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Calif. sheriff’s department unveils its first night-flying firefighting helicopter

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department flight crew, which teams with a CAL FIRE crew, must undergo several months of intense training


El Cajon, California - November 20: New Sheriffs Department helicopters were shown during a press conference on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in El Cajon, California. The BELL 412EPX cost more than $15 million and the BELL 407GXi cost $5.5 million. (Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ana Ramirez/TNS

By Teri Figueroa
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — The Sheriff’s Department on Monday unveiled its first night-flying firefighting helicopter.

The delivery of the $15.7 million aircraft marks a huge leap forward. As of now, only San Diego Fire- Rescue flies firefighting helicopters at night.

At Gillespie Field in El Cajon, authorities on Monday unveiled that helicopter and a second, smaller $5.5 million copter to be used for patrol.

The addition of the Bell 412EPX, a twin-engine aircraft, will boost firefighting and rescue resources. With two engines, it meets the safety requirements to be flown on night missions to drop water on fires.

The Sheriff’s Department flight crew, which teams with a Cal Fire crew, must undergo several months of intense training — it takes a lot more than donning night-vision goggles to handle water drops after dark.

The county bought three firefighting helicopters after the deadly 2003 Cedar fire swept through the region — a disaster that led officials to prioritize getting more firefighting air assets in the region.

Aside from the need to fly at night, it was simply just time for the department to get a new helicopter with firefighting capability, Sheriff Kelly Martinez said in a phone call Monday. All three Bell 205s in the current fleet were more than 50 years old. Finding replacement parts had become so tough, crewmembers in search of spare parts only half-jokingly talked about calling museums.

Once the Sheriff’s Department pilots are trained in the new firefighting helicopter, they hope to retire one Bell 205 from flying. But even then, it’s not going anywhere. It’s got all those parts.

The department also welcomed a new patrol helicopter, a Bell 407GXi. It will be used to track suspects or go on search and rescue missions.

“We’ve got a full complement now of patrol helicopters, and that should last us a long time,” Martinez said. “It’s a great investment in the future.”

Martinez thanked county Supervisor Joel Anderson, whose district covers the backcountry where wildfire threat looms, with pushing to get the new helicopters in the Sheriff’s Department fleet.

Speaking of law enforcement helicopters, for those who hear the Sheriff’s Department helicopters issuing announcements that are hard to decipher, there is an easy way to find out what they are saying. Call or text “hello” to (858) 866-4356. The messages will go straight to your phone.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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