the window imploded into Jay’s face at just under 140 MPH.

With the additional wind entering just the right side of the cockpit, the helicopter’s nose swung to the right requiring the addition of left pedal to regain "balanced flight." Deputy Randall continued to slow the aircraft to below hurricane force winds and check on Jay. He still had his head attached and no arterial spray was observed as they continued for landing at the San Marcos Patrol Station.

Inside view of missing windscreen on a San Diego Sheriff patrol helicopter.As you can see by the pictures, the edges of this glass are sharp. Jay was wearing his helmet visor in the down position and was afforded its protection which he described as saving his eyes. We have tinted visors for when the sky is bright and clear visors for night time or cloudy days. If this doesn’t demonstrate why they are important, I don’t know what does.

Safety equipment; it does a body good.

Scott Bligh is a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot turned deputy sheriff.  He has been assigned to the San Diego Sheriff's ASTREA Unit for approximately 6 years. 

Houston Police Department's Air Support Unit Turns 40

As previously reported on this site Houston PD Air Support is now approximately the third largest municipal police air support unit in the nation, behind only LAPD and LASD.  Houston Police operate primarily MD500 helicopters.  Read about them turning 40 in this article from Shephard Helicopter News in the UK. 

Houston PD takes delivery of a new MD500E in Savanna Ga. at ALEA last year.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: And the Helicopter that Built it.

I am 7000' over Palm Springs, looking almost straight down on one of the original desert playgrounds for Southern California's rich and famous. But instead of the sound or rotors whirring overhead, I hear only the sound of light chatter, and the whistle of mountain breezes blowing through the pine trees. It is one of the most relaxing places I have found to enjoy an ice cold beverage, while taking in what is without question a world class view of the desert cities below.

palmsprings_tram_view (454 x 303).jpg

Looking out over Palm Springs from about 7000' above.All this is possible due to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, considered to be one of the World’s major attractions. The Tramway itself would not have been possible if it weren’t for that lovable flying machine we call the helicopter. Yet the helicopter would not have flown if it not for a group of helicopter pilots willing to take on the eastern face of Mt. San Jacinto, one of the sheerest mountain faces in America.

If you live in Southern California or have spent any amount of time here, you have probably already experienced the exhilaration of riding the tramway, followed almost immediately by the serenity of pure alpine forests which surrounds the Mountain Station. And for anyone who has not already made the visit, it should be on top of your list of things to do when you visit the region, or when you plan your next day trip.

The Palm Springs Tramway was first conceived in the early 1930s by the young manager and engineer of the California Electric Power Company, Francis Crocker, while on a road trip to Palm Springs. However, actual construction of the tramway would not begin until a full 30 years later in August of 1962. At the time the tramway was first conceived, the helicopter did not even exist. But 30 years later, the helicopter would play a absolute critical role in it’s construction. In fact it is hard to believe that the project would have ever been completed without the versatility and delivery capabilities of vertical lift flying machines.

Your trip to the Palm Springs Tramway will likely begin with a relatively short drive (reachable within 2 hours from most cities in So Cal.) into the desert. Palm Springs is actually located 100 miles east of Los Angeles, off the I-10, and is situated at the northwestern end of the Coachella Valley. In addition to being home to over 20 golf courses and hundreds of world class resorts, the Coachella Valley is a rich agricultural area know for being the primary date growing region in the U.S.

If arriving from the northwest off of Hwy 111 (N. Palm Canyon Dr.) Tramway Rd will be the first major intersection you come to on the west side of Palm Springs. Your ascent to the mountain top actually begins the moment you turn off of Hwy 111 as the road climbs 2000’ between the highway and the lower tramway station known as the Valley Station. The Valley Station sets at an elevation of 2643’ MSL. The temperature in the Valley will range from mid 80s in the winter time to 112 in the summer time. Either way the temperature at the Mountain Station is normally a good 30 degrees cooler than the temperature in Palm Springs. A cool mountain getaway in the summer time, or a cold winter wonderland complete with cross country skiing in the winter time. And this change comes 10 minutes after stepping onto the tram car at the Valley Station.

