Police Helicopter Pilot

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Filtering by Tag: Rescue

Two San Diego Sheriff Air Crew Members Receive Governor's Medal Of Valor Award

Deputies Scott Bligh and Gary Kneeshaw were among 13 California Public Safety Members to be awarded the Governor's Public Safety Medal of Valor on Wednesday September 14th, 2011.  Bligh and Kneeshaw earned the recognition from Governor Brown for one of the most daring law enforcement helicopter rescues in recent memory.  On August 21st, 2010 battled heavy smoke, flames, and embers blowing into the cockpit to rescue two trapped mountain climbers off the side of El Cajon Mountain near El Capitan Reservoir in San Diego County. 

The female climber was picked off the side of the mountain first in a "Toe In" maneuver after Deputy Kneeshaw climbed out of the helicopter and placed her in his seat.  Kneeshaw stayed behind with the male climber waiting for his partner and helicopter to return.  During the wait Kneeshaw and the male climber were almost overrun by fire and had to run across the face of the mountain to evade the flames.

Deputy Bligh fought through reduced visibility, smoke, and burning embers to fly back in and locate Kneeshaw and the male climber in their new location on the mountain.  At one point during the pick up Bligh received a low rotor rpm warning in the cockpit, indicating that the engine could be losing power. Bligh quickly recognized that the engine was still creating power and the momentary low rotor rpm was a result of the extreme flight conditions and demands on the helicopter.

After outrunning flames once, Deputy Kneeshaw made a quick decision to ride the skid of the helicopter out of the hot zone, a technique he had never practiced and had never trained for.  After loading the male climber into the front seat Kneeshaw stepped onto the skid and shouted at Bligh to take off.  With flames once again threatening the tail of the helicopter Bligh and Kneeshaw flew the remaining climber off the mountain and to safety.  You can read a more complete article on the rescue here.  

AS350 Corporate Helicopter Does Rescue "Toe In" At 12000' In Colorado

AS350 performing a Toe In at 12,300' in the Colorado Rockies, Photo Via KVAL.comA privately owned Eurocopter AS350 was called upon by a local Sheriff's Commander to assist in a rescue in the Colorado Rockies last week.  What makes this story amazing is the photo of the Astar Helicopter Pilot performing a Toe In with this particular helicopter.  The photo was snapped by someone on the ground as the helicopter came in to drop off the San Miguel Sheriff's Commander- who is also a paramedic.

I say it is an amazing photo because I honestly didn't think you could do much of a Toe In with a Eurocopter, based on how far back their skids set on the airframe.  Compare the skids on an MD500 with those on a Eurocopter, and you will see that the front of the skids on the MD500 are almost out in front of the entire airframe.  This along with the shorter- 5 bladed rotor disc, makes the MD500 or MD530F an ideal platform for this maneuver.  The Eurocopter AS350 does come with a lot more power however, making operations at 12,000' a bit easier.

Note how much further forward the front of the skids are in relation to the cockpit on this MD530F.In this case hiker Joe Yearm suffered a compound fracture just below the knee as he was descending from the 14,159' El Diente Peak.  For unknown reasons Yearm was hiking alone, and in the dark, when he fell 20' into a snow field breaking his leg.  Yearm was able to crawl to a nearby slope where he was discovered by two other hikers a few hours later.  One of these hikers was in possession of a personal locator beacon which he used to notify authorities of the injured hiker.  

On Sunday Pilot PJ Hunt was flying the AS350 helicopter for his employer Heli-Dunn based out of Phoenix Oregon, when he was hailed over the radio by Commander Eric Burg of the San Miguel Sheriff's Department.  Burg advised Hunt of the pending rescue and asked if he could assist.  Hunt quickly obtained permission from his supervisors and within a few minutes was landing at Burg's house to pick him up.  

Hunt and Burg flew to the coordinates sent out by the locator beacon and eventually located three people on a steep rock strewn slope at 12,300'.  Hunt performed the Toe In landing long enough for Burg to climb out of the helicopter and provide medical attention to the injured hiker.  Burg and the two uninjured hikers then carved out a slightly better landing site for Hunt, where he was able to perform a one skid landing in the Astar.  The one skid landing allowed Yearm to be loaded directly into the helicopter.  Yearm was then flown to a waiting ambulance in Telluride Co.  

The AS350 pictured above is registered to T. Scott Dunn Construction Inc., out of Medford Oregon.

You can read the full story here.

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.

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.        

