Crews across the operation must join together to save lives on the line.

Every helicopter operator has the same goal: to ensure their aircraft and crews depart and return safely with the mission accomplished. Between that departure and return is the essence—and promise—of rotorcraft operations: there are no limits to what a well-trained crew in a well-maintained aircraft can accomplish.

Los Angeles County, California, comprises the city of Los Angeles and a wide variety of terrain, including mountains, forests, desert, Pacific coastline, and Santa Catalina Island. The Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) has many different missions, including providing more than 9 million county residents and visitors with air ambulance, search-and-rescue, and fire protection and response services. The LACFD Air Operations section operates 10 aircraft: 5 Sikorsky S-70s and 5 Bell 412s.

Air Operations missions run the gamut from landing on a highway to pick up a person injured in a traffic accident to conducting high-mountain hoist rescues to fighting wildland fires. Each of these missions—and I could list many more—has its own set of risks and technical challenges. To be safely and successfully completed, each requires a slightly different set of skills from LACFD personnel. Molding these dedicated public servants into a smoothly operating team is essential to safety as well as to efficient mission completion.

Air Operations Organization

In Air Operations, the typical daily staffing consists of three air squads who each crew, respectively, an aircraft assigned to calls from north, west, or east sections of Los Angeles County, with the east county air squad responding to calls from Santa Catalina Island when needed.

This emergency rescue of a person who fell from a cliff onto the rocky Pacific shoreline is a prime example of some of the challenges LACFD Air Operations faces: rugged conditions for aircrews and ground crews alike. (Mike Leland Photo)

The type of aircraft assigned to an air squad depends on several factors, such as time of year, weather forecasts, and of course, maintenance availability. During a typical fire season, Air Operations will field an additional crew and aircraft to fulfill helicopter coordinator duties, and the county will lease two Canadair CL-415 “Super Scoopers” and a Type 1 helitanker. During times of extreme fire danger, an additional aircraft dedicated to water drops may also be used. At times, the Air Operations team has as many as five aircraft with full crews operating in a single day.

Each aircraft is typically crewed with a single pilot and two firefighter paramedics; based on mission requirements, additional personnel may be added. Like most fire departments running 24-hour operations, the LACFD uses a shift-based schedule. Beginning at 8:00 am, three shifts operate on a rotating basis to accommodate scheduled days off and rest periods for the firefighters. Air Operations operates on the same schedule, only with the pilot staff working a four-shift schedule to accommodate additional crew rest days, if needed. The aircraft maintenance staff operates on a daytime schedule, five days a week, with on-demand overtime available if needed to support operations.

Maintaining Readiness

Maintenance personnel are at the Air Operations hangar first thing in the morning, at 6:00 each day. They begin with a planning meeting to coordinate maintenance priorities and individual assignments, followed by daily maintenance inspections of the three aircraft on call that day. Once the inspections are completed, the aircraft are released to the assigned aircrews for preflight and mission preparation.

Daily lineup meetings are important in disseminating a broad range of information, from administrative to flight-critical, among all the flight crews. (HAI/Mark Bennett)

However, completing the daily inspections is only one tiny part of the work the maintenance section is responsible for. LACFD Air Operations performs the vast majority of its helicopter maintenance in-house. On any given day, you’ll find one or two aircraft in various states of teardown, undergoing an annual or five-year inspection. Other common sights are maintenance technicians rebuilding a turbine engine in the engine shop or sanding down and repainting rotor blades in the paint shop.

Every LACFD maintenance technician attends multiple schools, resulting in a maintenance team with a wide range of capabilities. This gives the maintenance chief the ability to rapidly transition people from one job to another, which is essential in a multimission operation that requires 24/7/365 readiness.

During any mission, an issue can arise with a specific piece of mission equipment, or the aircraft itself, that limits or prevents its ability to continue. Typically, that aircraft is replaced by a spare aircraft. However, during a long fire operation in which all assets—aircraft and staff—are stretched to their limits, fixing a specific squawk or issue as quickly as possible is essential and, at the same time, very difficult.

The dedication of the Air Operations maintenance section cannot be overstated. I have personally experienced coming off a fire and calling in to the base to alert them of a squawk. As I landed, I was greeted by one or two of our maintenance techs running to the aircraft, parts in hand, ready to complete a fix and get the aircraft back up and running as soon as possible. This kind of dedication and teamwork is what makes LACFD Air Operations a special place to be and an incredibly fulfilling place to work.

Maintaining Awareness

While the maintenance crew is conducting the daily maintenance inspections on the aircraft, the aircrews conduct a lineup meeting. Led by the assigned air captain, this meeting is an opportunity for the aircrews to discuss any pertinent department business, conduct continuing education, brief any temporary flight restrictions in the area, and coordinate any follow-on support missions or aircraft training requirements. This is also when aircrews discuss at the unit level any prior completed missions and pass on any lessons learned.

Ensuring that all Air Operations team members have the same level of mission readiness, including procedural, situational, and risk awareness, is a high priority. Achieving a consistent flow of information in a shift-based organization is an ongoing challenge.

It’s a multiperson project removing the twin Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engines from one of the unit’s Bell 412EP helicopters. Engines requiring time-based maintenance are sent back to the manufacturer for complete overhaul. (HAI/Mark Bennett)

To ensure coverage across the entire Air Operations team, every piece of knowledge and all training must be duplicated and disseminated for each of the three shifts. If someone has taken a day off and missed a shift where training took place, follow-up training must be coordinated. Lessons learned that are passed on during one day’s lineup meeting must be communicated to all personnel who were not present.