Here is where we start to learn about the difficulty in constructing the Tramway, and just how impossible it would have been without helicopters. The Palm Springs Tramway is one of the longest Tramway’s in the world and climbs one of the highest vertical distances, just under 6000’, (over 1 mile high.) But it also covers a horizontal distance of just under 2 ½ miles. And all of this over some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the country.

 Looking down toward the valley floor.

Looking down toward the valley floor.

The rugged terrain is evident in this photo, looking down at the Valley Station.To complicate the project further, the top end of the Tramway, known as the Mountain Station, would be built on the edge of the 13,000 acre Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area. The existence of the wilderness area meant that there were no roads with which to truck in supplies to the Mountain Station, and none could be built. Every nut & bolt and every bucket of concrete would either be flown in by helicopter or sent in by pack mule from the town of Idylwild, which is a small community located on the opposite side of the mountain. But even the pack mules could only help with the construction of the Mountain Station. Between the Mountain Station and the Valley Station were 5 steel towers, set in concrete, that needed to be built. And the towers had to be capable of supporting 80 passenger tram cars and miles of heavy steel cable. Only tower #1 could be reached by road.

It was calculated at the time that if work crews had to hike in to tower #2, they would spend 5 hours a day hiking, and would only be able to work on the tower for 3 hours a day. Helicopters were the only viable solution for getting these workers, and their building materials into position each day.

 The current Tramway car with rotating floor.

The current Tramway car with rotating floor.

As your Tramway car leaves the Valley Station you’re environment begins an almost immediate transformation. In fact your ascent will take you through 5 separate “life zone” beginning with Sonoran Desert and ending with Arctic Alpine. At times your car will be hundreds of feet above ground level, and other times it will pass within a few feet of cliffs and vertical rock faces. Another engineering feature you will notice is the rotating floor of the Tramway car, providing a 360 degree view for each person on board. The two rotating cars on the Palm Springs Tramway are not only the largest, but are the first rotating tram cars in the western hemisphere, (the rotating tram cars were part of an extensive remodel in 2000.) As you reach the half way mark you will pass the only other tram car on it’s return trip to the Valley Station.Passing the "other" tram car on it's way up.

As your car passes each of the 5 towers you will experience a slight shutter and then a very mild swing in the car, just enough to either make it fun, or scary, depending on where you are on the adventure scale. You may also notice the yellow helicopter landing pads on top of each tower. And if you are a fan of Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs”, you will recognize these towers and their helicopter pads as the location of one of his recent episodes. Upon arrival at the Mountain Station you can enjoy food, adult beverages, shopping in the gift shops, and every level of hiking from a 10 minute stroll through the alpine forest or a 2 day hike to the summit of Mount San Jacinto. And of course views that will take your breath away!

 The Yellow square is a helicopter landing pad that can still be used if needed.

The Yellow square is a helicopter landing pad that can still be used if needed.

Land Here anyone?

Helicopters and the Tramway:

The tramway was probably the largest construction job ever taken on at that time utilizing the helicopter as the primary mode to move people and materials. United Helicopters of Santa Barbara Ca. was contracted to provide the helicopters and pilots. The Bell 47 G-3B helicopter with a 280 HP Lycoming Supercharged engine was chosen as the best helicopter at that time to complete the mission.

 A Bell 47 G helicopter, similar to the G-3B Supercharged helicopter used to build the tramway. Photo-Wikimedia.com

A Bell 47 G helicopter, similar to the G-3B Supercharged helicopter used to build the tramway. Photo-Wikimedia.com


The helicopter would have to climb into density altitudes at times equal to 11500’ while carrying an average load of 700 lbs. Often these loads were slung underneath the helicopter by cable. The helicopter would normally spend a full 20 minutes climbing, in order the gain the altitude it needed to deliver it’s cargo to the top of the mountain. The return flight however could be made in about 4 minutes, “yeehaw!” On a normal work day five helicopters would run all day long, flown by two shifts of pilots, each making about 16 round trips in 6 hours. When the first pilot was done, he would hop out, and the second shift pilot would jump in and begin his 16 round trips to the top of the mountain.

