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Although it is located in the remote, far northwestern corner of Nevada, Washoe County is a destination for many people: its 6,551 square miles (16,960-plus square kilometers) of territory includes a large portion of Lake Tahoe, scenic mountain ranges that reach as high as 10,700 feet, and the twin cities of Reno and Sparks. The many tourists, gamblers and outdoor enthusiasts who are drawn to the recreational opportunities here routinely swell the countys population of some 425,000 people.
That influx, along with the size and geographic diversity of the territory, means not only plenty of overall business for the Washoe County Sheriffs Office (WCSO) Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit (Raven), but plenty of mission roles flown in diverse environmental conditions. In fact, as the only airborne law enforcement (ALE) unit in northern Nevada, Raven continually conducts a variety of ALE, search and rescue, and firefighting operations throughout the county, across a range of altitudes and weather conditions.
Consequently, over the 16 years that WCSO has been providing aviation services, Raven has become indispensable to most communities in the region. That is why, in advance of the 2012 Airborne Law Enforcement Association conference and exposition, which is taking place July 11 to 14 in WCSOs backyard, Vertical 911 decided to visit Reno and learn more about this modestly sized unit with the big reach.
The aviation unit of the Washoe County Sheriffs Office operates three former military aircraft one Bell HH-1H Huey and two Bell OH-58A+ Kiowas. All three aircraft were acquired in 1997 through the United States Department of Defenses Law Enforcement Support Office.
The two former U.S. Army Kiowas are used by Raven primarily as patrol aircraft. Both have night-vision-goggle (NVG) compatible cockpits, and the units aircrews routinely wear AN/AVS-9 NVGs during night operations. Each Kiowa also has a FLIR Systems Ultra8500 forward-looking infrared/video system with a laser designator that is used during ground searches. The Ultra8500 also gives the crews the ability to stand off and conduct covert surveillance missions in support of various law enforcement agencies in the region. A Broadcast Microwave Services video datalink system, meanwhile, allows the infrared and video images the crews are viewing in the aircraft to be seen in real-time by individual units and command personnel on the ground.
Other devices on each Kiowa include the Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun searchlight and the recently acquired Augmented Reality System (ARS), a dynamic, real-time mapping solution from Churchill Navigation (see p.16, Vertical, ALEA 2008). The ARS has reduced crew workloads and greatly improved both response times and situational awareness.
Although all this extra equipment gives the helicopters great tactical capabilities, it also taxes their limited performance. In fact, when asked about operating the Kiowas in the hot-and-high conditions typical of northern Nevada, Deputy Doug Russell, Ravens chief pilot, remarked, Its all about understanding the aircraft and managing power. Most of the time it can do the job well, but we are always looking at altitude, temperature and weight, and making adjustments from there. Its a good aircraft, but we understand its limitations. In the future, a more powerful airframe would be appropriate.
The third member of the WCSOs fleet, the HH-1H Huey, is known as Raven 3. This former U.S. Air Force aircraft is one of only 30 of its type produced and was, in fact, the first airframe built in the series. One particularly unique feature of the model is its tractor tail rotor system, located on the right side of the aircraft, like a civil Bell 205A-1. This configuration gives the helicopter greater tail rotor authority, a benefit that is greatly appreciated by Ravens aircrews, who often operate in the high-density-altitude conditions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Originally, all USAF HH-1Hs were built with an integrated, roof-mounted hoist and a loud speaker mounted in the rear belly. However, both devices have been removed on the Washoe ship. Indeed, the WCSO Huey has been highly modified over the years and now includes: a completely updated cockpit panel with Aspen Avionics EFD1000 electronic flight displays and Garmin GNS 530 GPS/nav/comm systems; Bell composite main rotor blades, which provide about a 10 percent increase in lift; BLRs FastFin system and tailboom strakes; and an upgraded, 1,800-horsepower Honeywell T53-L-703 turboshaft engine. The Huey also now has a removable Goodrich internal electric hoist for search and rescue, and for firefighting, a 323-US-gallon Isolair Eliminator II fixed belly tank that can also carry 27 gallons of foam concentrate at the same time.
