Always busy: Pasadena PD Air Ops

Pasadena, California, is known internationally for its Rose Bowl stadium and televised New Year’s parade. It is also known for its attractive houses and properties. The city is nestled against the San Gabriel mountain range, adding beauty to an already beautiful city.

Acquired in 2010, the MD 500E is liked by flight crews for its maneuverability and speed. Skip Robinson Photo

Nevertheless, Pasadena has its fair share of big-city law enforcement issues, as it is adjacent to other cities including Los Angeles, Glendale, Burbank and Arcadia. Pasadena Police Air Operations helps its own police department and other local law enforcement agencies keep a rein on these problems by providing effective and responsive airborne service for the public.

Pasadena Air Ops is one of the oldest airborne law enforcement programs in the United States. The section has a dedicated four-acre heliport immediately northwest of the city, nestled in between the Rose Bowl and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The unit consists of a lieutenant who is a qualified pilot, two sergeants/tactical flight officers (TFOs), a corporal/chief pilot, and three line pilots. There are three assigned TFOs as well. Pasadena’s program also supports the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Taskforce (L.A. IMPACT) with a dedicated Pasadena pilot and TFO.

Fifty years of service

The Air Operations section was started in 1969 after city officials saw an increase in local crime rates. Pasadena PD looked at the very successful helicopter programs of the L.A. Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to see how they helped support ground officers by giving them better situational awareness and more tactical options. Pasadena then started looking at helicopter types, focusing in on the newly designed piston-engine Enstrom F-28A.

Pasadena removes the OH-58’s left door window during the warmer months of the year. Skip Robinson Photo

By 1970, patrol crews were flying patrols a few days a week. The F-28A worked well as it was inexpensive to fly but also smooth and relatively rugged for patrol flights. Within a relatively short period of time, airborne law enforcement had made a difference; crime rates were down and criminals were on the run. As the F-28A aged and eventually needed replacement, Pasadena continued on with the Enstrom tradition by procuring the F-28C and later the turbocharged F-28F.

The Enstroms were good helicopters and over the years were upgraded with better avionics, radios, and infrared cameras. The first turbine aircraft arrived in the form of a Bell 206B JetRanger III, which is still in service today. By the late 1990s, the U.S. Army was retiring and making available Bell OH-58A/A+ and C model helicopters to law enforcement agencies. Pasadena put in a request and procured multiple OH-58A+ airframes and spares, eventually refurbishing two and putting them into patrol service. These airframes were updated with civilian radios, avionics, infrared cameras, and new paint schemes. They served Pasadena well for over a decade before being damaged beyond repair in a ground accident in 2012 (see sidebar, p.54).

Pasadena liked the OH-58 airframe, and so was able to refurbish and equip three more surplus helicopters and place them into service. As Lt Mike Ingram explained, “We know the Bell OH-58A has years of life left in it and has proven to us to do what we need on a daily basis.”

The unit works closely together and conducts regular training to stay proficient in its many missions. Skip Robinson Photo

That said, in 2009 Pasadena did buy a new MD 500E as part of a fleet replacement plan. Unfortunately, the economic issues at that time put the fleet replacement plan on hold. Today, now that the Enstrom fleet has been fully retired, Pasadena operates three Bell OH-58A+, one Bell 206B JetRanger, and one MD 500E, all similarly mission-equipped.

The OH-58A+ and MD 500E have the Spectrolab SX-16 searchlight, while the JetRanger uses the smaller SX-5. Other equipment includes BMS downlink equipment in 4.9 GHz frequency, FLIR 8500 camera systems, Technisonic TDFM-7000 radios, Lo-Jack stolen vehicle recovery systems, gyro-stabilized binoculars, Churchill ARS mapping systems, Aviation Specialties Unlimited night vision cockpit modifications and equipment,  and Van Horn Aviation tail rotor blades on the OH-58As and JetRanger.

According to Ingram, “We have had great luck with Bell helicopters and specifically the OH-58As, and we see being able to fly them for another six to eight years before the parts supply [diminishes] and cost of operation rises to the point of having to look at a replacement. By then other helicopters should be available for consideration.”

Night flights are routine for Pasadena Air Ops. The unit has NVGs, but because of the bright lights in the city, uses these mostly for dark mountain searches. Skip Robinson Photo

He continued, “For as long as I’ve been here we have tried to be as safe yet fiscally responsible as possible. The Enstroms were flown as many years because the cost of operation was low, but provided what we needed. When we went to turbines, the JetRanger worked well compared to many larger aircraft. The OH-58 procurement allowed us to keep expenses low but fly a quality aircraft. We maintain the OH-58s as if they were civilian aircraft and will never waver from our high quality standards.

