“The advent of the helicopter in the LAFD was one of the most significant changes in the strategic and tactical response operations in the history of the department.” – Frank Borden
In the early 1940’s, during World War II, the LAFD began air operations for the first time. The idea originated with Captain George Brown and Fireman Emile “Frenchie” Plamondon of the Mountain Patrol. With the manpower shortages created by members joining or being drafted into the military, it was impossible to effectively patrol the expansive tinder-dry brush lands which themselves offered prime targets for enemy planes seeding the hills and mountains with incendiary bombs. With Chief Engineer Alderson’s enthusiastic approval, Plamondon entered into a lease agreement with the City for the use of his 1941 Taylorcraft BC-12, a 65 horsepower fixed wing aircraft. Plamondon flew the small plane, which had a cruising speed of 80 miles-per-hour, in fire lookout missions over the Santa Monica Mountains and Griffith Park. Later, he purchased a replacement aircraft, an Aeronica L-3. Captain Robert Schneck assigned to the Mountain Patrol, was an accomplished artist and painted a gremlin with a backfiring torch on the side of the plane. Chief Alderson was so impressed with the success of the reconnaissance missions that he flew as an observer on at least one of Plamondon’s flights.
The plane originally operated out of Vail Field in East Los Angeles, but more often from Burbank and Simi Valley Airports. On occasion Plamondon would land in the Santa Monica Mountains on three interconnected building pad terraces between Coldwater and Beverly Glen Boulevards. It was said that landings were easy but the takeoffs were hazardous.
The reconnaissance flights continued until after the war when LAFD manpower returned to full strength. This use of aircraft was a LAFD first, but not a fire service first. Airplanes were first used in 1915 by the San Diego FD for aerial fire inspections. In 1917, San Diego’s amphibious airplane was equipped with fire extinguishers. Designated Aerial Truck No. 1, the San Diego plane could quickly fly to isolated waterfront fires and often extinguish them before they grew larger.
The LAFD has a great history of helicopters and the pilots and crews who worked on them. One of our retired pilots has been restoring our old (1963) Bell 47G-3B helicopter for the LAFD Historical Society. Retired Pilot IV Jeff Moir, who’s’ background is in aircraft mechanics, came up with the idea. The project is funded through donations of money and materials. Jeff developed a restoration plan and he has been working on the aircraft for some time. The copter has been disassembled, sandblasted and painted. We found a new “bubble” for it. The copter is currently stored at the LAFD Air Operations facility at the Van Nuys Airport.
Retired LAFD Helicopter Pilot Pat Quinn provided much of the following information for this story as he remembered it: After a rash of large brush fires fought by the LAFD in the late 1950’s, the Administration approached the US Forest Service and asked if one of their pilots could come and brief them on airborne firefighting. This was before any fire service was using helicopters in a direct attack mode.
The Forest Service answered with a question: Why are you contacting us when one of our best pilots works for you? That person was Theodore “Bud” Nelson. Bud was a WWII and Korean War combat pilot who worked as a firefighter for the LAFD and moonlighted as an air attack airplane pilot flying war surplus borate bombers. Moonlighting was frowned upon in those days, so the Administration had no clue of Bud’s activities.
Bud was detailed to make a presentation to the LAFD staff but much to their amazement, he recommended they purchase a helicopter. During his flying with the Forest Service, Bud had watched the construction of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway with the use of the then newly developed turbo-supercharged Bell 47 G3 helicopters. Believing that they could be adapted to a metropolitan fire service much better than a fixed-wing aircraft, Bud was able to convince the staff that it would be a wise purchase.
The LAFD put its first helicopter in service, April 22, 1962. The Bell model 47-G3B was a three- seater with a 260-horsepower Lycoming six-cylinder engine equipped with a turbocharger. The helicopter was 43-feet long and could remain airborne for nearly three hours. Built in Fort Worth Texas, the ship was equipped by the LAFD with a 105 gallon tank for dropping water or fire retardant chemicals. This first helicopter was flown to Los Angeles by two of the department’s first three helicopter pilots, Firefighters Theodore “Bud” Nelson and Clarence Ritchey. The third of the LAFD’s initial roster of helicopter pilots was Auto-Fireman Beverly Beckley. All had extensive flight experience in military and civilian rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. The LAFD helicopter’s first brush fire call came May 18, 1962, to La Tuna Canyon.
A second helicopter, a Bell 47 J-2A, was purchased and used as an aerial command post. As the Administration saw the value of the direct attack helicopter, another firefighting helicopter, a Bell 47 G3B-1 was purchased.
On a sad note: One of the Bell 47 helicopters was destroyed during a training flight, June 23, 1974. Firefighters Pilot Edward L. Hill, 39, and trainee Harold Radcliffe, 37, were killed when the helicopter struck power lines in Big Tujunga Canyon and crashed
The department started its helitak program in 1963 and trained firefighters to jump from hovering helicopters over otherwise inaccessible areas. As the program grew, helitak firefighters became invaluable in quickly bringing emergency aid to victims of falls and other incidents in terrain. Firefighters can be lowered into these areas by hovering or touchdown or by the use of mechanical hoist systems. There was a time during the 1980’s that LAFD firefighters were trained to rappel out of the copters with ropes where landings were too hazardous. This technique was mainly used to get a large number of firefighters onto building roofs or into difficult areas. It is no longer an approved method by the LAFD.
