Ride of the Valkyries

Posted by on July 2nd, 2011

With a chill still in the air before the last twists of fog burn off the canyons, the crew of helicopter 308 is running their preflight checks, combing the aircraft like a forensic investigator at crime scene.

Mist blows from under the helicopter after a water drop.

Ever ready, ever vigilant, the aircraft must be in peak performance to be in the air at a moment’s notice. When time or location put a victim out of reach, that is when Santa Barbara County Fire takes to the air.

At 55, David Dentzel is an experienced outdoorsman and has tested himself against the elements from Alaska to Patagonia. In late March, Dentzel – along with his dog – began what he thought would be a week long trek through the Los Padres National Forest.

The flight crew’s insignia.

He knew a combination of recent fires and funding cuts had left some trails in the back country in disrepair, but a few miles in, it became clear that the trails were much worse than he had anticipated.

He pressed on for four days. Trails went from rough to nonexistent. Once clearly marked paths through the wilderness now petered out into thick overgrowth. He had hiked along a stream, forced to cross nearly 50 times. Now exhausted from days of bushwhacking and wading, saddled with a 35-pound pack, he came to yet another river crossing.

The crossing wasn’t deep; he didn’t even have to slip off his ankle-high hiking boots. Despite his fatigue, the crossing didn’t seem different than the dozens of others he had made that day. Almost to the shore, aiming for a patch of soft sand, he jumped.

All systems are go

Gordon O’Neill sits at his desk. He is showing off the complex system where every conceivable metric is logged: chopper 308, twelve missions this year; chopper 309, seven missions, out of commission for yearly maintenance, new water tank. Flight time, response time, gallons of fuel used, replacement dates of every part in the aircraft, the list goes on. “This chopper doesn’t move without the shuffling of paper,” said O’Neill.

Most of the flight crew’s work is done on the ground. The actions of the crew are controlled by strict protocols. O’Neill reaches into a sleeve pocket on his flight suit and pulls out a set of laminated cards on a metal ring:

“Before you fly, you ask these questions:”

1. Is the helicopter necessary?

2. Are all the hazards identified?

3. Are my personnel trained?

“If the answer is no to any of them, then the mission stops right there,” said O’Neill. One might imagine sitting behind the controls of a helicopter and skimming canyons on a daily basis might be exhilarating. But to SBC Fire’s crew, it is just another day on the job. Fear and excitement are replaced by respect for what their tools can do. The department owns two UH1-H “Huey” helicopters. The Huey was an icon of the Vietnam War. Green, stubby war-wagons, Hueys delivered soldiers to battle and flew combat missions with door gunners riding on the edge, firing thousands of machine gun rounds into the jungle.

O’Neill is seated in the door, but these veteran helicopters have a new mission. Bigger engines, upgraded tails and better transmissions have been added to the aircraft to make them ideal for hauling heavier loads and holding steady on critical rescue operations.

The duties of rescue and fire response are divided between the chopper 308 and 309. In order to “get up and split” as O’Neil puts it, one chopper is always in the medical configuration while the other is ready to fight fires. The division allows the flight crews to be off the ground in as little as seven minutes.

A hose used in firefighting helicopters.

A water drop hits its mark.

The medical rescue helicopters carry two paramedics on every rescue, something other counties’ search-and-rescue operations don’t have. When configured for fires, the choppers are stripped of their heavy hoist and 250-foot cable that can lift up to 600 pounds. When fighting fires, they also carry a heavy duty water tank and snorkel that can pump 1,000 gallons a minute, filling their tanks in 25 seconds.

While it might be easy to define the crew of SBC Fire’s air operations as strictly an air force, O’Neill says they can easily transition between jobs: “We are firefighters; we can assimilate into any task. Training on the helicopter is in addition to our normal firefighter training.”

On remote missions, the helicopter can often arrive before any other backup. “I tell other chiefs, we are not just rescue, we are your second engine company,” he says.

Speed is critical in the air rescue industry. O’Neill tells the story of a major car accident. It took only six minutes from the time they touched down at the scene to the time they delivered a badly injured boy to a waiting ambulance. As the boy was being wheeled into the emergency room, his heart stopped. Doctors had access to a hospital full of medical equipment and were able to save him.

Stranded

The full weight of Dentzel’s pack-laden body came down on the soft sand. The bank collapsed to the left, rolling his foot and severely spraining his ankle. In pain, he decided to continue to his campsite. After three hours of hobbling, he sat down to soak his ankle in the Sisquoc River by his camp and applied medication. By this time, his ankle had swollen to the size of a softball and taken on a midnight hue. He knew he had a high tolerance for pain, he didn’t even cry when one of his fingers had been sliced off, but this was unbearable. Sitting at his campsite, he knew he was in trouble.

With the exception of his dog, Dentzel was alone, out of cell contact and badly hurt. “I was in utter pain; I wrapped my ankle tight with an Ace bandage and put it in my boot to make a cast.” Dentzel faced a choice: sit and wait for someone to realize he was missing or attempt to call for help himself. If he ventured into the higher elevations, he was leaving water; if he stayed at camp, he might run out of food. He thought about his family and how worried they would be if he didn’t come home on time: “I decided at that point to be proactive in my rescue.”