Raven uses its Huey primarily for SAR, SWAT team insertion and extraction, and firefighting roles that chief pilot Russell said the modified aircraft is well-suited for: Having flown the twin-engine Bell HH-1N for the Navy, [I can say that] this HH-1H is a much more capable machine. With the composite blades and stronger engine, its the ultimate high-altitude Huey. Because we do our best to keep it as light as possible to maintain the highest performance, I cant think of a better airframe for the varied missions we fly.
In addition to Russell, Raven has two other full-time personnel Deputy Larry Lodge, the units chief tactical flight officer (TFO), and Maurice (Mo) Bessiere, its chief mechanic plus seven part-time crewmembers: two pilots, two TFOs and three mechanics.
Russell came to Raven in 2008, after a 23-year career with the U.S. Navy that saw him log most of his hours in a Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk, flying anti-submarine, anti-shipping, reconnaissance and SAR missions from the flight decks of frigates, cruisers and destroyers. During his final tour, however, along with being executive officer (second in command) of Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev. home of the Naval Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) and Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center he also commanded the Longhorns, Fallons rescue helicopter unit, which flew the HH-1N at the time. (These Hueys were later replaced by the SH-60F Seahawk, and now the MH-60S Knighthawk, see p.46, Vertical 911, Heli-Expo 2012.)
While flying Fallons Hueys, Russell became intimately familiar with the high-altitude terrain typical of northern Nevada, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in particular. That was a big reason why, when he retired from the Navy, he was recruited to become WCSOs chief pilot.
Another reason WCSO wanted Russell was his military experience as an NVG instructor, which is now augmented by an endorsement from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. This allows Raven to maintain NVG qualifications and train new unit members on NVGs in-house. NVGs are a vital part of our program and a godsend, said Russell. In one flight, we can go from a relatively bright city environment, to an extremely dark mountainous search mission or vehicle pursuit. We couldnt do our jobs safely without the goggles and the increased situational awareness they bring. They are a game changer in our operational environment, thats for sure. . . . Ive been flying goggles since 1999, and instructing since 2000. We wont fly without them.
While Russell is responsible for pilot training, chief TFO and chief air rescue crewmember Lodge is responsible for ensuring Ravens TFOs stay proficient; he conducts annual TFO standardization checkrides. (Rescue crewmember training, meanwhile, is conducted through WCSOs SAR unit.) Lodge began his law enforcement career with the Massachusetts State Police, but was hired as a deputy by the Washoe County Sheriffs Office in 1985. His assignments since then have included lead motors (motorcade) instructor; SWAT operator, including lead sniper; and detective, including in narcotics assignments; he has been part of WCSOs ALE unit for the last four years, bringing a unique and valuable perspective to the TFO role. All of my past assignments have played into me becoming a more effective TFO, said Lodge, adding, Working with Raven is an awesome and challenging job; we are out there saving lives and providing air support for our guys. We fly in a beautiful place and have all the seasons I really have no complaints.
Chief mechanic Bessiere, meanwhile, was hired by WCSO in 2000. He holds an airframe and powerplant certification and supervises the units three part-time mechanics. Prior to joining WCSO, Bessiere served in the U.S. Marine Corps; as a Nevada Army National Guard helicopter crew chief and mechanic, working on both Hueys and Kiowas; and as a crew chief in the Nevada Air National Guard on the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Like both Russell and Lodge, Bessieres experience helps make a difference to the smooth functioning of the unit: We maintain our aircraft to the highest standard and immediately comply with all safety bulletins and ADs [airworthiness directives]. We will go to intermediate levels of maintenance in-house, and then send our major component overhauls out to vendors. Since we know these aircraft so well and I worked on them in the Army, we dont come across too many problems that cant be fixed relatively quickly.
As mentioned, Raven handles three main mission profiles: airborne law enforcement, SAR and firefighting.
