Fire Helicopter Pilot Candidate Mentoring Program—Up, Up, and Away!

August 31, 2019

The Los Angeles City Fire Department best exemplifies the term, “The American Dream.” Where else can a person with a high school diploma go from student, to firefighter, engineer, captain, chief, to PILOT. Okay, the ranks may be a little out of order per the Department’s organizational chart, but in terms of best jobs, I think I may have this one correct. Flying a helicopter, soaring through the clouds at high speed, without one car blocking your way to an incident, sounds pretty good to me.

Flying a LAFD helicopter is more than
just flying—it’s a way of life

The road to the position of pilot though, is not an easy one. In the past, in order to achieve the required qualifications (including flight experience) to be eligible to enter the LAFD Pilot Program, a personal financial commitment of nearly $100,000 was required. Yet, even with the personal commitment of getting your helicopter pilot license and putting in the required flight time prior to entering the program, the strict rigors of the program still produced an extremely high washout rate.

Enter the LAFD Helicopter Pilot Mentoring Program. The mentoring program, coupled with LAPD Flight School, allows an LAFD pilot trainee candidate to receive limited flight instruction with an LAFD flight instructor. This opportunity exposes qualified trainee candidates to Air Operations flight training expectations. The usual flights allow the candidate to practice takeoff and landing operations, exposure to normal and steep traffic patterns, practice acceleration/decelerations, learn to execute precise turns at extreme degrees, hovering, and limited auto rotation training, and limited emergency procedures—all executed the LAFD way. What is the difference from regular flying, you ask? Flying is flying, right? You couldn’t be more wrong in your thinking. Regular pilots don’t fly in extreme weather, nor do they fly into a fire storm, drop hundreds of gallons of water, and then repeat that madness over and over. Flying a LAFD helicopter is more than just flying—it’s a way of life and life saving all rolled up in a truly committed individual with a love for flying.

One such person is Pilot II Cherif Amin. Even at a young age, Cherif had a dream of flying. Day after day he would watch as military flights of C-130 aircraft flew over his home in the Valley, fueling his imagination and planting the seed of being a pilot one day himself. At age 34 Cherif became an LA City Firefighter, obtaining the title of Firefighter/Paramedic two years later. He continued to study and train, honing his skills as a firefighter and paramedic, and obtained certifications whenever possible. It wouldn’t be until age 42, though, that his dream of flight would be realized.

On August 8, 2011, Cherif climbed onboard a 2-seat, Model R22 helicopter and was lifted into his future. His first flight was far from ideal. The older copter spewed exhaust into the cabin, and the motion made him airsick. Still, Cherif endured and after his fourth flight, he was able to adapt to his new surroundings. Three months later he had his private helicopter pilot license. He eventually attained his flight instructor license and began to build his flight experience by teaching others to fly. On December 26, 2012, Cherif entered the LAFD Helicopter Pilot Candidate Mentoring Program, and the rest is now history.

Many have had similar dreams as Amin, but most have gone unrealized. Even with the Department’s mentoring program, the rigors of the position of a LAFD pilot prove too challenging for most. Just to apply, a member must have four years on the job and a minimum of 100 hours of flight time. Then comes a thorough flight medical, the civil service process, including an interview before being placed on an eligibility list. From there, a 3-Whole Score whittles down the remaining candidates. The lucky minority will then move on to a 2-week stent at LAPD Ground School. If successful there and a position is available, the title of Pilot I will be confirmed upon them and then the real work begins—LAPD’s flight school. The length of time for this training varies, usually around 8-12 months. If, or when, the candidate successfully passes this portion, they return to FS 114 to get their helitack certs (150 hours), followed by 200 hours of flight training, such as mountain flying, water dropping, and Night-Sun operations. The Pilot I must successfully pass 11 check rides, the last being a final check ride. From there, the candidate is presented with silver wings and the title of Pilot II.

The position of pilot on the LAFD is an honored one. Thanks to the Helicopter Pilot Mentoring Program, many more candidates will attain that goal. Those who are selected will risk their lives on a daily basis doing what they have worked so hard for but love so much to do.

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