Rescues By San Diego Sheriff's ASTREA Unit Highlighted In 10 News Report

Unfortunately 10 News does not allow me to imbed the video here, but it is worth clicking on the below link and watching.  The report focuses primarily on Cedar Creek Falls in Eastern San Diego County, which accounts for a large portion of the rescues we do.  Also featured in the video report is Senior Fire/Rescue Pilot Tony Webber. 

The report only shows our Bell 205 Fire/Rescue helicopters, but plenty of rescues are still conduced in our unit with the smaller MD500 Ships as well.  Good job Tony!



Sheriff's Helicopter Crew Finds Luckiest Man Alive- Guest Article

This article was submitted by Deputy/Pilot S. Bligh of the San Diego Sheriff's Department.  It originally appeared in the San Diego Deputy Sheriff's Association- Silver Star magazine. 


The canyon in San Diego's vast east county where this rescue took place, now referred to as "Lucky Bastard Canyon."

View From Above
ASTREA by Scott Bligh

The Luckiest Man Alive

This incident begins with the ASTREA fire/rescue helicopter fighting a brush fire in the eastern part of San Diego County near the Carrizo Wash.  While transitioning between the fire and their water source several miles away, the helicopter crew noticed something on the ground near the base of a palm tree.  Moving in for a closer look they first noticed a back pack and then noticed something similar in color to a fire fighter’s protective clothing, (possibly left behind from a previous fire fighting effort.)  Upon closer inspection, the protective clothing wasn’t clothing at all, but the remains of a human body.  There really wasn’t much left actually and it’s amazing the crew could even see it.  The scene was little reminiscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean only without the ocean.

This guy was obviously not the luckiest man alive but if not for him, the real luckiest man alive may not be alive today.  Read on.

As is always the case with a found body, a deputy assumes the death investigation, notifies the medical examiner investigator who comes out to look at the body and scene before it can be recovered.  It was too late in the day to round up all the players and get this done before dark so the decision was made to get the ball rolling early the next day.

The next morning, Medical Examiner Investigator Mark Malamatos arrived at ASTREA base, ready for his flight into the canyon where the body lay.  We found the canyon easy enough.  It was the one that was obviously charred from the previous day’s fire.  The GPS coordinates didn’t hurt either.  We then began the search for the grove of palms where the unlucky guy made his last stand.

We were flying down the canyon, later determined to be in the wrong direction, when Mark said, “I think there’s a guy down there who needs rescuing.”  I thought, “Great he found the body” and started to figure out a way to get us turned around in the narrow canyon.  Mark explained, “No, there’s a guy down there who’s still alive.”  Huh?

We slowly worked our way back up the canyon until coming to a bunch of tall reeds.  There wasn’t much wind in the canyon yet, but a few of those reeds were shaking like crazy.  We flew over the top of the wildly shaking reeds and there he was.  An international traveler flat on his back on the canyon floor shaking those reeds for all he was worth.  What are the odds?  A fire happens.  A helicopter crew arrives to put out the fire.  They just so happen to see a backpack.  A body happens to be next to the backpack.  A crew returns the next day with a medical examiner investigator and the helicopter crew searches for the body in the wrong location.  While searching in the wrong location, the medical examiner investigator looks out his window and sees wildly shaking reeds followed by a guy flat on his back.  Sweet Jesus, this guy needs to start playing the lottery.

So our “business as usual” body recovery via 100 foot cable and cargo net had turned into a rescue mission.

Step 1; kick out the M.E. Investigator-Mark at the bottom of the canyon and wish him well in the 100 degree heat with no shade.  We did, however, have the decency to leave Mark next to one of those water stations set up to assist the illegal immigrants in their quest to circumvent our immigration laws.  There was at least 20 gallons of store bought Borrego Springs drinking water there.  Good stuff.  I digress.

Step 2; drop Deputy Kaupe, hereafter referred to as Alan, on the canyon wall next to the “Lucky Guy.”  Alan determined Lucky was in no shape to make his way anywhere under his own power.  He had been flat on his back, where he lay, for the last 2 days, and had a barely detectable pulse of 166 beats per minute.  Lucky was running on fumes.  

Step 3; get Sheriff’s Copter 10, one of the Bell 205 fire rescue/helicopters, and the sheriff’s fuel truck heading this way for the only recourse, a hoist rescue.

