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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

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. 

Rescue of Rock Climbers Trapped by Fire- Tests Limits of San Diego Sheriff Helicopter Crew,


The phone has been ringing off the hook at ASTREA base since Sunday morning, with news reporters from around the county trying to get their hands, or their cameras, on any breathing deputy involved in the dramatic rescue of two rock climbers on Saturday afternoon.  In reality there were more than just 2 people rescued from a sudden raging wildfire that broke out near the south base of El Cajon Mountain at around 1:30 pm. 

Just to remind readers, the San Diego Sheriff's Department, in addition to operating 5 law enforcement patrol helicopters, operate 2 medium lift Fire/Rescue helicopters in conjunction with Cal-Fire, (formerly California Department of Forestry.)  What this means is the two Bell 205++ (Huey) helicopters are owned by the County of San Diego, piloted by sworn deputy sheriff pilots, with a Cal-Fire Captain occupying the left front seat, and a full Cal-Fire Heli-attack crew in the back, (on one of the ships).  It is a joint operation that has proven to be not only harmonious, but a very effective fire fighting asset. 

To set the stage;  El Cajon Mountain, (also known to many locals as El Capitan Mountain) lies just about 5 miles east of Lakeside California.  It is bordered on one side by El Capitan Reservoir, the obvious source for the confusion of whether it is El Cajon Mountain or simply "El Cap."  The mountain rises to a height of roughly 3,675' with a distinct rock face on the south side which is very popular in the rock climbing community.  In fact "El Cap" is one of the most recognizable mountains all of San Diego County often serving as a navigational landmark for those return flights to ASTREA Base from east county, particularly when flying at night on NVGs.  

When the call of a "vegetation" fire came over the fire radios, Deputies Dave Weldon and Gene Palos responded with their Cal-Fire counterparts in Copters 10 & 12.  At about the same time, the Sheriff's patrol helicopter crew, Deputies Scott Bligh and Gary Kneeshaw were advised of two rock climbers who were on the side of El Cajon Mountain.  The two climbers, a male and a female, had called 911 on their cell phone and advised that they were on the rock face above the fire, and were OK for now, but they wanted authorities to know they were there.  Deputies Weldon and Palos, en-route in their fire helicopters also received this information.  

Due to the amount of fire aircraft that would soon be flooding into the area, and the fact that the 2 rock climbers indicated they were OK for now, the ASTREA patrol helicopter crew elected to stay out of the area and monitor the radio traffic.  

Fire Pilots Palos and Weldon were some of the first fire fighting aircraft to arrive in the area.  As they sized up the fire they received another report of 8 people on a ranch on top of El Cajon Mountain who were afraid that they were going to soon be trapped by the fire.  Deputy Weldon pointed his Bell 205 helicopter toward the ranch which sets on a grassy and beautiful plateau on the south east side of El Cajon Mountain.  As Weldon touched down on the ranch he noticed that the group consisted largley of younger children, and older adults.  He got the feeling that there were a few grandparents and grandkids in the group.  Weldon loaded the first 4 people on and headed for El Monte Campground at the south base of the mountain.  

At some point during the short flight Deputy Weldon asked the communications center to check on the 2 rock climbers, and see if they were OK.  Monte Vista Fire dispatch came up on the air and advised that they had just received a call from the two climbers, who advised that they were now in fear of being overrun by the fire.  Weldon dropped off the first 4 people at the camp ground and started the flight back for the next 4 people waiting at the ranch.  The climbers originally advised that they were 3/4 of the way up the mountain, in the rocks.  On the return flight, Weldon and his Cal-Fire partner Tod Ocarrol looked for the two climbers, but did not see them on the vast south face of the mountain.  Weldon began prodding the Comm. Center to see if a lat & long was recorded on any of the 911 calls that the climbers had made.  Many cell phones today are equipped with the technology to provide latitude and longitude coordinates to authorities or to the cell phone company.  Deputy Weldon remained persistent at requesting coordinates from the cell phone.  Eventually, one of the dispatch centers, possibly Monte Vista advised that they did in fact have some possible coordinates for the phone. 

