Photo courtesy of California Highway Patrol
California Highway Patrol’s Air Operations Program has spent 2017 in the headlines so far. At the end of January, the unit’s rotorcraft performed two hoist rescue missions in one day in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Then in February, its rotorcraft were on the scene as the Oroville Dam threatened mass flooding.
Between the border of Oregon and the border of Mexico, from the West Coast beaches to the Sierra Nevada mountain range — and containing just about every type of terrain in between — is California. The state’s population is just about as diverse as the landscape, with metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and the antitheses, like Death Valley. California Highway Patrol has the aircraft, and people, to proficiently handle the varying geography and inhabitants. Last year, the program received an award for Excellence in Police Aviation from the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police (IACP) at that group’s convention in San Diego. A few months prior, the patrol’s Air Operations Program became one of 10 accredited air operations in the U.S.
The highway patrol has eight field air units in Redding, Auburn, Napa, Fresno, Fullerton, Thermal, Paso Robles and Apple Valley, and one headquarters office in Sacramento. There are more than 170 employees in the aviation program, including aerial supervisors, pilots, flight officers, paramedics and non- uniformed personnel. These employees represent both fixed- and rotary-wing operations with a fleet of 15 each. With such an expansive amount of varying landscapes to cover, Commander Mike Sedam told R&WI that program personnel are key and consistently stay abreast of any changes.
“The people is probably the most important part of our Air Operations Program. They're representative of every community that we have in the state of California,” Sedam said. “It is important that when we are providing services to the public that we have a group of people that are vested in our life-saving mission.”
That life-saving mission is put to work every single day. Recently, the entire country was looking at one particular California Highway Patrol division as deadly wildfires roared across the northern part of the state. Golden Gate Division Air Operations personnel were hard at work performing missions to keep people safe from wildfires, and continue to do so as the opposite side of the U.S. enters wintry conditions.
“Officers Gavitte and Jones were requested by the Sonoma Sheriff Department to issue evacuation notices earlier this morning,” the division posted on its Facebook page Oct. 14. “They responded in H-32 and sounded the helicopter siren and made PA announcements to evacuate immediately.”
Pilots and crewmembers are called on by various public servants, including Cal Fire, to assist them with critical missions. California Highway Patrol Air Operations has a high standard for its pilots and flight officers, which ensures skillful operations.
In order to be a pilot or flight officer with the agency, one must be a patrol officer first. The testing process involves reaching a minimum standard in training. This includes possession of a commercial license, instrument rating and a required number of pilot-in-command hours. If hired by air operations, that officer undergoes more training, which includes specialized mission training. Then, there are quarterly training standards and annual check rides for flight officers. All training is completed in an aircraft; each air unit has at least one instructor pilot. Sedam served as a flight officer, fixed-wing pilot, maintenance officer, safety officer and statewide maintenance supervisor before taking command of the air operations in 2012.
When ready to fly, the highly trained crews are placed in the Airbus Helicopters-exclusive fleet, with three models represented.
The helicopters are called to perform a variety of missions. The most frequent mission depends on where the base is located, and the needs of the civilian population and allied agencies. Aircraft referred to as “regional helicopters” are responsible for assisting the allied agencies in missions like search and rescue, and medical transport. Those helicopters are equipped with a hoist and a belly hook or band. They are also inspected by the state’s Emergency Medical Services Authority and certificated for air ambulance operations. A full suite of advanced life support equipment is also available onboard. The helicopters are not considered regional in the metropolitan program, which has one air unit based in the Los Angeles Basin.
If demand for service surpasses the highway patrol’s available resources, there is a guideline in place to prioritize missions. Priorities are ranked based on potential outcome if no service is provided. The guideline is:
- Emergency response (medical, search and rescue, officer assistance/backup, pursuits, civil disturbance)
- Homeland security (transportation systems, California Aqueduct, power plants, critical infrastructure)
- Patrol rural roadways
- Enforcement (other than speed)
- Speed enforcement
- Special events
“Aircraft are very capable platforms for certain things, and one of the things we look at is how we can use aircraft as a force multiplier. Nothing in the highway patrol stands alone,” Sedam said. “We’re constantly evaluating how we’re doing with missions — how we’re planning them, managing them. We’ve got 30 aircraft for a state this size. So that’s a lot of area to cover. We have to do the best we can to plan and organize to provide services we can with a large number of variables that we have to consider.”
To keep the aircraft up and running, maintenance is done through tender processes. When aircraft need to be replaced, it’s also done through competitive bidding. The agency is currently in the process of updating its legacy aircraft with Airbus Helicopters H125s. Legacy aircraft include 1993 Bell Helicopter 206s and the Airbus/Eurocopter AS350 B3. California Highway Patrol plans to continue the transition throughout the state and that includes updating its fleet of fixed-wing aircraft. The highway patrol is primarily funded through the Motor Vehicle Account, which derives its revenue from vehicle registration and driver’s license fees. The Air Operations Program is then allocated funding, which it is required to request through channels every fiscal year. No donations are taken from private citizens to underwrite any air operations, nor does the federal government give the program any grants or funding.
But as capable as the rotorcraft are, with capabilities continuing to improve with new aircraft, Sedam still gives all the credit to the agency’s air unit as a whole.
The unit started in the 1960s with airplanes, with helicopters tested in the early 1970s. That study found that helicopters could be useful in rural areas and could perform special missions like traffic observations and special events. Of course, the use of rotorcraft for emergency medical transport was on that list as well.
In 1977, another study found helicopters could enhance the agency’s missions, as well as support local law enforcement and fire services. That study also produced an even more compelling argument for the use of helicopters for emergency medical transport. Now, it has helicopters that can operate in all types of California terrain performing a variety of missions.
“The thing that really sets the California Highway Patrol apart is the number of aircraft we have, the number of personnel flying within our program, the number of missions we do, the number of hours we fly,” Sedam said. “We have relationships with our allied agency partners that may not have aviation resources, and we are a resource for them. We do a lot of flying, and we have a lot of experienced crew members who have been in the program a long time.”