Commercial, Military, Public Service, Regulatory

Public Saftey Notebook

By Lee Benson | November 1, 2008

We’re All In It Together

For those of you who are not from the United States, please read this article and know that when I write about the brotherhood of dedicated helicopter crews that perform rescue operations I mean all of the folks in the world that have dedicated their lives to this calling.

I guess as we get older our ability to tolerate nonsense becomes more and more fragile. I have listened to all of the talking heads on television and in print point out how the less than stellar response to Hurricane Katrina was all the fault of President Bush, FEMA etc. How the response was an indication of racial insensitivity. Heck, there’s a group of folks out there that think somebody blew up the dykes. These folks would somehow have you think that the totally inept local and state response had little to do with the failure of FEMA to succeed in this operation.


What I haven’t seen from the media, outside of the helicopter trade publications, is a comprehensive explanation to the public at large about what a magnificent job the helicopter community did to save lives and reduce suffering. These crews, despite huge problems with command, control and logistics were able to persevere and overcome these hurdles and do what needed to be done. These helicopter crews attacked a difficult situation with the kind of attitude and willingness to serve others that makes me proud to be part of the same brotherhood. I guess all of my frustrations about this came to the surface at the Rotor & Wing Search and Rescue Summit. I can get weepy pretty easily when someone starts talking about individuals who have done courageous acts for people they have never met. As Jim Mckenna read the different stories of what the Coast Guard and the crew from Mexico had done to receive their awards I was taken with the sheer humanity of their actions. By the time he finished with the story about SFC Peter Rohrs, I knew I needed a handkerchief. But then Lt Col Rashid Ullah Beg of the Pakistan Army was asked to come forward and be recognized for his efforts in a previous year to win the award. The colonel proceeded to address the audience and thank the efforts led by the American military to save his countrymen when Pakistan suffered the Kashmir earthquake in October 2005. The colonel’s retelling of the stories of heroism and compassion demonstrated by these crews was inspiring. As he said himself the amount of good will towards the allies’ efforts in the war on terrorism was incalculable. I guess it was later that day when I thought about how wonderful it was of Lt Col Beg to share this with us but why hasn’t our own media told this story?

This brings me to the focus of my story, the train accident in Chatsworth, Calif. At 4:30 p.m. October 12, 2008 a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train. The incident occurred in Los Angeles City Fire Department’s (LAFD) jurisdiction. L.A. City Air Operations was dispatched after the arrival of the first ground units. LAFD Air Operations responded with a Bell Jet Long Ranger to serve as Helicopter Coordinator titled (HELCO) and eventually three Bell 412s and their new AW139. Upon assessing the situation the city HELCO asked a Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACOFD) helicopter that happened to be in the air to contact his base and send what they could. LACOFD Air Operations responded with two Firehawks and two Bell 412s. Let me explain that this request came directly from city HELCO circumvents the formal request procedure that would eventually follow, but is the first of several illustrations of three agencies’ working in the best interest of the public. The third agency was Los Angeles County Sheriff who responded with their Sikorsky H3. In the overall effort, 135 victims were treated at scene, 84 were transported to hospitals and of these 84 approximately 26 were transported via ground to the two closest trauma centers. The remaining patients were transported via air to trauma centers up to 40 mi away. This task preformed in Los Angeles rush hour without the use of helicopters would have been very difficult.

Things that went right: The use of a HELCO aircraft, normally used for fire incidents, started and continued to keep everyone headed in the right direction. The predetermined use of LAFD’S VHF frequency by previous planning sessions resulted in a lack of confusion in the initial stages of the rescue. The use of a staging area about a mi from scene helped mitigate helicopter noise and confusion from the triage area. The decision to land helicopters one by one immediately next to the accident scene rather than move patients from the scene to the helicopter staging area greatly quickened the pace of operations. Good control was established between media helicopters and rescue aircraft by a predetermined plan of operating on separate frequencies. The use of helicopters kept the incident from overloading close in hospitals. The reason to share this with you is not because this was incredibly brave or humane like all of the rescues listed here. I brought these facts up because this was such a great illustration of what we can do with a little planning and foresight and to make you think about who your partners might be someday if things go wrong.

Lee Benson recently retired as senior pilot for the Los Angeles County Fire Dept. In his 40-year flying career, Lee accumulated 14,000 hr of helicopter flight time, divided among the Vietnam war, commercial flight operations, and the fire department. You can reach him at

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