AIR OPERATIONS (AIR OPS)
The Beginning – 1957
Author Rick Cearley wrote both 1957 & 1960s
The Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations, as it is known today, was initially named and known as the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Attack.
The first Los Angeles County Fire Department Helicopter Pilot was Roland Barton who lateraled over from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department. Bart (as he preferred to be called) brought with him, a three-passenger Bell 47G2 helicopter. To accommodate this new addition, the Los Angeles County Fire Department provided a hanger located at the Fire Department Headquarters on Eastern Avenue in Los Angeles. An Air Attack vehicle was also assigned to this unit. The vehicle’s mission was to respond with the helicopter and rendezvous at the assigned location. The vehicle was initially based at Fire Station 104; it was then moved to Fire Station 47. Manning the Air Attack Unit along with Bart was Captain Frank Hamp and Chief Helicopter Mechanic Bernie Rolinger from the Sheriff’s Aero Bureau. Because of his faith in Bart’s vision of a helicopter Air Attack, Chief Keith Klinger could also be considered a vital member of this unit.
During these early years of establishing the helicopter as a firefighting tool, Bart and the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Attack became known throughout the industry as the leader in the helicopter firefighting field. Through the effective application of his helicopter and its accessories, Bart proved the usefulness of the helicopter in actual firefighting situations. He far exceeded the expectations of the Los Angeles County Fire Department utilizing such a small helicopter. With the Bell 47G2 and the backing of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Captain Frank Hampo and Bernie Rollinger, Bart’s Air Attack became a reality.
AIR ATTACK – 1960s
Roland Barton (Bart as he preferred to be called) was responsible for the concept and initial design of the 105-gallon Los Angeles County drop tank. Working closely with Herb Shields from the United States Forest Service and Chief Helicopter Mechanic Bernie Rollinger, the tank became a reality in 1961. The original tank was electrically operated and manufactured by Jeb Aircraft in Burbank. This tank was designed to attach to the belly of the Bell 47G2 helicopter.
The tank’s performance exceeded all expectations. From a pilot’s perspective, it was safer, not a sling load like the bucket system, very easy to operate, more accurate and less exhausting on the pilot when long flight days are required. The tank also allows the pilot to perform any number of fire related functions without having to disconnect the bucket and cables.
Used and emulated throughout the world, the L.A. County Tank was a major step forward in aerial wildland firefighting. Several of these 105-gallon tanks were manufactured in the 1960’s. They were adapted to the Bell 47 Model helicopters and later to the Bell 206 Jet Ranger. In 1964, a three-passenger, super-charged Bell 47G3B1 was purchased providing a greater lifting capacity. The tank was easily adapted to the more powerful helicopter and it performed exceptionally well. With the purchase of the Bell 47G3B1, the Los Angeles County Fire Department returned the original Bell 47G2 to the Sheriff Department Aero Bureau; however, we kept Bart.
In 1966, A&P Helicopter Mechanic Doug Mathews was hired. Doug was instrumental in the early modifications and improvements of the original 1961 Los Angeles County Tank. The later 320 and 360 gallon tanks were an improved version of the 1961 tank design. The soon to arrive Bell 204 utilized a 320-gallon tank, the Bell 205, utilized a 360-gallon tank, as would the future Bell 412.
In 1967, Bart was presented the Helicopter Association International’s Pilot of the Year award. Bart was awarded this honor for the heroism and flying skill he demonstrated on the Loop Fire below what is now Camp 9. As it was related to me, Bart was flying the Bell 47G3B1 helicopter on a fire in Browns Canyon below Oat Mountain when the call came in of men trapped on the Loop Fire in Pacoima Canyon. He picked up Doug Mathews and responded to the fire. Lyndel Griggers, a pilot for the Sheriff Department, was also enroute to the fire.
The crew that had been overrun was the El Cariso Hot Shot Crew. They were caught unaware in a rocky chute that allowed no escape route for the twelve members of the crew who were lost that day. Doug Mathews, along with Fireman Dean Metcalf, assumed the roles of loadmasters while Bart removed the El Cariso Hot Shot Crew survivors to a safe area. Later, when the twelve fatalities could be moved, Bart and Lyndel Griggers flew them to a staging area. Many of these later flights were performed at night and the conditions were extremely hazardous. In the four years I knew him, he never mentioned the rescue or his part in it, which was characteristic of Bart.
Among the many obstacles that had to be overcome in the 1960’s, financing the Air Attack project was probably the biggest hurdle. After ten years of success, dedication and hard work, Bart and Fire Department Management convinced the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that it would be a worthwhile investment to purchase a larger Bell 204B Type II helicopter. The helicopter would be fitted with a 320-gallon version of the Los Angeles County drop tank. The Bell 204B helicopter would be able to deliver more water or retardant on the fire line than conventional air tankers and deliver it more accurately for fire crew and dozer support. The Bell 204B would also be able to carry full crews of firefighters and provide internal transport of rescue victims. The Bell 204B was purchased in 1967 and quickly proved its worth. The Bell 204 was numbered Copter 10, indicating the number of passenger seats that were available. The 10 passenger Bell 204B helicopter became the LACoFD Air Operation’s first Type II, multi-purpose firefighting and rescue helicopter.
To this day, I can’t imagine the strings Bart had to pull to purchase a Bell 204B helicopter in the late 1960’s. The Bell 204B was one of the helicopter models that were earmarked for Vietnam as fast as they could be produced. They were referred to as the Huey and most were destined to be gunships. To purchase a Bell 204B in 1967 with FAA Certification and an Air worthiness Certificate was indicative of something Bart could do.