A tradition of service

Scott Dworkin visited the Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department Aero Bureau


The Los Angeles Sheriff‘s Department provides helicopter search and rescue using three AS332 L1 Super Pumas. All photos Scott Dworkin

The Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department is the fourth largest policing agency in the United States and the largest Sheriff‘s Department in the world. The Department provides law enforcement to 42 of Los Angeles County’s 88 incorporated cities and 130 unincorporated communities.

The Sheriff‘s Deputies provide services to over ten million residents in an area covering over 4,000 square miles (10,359km2) from the Los Angeles Basin, up to the highest elevations of the Angeles National Forest, out to the neighbouring desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, all along the coastline from Long Beach to Malibu, and offshore to Catalina and San Clemente Islands.

One of the 23 Sheriff stations that serve this expansive community is the Department’s Aero Bureau based at Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, California. The Aero Bureau operates 18 helicopters, the largest fleet operated by any Sheriff‘s Department in the United States, as well as two Cessna 210s and one Beechcraft King Air B200.

The Aero Bureau is different from most other law enforcement air units in that it flies a variety of missions. The unit’s primary mission has always been patrol, reconnaissance and surveillance, but over the years, Aero has taken on other tasks such as search and rescue (SAR), prisoner transportation, aerial photography and crime scene containment.

Sheriffs and Sky Knight

The unit has a long and distinguished history of service to the citizens of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. The original Sheriff‘s Aero Squadron was initially formed on September 27, 1926 when the first five volunteer pilots were sworn in as Deputy Air Sheriffs by then Sheriff William I Traeger at Aero Corporation Airport in Los Angeles.

The historical genesis of what is now known worldwide as airborne law enforcement took place in Southern California. These Sheriffs were pioneers who possessed a unique vision of the potential value and usefulness of airborne assets.

By 1929, the Aero Squadron’s responsibility was to enforce laws and assist in policing Los Angeles County. The five original pilots and their captain were assisted by a handful of civilian volunteer pilots who flew their own aircraft and focused on searches for criminal suspects attempting to flee the county or seeking refuge in the hills and canyons surrounding the greater Los Angeles area. The Aero Squadron also conducted mountain searches for missing or stranded hikers, prisoner transportation flights and aerial demonstrations throughout Los Angeles County.

The Sheriff‘s Department acquired its first aircraft, a Fairchild 24, in 1947, followed a short time later by another donated aircraft, a Stinson L-5. The first helicopter, a Bell 47G, was obtained in 1955 and in 1964 the first regular helicopter patrols were established in the rural northern portions of Los Angeles County to provide law enforcement and SAR assistance in desert and mountainous areas otherwise inaccessible by ground units. However, the unit’s primary mission remained aerial search in support of ground rescue operations and transportation.

The 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles inspired the concept of using an airborne platform to directly support ground patrol units in an urban area and resulted in the creation of the Sky Knight programme in 1966. Still in operation today, this programme began as a joint venture between the Sheriff‘s Department, the City of Lakewood, Hughes Helicopters and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and paved the way for many of the modern tactics used in airborne law enforcement.

Today’s Aero Bureau

The Sherriff‘s Department Aero Bureau fleet today comprises 18 helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft and operates from two separate, but adjacent areas at Long Beach Airport. In addition, there is an office at Brackett Field on the east side of Los Angeles County in La Verne.

The Aero Bureau also operates from a forward operating mountain base at Barley Flats above the city in the Angeles National Forest, as well as other strategically placed helipads spread throughout the county. While none of these locations are permanent bases, they are all used daily as forward staging areas instead of flying every mission out of Long Beach. This concept of operations allows the helicopters to quickly be on scene even at the farthest reaches of Aero’s vast patrol area.

The Bureau is currently budgeted for 26 pilots and 12 Tactical Flight Deputies (TFDs). There are seven sergeants attached to the unit as well as an operations lieutenant, Patrick Beers, and the current head of the Aero Bureau, Captain Steve Jauch. The staff also includes 15 full-time mechanics, as well as avionics specialists, senior mechanics and a supervising chief of maintenance, Darren Ota. There are additional civilian support personnel assigned as well.

Aero Bureau AS350 B2 A-Stars, purchased in 2010, are equipped to a common standard, with the latest technology to aid in their airborne law enforcement role.

The Aero Bureau’s primary mission is to provide airborne support for the Deputy Sheriff’s working patrol. Approximately 85% of the Bureau’s roughly 10,000 annual light hours are lown in support of these operations. Daily patrol lights are spread across the eastern, northern and western parts of the county and the greater Los Angeles Basin.

The patrol mission is the responsibility of 12 of the unit’s Airbus (formerly Eurocopter) AS350 B2 A-Star helicopters, with three additional A-Stars dedicated to training. Powered by the 732shp (545kW) Turbomeca Arriel 1D1, these aircraft were purchased in 2010. Aero’s A-Stars are equipped to a common standard, with the latest technology and advanced airborne law enforcement equipment including upgraded communications systems, a forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) camera, multi-band digital radios, Garmin GPS and AeroComputers mapping systems, Spectolab searchlights, the LOJACK stolen car vehicle tracking system and night vision googles (NVGs). The patrol and surveillance aircraft are also equipped with satellite downlink systems allowing video, audio and data to be sent to ield and tactical commanders on the ground in real time aiding them in decision-making.