The interior of 309.

Dentzel formulated a plan: Go up to the mountain peaks around his camp and try to make visual contact with the nearest cell tower at the top of Camino Cielo. He would have to conserve his strength, carefully tracking his liquid and caloric intake.

Normally, hiking 15 miles in one day didn’t bother him, but now walking a third of that was excruciating. His dog by his side and a watchful eye on his precious water, Dentzel attempted his first summit. It was time to find out if his efforts had paid off. Dentzel dialed 911, nothing, only silence on the other end.

O’Neill checks his equipment

Three more peaks offered the same bleak silence. By this time, Dentzel’s water was almost gone and another problem was growing – or rather, following him. Earlier in his trip, he had spotted fresh mountain lion tracks. They had been another of the reasons he loved the outdoors, but now the tracks were ominous. Dentzel knew the fires in the area had made hunting harder for the big cat, and he thought it might be waiting for him to weaken. Dentzel carefully weighed his options for a second time. He could attempt one more peak or head back down the mountain and look for water. He estimated it would be almost seven miles before he found water, and it was a struggle to walk just five. If he attempted to go for water, he would likely run out before he could refill.

With a mountain lion on his trail, Dentzel determined to make one last climb. “If my last attempt did not work, I figured I had about a 25-percent chance left to live.”

What it takes

When success is measured in inches and seconds, only those who meet the highest standards qualify to fly for the county. “How we got our pilots, I have no idea. We have some of the best in the state, if not in the nation,” said O’Neill. “To get hired here, you have to be the best. We won’t compromise; the people of this community deserve the best.”

Dan Moore lies underneath 309 working on a fuel pump.

Dan Moore works on a fuel pump.

Pilots are required to have a minimum of 3,000 hours of flight time in a helicopter and 1,000 of those hours have to be in mountainous areas. The pilots who actually get hired often have much more. “They don’t get accepted here unless they have a tremendous amount of fire or rescue experience,” said O’Neill.

One of the often unsung positions on the air operations crew is the mechanic. Criteria for mechanics match the pilots in its search for the best, and the mechanics often share the pilot’s military background. “These are the guys who kept choppers up in Iraq. I trust them with my life,” said O’Neill.

Chris Spangenberg behind the controls of 308.

He noted they look for consistency in their mechanics, someone who knows the aircraft and has expertise under their belt. “It is a tremendous amount of ongoing maintenance.” During the winter, one helicopter at a time is taken out of service for an annual checkup. Piece by piece the chopper is inspected, coming almost completely apart in the crew’s hangar.

Those high standards have brought in a crew with impressive resumes. From the Coast Guard and Los Angeles County Fire to the Army and emergency medical veterans, only the elite qualify. Sixty-four-year-old Chris Spangenberg is one of those pilots and has a reputation for clairvoyance. Mechanic Dan Moore lies underneath 309 working on a fuel booster pump that is giving the crew trouble. “He knew something was going to be wrong, that’s why he wanted to fly it today,” Moore says.

A few taps to get some sludge out and the pump is back working, and 309 flies another day. “It’s his experience, that’s why Chris is an old pilot,” said O’Neill. “When we had to replace the tail on one of the helicopters, it was because Chris could feel it vibrating differently than it normally did. He could feel a tiny crack in the tail while sitting in the pilot’s seat.”

Spangenberg joined the Army in 1964 when he was 18. “I wanted to be a pilot and the Army said they would make me one,” he says. After four years, including time in Vietnam, he left the Army and went to work in the fire industry. Close to 50 years behind the controls of a helicopter have taught him a few things.

“My job is to manage the aircraft; it won’t do anybody good if you’re dead. There is this poster that says, ‘It’s not an emergency, it’s your job.’ Everything starts with safety and you find a way to fight fire. The ability to make good decisions is a requirement for this job.”

Spangenberg says however stressful it might be, he is doing what he loves: “I’m one of these lucky people who has made a living doing what I love to do, it’s fun. The work we do is rewarding, and it’s the understanding when you go to work there is a fair chance that you can make a serious positive impact in someone’s life.”

One of the extensive logs the crew must fill out.

The topic switches to the scariest moments the crew has had in the air. They agree the most frightening times have been seeing their fellow firefighters in danger on the ground. “The biggest fear is that you can’t protect your guys on the ground,” O’Neill says. In the helicopter, both the pilot and captain are looking out for fire crews on the ground. “The pilot’s focus is flying the aircraft, and the reason we fly with a seasoned captain is to keep a second set of eyes on the ground,” says O’Neill. The flight crew is constantly updating firefighters about conditions and trying to keep them ahead of the flames.

O’Neill looks over documents

Spangenberg adds that overcoming fear is crucial to working effectively. “If you’re doing your job well, it’s not scary. You have to manage risk, when you step over the line and get that creepy feeling; you know you went too far.” O’Neill adds, “Scary is relative.”

