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Riverside County Sheriff’s Department: Hoisting on higher ground

By Dan Megna

Published on: August 2, 2023
Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 44 seconds.

After more than two decades of successfully carrying out hoist missions using its “home-brew” program, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is turning to outside professionals to sharpen its skills.

Within most organizations, even the suggestion of an outside entity coming in to assess long practiced operational norms and procedures is often met with skepticism, if not all-out resistance. After all, if your processes are efficient, you’re accomplishing the goals, and everyone’s safe and comfortable with what’s being done, why mess with success?

Now, consider proposing such a review to a group of seasoned law enforcement aviation professionals. Most of these individuals have years of experience, are confident in their practices, have typically strong personalities, and are often not entirely accepting of outsiders. In their collective minds, they’re already operating in the safest, most efficient manner possible.

The Riverside Sheriff’s hangar facility in Hemet, California, is the agency’s main facility. The unit recently established a second base in the desert community of Thermal, east of Palm Springs. Rob Munday/SR3 Photo

This was the situation recently for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit, (RCSDAU). In March 2023, for the first time in the unit’s history, they brought in an outside training provider — SR3 Rescue Concepts — to conduct an assessment of their hoist rescue program. They were also asked to provide day and night hoist training utilizing the agency’s Airbus H145 helicopter.

SR3 is a relative newcomer into the arena of helicopter and wilderness search-and-rescue (SAR) training. It was established about five years ago by Dave Callen and Jason Connell — two Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) helicopter SAR operators. Paying tribute to their friend and former SAR operator, the company gets its namesake from the call sign of the late Dave VanBuskirk, who died after a fall during a nighttime hoist mission in 2013.

To carry on VanBuskirk’s passion for excellent training and enhanced safety, the duo has since assembled a small cadre of SAR instructors and helicopter certified flight instructors (CFIs) whose diverse skillsets have greatly increased SR3’s training capacity.

“Our instructors have a great deal of experience in a variety of helicopter SAR disciplines. It is extremely important to me that
we don’t pull from all one source,” Callen explained. “I have guys with a civilian background, a fire background, a law enforcement aviation background. I have two guys who were Coast Guard. I have a guy who was Army. I have a group of highly experienced guys but from different areas of the industry. This allows us to take everything that we all know collectively and put it together into what we believe is the absolute best industry training package.”

While this training was a first for RCSDAU, the crew was certainly not lacking experience in hoist operations. They have been conducting hoist missions for over two decades in support of SAR throughout the county. The techniques and procedures they had relied on, however, were developed mostly in-house, with assistance from other operators who perform a similar mission.

Training evolutions were conducted during the day and night utilizing a number of challenging venues. Rob Munday/SR3 Photo

“We’ve been hoisting since about 2001 when we got the A-Stars,” said RCSDAU pilot Cpl. Michael Calhoun. “It was before my time but they got some guidance from other agencies who were doing hoisting. We just had institutional tribal knowledge passed down and that’s how we built a ‘home-brew’ hoisting program.” 

Throughout the years, they utilized their fleet of single-
engine, visual flight rules (VFR)-only Airbus AS350/H125 A-Stars to conduct both law enforcement and SAR/hoist missions. These machines work throughout the 7,300-square-mile (19,000-square-kilometer) county, in mountainous terrain over 10,000 feet (3,050 meters), and down into harsh desert environments several hundred feet below sea level.

The right aircraft for the job

In March 2021, RCSDAU introduced Rescue 9 — a new
twin-engine, instrument flight rules (IFR)-capable Airbus H145 — to serve as a primary SAR platform. They also added a team of full-time deputy sheriffs cross-trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to work as dedicated hoist operators and rescue specialists.

Developing procedures for the H145 SAR mission, Calhoun relied on LVMPD’s air support section. At the time, LVMPD was one of only two law enforcement operators of the H145 that was also conducting hoist/SAR missions. 