While the AS350 B2 can seat up to six passengers, typical patrols are lown by a crew of two, the pilot and the TFD. On a typical light the TFD monitors and operates the radios, communicates with deputies on the ground and operates the FLIR camera and mapping systems. Routine patrols see crews assist ground units in tasks including responses to crimes in progress, pursuit management, coordinating containment areas and searches for suspects, all while acting as an overhead tactical communications platform.

The Department is scheduled to begin procuring the latest A-Star variant, the Airbus H125 (previously known as the AS350 B3e), to replace its entire leet of AS350 B2 A-Stars. This variant features a more powerful Turbomeca Arriel 2D engine delivering 847shp (632KW).

Crews on the AS350 B2 A-Stars assist ground units in pursuit management, conducting searches and acting as an overhead tactical communications platform.
Twelve AS350 B2 A-Stars operate the bulk of the Department’s patrol missions.

Stepping stones

Becoming a pilot with the Aero Bureau involves a very long process, which is only a part of a Los Angeles County Sherif Deputy’s career. After graduating from the Sheriff’s Academy, new Deputies generally begin working within the Los Angeles County Detention System (jail) for a period. They will typically later be assigned to a patrol unit in one of the four Patrol Divisions located at 23 stations spread throughout the county. Once a Deputy has enough patrol experience, usually a minimum of four years, they be eligible to apply for a position with the Aero Bureau.

The selection process is considered a ‘coveted testing process’, which is to say a specialist position a deputy would want over and beyond that of a patrol deputy such as the Aero Bureau, Gang Investigator, Special Enforcement Bureau or K9 handler. There is a rigorous initial application and selection process. If a deputy makes it through, they will be ranked on a list and eventually selected to receive an assignment at the Aero Bureau.

Once a deputy is assigned, they must first complete approximately two to two-and-ahalf years as a TFD prior to applying for any open pilot positions. Approximately 50% of TFDs choose to become a pilot. Once a TFD makes that decision they must complete another six-month training course to become a pilot. The average number of years of service of Aero personnel in the Department overall is around 25 years, according to members of the Bureau, and the TFD average is about 22 years.

Two of the Aero Bureau’s 18 helicopters, which is the largest leet operated by any Sheriff’s Department in the United States.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Aero Bureau helicopters cover a large territory, from urban areas to the coastline, up to the highest elevations of the Angeles National Forest and to desert communities.

While a deputy joining the Aero Bureau who wants to eventually become a pilot does not need to have any prior light experience (only the two plus years of TFD experience), the Bureau does encourage prospective pilots to have obtained outside light instruction and private pilot ratings. Training at the Bureau is all done in-house by a select group of deputies who are also certiied light instructors.

One of the unit’s Super Puma pilots explained to AIR International: “There are a lot of stepping stones required to fly the diferent types of aircraft in our unit as they have diferent missions and there are diferent career paths to get to each one of those types. For example, the direct path towards flying in the Super Puma is a pilot who has lown the A-Star for at least 1,200-1,500 hours, has completed SAR mountain training,

Inside the Sherrif’s Department Aero Bureau hangar at Long Beach Airport.

NVG training and long-line external load training at a minimum, all in the A-Star.

“Generally, that is someone who’s been here for several years and has had not only the training but some experience in flying those missions in real-world scenarios. Based on hours alone a pilot must be flying here at least two years just to start that transition. Given the variability of the hours we fly here the quickest I’ve seen anyone make the transition was about four years. There is a similar checklist of pilot requirements to begin flying our ixed-wing aircraft, although requirements and the training curriculum are of course going to be diferent being a ixed-wing.”

Air Rescue 5

Since 1956, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has provided helicopter SAR to the residents of the county in addition to their law enforcement mission. The first helicopters used for this mission were the Bell 47s, with skid mounted litters.

With increasing demand for SAR, the Air Rescue Team needed better equipment and in 1972 the Sheriff’s Department acquired three surplus hoist-equipped Sikorsky CH-34 helicopters, with the callsign Air Rescue 5 assigned to them. These helicopters were specially modiied for rescue operations using military surplus parts. In being recently retired from the military, these very capable aircraft were introduced to service for a fraction of what a new similarly-equipped helicopter would cost and operated for fewer dollars per light hour than small patrol helicopters, meaning for the first time full paramedic teams could be air-lifted directly to victims in remote areas of the county.

The CH-34s were replaced in the early 1980s by three Sikorsky S58Ts, themselves replaced in 1998 by three former US Navy Sikorsky SH-3 Sea Kings. In 2011, at the same time as the Sheriff’s Department budget request was approved to acquire the 15 AS350 B2 A-Stars, the county approved a separate budget request for the purchase of three pre-owned Eurocopter AS332 L1 Super Pumas from sources in United States to replace the Sea Kings.

