Sheriff’s aviation unit saves time, lives
By Logan Hall
With a rumble of the twin turbine engines, and the thump, thump, thump of the rotor blades, the Sheriff’s Department air unit rescue helicopter, Air Squad 9, prepares to lift off and head out on its mission last Saturday.
“Camarillo tower this is County 9 at hangar three with Zulu, request 3M departure,” said Jim Dalton, Sheriff’s Department deputy-pilot, through the radio.
“County 9 proceed as requested,” responded the Camarillo Airport air traffic controller.
For most people, this would be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For the air unit, it’s just another day on the job.
A day in the life on a shift with the air unit starts out like many other jobs. The crew gets into the office at 8 a.m., the coffee maker is fired up, computer screens get flicked on, and everyone begins their duties.
Ojai Valley resident and Senior Deputy Dan Ambarian is a part-time crew chief with the air unit. “We go to work in the morning just like everybody else,” said Ambarian, whose job is to run rescue or law enforcement operations in the helicopter while the pilot focuses on flying. “When we’re not up on a call, we’re in the hangar doing maintenance or getting a little downtime.”
Most people in the Ojai Valley have seen the yellow-and-blue Bell helicopters commonly referred to as “Hueys” flying overhead from time to time. Many of the rescue calls that they go on involve remote locations in the mountains above Ojai, and most of the personnel in the air unit fly over the valley on a regular basis.
The Sheriff’s Department works closely with other agencies in the county, especially the Ventura County Fire Department, to provide a well-rounded air unit dedicated to serving and protecting the county’s communities. The crews and their helicopters are used in a variety of missions, including search and rescue, fire suppression and prevention, law enforcement, and marijuana eradication. “Ventura County is unique in that we provide air support for so many different purposes,” said Ambarian. “The counties that have air support will usually have a unit for fire, one for law enforcement, etc. We do it all down here.”
Everything seems pretty routine in the hangar while the crews are waiting for a call that will send them up on a mission. There is plenty of work to be done on the ground that involves everyone on the team. Their work area is spotless and organized, and the helicopters are clean and ready to lift off at a moment’s notice. Suddenly, a call will come through and the crew gets into high gear. From that point on, everyone’s head is in the game. Everything happens quickly, and often someone’s life is on the line.
“There‘s no room for error,” said Don White, senior deputy and full-time crew chief. “One minute you’re washing the vehicles or working in the office. The next minute, you’re hanging from the hoist getting ready to lift somebody onto the helicopter.”
The crews are always on standby and can have the helicopters in the air within minutes of receiving a call to go up on a mission. Once the call comes through, the crews are all business, maintaining contact with dispatch and keeping in communication with each other on board the helicopter.
On Saturday’s mission, a call came through that a minor had reportedly taken mushrooms in the hills of Simi Valley and had been apprehended by Simi police officers after receiving minor injuries due to a fall. The officers had handcuffed the boy, and were unable to bring him down the jagged hillside to a waiting ambulance. It was up to Air Squad 9 to ensure that the officers and the suspect were safely extracted from their location on the hill.
Winds were high but the crew stayed calm and cool while Dalton maneuvered to the officers’ position. As Dalton edged up to the hill, White, who was tethered to the helicopter, slid the door open and prepared to drop off volunteer flight paramedic, Robert Sebree, who would tend to any injury that needed immediate attention while preparing the suspect to board the helicopter.
With a steady hand and careful positioning Dalton hovered inches from the brush and trees as Sebree hopped off with his medical gear in hand. After unloading Sebree, White shut the door and Dalton eased away from the hill, circling the scene until Sebree radioed back that the suspect and officers were ready to be picked up.
Swooping back in, Dalton edged close enough to the hill to rest the tip of the leading skid of the helicopter on the hillside for stability while White popped the door open and took the suspect on board with the arresting officer and Sebree.
After dropping the boy off down by the ambulance, Dalton flew back up to pick up the remaining two officers and carry them to safety. “Thanks for the lift,” shouted one of the officers to White as sweat poured off his forehead. “That was a heck of a hike getting up there.”
With the mission accomplished, Dalton flew the crew safely back to the heliport, and after a smooth landing, unloaded, and fueled up the helicopter to be ready to go for the next call.
The mission seemed to be routine for the pilot and crew, and after getting settled back in, everyone continued with the duties they were carrying out prior to the call, always staying alert, ready to go back up when needed.
Although these seasoned veterans have flown many missions, they still appear to genuinely enjoy the work they accomplish. “The biggest thing that I like about this job is the diversity,” said Dalton, who is a Vietnam veteran and has been flying helicopters for 40 years, logging close to 13,000 hours of flight time. “You might get a law enforcement call or a rescue call. You never what’s going to happen next.”
Everyone in the air unit really stresses the importance of teamwork. They all work together toward the common goal of serving the community, and ensuring that help is close by when needed. “As long as we work as a team,” added Dalton, “everything works out real nice.”
When their shift is over, the crew goes home to their families and the heliport goes dark, though there is always a crew on call in the off hours, ready to go should a call come in after everyone has gone home. The next morning, they come back in and get ready to do it all over again.
“There’s so much stuff in play to make it all happen,” said Ambarian, who grew up in Ojai and now lives with his family in Oak View. “One of the first things I did after graduating from the academy was put in a request to work here. I love what I do.”hangar