Ex-Navy H-3 Sea Kings now serving L.A. sheriff

 - October 10, 2006, 6:23 AM

Compared with the mass of modern Bells and Eurocopters that fly for the myriad law enforcement agencies protecting and serving Californians, the air unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) emerges as something of a one-off. In addition to a fleet of 12 AStar B2s, which provide day-to-day support to the officers in the black-and-whites, the largest sheriff’s flight department in the nation also fields four aging ex-U.S. Navy SH-3Hs.

For most of the year the twin-engine H-3s of Air Rescue 5 remain on standby for 13 hours every day, at one end of Long Beach Airport, ready to deploy on search-and-rescue (SAR) missions or to transport teams drawn from agencies and units such as the FBI, SWAT, arson/explosives or K-9–or even as stand-alone law-enforcement teams.

Every day, one of them also positions to a former U.S. Army Nike missile base in the San Gabriel Mountains, known as Barley Flats. Its primary role is search-and-rescue, and the crew remains on daylight standby to rescue climbers or walkers who lose their way or underestimate the speed at which conditions often deteriorate.

“Weekends are the crews’ busiest times,” said LASD flight operations lieutenant Mike Barnum. “People overextend themselves or decide that, if they are leaving warm weather in the Los Angeles area, it must be OK farther up as well.”

The 1960s-era H-3s routinely operate with two pilots (from eight in the unit) and three paramedics, one of whom acts as crew chief and hoist operator.

Maintenance Requirements

With non-folding rotorheads and fixed landing gear, the H-3s are particularly light aircraft. In fact, with an 11,000-pound basic and 22,500-pound mtow, they can lift more than their own weight.

Keeping such mature helicopters in the air sometimes calls for a blend of experienced engineering and creative procurement skills, according to engineering chief captain Jim Di Giovanni. “For every hour airborne, we invest around 12 hours of maintenance.” By modern standards, that’s a lot of maintenance.

“The U.S. Navy gave us the helicopters in the first place and, nowadays, sends us its ‘canned’ engines,” he said. “We currently have 21 of them in the hangar–some complete and others in module form. We get some components from HSI, which is owned by Sikorsky, or one of a small number of vendors around North America. Navy items are procured through a government office that handles the resale of surplus military equipment. If we need to buy new parts from them, one of our vendors makes the purchase for us.

“On occasion,” he said, “the helicopters don’t make it easy for us. Not so long ago, one of them went AOG with a broken fuel control unit on the helipad of a children’s hospital.” The machine blocked the pad for three days and the LASD ended up manhandling a replacement engine onto the roof via a service elevator.

As for the pilots, the navy provenance of the big helicopters can lead to some novel licensing issues. As military surplus, the type is not FAA certified so the pilots can have no type ratings as such. Instead, they are rated by individual airframe serial number.

In addition, they cannot log their hours in the traditional way. According to one of the pilots, Sergeant Pat McKernan, most pilots are not concerned about the inability to log flight time in the H-3 because they enjoy flying the aircraft so much. They earn and maintain their commercial instrument ratings on a suitably equipped AStar.

The type rating becomes an issue only if the aircrew decide to move on, and that does not happen often. Indeed, McKernan told AIN that he could not remember the last time one of them left for new pastures.

Barnum agrees. “Candidates are invariably long-serving deputy sheriffs who serve as police observers before taking pilot training and transitioning onto the H-3.”

He explained, “All our deputy pilots started as observers. If selected for a pilot position, they spend time in a light helicopter as a patrol pilot. Once they have reached the required experience level they may apply for a rescue pilot position when an opening occurs.”

Varied Missions

Barnum estimates that “traditional” law enforcement flying accounts for 65 to 70 percent of his team’s yearly average of 900 hours, while SAR operations take up 10 to 15 percent. The balance is spent on surveillance, transportation and training. The AStar fleet, in comparison, racks up as many as 9,000 hours annually.

The crews enjoy an enviable variety of flying but, acknowledged Barnum, the job has its downside. AStar pilots are accustomed to taking tactical command of an ongoing operation. “Only the best of them are picked to fly the H-3 but, ironically, these pilots are normally controlled from the ground and, as a result, surrender an element of responsibility and tactical awareness.”

McKernan began flying 11 years ago at Western Operations (a commercial and public service training operation in Rialto, Calif.). He continued to work there as an instructor, while assigned to Aero Bureau as a tactical flight officer. He became a pilot at Aero Bureau and, later, a flight instructor for the LASD. So far, he has logged some 3,500 hours of flight time in MD 500/600s, AS 350B2s and the H-3s.

He told AIN, “It’s a daylight-only operation at present but we want to transition to NVG [night vision goggle] operations within the next 12 months.”

The majority of pilots in the Air Rescue 5 program hold commercial pilot certificates with instrument ratings. All pilots are given training equivalent to a type rating in the H-3 during initial transition training. They are then assigned to an experienced pilot who will conduct mission training and mentor them in the rescue and other roles.

The unit has use of the U.S. Navy’s H-3 simulator at NAS North Island in San Diego. At least once a year, pilots attend refresher training in the simulator and are given a currency/checkride in the aircraft. The two training periods are usually set up so that the pilot receives formal checkrides in the H-3 airframe every six months. He also receives two in-flight currency/checkrides in the AStar and, again, these are staggered so that the pilot gets a currency/checkride, in one or the other, every 90 days.

Every crewmember is trained in SWAT procedures, mountaineering, paramedic skills and diving. And they need them all. McKernan recalled that, during just one working day, they “flew a SAR operation in the mountains at 10,000 feet, followed by a dive operation to help a drowning victim and afterwards carried a SWAT team on an operation. During a single mission we might transport 20 SWAT team members to a remote location and carry two or more casualties, depending on the extent of their injuries.

“In a county as large as Los Angeles, a deputy sheriff in a remote desert area might have to wait 30 to 40 minutes for help from a ground unit. Our crewmembers are equipped and trained to be inserted into any situation and take direct action.”