After being an aerial communications relay between all involved and Alan, and noticing the rapidly building thunderstorms coming in from the south, I dropped in to check on Mark and let him know what was going on.  I may have also mentioned to him what I mentioned to Alan.  In case the heavens open up and releases a downpour upon us, start building your ark now.  Or at least move high up on the canyon walls to avoid the inevitable flash flooding.  On the bright side though, there was the non-stop lighting show in all directions which helped keep my mind off the flooding possibility.

Step 4; leave Alan, Mark and Lucky to fend for themselves and head for the McCain Fire Camp at the south end of McCain Valley off I-8 to meet with Copter 10 and prepare for the hoist rescue.  I briefed the hoist rescue with our Cal Fire brothers, who are trained to operate with us, and we made our way back to the canyon in the Bell 205.  Because Lucky was down for the count, we decided to hoist him in a basket as opposed to a harness for somebody who doesn’t resemble a wet noodle.  As soon as he was on board we again waved goodbye to Alan and Mark, wished them well with their arks, and made our way back to the McCain Fire Camp to pass Lucky off to waiting medical folks.

I’m not sure how well Lucky is doing but we did muster up the courage to fight the lightning storm and complete Step 5; the pick up of Alan and Mark.  They did not get washed away and we were not struck by lightning.  Life is good.

I think all involved agree, if the canyon had a name before that day, it has now been changed.  It will now be called “Lucky Bastard Canyon.”

As Summer Heats Up so Does Rescue Count

San Diego County's vast Anza Borrego Desert from around 20,000'

It may surprise you to know that not everyone holds a positive opinion of the many public helicopter operations around the country, and the missions that they carry out. Of course the positive support far outweighs the negative, but the detractors are out there.  Comments such as "personal flying clubs" and "just boys with expensive toys" come to mind. In addition, in these economic times more and more agencies, cities, and counties are forced to re-evaluate the use fullness of their aviation programs.

It is for these reasons that I offer some first hand accounts of recent helicopter rescues, in order that the concerned taxpayer or citizen can form a more accurate opinion.

In a two week period around the middle of July my partner and I picked up a total of 9 people (in three groups of three) from San Diego's back country. All 9 people were in various stages of heat exhaustion, with some likely on the verge of heat stroke. Now these were just the people that we picked up. This does not include the 2-3 hoist rescue operations that we were also involved in during the month of July, (we'll get to those.)  This is one crew, one helicopter, on one side of the shift.

So who or what determines that all of these people required an expensive helicopter to pluck them from their dire situation?  What happens when help doesn't come? And aren't these people responsible for putting themselves in the predicament they are in? All are good questions and all have good answers.

First, history and experience in our region more than justifies the use of an expensive helicopter to quickly remove these people from their hostile environment and reposition them to a place of safety. Many of these people are literally only a few hours from death, as most do not seek help until they are out of water and heat exhaustion is firmly upon them.

During this exact same two week period we are reminded of what happens when help does not come. My partner and I also responded with the coroner and recovered a body in the Corrizo Wash area of the Anza Borrego Desert.

So do these people bear some responsibility for putting themselves in these situations? Well sure they do, but that does not remedy their situation.  Additionally, these incidents do not start off as major blunders, but rather innocent miscalculations that can have very unfortunate results.  Consider the 9 individuals we picked up.  All nine appeared to be under the age of 25, six were young ladies, and all appeared to be otherwise upstanding citizens out in the back country to enjoy a brush with mother nature.  All are sons and daughters and grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters to people who love them.

RESCUE #1: The first three people in distress hails from the Vallecito Wash area of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park off of Highway S-2, parts of which are also known as The Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849.  How is that for sounding rugged and inhospitable?

These three young men chose a warm sunny day with temperatures topping out at 112 on the ground, to drive out to an area called the mud caves. This is an area of desert erosion with unique canyons and crevices that are popular among desert visitors. The small truck they are riding in becomes stuck in the sand, many miles off of the highway.  This causes them to set out across the desert on foot, with a limited water supply.

Within an hour their water is gone and they utilize that life saving device known as a cell phone to call for help. We get the call from our communication center, relayed by state parks.

My partner and I had just taken off from Gillespie field in our newest patrol ship, the Bell 407 which is capable of carrying a total of 7 people. Our fuel tank is full giving us about 3 hours of flight time. We turned toward the desert and immediately begin the information gathering process. How many people are we looking for? What is the best known location? What is their condition? How did the call come in and from whom? What ground contacts do we have and what are their call signs? What frequencies will we be working on?

Once all of these questions are answered the second stage of information gathering starts, which is just fine tuning everything we learned in the first stage.  