The Super Puma Block I upgrade included the installation of the fully-digital, four-axis gyro-stabilised Axsys V9 Thermal Imager and Camera System.

Super Puma modiication

To meet Air Rescue 5’s speciic and demanding requirements the Super Pumas received substantial modiications under the Super Puma Mk 1 Block I modiication programme. Heli-One in British Columbia, Canada was selected to modify the three aircraft.

Block I modiications involved removing unnecessary equipment, upgrading existing equipment and adding new equipment. The three AS3321s received the latest technology that enables them to efectively to operate anywhere in Los Angeles County, in nearly any weather condition. Upgrades included the Universal Avionics UNS-1Fw FMS W/NMS Flight Management System which enables instrument light rules approaches for faster and safer delivery of patients to local hospital helipads.

The helicopters also received a Honeywell Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), enabling the Super Puma to safely fly through rough terrain in poor weather and near zero visibility conditions. The EGPWS, when combined with the Eurocopter Wire Strike Protection System, allows the helicopter to operate safely within the LA County’s incredibly diverse terrain of urban and rural environments. The Pumas also received the AeroComputers UC-5100LE moving map, integrated with the aircraft’s onboard camera/ IR sensor, and other systems to provide better situational and tactical awareness. They also have the Axsys V9 Thermal Imager and Camera System, a lightweight and fully-digital, four-axis gyro-stabilised imaging system with electro-optical and infrared sensor technology, used in aerial surveillance.

Other additions were the Sky Trac ISAT- 200 Satellite Tracking System to give Aero Bureau dispatchers constant flight progress and mission status updates, the Aero Dynamix night vision imaging system and cockpit/cabin modifications to allow low light and NVG operations, a Heli-One Patient Litter System allowing the transport of multiple patients at one time, and a Goodrich AC electric hoist for rescue winching operations.

A Heli-One Patient Litter System allows the Super Pumas to transport multiple patients at one time, and a Goodrich AC electric hoist is installed for rescue winching operations.


When called into action Air Rescue 5 responds with a five-person crew on board the Puma. The crew is made up of two pilots and three tactical medics from the Department’s Emergency Services Detail in the Special Enforcement Bureau. These medics are also certified in mountaineering and scuba diving. Crews regularly work with in partnership with Los Angeles County Sheriff SAR teams. There are eight SAR teams in the county, made up of 170 Reserve Sheriff‘s Deputies and civilian volunteers. Available 24/7, members of these teams are all highly-skilled mountaineers and trained emergency medical technicians. This combination of full-time Air Rescue 5 aircrew with SAR teams on board that can be placed on the ground makes the LASD search and rescue programme one of the most highly trained and proficient in the country.

Although primarily tasked as rescue aircraft, Super Puma missions also include tactical SWAT team insertions and extractions, homeland security and antiterrorism support, maritime rescue and maritime interdictions, and personnel transport to and from natural disaster areas. Since their acquisition the Super Puma’s performance and capability has proven perfectly suited to the varied types of rescue missions Air Rescue 5 can be called to support at any given moment.

According to the Puma crews: “The key is to be able to get to a scene and be able to affect a rescue and get patients to the hospitals as quickly as possible, within what we call the Golden Hour. The sooner trauma patients can reach definitive care, the better their chance of survival. The helicopter has the speed and power perfectly suited to provide not only that critical search and rescue capability, but also our law enforcement, the variety of other missions required of us by the county.

The value of airborne law enforcement

A group of Aero Bureau pilots and TFDs provided AIR International with a big-picture view of the overall value of air support to the law enforcement mission.

They said: “It [air support] is almost expected by our patrol deputies these days. They expect there will be an air ship overhead when requested, and if there’s not they ask ‘why?’. The reason for this is air support is something that once you have it and use it, you can’t get rid of it; you need it tactically. The picture we paint for the deputies on the ground is immeasurable. From the beginning of a deputy’s career they are trained how to work with air support, and for all of us to have been a patrol deputy patrolling those same streets we know exactly what those deputies on the ground are feeling.

“When that deputy heads into a dark alley or down an unfamiliar street, or our patrol cars are involved in a high-speed pursuit on the freeway chasing a criminal that is potentially armed, we understand the situation and we know what it means to have that helicopter overhead. It takes some pressure off, and the stress level of the deputies gets lowered because you have this tactical tool overhead to provide overwatch and situational awareness of the scene.

“All the personnel here at the Aero Bureau take this mission extremely seriously. We are here for our people on the ground, because all at one point not that long ago we were those patrol guys, so we truly know how important it is for that deputy to have an air ship overhead. Tactically it makes law enforcement safer, not only for our deputies, it makes the communities we support safer as well.”

This combination of highly trained and experienced aircrews, advanced aircraft and equipment and diverse missions, along with their storied past, makes the Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department Aero Bureau one of the true leaders in the field of tactical law enforcement aviation anywhere in the world.

Two Turbomeca Makila 1A1 engines power the Super Pumas, each offering 1,877shp (1,376kW) power.