After a rash of large brush fires fought by the LAFD in the late 1950’s, the administration approached the United States 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.
A Bell 47 G3B helicopter with a 260 horsepower Lycoming piston engine was delivered in early 1962 and three pilots were chosen from the ranks to fly it: Beverly Beckley, Clarence Ritchie and, of course, Bud Nelson. Clarence Ritchie was named Chief Pilot due to his military helicopter experience.
Concurrent with these developments but separately, the Los Angeles County Fire Department was developing its own helicopter operation. They hired a noted helicopter pilot, Roland Barton, to get their operation going. They were, in fact, slightly ahead of the LAFD helicopter development. It was LACoFD that made the first water-dropping tank for the Bell 47. The LAFD administration quickly saw the value in this 100 gallon fixed tank and purchased one for its use. It had hand-opened doors, utilizing a large lever to open the doors requiring the pilot to remove his hand from the flight controls to pull the lever. This was not an optimum arrangement and could be downright dangerous under certain circumstances so they eventually devised an electrical release and closing mechanism.
A second helicopter, a Bell 47 J-2A, was purchased and used as an aerial command post. The mayor, Sam Yorty, saw the value of this helicopter as an executive transport and used it extensively. As the administration saw the value of the direct attack helicopter, another firefighting helicopter, a Bell 47 G3B-1, with a 370 horsepower turbocharged Lycoming engine was soon added to the fleet.
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.
During the early days, the helicopters were housed at a commercial hangar at the north end of Van Nuys Airport. When Fire Station 90 opened, there was room to house the copters in quarters. In 1970, a dedicated hangar was built for the fire department helicopters and the repair of the fast expanding LAPD fleet as well as the Department of Fleet Services helicopters.
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 1960s, Chief Engineer Ray Hill devised a scheme to retire the Bell 47 J2-A and to 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 1970’s, 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. The final Bell 47 G3B-1 was also retired during this time frame.
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 LAFD colors. 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. A deal was struck with George Air Force Base near Victorville to exchange parts as they had the exact same type of Huey helicopters. After several years, George Air Force Base was deactivated and the parts source dried up. Replacements were needed immediately.
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. This was the next leap in capability and technology. 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 six to seven minutes with 100-120 gallons. With the mixed fleet of 205 A-1 Hueys and 412s, the turnaround expectation was six 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 bound component in wild land firefighting but as future capabilities increase, helicopters can sure make the firefighters task a whole lot easier.
In this quick piece, I emphasized the firefighting aspect of the helicopters. When I retired in 1995, rescue related responses were about 70 percent of our work while firefighting (brush fires, structure fires, high-rise fires, etc.) was about 30 percent.
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.
For the Fire Department, I 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 I retired, Bell Helicopter Company sent my wife and me around the world lecturing on firefighting and rescue with helicopters.
Chief Pilot Jeff Moir volunteered to restore the LAFD 1963 Bell 47 five years ago using his own resources to work on it. This helicopter belongs to the LAFD Historical Society and Jeff has done a great job on his off time to get it ready for display. After more than 33 years on the job and an amazing 28 years as an LAFD pilot, Jeff retired as of February 26th. One day before his last day at Air Operations he, with some help, got the engine back in. One of his hobbies in retirement is to complete the restoration of the helicopter. A follow up story will be included in the May, 2015 Grapevine about Jeff and the helicopter.
Submitted by Frank Borden, Director of Operations, LAFDHS