Learning to operate effectively and consistently in a constantly changing environment is difficult and can require a great deal of training time. Air Operations depends heavily on the expertise and dedication of its pilots, mechanics, and paramedics. The hiring criteria for pilots and mechanics are high, as are the expectations for its firefighter paramedics. These exacting standards are necessary, given that the majority of flight time and effort in Air Operations goes toward completing actual missions and maintaining aircrew proficiency. This leaves little room for initial pilot or crew member training.

A new hire must be able to learn and adapt quickly, understand and decipher complex situations, and apply on-the-fly risk-management principles to safely accomplish missions in rapidly changing and/or harsh environments. It is not unusual for a single flight to begin with a night-vision goggles overwater mission to Santa Catalina Island—often in adverse weather—and end with a wind-buffeted hoist operation in a narrow canyon at altitude in the mountains.

Given these mission complexities and the rapidity and frequency of in-flight mission changes, the synergy of the aircrew is essential. Maintaining a high level of trust, respect, and mutual cooperation between each team member is critical. When operating in extreme close proximity to obstacles or other aircraft, often from other agencies, a quick, concise word from a crew member can mean the difference between success and disaster.

A “Standard” Hoist Rescue

The number of variations an aircrew may have to contend with when showing up on-scene for a seemingly routine hoist is too many to list. Every operation has different terrain, altitudes, weather, and victim considerations, each one potentially raising the risk to an unacceptable level.

Once on-scene, the topside paramedic, who typically rides in the left seat of the cockpit during flights, moves to the cabin to operate the hoist that lowers the downside paramedic to the ground. The pilot is then alone in the cockpit, in true solo flight.

In the midst of a long day of flying, training, responding to calls, and sitting on watch, crew chief paramedic Mike Nelson previews the location of an incipient callout on his mobile phone while the author guides the Sikorsky S-70i away from its base at Barton Heliport (KPAI) in Pacoima, California. (HAI/Mark Bennett)

During hoist operations, the pilot must divide his or her attention between monitoring the aircraft’s systems, a particularly important task when operating the aircraft at the limits of its performance, and maintaining a stationary out-of-ground-effect hover. The pilot depends on the topside paramedic operating the hoist to communicate clearly and succinctly about the movement of the aircraft in and around the hoist location, at times down to 1-ft. increments. The topside paramedic must also communicate to the pilot about the location and movement of the downside paramedic dangling from the hoist cable.

After inserting the downside paramedic into the scene, the topside paramedic performs a radio check to ensure that communications between the aircraft crew and the downside crew are operational. While the aircraft circles the response area, the downside paramedic assesses the needs of the victim, communicates to the aircraft crew any additional needs for equipment or support, provides any on-site treatment, prepares the victim for extraction, and then calls for extraction.

While this process is taking place, the paramedics determine the appropriate destination hospital, and the pilot calculates routing, fuel, and weather considerations. After being called in by the downside paramedic, the aircraft will extract the victim and downside paramedic and fly directly to the destination hospital. Once the aircraft has landed and the victim has been transferred, the aircrew normally completes a quick debrief of the operation on the helipad before returning to base.

A “Standard” Wildland Fire Insertion

The Air Operations team also services other LACFD missions. In the wildland fire season, Air Operations is often tasked with transporting a team of fire suppression aides (FSAs) to a brush fire and inserting them tactically somewhere near the fire line.

In the mountains northeast of Malibu, fire suppression aides (FSAs) from Air Attack 8-1 file back to their facility, LACFD Camp 8, after a short flight that launched on what turned out to be a false alarm. (HAI/Mark Bennett)

FSA insertions often require Air Operations pilots to land in remote areas, sometimes using a single-wheel landing or landing in a very small area. When selecting landing zones and during the insertion, good communication among aircrew members is, again, extremely important. During the landing and off-­loading sequence, the aircrew must maintain a quick but comprehensive scan that extends all around, over, and under the aircraft to enable the pilot to maintain his or her focus on steady aircraft control.

After insertion, the FSA crew hikes to their assigned area on the fire and begins “cutting line.” By cutting or scraping away any vegetation that would fuel the fire, the FSAs create a fire line that will stop or slow the fire’s spread.

Before proceeding to the next assignment, which will most likely entail dropping water on areas as indicated by the LACFD incident commander, the aircrew first checks in with the FSA crew to ensure that the two crews can communicate.

While conducting water drops, the aircrew will occasionally check in with the FSA crew to get an update on their status. The aircrew is prepared at any time to recover the FSA crew from a hastily selected landing area should evacuation be needed.

This type of interdependency requires a high level of mutual trust and cooperation. The LACFD builds this relationship by encouraging the aircrews and fire suppression crews to work, dine, and participate in physical fitness activities, such as group sports, together while waiting to be called into action.

Maintaining Quality

Regardless of what was accomplished or how well the response was completed, each mission conducted by an Air Operations crew is debriefed after landing. The aircrew reviews the mission for adherence to standard practices, lessons learned, and any other pertinent information that should be brought forward to the larger organization.

No detail is unimportant, nothing is taken for granted, and personal egos are left behind. The team maintains a constant eye toward improving operational efficiency, risk management, and the public service ethos that form the foundation of the Air Operations section of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

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Paul Gottwig

Paul Gottwig

Paul Gottwig is a senior pilot with the Los Angeles County (California) Fire Department (LACFD) and a member of HAI’s Board of Directors. After retiring from active duty in the US Army following 20 years of service in 2006, he worked with General Electric (GE) Corporate Air Transport as a helicopter captain in the S-76B and AW139. While with GE, Paul served on the Eastern Region Helicopter Council as IFR Committee chairman and on the organization’s board of directors. He joined the LACFD in 2015.