“I asked for a lot from those guys. [LVMPD aviation chief pilot] Bryan Woolard and [LVMPD aviation unit commander] Steve Morris were super helpful,” Calhoun said. “They were flying the same platform. They were already doing the mission … so why reinvent the wheel? They helped us with gear and procedures, and we got their hoist operating training manual and SOP.”

In the two years since entering service, Rescue 9 has proved itself to be a highly capable and valuable SAR platform. In the 12 months preceding April 2023, Rescue 9 conducted 95 hoist missions, rescuing 121 people. Of those, 87 required medical care and/or hospitalization.

With so much experience and apparent success of their “home-brew” hoist program, what prompted the decision to seek outside advice and instruction? By all accounts, they were highly successful in conducting their hoist missions with the new aircraft.

A full day of training at Lake Perris was supported by Riverside Sheriff’s dive team conducting a variety of day and night scenarios in chilly and unsettled weather conditions. Rob Munday/SR3 Photo

“I always like to learn and I don’t like to fossilize in philosophy or practice,” Calhoun said. “There’s always something better and safer. Keeping a healthy outlook, we thought, let’s have an outside vendor come and look at what we’re doing and see what we can change, what we can make better. I know we can always improve.”

Calhoun was familiar with Callen and SR3 from social media. He appreciated the professionalism and experiences of the SR3 training cadre and how both men were from similar backgrounds. He also liked the fact Callen was an instructor in the H145, something Calhoun felt was uniquely beneficial.

“We’ve done classes where the pilots are struggling because they’ve never been shown the proper techniques to make a very precise, accurate hover — hover references, advanced mountain and terrain flying techniques, power management,” Callen said. “We have a lot of experience [in this area], so … [we can] give them tips and tricks that clean all that up. There’s huge value in that. If the guys up front can’t fly the way the guys in the back need them to, then you really can’t accomplish much in the back until the guys in the front are dialed in.”

While Calhoun was personally confident in how SR3’s input would be beneficial to his unit, he also understood his plan could be met with resistance.

SR3 co-founder Dave Callen is an H145 instructor pilot and lived in the left seat all week, providing the mission pilots with real-time tips and instruction throughout the evolutions. Rob Munday/SR3 Photo

“There were some things I wanted to change [about the hoist program], and I would bring things up in our training briefings — some procedures that could be implemented. But getting a complete buy-in is tough,” Calhoun said. “Sometimes you can’t be a prophet in your own village.”

A professional perspective

After a year of discussions, planning and budget approvals, the SR3 training was set. It was broken into two blocks — five days in March followed by four days in May.

“They wanted to do day and night training and were already working a 12-hour schedule,” Callen said. “Training began mid-morning and ran until 10 p.m., enabling crews to experience a variety of daytime and nighttime evolutions.”

SR3 has templates for the different types of training it offers, which are “fairly standardized as a starting point,” Callen said. “But for these guys, we built a custom course based on where they’re flying, what they’re flying, the types of terrain they’ll be working in. We took all of our training content and came up with a custom plan for these guys.”

The SR3 training cadre (in tan) and the Riverside Sheriff Rescue 9 pilots and rescue specialists. Rob Munday/SR3 Photo

Callen said this isn’t something SR3 would do for an aviation unit that was new to hoisting, but since the crews at RCSDAU were “flying an advanced aircraft and they’re already doing some pretty technical rescues, we felt fairly confident we could go in and deliver.”

Day One started with several hours in the classroom followed by time in the hangar with the aircraft and the various rescue equipment. The evening consisted of three hours in the swimming pool with SR3 instructor Jason Quinn. He challenged the SAR crews with physical testing in the pool, including a 200-m (650-ft.) swim and rescuer tactics for approaching a survivor in the water.

Quinn is a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer with over 20 years of experience in helicopter SAR. He’s a nationally registered EMT paramedic and has given instruction on fast rope, longline, short haul, night vision goggles, and fire training. He is also the host of the popular The Real ResQ Podcast.

