San Bernardino Sheriff’s Helicopter Ride

The first thing I can remember is being carried in my dad’s arms into a Bell 47 for a ride at an air show, he was ecstatic, it felt like electricity filled the air.  As everything below us grew small, including my mom’s worried face, my dad and I stayed the same size, clear proof that helicopters are magic.
To stand on the glossy white floor and gaze at the perched flock of red striped helicopters gives you an instant adrenaline rush. I was given my safety briefing by our Flight Officer Bob Stine, a towering figure of confidence. You just know that any adventure that begins with instructions on the use of fire extinguishers and how to kick out the windows is going to be a good one.
Our helicopter for the day is one of six Bell Astar 350 B3’s, there are ten helicopters total, which include 2 Super Hueys, one Bell 212 and an MD 500E, working Tactical, Fire Suppression, Search and Rescue and Medical Evacuations. The engine sounds smooth and quiet.  Our pilot, Wayne Krager was trained in the army, sixteen years ago at Fort Lewis, Washington (OPFOR) and was stationed in Egypt in the Sinai with a multi-national peacekeeping unit for a while. Of the 13 pilots in the Sheriff’s Department, only 4 were not trained by Uncle Sam, probably due to the high cost of private helicopter lessons. We spent three hours following up on calls from ground units in cases involving a stabbing, an armed robbery and a drug case.
We cruise at around 100 knots, 600 feet above the ground.  The collective is a big  handle between the seats and the Cyclic is like a fat stick in the middle of the pilot’s seat area.  Even during landing on the helipad at the Sheriff’s headquarters, the movements made on the cyclic are less than a quarter of an inch in any direction.  Wayne tells me later that it often takes new students five hours to learn to hover in an area the size of a football field and gradually the area needed becomes smaller and smaller until a precise spot can be pinpointed with accuracy.  He said that learning to fly a helicopter requires the confidence to believe that you will eventually master the craft in spite of evidence to the contrary.  Wayne was raised  in the Inland Empire and grew up going to local air shows at the military bases. He always knew he wanted to be a helicopter pilot.
The medical staff is a group of 48 professionals, from doctors to EMTs who volunteer their time each month to save lives.  They are screened from a huge pool of applicants and have committed their time not just to working on the front lines at search and rescue operations in mountainous terrain and at vehicle crash sites along roadways but also to rigorous monthly training and constant recertification requirements.  There is no other option if you are stranded on the side of a mountain or lost in the desert than these volunteers who even go so far as providing their own uniforms and equipment, all for the love of the services they provide to the people in our communities.  They are a tight team that works together even on the days they are not volunteering. It’s common for one member to be on the helicopter with the crew there and another  on the helipad at their hospital job receiving the incoming victim.

Pilot Wayne Krager, right and Flight Officer Bob Stine, left, in flight on the way to another of the daily missions flown by the Sheriff’s Department.

So the next time you hear a helicopter roar overhead and you look up and see the red stripe, you won’t have to wonder what’s going on in there or how that lucky guy got that job, now you have an insider insight into the workings of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit.  If I learned anything while researching this story and getting to witness first hand the skill and technology these people have at their command, it was this, if these guys are chasing you , you might as well give up, and if they are coming to save you, you’re as safe as a babe in his mother’s arms.


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