In order to complete construction, it is estimate that over 23000 trips were made by helicopter to various points on the mountain, with over 5,500 tons of material being delivered. This constituted about 6,800 hours of flight time, and all without a single crash or serious injury! (See Foot Note Regarding This Statement).

Each time I gaze upon Mount San Jacinto’s unforgiving eastern face, I am in awe that so many helicopter flights could be made into such harsh terrain, without a single mishap or serious injury. Any helicopter pilot who has been tormented with LTE (loss of tail rotor effectiveness) or found themselves in a tight spot while at the very top of the power curve, knows what I am talking about. Even with a superbly engineered helicopter such as the Bell 47, and pilots with skill and nerves of steel, it is still nothing short of a miracle.

So the next time you are in Palm Springs, take a ride on the Tramway to the top of the world, and know that it was all made possible by the most interesting flying machine known to man, and a whole lot of left pedal!

P.S.  Mount San Jacinto and all of it's rugged wilderness falls within the jurisdiction of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, and it's Aviation Unit.  Assisted by local Mountain Rescue experts, Riverside S.O. performs numerous search and rescue operations in the area every year.

Note- I recently received an email from Richard Hart with National Helicopter in Encino Ca.  with the following comments.  I felt that it was important to include them here. 

"While much of what is said is true, there were however 3 deaths and several accidents that occurred during construction. One accident involved one helicopter landing on top of another on one of the helipads, killing 2. The founder of United Helicopters, Ralph Banks contracted with many of us to supply additional aircraft when needed in order to meet deadlines.

Don Landell was Ralph's first chief pilot and was known as quite an aggressive foreman on the job. The way the job was bid and awarded, unfortunately created a situation in which a huge amount of money was lost, as the more hours that were flown, the less per flight hour was earned. We all know how this does not work with helicopters. This job was bid on by many of us at the time, it was awarded to Ralph with him thinking he could complete the job in a particular amount of flight time and the awarding agency realizing that they would actually pay less if it took longer. United Helicopters went out of business.

Needless to say, the construction of the Tramway represents a spectacular achievement with what are considered today to be under-powered aircraft. We did a lot of mountain construction in those days with Bell 47's that still stands today, a testament to the flying ability of the pilots of that age."

Thanks Richard for setting the record straight.  My source for the no accidents comes from information posted inside the Tramway stations.  Makes you wonder who re-wrote history? 

The Helicopter Safety Brief: Not a Time to Sugar Coat Things- Helicopters are Still Crashing!

Both the FAA and Unit Policy requires that you give a safety brief to any passengers you place in your aircraft.  In the helicopter unit, the part of the brief I focused on most was the potential for items to depart a person's body, or depart the cockpit of the helicopter and go into the tail rotor.  I always made sure that my passengers knew that if something goes into the tail rotor, the chances of us all dying were pretty high. 

As professional pilots most of us spend a considerable amount of time, and mental energy studying various crashes, why they occurred and how they could have been prevented.  We talk to other pilots, old pilots, and mechanics.  We swap stories that we hear, study news stories, and we follow up on crashes by studying the NTSB's results or professional articles written by experts. 

There is one crash sequence that has plagued helicopters since the beginning, and that is items departing the cockpit or cabin of the aircraft and flying into the tail rotor.  Most helicopter experts agree that the tail rotor is one of the most vulnerable and important components of the ship.  It not only spins about 4 times faster than the main rotor, but it's location way out at the end of the tail boom is critically factored into the helicopter's weight and balance.  When tail rotors and their gear-boxes depart helicopters the situation is almost instantly tragic. 

