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RISING ARIZONA Unit Serves Many … in Many Ways

Posted 8 years 267 days ago ago by Admin


Arizona is a great state with very diverse terrain. When you hear “Arizona,” the majority of people think of the scorching heat and desert fauna. The part missing from that picture is the sweeping vistas, viewed from 12,600-foot peaks in the northern part of the state, down to “Rim Country” pleasantly situated at 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level in the center of the state. The terrain is spectacular, which provides an incredible experience for tourists and residents doing every type of recreational activity. The state’s beautiful—and often remote—areas provide the backdrop for the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) Air Rescue Unit.  

During the summer months people don`t realize how quickly the brutal Arizona heat can dehydrate them. This, and other emergency situations often require an immediate response. To provide that response, in 1972 after a 3-year study that included an 18-month proof of concept through the Air Medical Evacuation System (AMES) project, the Arizona DPS initiated an air rescue unit utilizing Bell 206 Jet Rangers. Now after 43 years of continuous service, DPS Air Rescue performs hundreds of rescues every year. After the Jet Rangers, the unit obtained Bell 206L-3 Long Rangers, which performed well until they were replaced with the current fleet of four Bell 407 helicopters.

The 407s operate from four bases strategically placed throughout the state: Kingman, (west), Flagstaff (north), Phoenix (central), and Tucson (south), covering a geographical area of just under 114,000 square miles. The positioning of the helicopters provides for no more than a one-hour response time to 80 percent of the state. Air rescue headquarters is located at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, which is home to a fifth Bell 407. This spare helicopter is used as a float when major maintenance prevents a quick turnaround for one of the other aircraft, and it is occasionally also used by the chief pilot and chief medic to provide additional coverage when a local event has high potential to require immediate assistance. Examples of such scenarios are VIP dignitary visits, and large events like the Super Bowl.
Rotorcraft Pro spoke to pilot Ken Twigg, the supervisor of the air rescue central (Phoenix) base about what the unit does for the people of Arizona. “We have a very dynamic mission set,” he said. “The lion’s share of our flying is spent in a search and rescue mode that most of the time yields a follow-on medical transport due to injuries. That is only one portion however. We not only support our agency, we are also used throughout the state for county and federal agencies in law enforcement, wildland fire suppression, logistical support, and public relations events. Honestly, we are a jack-of-all-trades. In one day we could be flying technicians into the mountains to work on a state radio tower, followed by a pursuit, then to a long-line rescue in the remote wilderness in the early afternoon.”  

The air rescue unit is a 24/7/365 organization that never stops working, and having only four aircraft to cover the entire state presents challenges. It requires a delicate balancing act of maintaining an acceptable safety margin while at the same time providing high-risk services. The majority of DPS air calls are search and rescue, however missions also include on-scene EMS, wildland firefighting with Bambi buckets, law enforcement, logistics, and training support. During rescue operations, pilots are proficient using a 150-foot long line. The long-line technique has been a great tool, but it requires an extended amount of time to reconfigure aircraft. Twigg states, “We’re adept at vertical reference long-line work, but I can’t argue the efficiency that a hoist provides. Both methods have their pros and cons.”

While flying with the crews from the Tucson (south) base, Rotorcraft Pro spoke with Hunter French, who has been with the air rescue unit for 19 years. He says that techniques used by air rescue include low hover, toe-in and one-skid landings, rappelling, and short haul operations. French described their firefighting equipment. “The units uses 109-gallon Bambi buckets and provides support during initial attack to local, state, and federal fire crews. With the limited water the 407 can lift, we are good for knocking down the start of a small fire, after that the more capable U.S. Forest Service helicopters need to take over.”

Helicopter Maintenance

The unit’s maintenance section is housed at the Phoenix airport. Helicopters from the outlying bases are flown in on a rotating schedule for maintenance. Dave Taylor, the director of maintenance, describes how his section of the unit operates. “The Air Rescue Rotor Maintenance Section consists of three licensed rotor mechanics and one supervisor,” he says. “The maintenance section typically works a 10-hour, four-day workweek. All five helicopters are on a progressive maintenance cycle, consisting of four maintenance phases performed within a 160-hour or 12-month time frame.” This schedule results in two of the four remotely based aircraft visiting maintenance every week on an alternating schedule to ensure geographical coverage while one base is down for maintenance.

All this maintenance pays off.  According to Twigg, the Bell 407 performs well for the unit. “The 407 is a great airframe, and most days it performs well. As with any helicopter, the hotter the outside temperature, the bigger the impact on performance. We counter this just as any other operator out there would do, reducing the weight by limiting fuel load or gear on board. Because of our multi-mission profile, we normally cut the fuel load. We ask a lot of the 407 and it has served us well.”

The flight crew consists of a pilot and paramedic that work a 24-hour shift. During this period, duty crews are limited to eight hours of flight time, or 14 hours of mission time. Crews typically have three to four days off between shifts, and are scheduled to allow maximum time off to lessen long-term fatigue.
Chief Pilot Cliff Brunsting describes the minimum qualifications to be considered for employment as a pilot. “Pilots are Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board sworn law enforcement officers. For a pilot to be hired, they need to have 2,000 hours helicopter PIC (1,000 hours turbine), a FAA commercial/instrument rating, and be able to pass a class-one flight physical. The average flight time of the current pilots on staff is over 6,800 flight hours. Our pilots come from a myriad of backgrounds and are chosen for their skill as a pilot first and foremost.” He concludes, “A thorough understanding of mountain flying techniques along with power management principals is critical for the environment we fly in.”  

Like pilots, DPS paramedics are also sworn law enforcement officers. Chief Medic Dan Millon provides insight. “I like to refer to our paramedics as the multi-use tool of the bureau,” he says. “Paramedics hold ACLS, PALS, ITLS, swift water, and technical rescue certifications. They operate as tactical flight officers, aircraft crew chiefs, and rescue technicians.” At a moment’s notice, the aircraft can be called to a vast array of law enforcement emergencies. Due to this dynamic mission profile, paramedics maintain currency with rappel, short haul, technical rescue, NVG operations, and various types of hover ingress/egress in rugged terrain. The nature of the mission requires individuals who can adapt to and overcome situations while using a safety-first mindset.

After Rotorcraft Pro spent a few days flying in the mountains and canyons of Arizona, Twigg reinforced the balance between safety and risk we had observed. “All of our flight crews maintain a professional mindset that is tempered in a measured response of ‘risk a little to save a little; risk a lot to save a lot.’ There's absolutely no reason to tie yourself emotionally to an emergency, as doing so can segue to bad decisions and possible mishaps. We are called in to do a job with the expectation we can get them out; the fact is that it's not always the case. The most expeditious rescue isn't always the safest rescue, so I think our crews do a great job of finding alternate solutions that provide an acceptable margin of safety." 

The Future

Aviation Administrator for the DPS, Terry Miyauchi, helps plan for the future helicopter fleet. “As we look forward to the future, we are excited at the opportunity to not only continue this airborne public safety mission, but to bring it to a new level,” he says. “With an expanding mission profile, we have identified a need to enhance the ‘hot and high’ performance of our helicopter fleet. All options are on the table, including twin- engine capabilities and medium-lift performance. At the forefront is a priority to maintain and increase current safety margins through aircraft and equipment selection. Our future goal is to continue protecting the public by ensuring continuous availability of both appropriate aircraft and thoroughly trained personnel necessary to provide immediate statewide support.”

The Arizona Department of Public Safety Air Rescue Unit has a busy fleet and serves the people of the state with impressive efficiency. Its crews are well trained and highly motivated. It plans to continue providing that high level of service for for years to come.
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