Even with all of this information it is still a vast desert and search area. Once on scene we repeatedly try to verify that we are in fact searching in the right area. After about 20 minutes of on scene searching my partner announces that he has them on his side of the aircraft.

There location was in a flat open area of the wash so we were able to land within a few feet of two of the subjects. The third one had gone one ahead to try to find a trail sign, but quickly made his way back to the helicopter. One of the subjects had removed his shirt and his shoes in an attempt to cool off, (and had been walking in the hot sand barefoot) a sure sign he was reaching a critical stage. All three were provided water and loaded in the back of the 407 for the flight to nearby Aqua Caliente County Airport and the air conditioned comfort of a State Park Rangers vehicle.

RESCUE #2: I believe it was a Monday morning a few days later when we received a call of three female hikers, overheated and in distress, on the trail of the Ramona side of Cedar Creek Falls (a popular hiking spot responsible for a good share of the rescues we do.)

Cedar Creek Falls is only about a 9-10 minute flight from our base vs. the 25 or so minutes it takes to get out to the Desert. We are very familiar with the falls and the trails that lead into them, so we can often narrow down the location of someone in distress fairly quickly.

In this case one of the ladies in the group had hiked out to the top of the trail, in order to get cell phone reception and report that others in the group were in trouble. After a short flight we began searching the trail that leads from the bottom of the falls, up to the edge of the Ramona Country Estates distance of about 2 miles. The first couple of passes did not reveal anyone on the trail. From experience we both knew that they eyes do not always focus on what you are searching for the first time, and it often takes repeated attempts, even when you know you are in the right area.

A few minutes later the three subjects were located just off the trail taking advantage of a small patch of shade offered up by a some scrub brush. We could see that at least one of the subjects was in worse condition than the other two, as she was laying on the ground with the two friends providing care.


Bell 407 helicopter, Rocky Laws photoOnce again we were flying the Bell 407. While it has plenty of power, and is a great people mover, it is not the choice rescue helicopter for mountainous terrain, (for a variety of reasons the MD500 series which makes up the rest of our fleet, is the preferred ship for confined or mountain terrain.) However, we were able to find a location flat enough to place the skids of the 407 across the trail, while keeping the main and tail rotor free of obstructions. Once again my partner set out to contact and evaluate the three ladies in need of assistance.

The report came back that at least one of the subjects had lost consciousness, which I relayed to the waiting fire department personnel. My partner then set about loading each of the three subjects into the back of the 407, a somewhat slow and deliberate process due to the uneven terrain and the spinning rotor blades, (sadly an Arizona Department of Public Safety Paramedic was killed earlier this year performing a very similar rescue, also in a Bell 407 when he inadvertently stood up into a turning rotor blade- likely from a position of rising terrain.)

With all three subjects loaded in the back and all three displaying obvious symptoms of heat exhaustion, we began the short flight to the top of the canyon. The landing site was on the golf course, next to the road and the waiting fire trucks. Three more heat victims safely delivered back to civilization.

RESCUE #3: This one is my favorite, if there can be such a thing. I believe it was one week later, the following Monday, my partner and I received another call of three female hikers in distress at Cedar Creek Falls, but this time they were on the trail on the Julian side. Today however, we were flying one of our preferred MD530 model helicopters. Though it can carry less people it has shorter rotor blades for getting into smaller spaces, and it has a different and more rugged landing gear much more capable of landing on uneven or rough terrain. We simply make up for the fewer seats by making more trips.

A quick check of our fuel status revealed that we had a sufficient amount to respond to the call.  Having already burned off a hundred or so pounds of fuel is an added benefit.

The trail on the Julian side is not the same as the trail on the Ramona side, for either the hiker or for the helicopter. First it is a longer trail, with even less shade, (almost none) and fewer places to land. The trail is pretty much a drop off on one side, and a steep incline on the other.

We arrived and began at the lower end of the trail, working our way towards the top.  Again, there were no persons readily visible on the trail.  About one fourth of the way up my partner advised that he thought he had them. We turned and came back to the spot on the trail that caught his eye. Sure enough under the shade of a small overhang, were three female hikers all of which appeared to be around 19-21 years of age.

Luckily for all of us the group as about 100' down the trail from one of the two or three spots where we could land. In this particular location there is just enough clearance to get both skids down on the trail, while maintaining a safe distance between the rotor blade tips and the rising terrain on the opposite side of the trail. With the helicopter on the ground my partner was off once again to contact and evaluate the three subjects. The report came back that two were declining medical treatment but the third was definitely exhibiting symptoms that required medical treatment.