“We’re proud to have helped change the FAA rules on [military] surplus aircraft as it relates to training and ratings. Because of our efforts, pilots training in surplus aircraft can count those hours toward their ratings and certifications,” Ingram added.

The aircraft are maintained in house by Pasadena Air Operations’ director of maintenance, Randy James, who has over 40 years of aviation experience, including 31 years at the unit. He is assisted by two other experienced technicians. James recalled, “We flew the Enstroms for over four decades, and from what I understand we had the highest-time F-28 series Enstroms by a good margin. They were good helicopters and we knew them inside and out. Since the Enstroms flew so many hours we needed to know how to keep them reliable and flying every day, and we were successful at doing it.”

Although recently retired, the Enstrom 280 series served as Pasadena’s primary patrol aircraft for four decades. Skip Robinson Photo

He continued, “As far as the OH-58As and JetRanger [are concerned],, they are excellent aircraft. Very reliable and easy to maintain, and never come up with an issue we don’t already know about. We have a large inventory of parts and Bell still supports the airframe, so keeping them in the air is a non-issue. We started flying the OH-58 helicopters in 1998. Since then, we have flown our fleet of OH-58 helicopters in excess of 28,000 hours. The MD 500E is a good machine and relatively easy to maintain.

James said that his team performs all of the scheduled maintenance on the aircraft in house, while contracting out engine overhauls and major airframe work to vendors who have the tooling to complete those tasks in a timely manner. “One of the most significant cost savings is having our Air Ops maintenance staff performing our own in-house component overhauls and repairs,” he noted. “Before placing the OH-58 helicopters in service, they went through a comprehensive in-house repair and rebuilding process, which consisted of disassembly of the complete aircraft. They were then inspected, repaired/overhauled and reassembled.”

The missions

With respect to overall flight hours, Pasadena Air Ops is for the most part a patrol unit, with shifts seven days a week covering approximately 17 hours a day. It also trains for airborne use of force with its SWAT teams and is capable of inserting officers onto the tops of buildings, and supporting K-9 teams.

Every year on Jan. 1, Pasadena Air Ops flies multiple missions for the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl. Here, a Bell OH-58A does an overflight of the Rose Bowl. Skip Robinson Photo

Notable are the unit’s close relationships with local air units and outlying cities. Pasadena Air Ops has a partnership with 10 neighboring cities in the San Gabriel Valley called FAST, for “Foothill Air Support Team.” This program began in 1996 with five cities that wanted air support service. Today, the partnership extends east all the way to Pomona and is one of the largest regional cooperative programs on the West Coast, with a combined service area encompassing about 125 square miles and 750,000 people.

“The FAST program supplements our patrol efforts and on selected nights crews fly a separate aircraft to cover the partner cities,” said Ingram. “Yearly, those flights account for roughly 500 hours of extra service. At the same time Pasadena has its own patrol helicopter; however, we have developed an outstanding relationship with the Burbank/Glendale Air Support Unit. Together, through an informal Tri-City agreement, Pasadena-Glendale-Burbank partner to cover our cities. Cooperative flight schedules have been created to insure our aircraft are in the air during the busier times of the day.

“We have been doing this for years and it works extremely well,” Ingram continued. “We will have at least one helicopter covering all three cities but if there is a need for another helicopter to launch we have the crews and flexibility to get another ship into the sky. It saves money from putting unnecessary time on aircraft and wearing out our crews.”

The unit regularly trains for airborne use of force. Both flight crews and the SWAT team are involved. Skip Robinson Photo

Another cooperative venture is L.A. IMPACT, a nationally recognized regional, multi-agency task force responsible for high level narcotic interdiction. Pasadena took over the air support operations for L.A. IMPACT in 2005, but its involvement in providing aerial surveillance dates back to the mid-1980s. Today, the unit flies a special mission Airbus AS350 B2 which is equipped with an L3 Wescam MX-10 camera for high-altitude surveillance and a Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun searchlight.

The L.A. IMPACT flight crew flies daily missions throughout Southern California, supporting L.A. IMPACT groups in various surveillance operations. These missions target major drug trafficking organizations and usually result in large seizures of narcotics, money, or weapons. Based in L.A. County, the crew covers an area from the southern border north to the Central Valley.

While Pasadena Air Ops stays busy enough with patrol work, it is also occasionally called into the adjacent Angeles National Forest to search for lost hikers and other parties. “If we locate them, we generally help direct the crews in for hoist work or recovery,” Ingram explained. Here, the unit especially benefits from its night vision goggle (NVG) program, which has been in place since 2012.