Even in the rather expansive rear cabin of the H145, at times it seemed congested with SR3 instructors, rescue crews and SAR equipment. Dan Megna Photo

Day Two and Three, the crews began working live hoist evolutions in several rugged inland venues. With Callen flying in the left seat to provide instruction to the pilot, his SAR training cadre Quinn and Rob Munday conducted the hands-on hoist training during each flight.

Munday is a hoist operator and rescue specialist instructor based in Squamish, British Columbia, with experience in SAR, utility and offshore hoist operations, as well as a background as a wildland rappel firefighter. Munday’s experience working in a variety of civilian and parapublic programs is a valuable asset to SR3’s instructor team.

Day Four was waterborne rescue training supported by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team at a large reservoir. Here, they worked scenarios involving open water SAR operations and employed a number of rescue devices, including the Lifesaving Systems (LSC) quick strop and rescue basket.

The weather also presented challenges to all involved — intermittent rain squalls, low clouds and occasional lightning. The chilly conditions throughout the day and into the night proved physically taxing on those who endured the hours of repeated dips into and out of the water under the helicopter wearing only wetsuits.

While much of Riverside Sheriff’s SAR missions are in the remote back country, during periods of inclement weather they do receive calls for swift water missions in urban areas, such as the Santa Ana River — the largest river in Southern California. Dan Megna Photo

Day Five was an abbreviated day, concluding by late afternoon. SAR crews were introduced to advanced hoisting techniques, and pilots learned advanced mountain flying techniques and tips for reducing pilot workload.

“I was able to show them a lot of features the aircraft had that they were not using [to their full potential] — some of the autopilot features and some of the things they may have not been shown [in factory training], or perhaps had forgotten,” Callen said.

He shared one particular H145 autopilot function that could be helpful in certain SAR missions.

“The four-axis portion of the autopilot has a feature called GTCH [ground trajectory command hover], which will hold a hover and has two different ways to hold altitude,” Callen said. “There is another function called GTC [ground trajectory command], which allows the helicopter to fly a ground track and ground speed.”

He said one example of when this function can be beneficial is during SAR missions in the water.

“As we’re making an approach to a victim in the water, at say 10 knots, you can engage that GTC and it’s going to hold exactly 10 knots of ground speed, as well as hold the track across the ground,” Callen said. “It compensates for the wind in any direction. It will fly a near perfect path and speed across the ground.”

In May 2023, SR3 made a return appearance, this time to train the crews in the use of a new piece of equipment that will enhance capabilities and improve safety in some critical SAR situations.

The SR3 training cadre hold fast to the memory of Las Vegas Metro Police Department SAR operator Dave VanBuskirk, call sign SR3, who lost his life on July 22, 2013, during a night helicopter rescue operation at Mount Charleston in Nevada while saving a man’s life. Dan Megna Photo

“The Petzl Lezard is a specialized helicopter rescue tool used to facilitate the transition of a rescuer between aircraft hoist cable or short-haul line into technical terrain that requires fall protection,” said Munday, authorized by the manufacturer to conduct training in the use of the device.

“This terrain could include mountains and cliffs, glaciers, the swift water/flood rescue environment, or even urban applications like construction towers, power line utility applications and tactical uses,” Munday said. “It has a number of built-in redundancy measures to reduce risk of misuse; however, thorough training is still required prior to use, which SR3 is capable of delivering.”

In the end, even the handful of skeptics were enthusiastic about the training with SR3. The overall feeling was everyone, the SAR crews and the pilots, benefited from the two-pronged training approach. The SAR crews honed their hoisting skills and pilots learned to maximize the capabilities and automation of the H145 to reduce workload and increase awareness while operating in challenging environments.

A less tangible result of the training was acknowledged by one of the SAR operators during a team debrief at the end.

“One of our hoist operators said, ‘You know, I feel like we actually bonded more this week, together as a unit.’ We spent the whole week together, we trained together, and we don’t really ever do that but one day a week,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun intends to include requests for SR3 training in his annual training budgets. “Even professional athletes and people at the top of their game and doing things well, they have coaches, trainers and mentors. They’re always seeking professional instruction to ensure they are doing things as efficient and safe as they possibly can.”

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