It wasn’t long before the new helicopters were involved in a major rescue operation. On the afternoon of December 14th, 1963, improbable tragedy struck Baldwin Hills. Lost homes, ruined property and even death flooded downward on a broad river of rushing water from the broken dam at the head of Cloverdale Road. In the rushing disaster, unwary residents were trapped. On roofs, in second floor rooms, on small insecure islands of debris, they signaled desperately for help. And help was swift to come. Distinguished among the rescuers were Fire Department members who reported to the scene. Their training, courage and knowledge of how to act in emergency situations made their help more significant than that of any other agency. Unique in the rescue effort was the work of the three helicopter pilots dispatched to the scene, Fireman Theodore M. “Bud” Nelson, Crash 90-C, Fireman Ross H. Reynolds, Crash 90-B and Fireman Howard L. Payne, Crash 90-C. The story is best introduced by excerpts from the official report of Battalion Chief Lynn W. Nelson. Eighteen persons were rescued and flown out to a safe location . . . at least six of these, and quite possibly more, could not have been rescued in any other way and would have been lost except for the fire department helicopter. “Don Sides, KTLA-TV helicopter pilot and broadcaster, was flying over the flood area during the rescue operations. He stated that he saw the fire dept helicopter going into places and making rescues under conditions that required not only a very high degree of skill and flying efficiency but a great deal of courage to even attempt. He felt that no other pilot present, and certainly not himself, had the training and the ability to make the rescues performed by our pilots.”
“May I call to your attention,” he says, “that these rescues involved not only the flying hazards but, in many cases, the problem of rescuing the victims from the water before getting them to the helicopter. Our men, with ropes tied to them, actually allowed themselves to be swept out by the swift current to a position for rescue of victims. They each placed their lives on the line time and time again, without regard to their own safety to save the lives of citizens of this city, and were successful in so doing.” LAFD Helicopter Pilots Bud Nelson, Ross Reynolds and Howard Payne earned Medals of Valor for their heroic rescue of 18 flood victims. By the time the LAFD celebrated its 100 year anniversary in 1986, its helicopter fleet had grown to seven, the largest operated by any department in the world.
The LAFD helicopter fleet that started with the Bell 47 copters went to the Bell Jet Rangers and Bell Hueys from the Vietnam War era in the 1970’s. More from Pilot Pat Quinn’s memories –
The Helicopter Unit, as it was then called, was able to support a vigorous ground attack on a brush fire and soon proved its worth as a rescue vehicle on a wide variety of missions. The first turbine powered helicopter, a Bell 206A Jet Ranger was acquired in 1967. This was a quantum leap in technology and capabilities. It was vastly superior in every regard when compared to the piston-powered helicopters.
In the last half of the 1960’s, then Chief Engineer Ray Hill devised a scheme to retire the Bell 47 J2-A and purchase two additional 400 horsepower Jet Rangers and eliminate Mountain Patrol with the forty or so firefighters utilized there. They had been the department’s early warning system and experts on wild land firefighting. Using a Jet Ranger to patrol on high hazard days, fires could be spotted easily and the fire could be quickly evaluated.
During the 1970s, the commercial version of the military Bell Huey helicopter became available. Two Bell 205 A-1 helicopters were put into service and with it came another huge leap in capability. The 1400 horsepower Hueys were equipped with a large 360 gallon water tank and one was equipped with an internal rescue hoist. With its cavernous cabin, it could be truly used as a practical air ambulance.
With the winding down of the Viet Nam War, the federal government released large quantities of surplus military helicopters to other government agencies. The Los Angeles Fire Department was able to purchase four ex-Air Force Bell UH-1F helicopters with 1325 horsepower General Electric engines. Two of the four were used for parts and the other two were stripped of all excess military hardware, equipped with radios and water tanks and painted in the red and white. Total investment in each ship was about $60,000. This was less than 5% of its replacement cost. At the very first brush fire the first “F model” served in Mandeville Canyon, it saved millions of dollars of homes.
In 1986, Bell Helicopter Company made available a special Bell 412 SP with a light airframe and enlarged Pratt and Whitney twin turbine engines. The fire department staff was able to arrange for its purchase. Utilizing the basic Huey airframe, Bell had developed a four bladed semi-rigid rotor system. The Bell 412 was much faster, quieter, smoother and safer than all previous models. Seeing the increase in utilization, the department acquired another Bell 412 soon thereafter. Two additional Bell 412s were eventually added to the LAFD fleet.
With four medium-lift helicopters, firefighting tactics began to change. During the early days, the Bell 47s dropped 85-100 gallons with a projected turnaround of 10 to 12 minutes. During the Jet Ranger days, the projected turnaround was 6 to 7 minutes with 100-120 gallons. With the mixed fleet of 205 A-1 Hueys and 412s, the turnaround expectation was 6 minutes and 350-360 gallons of water. If caught early, a quickly growing brush fire could be extinguished before it became a campaign conflagration.
In the early days, water dropping helicopters simply supported the firefighters on the fire lines. As capabilities improved, the helicopters could actually lead the charge. We probably will never see the day when airborne firefighters can eliminate the ground component in wildland firefighting but as future capabilities increase, helicopters can sure make the firefighters task a whole lot easier.
A note about Pat Quinn: He received the Medal of Valor for a helicopter rescue he made with Firefighter Frank Vidovich on the cliffs of Point Fermin in San Pedro on December 31, 1979. He authored a manual for firefighting and rescues utilizing helicopters. It was adopted by the industry and was used worldwide for more than twenty years. When he retired in 1995, Bell Helicopter sent him around the world lecturing on firefighting and rescue with helicopters. Pat said “That was a very special thank you!” He also stated: “The highlights of my career were the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, the 1994 Northridge quake, the Malibu fire about 1993 and the Sepulveda Dam flood where I rescued 45 people: 40 civilians, 4 firefighters and 1 policeman. I would love to go back and do it all over again.”
Submitted by Frank Borden