All in a day’s work

He­li­copter me­chan­ics work to keep county’s life-sav­ing air fleet op­er­a­tional

The Signal - - FRONT PAGE - By Austin Dave Sig­nal Staff Writer

It’s much like the sur­gi­cal wing of the lo­cal trauma cen­ter.

Their pa­tients – he­li­copters of­ten re­ferred to as birds – are rolled in and con­nected to an ar­ray of ca­bles. A mod­est team of three peo­ple work to del­i­cately dis­con­nect an ex­pan­sive pair of black, yel­low and white metal wings.

The bird’s belly, a sil­ver-col­ored rec­tan­gu­lar wa­ter reser­voir, is sur­gi­cally re­moved.

A sturdy man in a blue T-shirt shifts his at­ten­tion to his in-pa­tient’s black and yel­low tail boom. His iden­tity re­mains hid­den be­hind the con­tour of a base­ball cap as he slides a weath­ered hand over bold let­ter­ing em­bla­zoned on the tail wing.

“It’ll be com­pletely taken apart and in­spected,” the man said to a small group as­sem­bled un­der the flo­res­cent light of the Pa­coima-based air­craft hanger.

“It’ll be a cou­ple of months be­fore it can fly again,” he added, pat­ting a siz­able Los An­ge­les County seal stamped to the side of the he­li­copter’s door.

The man is one of many me­chan­ics as­signed to main­tain the he­li­copter fleet tasked with pluck­ing peo­ple dan­gling from some of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s most jagged and el­e­vated cliffs.

Aside from that, the mod­i­fied mil­i­tary air­craft must be in tip-top shape to take on their most pub­lic task – wa­ter bomb­ing.

It’s up to the county air op­er­a­tions main­te­nance team to en­sure the fire depart­ment’s aerial line of de­fense is qual­i­fied to squeeze them­selves be­tween homes and hill­sides ablaze.

“It’s a great mis­sion – help­ing peo­ple, sav­ing lives, sav­ing prop­erty,” said James Ring, se­nior he­li­copter me­chanic.

Ring takes great pride in see­ing the end re­sult which gen­er­ally comes in the form of one of the he­li­copters be­ing fea­tured on tele­vi­sion or in the news­pa­per.

“You see your air­craft on the news sav­ing houses, sav­ing lost hik­ers, search and res­cue, ocean res­cue, div­ing res­cues near Catalina Is­land,” he said.

Ring said the team’s work dif­fers sig­nif­i­cantly from a typ­i­cal car me­chanic.

If the crew fails to prop­erly com­plete a task, pi­lots don’t have the same op­por­tu­nity af­forded to driv­ers to pull to the side of the road and call a tow truck.

“If some­thing goes wrong with an air­craft it’s in the air, it’s usu­ally a catas­tro­phe,” Ring said.

The man, tall in stature, ex­er­cises a de­tail-ori­ented and cau­tious ap­proach across the var­i­ous projects to re­hab ill birds – yes, the metal ones.

“A lot of at­ten­tion to de­tail is re­quired which comes with ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “There’s a cer­tain type of per­son­al­ity re­quired to be a me­chanic and that’s part of it.”

Aside from the typ­i­cal Phillips screw­driver and pli­ers, many of the me­chan­ics on staff have a mil­i­tary back­ground in their tool belts.

But each day’s list of prob­lems to cor­rect brings about a new sense of ex­cite­ment for the small, but mod­est crew.

“On Sun­day nights, most peo­ple are like ‘Ugh, Mon­day morn­ing, I’ve got to go to work,’” Ring said. “But I’m up for it. I’m all in.”

Typ­i­cal day

Each day be­gins at 8 a.m. when the fleet of he­li­copters, cur­rently eight in to­tal, de­parts Bar­ton Heli­port in the San Fernando Val­ley to take po­si­tions at sev­eral points within Los An­ge­les County’s wide-rang­ing bor­ders.

The birds are typ­i­cally away from their con­crete and metal nest for about 22 hours and it’s dur­ing this time­frame that the he­li­copters ex­pe­ri­ence the most wear and tear.

Re­spond­ing to a va­ri­ety of what the air op­er­a­tions sec­tion calls “mis­sions,” the copters re­turn to Bar­ton at 7:30 a.m. of­ten coated in soot and in need of jet fuel.

“At this point, the me­chan­ics go out to each air­craft and per­form the daily in­spec­tion,” Ring said.

The race to re­store the fleet to work­ing or­der and in­spect ev­ery nook, cranny and crevice be­gins. Two to three me­chan­ics tend to each he­li­copter for about 45 min­utes to an hour.

The Los An­ge­les County Fire Depart­ment em­ploys two types of air­craft in its fleet – the Bell 412 and the con­sid­er­ably larger Siko­rsky S-70i Fire­hawk.

The lat­ter of the two is a vari­ant of the UH-60 Black­hawk used by U.S. armed ser­vices. Aside from the two jet turbo shaft en­gines, it’s a com­plex air­craft with dig­i­tal con­trols – but it’s the fa­vorite for the county’s fire crews.

The pi­lots credit the he­li­copter to be­ing the how­itzer in a knife fight.

“Even though I’ve been do­ing it for over 30 years, it still amazes me what a he­li­copter can do,” Ring said.

Copter ‘Doc­tors’

But with elab­o­rate sys­tems is the need for in­tri­cate minds. Each mem­ber of the main­te­nance team has five to 10 years of for­mal school­ing to meet the chal­lenge.

The same group of ma­chine doc­tors is also tasked with rou­tinely dis­as­sem­bling each air­craft, from nose to tail.

Af­ter 500 flight hours, the he­li­copters must go through a ma­jor in­spec­tion.

“The en­gines are off, the gear­boxes are off,” Ring ex­plained. “Ev­ery­thing is torn apart, com­pletely in­spected and re­assem­bled.

“We have a great crew. They rise to what­ever level needs to be risen to in or­der to get the job done.”

Ring paused and took a mo­ment to turn his at­ten­tion to the crew work­ing on Copter 19.

“It re­ally is one big fam­ily,” he said.

Kazia Doros/For The Sig­nal

Air Op­er­a­tions Sec­tion me­chan­ics in­spect a com­po­nent of a Siko­rsky S-70i Fire­hawk he­li­copter ear­lier this month at Bar­ton Heli­port in Pa­coima.

Austin Dave/The Sig­nal

Se­nior he­li­copter me­chanic James Ring holds a model replica of a Siko­rsky S-70i Fire­hawk, the same air­craft be­ing ser­viced be­hind him.

Kazia Doros/For The Sig­nal

A me­chanic in­spects a com­po­nent of a Bell 412 he­li­copter at Bar­ton Heli­port.

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