The sense of camaraderie is strong among the flight team, even if it involves a good deal of ribbing. “I really enjoy flying with Chris,” says O’Neill. “I do too,” adds Spangenberg, “but sometimes I’m forced to fly with (O’Neill).”

But their jabs only cement their bond. “I get my family at home and I get my family here,” says O’Neill. He added that the kinship makes safety an even higher priority. “You don’t want to go home with an empty seat; if somebody gets hurt, you don’t want to be the one responsible.”

In the helicopter, the responsibility of safety falls to everyone on board. “We don’t have passengers, we have crew members,” said O’Neill. “Any person has the ability to say no to the mission and it stops right there. We don’t have the room for ‘I’m all thumbs today.’ We can’t just bump into stuff; if we make a mistake somebody dies.”

The constant quest for safety is behind the crew’s rigorous inspections. Every three months, they put the maximum load on their hoists. “We are constantly checking cables, because those are my guys out there,” said O’Neill.

Tanks, pumps and night vision goggles, used to fight fires at night, are constantly put through their paces. Pilots must keep current on their training. Go one day over a training requirement and they are forced to retake classroom training.

Motivation

The job is filled with challenges: flying high over fires fills the cabin with carbon dioxide; crews can be on-call for long periods of time; not to mention the emotional toll rescues with not-so-happy endings can have.

On March 27, Daniel Salgado was riding an ATV with his brother and a group of friends. Salgado missed a hairpin turn and fell more than 300 feet off a cliff. When the flight crew arrived, they found his brother doing chest compressions on Daniel, trying to revive him. The area was difficult to work in and the crew would ultimately bring the hoist up and down 11 times. Once the paramedics arrived, they told the brother there was nothing they could do and spent almost an hour on the ground with the brother waiting to be picked up.

O’Neill said the rescue had weighed on the crew: “It’s kind of the sad, but it’s just part of this business.” Not all flights end in tragedy. In fact, O’Neill said he has never made a bigger difference. “I have had more positive impact on people’s lives here than I have ever had in my whole career, and it is in part due to the amazing tools we have been given.” A crucial part of any mission is the debriefing. There the crew talks about their mistakes and about the highs and lows of the mission.

“If you make a mistake, I’ll chew you out but it’s to help the crew in the long run, actually in this unit you are looked highly upon if you bring your own mistakes out to help others so they don’t make the same mistakes.”

The debriefings also play a role in letting off steam from stressful missions. “When you don’t talk about the stress it just builds up, it’s like pouring water into a cup. Once it’s full, it just pours out. I’ve seen grown men, chiefs, break down and cry on the back of a fire truck. A few years ago you were told to just ‘suck it up,’ but now it’s different.”

Last chance

36 hours into his ordeal, 30 miles from the nearest human, body haggard from climbing steep ridges with an injured ankle, Dentzel summitted his fifth peak. Taking his cell phone out, he again dialed 911 and waited. “911, how can I help you?” said the first voice he had heard in days.

In fewer than 40 minutes, he heard the sound of his salvation, the thump, thump, thump of chopper blades cutting through the mountain air. Dispatch had stayed on the phone with him and gave him a direct line to the helicopter’s pilot so Dentzel could guide him in.

“When I heard the sound of the helicopters, I had tears in my eyes,” said Dentzel, who pauses, choking back tears – even now the rescue affects him deeply. “I knew my life was going to be saved and it meant a lot. The first thing I noticed about the crew was how professional they were. They are a crew of wonderful human beings who provide a service that is vital.”

The bottom line

While the aircraft may be a great tool, they also present a liability. With Santa Barbara County facing more than $20 million in budget shortfall in 2010-11, the program has drawn attention because of its $1.2 million annual cost. That money goes to pay for the upkeep of the aircraft and salaries for two full-time captains, two full-time pilots, four collateral captains and four part-time pilots.

Between the Sheriff and Fire departments, the county has five helicopters and one fixed wing aircraft. Determining who does what isn’t always clear, and some county politicians have suggested merging the two departments’ aviation crews to cut cost and increase efficiency.

Third District Supervisor Joni Grey said, “It is great to have a helicopter for spot fires, but I think it is bigger than what they need. It would be great if we could afford it, but we ought to be able to join with other counties to share the cost.”

Proponents of the program argue it is efficient and saves money in the long run, as most of the fire operations are reimbursable by state or federal agencies. One of the advantages of running ex-military helicopters is the lower replacement cost. Excess federal equipment from the military is purchased for pennies on the dollar for parts.

Maintaining a fire aviation program also saves the county money when major fires break out. Instead of hiring private contractors who charge thousands of dollars an hour, the county has two fire-ready helicopters at its disposal.

While the cost and effectiveness of the program will continue to be discussed, some have already made up their minds. “If 911 said to me the only way you are going to be rescued is to give us the deed to your $1.5 million home, I would have said, ‘Get an attorney on the line, so I can give it to you,” said Dentzel. “This service is vital, I am a taxpayer, and I know when the finger is pointing at you, you’ll give your left hand to be saved. It’s not until you’re the one whose life is on the line that this makes sense.”

This article was originally published in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal on April 22, 2010.