There is a story recounted by many helicopter flight instructors of a helicopter many years ago, that was taken down by the tiny aluminum pull tab from a soda can.  Remember the old style pull tabs on soda cans that came off in your hand.  The way the story goes is that investigators found a part of a pull tab in the leading edge of a piece of the tail rotor recovered from the fatal crash.  Tab departs cockpit, embeds itself in leading edge of tail rotor blade, causes tail rotor to delaminate and come apart, throws tail rotor out of balance causing tail rotor and gear box to depart aircraft, helicopter now severely out of balance and unable to maintain level flight.  Many tail rotors today have metal strips on the leading edge to prevent delamination, but this does not protect against larger objects. 

Another flight instructor tells the story of a preacher who traveled by small helicopter.  According to this instructor, the preacher's bible which had been setting on the passenger seat, departed the aircraft and took out the tail rotor.  Once again the results were immediately fatal. 

This week I received an email from one of our helicopter mechanics who is also a pilot, and has worked for many years in the industry.  The email contained the preliminary NTSB report of a fatal (x3) helicopter crash that occurred in Kamiah Idaho on August 31st of this year.  The email further indicated that the pilot was a friend and was well known to a couple of our mechanics.  Tragically, the 9000 hour pilot and both passengers lost their lives when a metal clip board, belonging to a state employed biologist, departed the cabin the contacted the tail rotor.  There is no doubt that this pilot was profoundly aware of the consequences of an items going into the tail rotor.  And while I don't know for sure, it is just as likely that the passengers were briefed about these exact dangers.  Yet somehow it still occurred and three lives were lost. 

File photo of a military version of the Hiller UH 12E; Wikimedia.com photoOnce again we learn from the mistakes of others.  It is not enough to simply brief your passengers, we must be ever vigilant and know that the cockpit and all items in it are secure.  It is not a time to be nice! 

The preliminary report follows;

NTSB Identification: WPR10FA440
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Tuesday, August 31, 2010 in Kamiah, ID
Aircraft: HILLER UH 12E, registration: N67264

Injuries: 3 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On August 31, 2010, about 0920 Pacific daylight time, a Hiller UH 12E helicopter, N67264, was substantially damaged when it impacted utility lines, a travel trailer, and the ground in Kamiah, Idaho, about 35 minutes after departure. The commercial pilot and the two passengers, both of whom were employees of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), were fatally injured. The flight was operated under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the contract survey flight.

According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the helicopter was manufactured in 1965, and was converted to turbine power in 1981. According to the owner of the company that owned the helicopter, the pilot was an employee of that company, and IDFG had chartered the helicopter for a wildlife survey of a local river. The pilot had approximately 9,000 total hours of flight experience, including approximately 300 in the accident helicopter make and model.

The helicopter departed from the company's private facility in Clarkston, Washington, with the female passenger in the right seat, the pilot in the center seat, and the male passenger in the left seat. The helicopter was supposed to make an en route fuel stop at a company fuel depot, and then conduct the survey. The flight was not scheduled to land at Kamiah. Per the IDFG contract, the helicopter participated in an automated flight following program, and the pilot could communicate on a state-sponsored radio communications network called "StateComm." Shortly before the accident, the pilot announced on StateComm that he was landing in Kamiah. No further transmissions were received from the helicopter.

Several eyewitnesses in Kamiah reported that they observed objects separating or falling from the helicopter just prior to impact. The main wreckage, which consisted of the cabin, tail boom, and main rotor system, was located in a driveway of a residence. A debris path that was oriented back along the helicopter's flight path, and that measured approximately 1,500 feet in length, was comprised of various items from the helicopter. Some of the earliest items in the debris path included segments of a metal clipboard that belonged to one of the passengers, and the outboard segments of the two tail rotor blades. One of the tail rotor blades exhibited leading edge crush damage that was continuous across the fracture line, and the clipboard segments exhibited crease lines and paint transfer marks consistent with the tail rotor blade dimensions and colors.

About the time of the accident, the recorded weather at an airport 49 miles west-northwest of Kamiah included winds of 4 knots from 020 degrees; temperature 14 degrees C; and few clouds at 6,500 feet.Index for Aug2010 | Index of months

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.