In the mean time Weldon picked up the second group of four people from the ranch and flew them down to El Monte Park.  They now plugged the lat and long coordinates into the Aero Computers Moving Map on board the helicopter, and instantly had a promising location for the climbers 2 1/2 miles north east of El Monte Park.  Weldon and Ocarrol knew that the distance and heading to the lat & long coordinates would put them directly on the south face of the mountain, and strong indication that the coordinates were valid!    

While Weldon and his partner were working to pinpoint the position of the two trapped climbers, the crew of ASTREA 1, Pilot Scott Bligh and TFO Gary Kneeshaw, elected to launch and do what they could to assist.  Both Bligh and Kneeshaw knew that their smaller MD530F helicopter could perform "toe in" or "one skid" rescues in areas where the larger fire/rescue helicopter could not get into.  The added benefit is that they could also do this much quicker than performing a full on hoist rescue using the larger aircraft.

Weldon and Captain Ocarrol flew directly to the lat and long coordinated pinpointed on their Aero Computers moving map and almost immediately located the to trapped climbers on a rock ledge, with the fire moving toward them.  Over the fire aircraft radios Weldon called a halt to fire fighting efforts, declared an emergency on the fire frequencies, and cleared the immediate area of all other aircraft.  He then positioned his helicopter into a high hover directly over the two climbers.  Weldon now communicated his position and the position of the hikers to the crew of ASTREA 1. 

Deputy Bligh wasted no time in performing a toe in landing near the two climbers, allowing Kneeshaw to exit the helicopter and place the female climber in the right front seat that he just vacated.  While the smaller MD500s are perfect for this type of work, the only drawback is that the people being rescued often have to be flown out one at a time.  This is due to both weight and balance issues, and most often the fact that the front seat is the only seat accessible to load a passenger when the helicopter is performing a toe in landing, (as the back of the skids are generally hanging off the side of the mountain or rock face.)

This is an untouched photo of Bligh performing the first toe in to pick up the female climber. Look closly for the helicopter near the black dot.Deputy Bligh backed away from the rock face and began following the mountainous terrain through the smoke toward, El Monte Park, to drop off his passenger.  Back in the air he began to make his way through the smoky haze to the spot where Deputy Kneeshaw and the male hiker waited to be picked up.  It is around this point in time when the rescue operation made a dramatic turn from being an above average-difficult rescue, to being a true life threatening- almost near death experience for the three remaining participants, Bligh, Kneeshaw, and the male rock climber.

While Bligh had been dropping of the female climber, the fire below Kneeshaw and the remaining climber began to roll up the mountain face very rapidly, whipped by westerly winds.  Kneeshaw, fearing that he was about to be overrun by the flames, began transmitting the emergency over the regional air frequency.  Deputy Kneeshaw and the rock climber, now partners in survival began to make their way laterally across the face of the mountain to try to out manuveur the fire, but could only move a short distance before their path became blocked by the rugged terrain.  Deputy Bligh navigated his way toward Kneeshaw's location as rapidly as his helicopter's turbine engine and the reduced visibility would allow, while Deputy Weldon and Cal-Fire Capt. Ocarrol attempted to throw Kneeshaw a lifeline in the form of where best to take shelter if being overrun by the fire.  Weldon also began calling for other Fire Fighting helicopters to make water drops on the fire immediately below Kneeshaw's position.  Deputy Gene Palos was moving into position to make the first water drop when Bligh announced over the air that he had Kneeshaw and the male climber in sight.  Deputy Palos aborted his water drop and moved out of the area to allow Bligh to move in for another toe in landing. 

By this time Deputy Weldon has lost sight of Kneeshaw on the rock ledge as the smoke from the advancing fire had rolled over the top of their location. 

Deputy Kneeshaw looked up to finally see a yellow light coming toward him through the smoky haze.  It was the landing light on the front of his patrol helicopter coming back to get him. 