The OH-58A+ has been an excellent aircraft for Pasadena. It can do the mission at a reasonable cost, is very reliable, and is a comfortable platform for its crew. Skip Robinson Photo

“We use ANVIS 9 goggles and are happy to have them,” said Pasadena Air Ops pilot Steve Thurston. “Since we are so close to the mountains, the goggles have been a game-changer for us. It can literally be black up there and previously we would have simply not ventured into those areas. Today, we can go there for a search or to support officers with confidence.”

Part of the community

Naturally, the unit is also busy during the Pasadena New Year’s Rose Parade and Rose Bowl football game on the same day. It provides normal patrol coverage, command and control, and traffic control flights throughout the day, in addition to working with a number of federal agencies on security and anti-terrorism support flights. “We won’t go into great detail, but rest assured the public is well protected with what goes on [during] this day,” said Ingram. Although Jan. 1 is a particularly big day, Pasadena provides similar coverage throughout the year during large concerts, international soccer games, UCLA football and other sporting events at the Rose Bowl.

Because Pasadena Air Ops likes to stay connected with as many air support agencies as possible, for the last 30 years the unit has hosted a yearly training event that brings air units from across Southern California together to discuss current topics and safety-related items. “Because of our great relationship with the Rose Bowl, we’ve been using it for the fly-in exercise for a number of years,” Pasadena Air Ops Sgt Brad May told Vertical 911. “This is an extremely good way for flight crews to meet and build relationships. These types of events are critical in forming relationships that help us for years to come. When you have a question or need assistance, knowing each other makes all the difference.”


Director of maintenance Randy James stands next to the unit’s Bell 206 JetRanger, an airframe he is quite fond of. Skip Robinson Photo

In addition to police work, Air Ops is active in community outreach efforts. A good example is the Christmas toy drive, originally created by another agency but adopted by Air Ops. This is a regional effort, where section officers raise funds from within the agencies served by the section to buy toys. These toys are then delivered by Santa Claus to the rooftop heliport of Pasadena’s Huntington Memorial Hospital and distributed to kids in the pediatric ward. In addition, the unit supports a local domestic violence center and provides toys and holiday cheer for the children there. Other efforts involving the community include neighborhood National Night Out activities; conducting tours for Boy and Girl Scouts, school and other groups; and proactively promoting police helicopter support activity among the people the unit serves.

Pasadena Police Air Support’s future is secure: it has a superb facility, a great working relationship with almost every other air support and fire air support agency in California, extremely well maintained aircraft, and well trained flight crews that have strong support from the command staff. Although it might be able to afford larger and more capable aircraft, it has found that its fleet, for now, does the mission well. When the time for fleet replacement comes in the future, the unit will do its best to give its citizens the most value for the dollars spent.

Pasadena Air Ops has a large dedicated facility with an ideal layout. Skip Robinson Photo


Lessons Learned

On Nov. 17, 2012, two Pasadena Police Bell OH-58 helicopters collided with one another while operating at their heliport. The ground-based collision occurred as one aircraft was landing and another was preparing to depart for a mission. As the landing aircraft prepared to touch down, the two helicopters’ main rotor blades collided, resulting in the total loss of both aircraft. Fortunately, neither aircraft rolled over or caught fire, and the injuries sustained by the crewmembers were minimal. In the end, the National Transportation Safety Board described the collision as controlled flight into terrain as a result of human error.

The circumstances leading up to the collision were carefully studied by Air Operations, and lessons were learned. One immediate finding was that the aircraft spacing in between the two landing pads had not been increased when the unit transitioned to the larger aircraft. The second major finding was the need for thorough review of landing and communication procedures with crewmembers. Following the collision, the heliport landing area was redesigned with increased “stand-off distances,” the removal of ground obstructions, and improved lighting and markings. A renewed sense of focusing on the “little things” was strongly embraced by all.

Lt Mike Ingram, who was standing next to the departing aircraft at the time of the accident and injured by flying debris, told Vertical 911, “Although there were a number of issues that took place that day, it comes down to one thing: leadership. It’s critical, and identifying issues before they happen is paramount to running a successful operation. The ‘top down’ approach doesn’t work because everyone needs to be involved. Fight complacency and don’t judge incidents by the end result because we miss opportunities to get better. It’s humbling to say, but I missed opportunities on Nov. 17. The silver lining is I could not be more proud of my team for the way they responded and came together. We learned a lot and I can honestly say we are better because of it.”

Recently acquired for special missions, the Airbus AS350 B2 is proving its worth during long surveillance flights. Skip Robinson Photo

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