The Los Angeles Fire Department’s decision to acquire AgustaWestland AW139s came down to a simple value equation: nearly twice the horsepower of their current Bell 412s for only a small increase in direct operating costs. “The bang you get for the buck is much cheaper,” said battalion chief Joseph Foley. The AW139 is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney PW PT6C-67Cs rated at 1,679 shp each, max continuous, while the 412’s PT6T-3D Twin Pac engines are rated at 900 shp each.
The LAFD operates two AW139s and will take delivery of a third before summer. That aircraft will replace an 18-year-old Bell 412. The department will continue to operate two remaining 412s for years to come in accordance with a fixed replacement schedule, but eventually those aircraft will be replaced with 139s.
Foley said the 412s have served the department well, calling them “the Chevy trucks of aviation.” However, the department decided on the 139 based on its faster speed (165 knots max cruise), increased carrying capacity, stability under full gross weight, advanced features and better crashworthiness. Foley said the 139’s additional power brings extra margins and capabilities to LAFD’s variety of missions–from medevac to search-and-rescue to aerial firefighting.
The LAFD’s 139s are identically equipped to its 412s: Simplex 420-gallon water drop tanks, NightSun, Goodrich hoist, rescue basket, Lifeport EMS transport packet, Technosonic four-band 7000 multiband radio and no air conditioning. The basket is carried aboard at all times and all of the medium helicopters have full paramedic resources on board. Department paramedics who fly with the unit are required to carry extra certifications relating to patient airway management and flight physiology as mandated by the state department of health.
While the unit’s pilots have to be IFR-rated to fly the 139s, it is currently a VFR-only operation and intends to stay that way. The department has plans in the works to harness the 139’s extra power to enable it to carry an expandable 600-gallon water tank, Foley said. “That’s something on which we are negotiating with Agusta right now.”
LAFD has no plans to equip its mix of 139s and 412s with terrain awareness and warning systems but is attempting to secure funding to equip them with night-vision goggles. “We keep our equipment pretty basic,” Foley said.
The unit operates from a 57,000-sq-ft facility at the west end of Van Nuys airport that includes a 17,000-sq-ft fire station equipped with two airport rescue apparatuses. It flies five medium multi-mission helicopters and a Bell 206B that is used primarily for pilot training, mission escort and command and control of brushfires. For night SAR, the searchlight on the 206B is used to provide extra illumination over a scene. Sixteen pilots and 38 other personnel are currently assigned to the unit and all receive recurrent simulator training. On a typical mission, each helicopter dispatches with a pilot, crew chief and two firefighter flight medics.
For fire-fighting/aerial water drop operations, the pilot flies alone.
Each helicopter flies an average of 300 to 400 hours per year and Foley estimates that 80 to 85 percent of the missions are air ambulance runs. “There are no pediatric trauma centers in the [San Fernando] valley, so we have to fly patients over the hills to UCLA or USC. That is the bulk of our business,” he said.
The helicopters are maintained by the General Services Department, located next door on the airport. It has been maintaining the department’s helicopters for 40 years. Foley’s only squawk on the 139 was the need to develop a good air filtration system for the turbines to protect them from elements in a firefighting environment. “Smoke, dirt and grass are not healthy for turbines,” he said.
Aerospace Filtration Systems and Agusta have developed an inlet barrier filter for the AW139 that will be available for STC installations, and Foley said the department plans to install them despite the price of $90,000 per aircraft.