In its ALE role, the unit primarily supports ground officers and deputies in the field, but also takes on a number of special missions, such as surveillance and SWAT operations, and supporting a variety of local and federal agencies. Said Russell, We fly our regular day and night patrols in support of ground units, but what I love about flying Raven [is that] in the morning we might be doing a vehicle pursuit, in the afternoon surveillance, and later get requested for a remote SWAT-team insertion. That night we might be asked to do a FLIR perimeter search over Reno. We support just about every local agency [plus] the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and Secret Service, and are constantly conducting Department of Homeland Security checks throughout the region. We also provide support for marijuana eradication and other anti-drug operations. In such a large and diverse county, there really is never a dull moment.
In its SAR role, the unit is often first up when theres a search for a lost hiker or an injured person needing a hoist rescue. Said Lodge, All our rescue training is done in-house and is based on the U.S. Navys SAR training curriculum. The Sheriffs Huey has been particularly successful in conducting search and rescue missions in all conditions. . . . Last year we had 23 saves. We had six water rescues in one day: three from the Truckee River and three from Pyramid Lake.
The added difficulty, of course, is the regions often-demanding weather conditions. Said Lodge, We deal with high-density altitude conditions in the summer, plus aggressive winds. In the winter, we deal with cold conditions, snow and aggressive winds. The common factor is aggressive winds its just part of the terrain we operate [in]. We do get calm days, but they are a treat and not the norm.
The type of rescue performed also differs depending on the season. According to Lodge, water rescues are more common in the summer months, while the winter months bring more mountain rescues.
To provide more perspective on the conditions they face, Russell recalled a recent, and particularly difficult, mountain rescue where they had to find and extract two young hikers that were lost and disoriented in dangerous and unfamiliar territory, and were beginning to panic: Last year, one of the more treacherous mountain rescues we performed was looking for two hikers stuck on a 200-foot ledge during a very dark and windy night [with a storm front moving in]. Somehow, after they climbed it, they couldnt find their way off the cliff. It was an extremely low-light night when we arrived, but we were able to find the hikers by spotting the light from their cell phone. What made this rescue so difficult was where we had to maneuver the aircraft. We had a tree overhanging the rotor blades above us and another tree under the tail boom below us. The winds were really ripping, with changing directions and with lots of downdrafts. We got the guys off the ledge and accomplished the mission, but it was definitely one of the most intense five minutes of my life.
A New Role
The units third main focus is firefighting, supporting both local fire departments and federal agencies. Within Nevada, Washoe County has a much larger urban-wildland interface than an area like Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Over the years, this has led to many homes and property being destroyed by wildland fires. In 2011 alone, over 70 homes within the city of Reno were lost during the Caughlin and Washoe fires.
Raven received certification and was carded for federal firefighting in July 2011, after pursuing that status since 2005. WCSO recognized that Raven could provide vital firefighting services to the community as one of only two initial-attack aviation assets in the region (the Nevada Division of Forestry [NDF] operates three Hueys). So, in co-operation with the Reno Fire Department, Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), WCSO worked vigorously toward qualifying Raven for federal carding a process that involved numerous inspections and checkrides, and many hours of training. Now that it has federal approval, the unit, which is considered a limited-use co-operator by the BLM, can work with the BLM on federal fires within Washoe County and in outlying areas of northern Nevada. It can also support local firefighting agencies on non-federal fires.
During a tough 2011 season, Raven dropped over 78,000 gallons of water in support of wildland firefighting efforts. Said Russell, From a fire perspective, its already been a bad couple of years for Reno, and last year, the fire season never really ended. We were fighting wildland fires as late as January of 2012. And this year is looking to be one of the driest on record. Its just a matter of time before we see large fires within our operational area. The entire region, including Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Mountains, have substantial potential for fire, so we want to make sure were ready. With the interaction between us, BLM, the NDF and local firefighting agencies, we feel very comfortable with combined operations in the future.
Ravens firefighting efforts are a great example of how the unit has evolved over the past decade-and-a-half to better serve the people of Washoe County. And, the mission is just another example of why this modestly sized ALE unit continues to be thought of as a vital asset to the communities in this vast and often-remote region.