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Sheriff's Dept. promises copter to Fallbrook more


Last updated 7/19/2007 at Noon

The Sheriff’s Department officer in charge of aviation has promised a more frequent Fallbrook Community Airpark presence for the fire and life safety helicopter which had been planned to be based at the Fallbrook airport.

“We’re going to make every effort we can to try to have the aircraft up there as much as possible,” said Lt. Bob Curry, the program manager for the Sheriff’s Department’s aviation operations. “I think the best solution for everybody is for us to just send it up there every day and eat the flight time back and forth.”

In July 2004 the San Diego County Board of Supervisors authorized the purchase of two fire and life safety helicopters and assigned operational control of those helicopters to the Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s Department took delivery of two Bell 205 A-1 helicopters on June 27, 2005, and stationed them at the ASTREA (Aerial Support To Regional Enforcement Agencies) base at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. The plan at the time was that once the infrastructure to house the two helicopters was in place, one would be based at Fallbrook Community Airpark and the other would be based at Ramona Airport.

Hangaring, maintenance, and other issues have limited the helicopter’s presence in Fallbrook. “We’ve tried to balance putting the aircraft there and trying to keep our maintenance schedules,” Curry said.

An editorial by North County Fire Protection District fire chief Bill Metcalf warned local residents that the helicopter was not truly based in Fallbrook. Metcalf’s desire was to dispel a community sense of security rather than to complain about the Sheriff’s Department decision, although subsequent community reaction created the response from the Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff’s Department targets the April-May timeframe for annual maintenance requirements, which is a three to four week process for each helicopter. Since at least one helicopter is scheduled to be operational at any given time, the maintenance on two helicopters doubled the period in which only one of the aircraft was available. In addition to the annual maintenance, a three-day maintenance period is required after every 100 hours of operation.

The maintenance has led to the stationing of the remaining helicopter at Gillespie Field, although Curry indicated that when only one helicopter is available it will alternate between Gillespie Field and Fallbrook Community Airpark. “We’re going to go ahead and stagger the days, so you guys should see it every other day,” he said.

“If we’re down to one aircraft, that’s what my indication is now,” Curry said. “I’m going to split those.”

Curry also noted that if two helicopters are available Copter 12 will be stationed in Fallbrook every day.

In addition to the two firefighting helicopters, which can also be used for rescue operations, the Sheriff’s Department also has six ASTREA helicopters which are used both for surveillance operations and for search and rescue missions. The ASTREA helicopters also have some firefighting capability, although their 120-gallon buckets aren’t as effective as the 375-gallon buckets of the firefighting helicopters.

The ASTREA helicopters are all in the MD-500 series, although a Bell 407 is expected to be in service by November. The Bell 407 is between the MD-500s and Bell 205s in size and will be equipped with a 250-gallon bucket.

The MD-500s are used for normal extrication operations where a safe landing area is available, but if a hoist rescue is required the Bell 205s are used. “Most of our rescue calls are down here in East County,” Curry said.

Including both fire and rescue response calls, the helicopters saw duty 340 times in 2006. The helicopters were called approximately 120 times during the first six months of 2007, although the summer fire season will likely increase that number.

Curry cautioned that having a helicopter stationed in Fallbrook doesn’t mean that it will be in Fallbrook. “When it’s on an incident it can’t sit at the station up there,” he said.

The incident numbers do not include separate trips for each helicopter. “Monte Vista [the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection dispatch station] sends them both,” Curry said. “They call things off if they scale things back.”

Copter 10, which is based at Gillespie Field, has a hoist for rescue operations. Copter 12 does not have a hoist. Although both helicopters are now flown by Sheriff’s Department pilots rather than California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pilots, Copter 12 has a CDF crew and Copter 10 also has a CDF captain assigned to the aircraft.

Often a helicopter is not needed by the time it arrives. Since the helicopters do not prevent wildfires but instead keep them from spreading, their presence does not reduce the number of times they are deployed. In fact, by reducing the extent of the fire and leaving unburned vegetation, it is possible that more fires requiring deployment will occur. “The fuel doesn’t get burned off,” Curry said.

Despite initial plans for Copter 12 to be based overnight in Fallbrook, the aircraft will still be hangared at Gillespie Field. In June 2005 the supervisors approved the county’s 2005-06 budget which included $550,000 for the acquisition of capital improvements to Fallbrook Community Airpark to allow a firefighting helicopter to be based in Fallbrook. The needs for basing a helicopter in Fallbrook included a helicopter pad, a modular building for storage, and a fuel facility or fuel truck.

“They built a nice place where we can operate during the day,” Curry said.

The modular building, which can also accommodate overnight lodging for pilots and other firefighting personnel, was completed in 2006 as was the helicopter pad. Because of security and weather issues, the Gillespie Field hangar is considered better for the helicopter than the unsheltered Fallbrook helipad.

The Sheriff’s Department is a tenant of County Airports and is responsible for developing and maintaining its leasehold, so if the funding is available a hangar for the helicopter could be constructed at Fallbrook Community Airpark. Funding for a hangar alone won’t make Fallbrook Community Airport the most desirable place for overnight storage according to Curry. “There are other issues that go along with that,” he said.

In addition to the annual and 100-hour maintenance which require down times, daily maintenance of the helicopters is also needed. If Copter 12 was hangared overnight in Fallbrook, the maintenance crew based at Gillespie Field would need to fly to Fallbrook daily for their work. “One way or another an aircraft’s going to fly back and forth to Fallbrook, either a small one or a big one,” Curry said.

The ASTREA aircraft are all based at Gillespie Field, so having all eight helicopters in one place is more efficient for the daily maintenance. The original plans to house Copter 10 at Ramona Airport were altered after a study of fire and rescue locations. Ramona Airport also has a United States Forest Service firefighting helicopter, two CDF tankers, and a CDF observation aircraft.


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