Deputy Bligh fought through the smoke, tearing-burning eyes, and embers hitting his face to effect the toe in landing.   But the wildfire environment had not played it's final card.  As Bligh made his approach to the rock ledge he was hit with a powerful gust of wind most likely created by the fire itself.  The wind turned the helicopter almost a full 180 degrees demanding the addition of power and the application of tons of left pedal (which also demands even more power) in order to control the aircraft.  The sudden application of that much power caused a condition known as "rotor droop" where the rotor rpm droops.  This droop in rpm sets off warning bells and whistles in the cockpit know as the "engine out" or "low rotor rpm" warning light and audible tone.  In a nutshell it sends a message to the pilot that you may have just lost your engine and are about to crash.  Under normal flight conditions this warning light and tone is enough to make one's heart skip a beat.   But under the circumstances Deputy Bligh was faced with it would take all of his mental focus and determination to maintian his situational awareness, control the helicopter, and make the determination that he still had a working engine and an airworthy helicopter. 

Deputy Bligh placed the front of the helicopter's skids against the face of the mountain while Deputy Kneeshaw shoved the rock climber into the empty TFO seat.  Kneeshaw took up a standing position on the right skid abeam the opened cockpit door, securing himself by holding onto the external and internal hand holds.  Not wanting to be left behind again he shouted at Bligh to "Go!"  The now rescued rock climber further secured Kneeshaw to the helicopter by grasping on to the front of his gunbelt.  Once again Bligh backed the 530F away from the rock face and used the mountain terrain to guide his way through the smoke and to the safety of El Monte Park and solid ground. 

In aircraft accident investigations it is common to identify numerous "links"  in the chain of events that led up to the accident.  But the same is also true when a challenging and very difficult rescue such as this is performed without injury and without damage to equipment.  There were many things in the chain of events that led to a positive outcome and a successful rescue in this situation.  It had the potential to be much worse for everyone involved. 

It is sometimes easy to think that being a member of a law enforcement or fire/rescue helicopter crew is all fun and games.  I think Deputies Bligh and Kneeshaw would beg to differ.  

Outstanding job by everyone involved!    

Look for these guys to be at least be front runners for next years ALEA air crew of the year award.        

San Diego Sheriff Helicopter Photo Dragged Into Political Media Circus

San Diego Sheriff ASTREA MD530F Helicopter & SWAT deputiesA photo of a San Diego Sheriff's helicopter with three SWAT team members has been thrust into the center of a political media circus, at least by the radical left blog/website, talkingpointsmedia.com.  Obviously a knock off of the Bill Orielly Fox News "Talking Points Memo". 

Look this is not a political website and I will not enter into the political fray.  But the San Diego Sheriff's Department, Deputy Marshall Abbott, and even the Sheriff's ASTREA Aviation Unit are taking an undeserved political beating, at least by the far left radical bloggers, headed up by talkingpointsmemo.com.

This all stems from a noise complaint by a neighbor in the seaside community of Cardiff By The Sea, (Encinitas Ca.) during a democratic fundraising event by democratic congressional hopeful Francine Busby of the 50th congressional district. 

I will not get into the particulars of the case as I will leave that up to the various department investigators and external media looking into the incident,  but here is a readers digest version. 

Francine  Busby makes a political fundraising speech at the home of a reported lesbian couple.  Annoyed neighbor allegedly makes anti-democratic and anti-gay slurs over the fence.  Sheriff's Department receives a noise complaint from someone who states they are willing to sign a citizens arrest form against the person's responsible for disturbing their peace.  Oh, and Mrs. Busby did use some type of loud speaker system, for some period of time, during the speech. 

Now there are tons of details that I am not going to get into for the purposes of this post, but it is a whole lot of "he said she said type stuff."  Ultimately a deputy attempted to arrest the homeowner for 148(a) PC Resisting and Obstructing an Officer in the Performance of his Duties. 

The crowd of attendees attempted to rescue the homeowner from the custody of the deputy, and pepper spray was deployed.  All the makings of an early Christmas present for the radical political bloggers to say the least.

Essentially all of the headlines state something like "Democratic fundraiser raided by San Diego Sheriff's Department with 8 patrol cars and helicopter."  Of course each headline is a variation of the above, but they are all pretty much consistent. 

Now look, I don't care if you are an Independent, Democrat, Republican, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Straight or Gay, that is your business not mine.  The fact is that certain radical bloggers are getting a lot of mileage out of this incident. 