This rescue would require three trips, thus a total of three landings on the trail. My partner assisted the first (and the one in need of medical treatment) to the helicopter. While she was able to walk with assistance, it was obvious she was in pretty bad shape and would never make it out of the canyon without assistance. Once secured in the back of the helicopter we were off to the familiar fire trucks waiting at the east end of the Ramona Country Estates.  Then it was back to the trail for two more landings and two more flights. This time however the young ladies were ferried back up to the trail head where their vehicle was parked.

Throughout the course of the event you start to get some indicators of the overall condition of the subjects involved, and to some extent the value that they place on the level of service you have provided. This rescue was starting to score pretty high on both scales. The bright red faces left little doubt that the subjects were suffering from heat exhaustion. But the best indicator was as we were off loading the second subject at the top of the trail, she felt it necessary to give a big hug of thanks to one of her rescuers.

Back at the top of the trail with the third subject, my partner once again exits the helicopter to assist the young lady out of the back and away from the turning rotors. This subject too expressed her gratitude with a hug, and then peeked into the cockpit to mouth the words "thank you."

There was little doubt about what value these 9 subjects placed on publicly funded helicopters and the missions they sometimes carry out. Glad to be of help!

In other rescues there was the Japanese film crew that was accompanying members of our narcotics task force to a marijuana grow in a very remote area of Palomar Mountain.  Whether it was a lack of water intake or just an intolerance to the heat, this subject fell ill and could not hike back out of the canyon where the operation and filming was taking place.  Some of our own pilots were already on scene performing long line operations, and advised that it a hoist rescue would be required due to location.

For this rescue we responded and met up with the crew of one of our fire rescue helicopters.  The victim was located and the two crews joined up on the rescue ship to perform the hoist rescue. The victim was soon plucked from his spot on the trail without incident and delivered to medical personnel waiting at a nearby airport.

Another hoist rescue from the trail at Cedar Creek Falls allowed our unit to utilize a new victim rescue harness called the screamer suit. The screamer suit looks like a combination oversize sleveless vest, and a big red diaper. But as long as the victim can stand it goes on in seconds and is one of the quickest and easiest harnesses to use.

While our hoist rescue program is a joint program with Cal Fire, this rescue was performed completely by Cal Fire personnel as the rescue crew, with a deputy pilot.

My partner and I had already landed on the trail and determined that the victim could not be loaded into the back of our small helicopter. 

Our fire rescue helicopter soon arrived on scene, and lowered the rescue specialist, also known as "RS1" in hoist rescue lingo.  Within minutes the victim had been placed in the screamer suit and was riding the cable up to the rescue helicopter.  Excellent work by the all Cal Fire rescue personnel crewing the back of the ship on this day. 

Lastly, there was the individual walking or hiking in the desert that did not have a way to call for help when he ran out of water and was overcome by the heat.  This person's final resting place was a hot and barren landscape in the area of Corizzo Wash in San Diego's east county.  I believe the report came in from Border Patrol, who normally gets the information from other undocumented migrants or "international travelers" as they are sometimes called. 

The first helicopter responded to the lat & long coordination with the Medical Examiner Investigator but was unable to locate the body.  The following day a more accurate lat & long was obtained and a second helicopter crew went out and ultimately located the body.  Marker tape was left on a nearby bush and plans were made to remove the body on the following day.  These type of removals require coordination with the M.E.'s office, the rural patrol unit whose beat the body is on, and the two person team the M.E. contracts with to perform the actual transport. 

All of the coordination and plans were made thanks to my partner, so the following morning we set out for the flight to the location with the lady medical examiner investigator in the back seat.  The operation went fairly smooth as the morning quickly turned hot.  My partner and the investigator were dropped off at the location of the body with all of the necessary equipment.  This includes body bags, cargo net and cable to attach to the bottom of the helicopter. 

I flew the mile or two to the staging location where rural deputies and the removal crew were staged, picked up one of the crew members and delivered him to the body location to assist the investigator.  After the body was packaged and ready to be flown out, the investigator and the removal crew member were flown back to the staging location on Highway S-2.  Upon returning the line was attached to the helicopter and the helicopter was positioned in a hover over the body for my partner to make the connection to the cargo net.  The body was then lifted and flown back to the staging area.  Finally I returned and picked up my partner, then it was back to the staging area to recover some equipment and the investigator and make a bee line back to the base and to cooler air. 

Body recovery operations like this happen year around in our back country, and are fairly routine. 

Helicopters do indeed save lives.