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Ventura County Sheriff`s

Firefighting in California is an important mission assigned not only to firefighting organisations like CAL Fire or the US Forest Service, but as well to other public authorities like the Ventura County Sheriffs. This law enforcement unit, responsible for the naming County in the northwest of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, traces its history back to the first elected Sheriff in 1873.

In terms of aviation, the Ventura County Sheriffs have an Air Unit in operation since 1971, starting with a Bell 47. The unit was initially only dedicated to law enforcement missions, but with the importance of firefighting rising a decision was made in 2009 to combine forces with the Ventura County Fire District. Since this time, the two public authorities work together as single Aviation Unit, integrating staff from both organisations and being led by a Captain from the Sheriff’s office supported by a Fire District Captain. The team provides a huge variety of missions ranging from law enforcement, search and rescue, emergency medical services to firefighting, which have to be performed in the inhabited and uninhabited areas of Ventura.

As the county includes mountains up to 9.000 feet with heavy snowfall in winter, but as well an island 60 miles of the coast, the aviation unit needs helicopters capable of fulfilling all assigned missions in all these environments on the mountains, plains and coast. The number of helicopters on assignment is normally five, but this is currently increased to eight airframes in total due to the introduction of the new Firehawk. With this upgrade still ongoing, three main types of helicopters are currently in operation.

For law enforcement and police missions, the main equipment used is a Bell 207 Long Ranger, built in the 1980s and equipped with specific night vision equipment and cameras.

For search and rescue, emergency medical services and firefighting, the unit relied for many years on several airframes and versions of Bell Huey helicopters. The assigned airframes currently include three Bell 205 / HH-1H versions and one Bell 212, some of them with up to 30.000 flight hours in their books. With regard to the Bell 205s, two of them are in 205B standard (e.g. upgraded like a Bell 212 but with a single engine), although the two helicopters have been originally built as a civil Bell 205A and a military UH-1H. The third 205, as well a former military UH-1H was not upgrade and will be used for spare parts (remark: although Bell 205 and UH-1H are technically the same airframes, the certifications are different and thus spare parts cannot be exchanged between civil and military airframes). The sole Bell 212 will be sold, as the main reason to have it were missions on the Ocean where two engines are mandatory for safety reasons (ruling out the usage of the other Hueys of the unit), but now can be fulfilled by the Firehawks.

The newest additions are three S-70i Firehawk helicopters, civil version of the UH-60 Blackhawk family developed initially in the late 1970s for the US Army, but now adapted for various missions including firefighting and search and rescue operations like with the Ventura County Sheriffs. The airframes in use by the aviation unit are former military helicopters built around 2007, but with a maximum of 1.500 flight hours at retirement by the Army. These military airframes have been refurbished and heavily upgraded by Sikorsky according to the specifications of the Ventura County Sheriffs air unit, covering e.g. avionics but of course as addition the 1.000 gallon water tank (developed by Kawak, in use as well by CAL Fire). If operating on firefighting assignments, up to 11 firefighters plus three crew (one in cabin, two pilots) are on board the helicopter.

With the diverse missions assigned on the aviation unit, the aim is to ensure readiness in different ways. Although three types of helicopters are in operation, the approach is to have the pilots certified on all of them. At the same time, the ambition is to provide in all airframes the same main relevant components like the same GPS, same avionics etc., thereby simplifying the work for the flight crews.

During our visit, which was made possible due to the hospitality by the team just arriving from a training mission, overall seven of the eight helicopters were present (as one Firehawk was in maintenance at another facility). The spacious hangar at Camarillo Airport provides sufficient space for all helicopters of the unit, with several of them being available for missions at any time. With the recent news regarding the acquisition of an additional helicopter, a Bell 412EPX replacing one of the Hueys, the Air Unit is continuing to modernise their fleet. We wish all pilots and crews safe flights!