Here is the real crux of this article.  Talkingpointsmemo.com has written numerous articles/post about this incident.  But I really had to laugh and the last article that came across my "Google Alerts." 

"Helicopter Porn" was the title of their latest post.  Well this got my attention!  I guess the talkingpintsmemo.com just couldn't resist the urge to trash, besmirch and belittle a photo of three of San Diego's SWAT Deputies posing on an ASTREA helicopter.

We'll get to that photo in a moment, but here is a tidbit of info for any unbiased bloggers or reporters out there. 

Hint- a "raid" is when you get a bunch of cops together with a tactical plan, generally a search warrant or 4th waiver search, and you plan to go and hit a place, generally someplace where criminals and crooks hide and reside.  This is a planned, thought out event. 

A single deputy sheriff accompanied by a civilian psych clinician-PERT (Psychological Emergency Response Team) member, responding to a noise complaint, attempting to fill out a first response notice, sanctioned by the City of Encinitas, who is met with resistance and then a hostile crowd, and is forced to call for "cover" or assistance from other deputies, is hardly a "raid."  My 12 year old son understands this difference but apparently certain members of the media don't. 

The radical bloggers seem to be perplexed as to why a Sheriff's Department Helicopter and 8 patrol cars would show up to a "democratic fundraising event," as if it was all planned and all a political maneuver. 

So here is a tip for the radical bloggers.  When a deputy sheriff or a police officer anywhere in the entire freakin confines of San Diego County calls for "cover" for any damn reason at all, they are going to get the whole enchilada!  Patrol cars, helicopters, k9 units, bordering agencies, CHP, Border Patrol, Private Security or anybody else who gets the message that an officer or deputy needs help.  We don't really give a damn if it's in a gang infested neighborhood or an upscale community in Cardiff By The Sea!

To be more specific, how about that helicopter?  Well genius, we go out on patrol for the sole purpose of assisting any officer or deputy on the ground that can use our assistance.  While we are up on patrol we monitor 2-3-4 police radios with multiple frequencies, handling the radio traffic of several hundred law enforcement officers throughout the county.  While the helicopter is on patrol it responds to any damn call it is requested for, or which the crew thinks in can be of any assistance!  

For example, we will routinely orbit any traffic stops we come across or which we hear put out by an officer within our general vicinity.  I don't care (and I don't know) what political, racial, or sexual persuasion the driver of the car happens to be.   It may be a little old lady on the way to Sunday services, or a hard core gang member with prior violent felony assault on police officers!  Additional, I don't give a damn what race, sex, political affiliation, or sexual preference the deputy or officer happens to be.  When a deputy or officer ask for assistance, they get it!  Helicopter and all.

So in this incident the helicopter was not a part of a so called "raid."  Rather it was responding to a deputy sheriff asking for assistance!  And it will continue to respond to any law enforcement officer(s) in the county who ask for assistance, as well as a multitude of other crimes and incidents. 

So about that helicopter photo:  Talkingpointsmemo.com just couldn't resist the temptation to scan the San Diego Sheriff's official website for a helicopter photo for a blog post they titled "Helicopter Porn".  The article generally be-smirches the SWAT deputies calling the photo "beef-cakish" and somehow offering it as an explanation for the "raid" on the democratic fund raising event. 

The photo in question is of three SWAT deputies (talkingpointsmemo.com incorrectly identifies them as pilots) posing on one of our MD 530F helicopters, at the request of a professional photographer.  I believe the photo was taken specifically for use in a law enforcement magazine article.  A damn nice photo if you ask me.  In fact I think some people would call this art, but then I guess that is in the eye of the beholder. 

P.S. Talkingpointsmemo.com, don't assume that every law enforcement officer that you belittle and love to hate, votes Republican, because I can assure you they do not.

Lastly, radical blogger(s) if you or your family were taken hostage by a hardened criminal or terrorist (I know you don't really believe terrorist exist, but try for just a moment) you would beg and pray for these three men (and others like them) to come and save you and your family members, (think Russian school hostage incident).  You would still hate them afterward, but then it is a free country after all!