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“The Mission Is The Same, Only The Vehicle Has Changed”

Contributing Editors – Patrick McNamara, David Honeywell, Doug Postal

Often referred to as the city of angels, Los Angeles is the second most populous city in the U.S. It has a population of more than 3.8 million and covers more than 465 square miles

Located in downtown Los Angeles and atop the Erwin C. Piper Technical Center sits the J. Stephen Hooper Memorial Heliport. “Hooper,”as it is known, is the home of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD’s) Air Support Division (ASD). Hooper Heliport is the largest rooftop heliport in the United States. When viewed from above, its 2.8-acre flight deck looks akin to an aircraft carrier, complete with control tower and hangar space. The flight deck has two main landing pads and parking for 20 helicopters. Refueling can be accomplished from a retractable in-deck refueling system. The flight deck and hangar are protected by automatic and manual firefighting equipment. Experienced officers who monitor aircraft traffic, weather and wind conditions operate the control tower and give advisories to pilots for takeoff and landing. Tower operators handle approximately 50 to 60 takeoffs and landings per day. Civilian security officers provide heliport security around the clock.  

“The mission is the same, only the vehicle has changed.” This motto states the essential purpose of LAPD’s ASD. The division’s mission is expressed in the department motto “to protect and to serve” from an airborne perspective.

The ASD’s primary objective is to provide safe and efficient aviation support to LAPD operations. Proper aviation support focuses on the safety of ground officers engaged in police tasks while providing them with information that enables them to be more effective in their efforts to reduce crime and apprehend criminals.

The LAPD’s ASD has become the largest municipal airborne law enforcement organization in the world. The ASD patrols the streets of Los Angeles 24/7. Three patrol helicopters are generally deployed to cover 465 square miles of city jurisdiction, flying more than 18,000 hours and responding to an average of 50,000 incidents for service per year. The patrol area varies from densely populated urban areas to Pacific coast beaches and rugged mountains. ASD aircrews operate in and around some of the nation’s busiest airports and airspace.

The ASD handles flight operations and maintenance functions differently than most others. HeliMx editor Fred Polak conducted the following interview with the following persons from the Department of General Services (DGS) with the City of Los Angeles:

• David Honeywell – director of maintenance

• Doug Postal – chief inspector, LAPD ASD

• Patrick McNamara – pilot and maintenance coordinator


HeliMx: How long has the ASD been in operation?

Pat: We started with one helicopter in 1956. Its primary mission was traffic enforcement. They were used to assist patrols and that was an evolution until 1974. In 1974, LAPD fully realized the capabilities of the helicopter other than traffic enforcement and ASD became a division of LAPD. That’s when we did our major expansion to 17 helicopters. At that time, our primary helicopters were Bell JetRangers. When ASD originally started, there were only pilots assigned to it. They would fly to division and pick up a motor cop because the mission was traffic observation, and a motor cop would be the observer in the aircraft. At the end of their flight, they would drop him off back at the division. 

HeliMx: How many aircraft do you operate and what type are they?

Pat: 18 aircraft total, with one KingAir airplane, 12 American Eurocopter model B2 helicopters and five Bell JetRanger helicopters. 

HeliMx: What special mission equipment do you have and how does it impact maintenance functions?

Pat: The special mission equipment we carry is the Spectrolab Nightsun searchlight, Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR), Aero-Computer Moving Map and external cargo racks. All this equipment has its own Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICAs). 

HeliMx: From a maintenance perspective, does any of this equipment present any particular problems?

Pat: We’ve gotten so used to the Nightsuns that we do our own repair on them here, as opposed to sending them back to Spectrolab. I am not certain, but I think we might be the only operators who do their own Nightsun repairs. We do more than just R&R. The avionics group also does repair on the FLIR items. The special mission stuff adds to the amount of time that it takes to maintain it. It’s a consideration, but we’ve had it for so long that it’s become part of our normal daily routine. A good thing that’s taken a lot of our time is the downlink.  The ability of our command staff being able to sit and look at a live tactical operation is huge. That’s become a major part of our requests right now. 

HeliMx: So the downlink is audio as well video?

Pat: We track the radios, but that is not transmitted to the command staff. We have the same capability as the news you watch on TV; we just don’t downlink the audio portion. We only downlink video, and the downlink can be from the camera and from the infrared.

HeliMx: The ASD flies as a Part 91 operator. From a maintenance point of view, how are the aircraft maintained?

Pat: As far as certification, we really do not like to use the public use as far as equipment on the aircraft. However, there are missions that we have to fly as public use. The vast majority of our operations are Part 91. The aircraft are maintained under Part 43. We are a Part 145 repair station and we have our own maintenance manual, training manual and quality control manual that are required as a Part 145 repair station — but all the aircraft are maintained to Part 43 standards and have airworthiness certificates accordingly. It doesn’t really matter if they’re doing law enforcement as a public use, they’re still a civil aircraft. Basically, they are civil aircraft that do civil and public-use missions.

HeliMx: How many supervisors, quality assurance personnel and mechanics are in the maintenance department? 

Dave: We actually have two departments: a maintenance department and a quality assurance department. They also do quality control, but Doug is in charge as the chief inspector on the quality side and there are four inspectors who work for Doug. On the maintenance side, there are three supervisors who work for me, and then there are 27 mechanics. 

HeliMx: How many avionics personnel do you have?

Dave: In addition to the mechanics, we have an avionics department with one supervisor and five technicians. The parts room also has one supervisor and three storekeepers.

                        

HeliMx: How many maintenance shifts do you run?

Dave: We have an a.m. shift which is from 0600 to 1530 and we have a swing or p.m. shift from 1400 to 2330. 

HeliMx: In a typical 30-day period, how many types of maintenance inspections would you be performing?

Dave: We don’t just do maintenance for the Air Support Division. We are separate from the LAPD. We are the Department of General Services, so we do helicopter maintenance for the Air Support Division and the L.A. fire department, and we also do it for the Department of Water and Power. The Air Support Division does the bulk of the flying. The city flies about 23,000 hours a year total. Of that, approximately 18,000 hours is flown by the Air Support Division, so just doing the math, all the helicopters cycle through between one and one-and-a-half times a month for 100-hour inspections. We’re doing a lot of inspections. All the Air Support Division helicopters come in, so we probably do about 26 100-hour inspections a month.  Three-hundred-hour and 600-hour inspections follow suit — just do the math.

The number of flight hours per year is 23,000. At any time in the hangar, we could have several inspections going on. It’s empty right now because they just rolled three aircraft out, and I guarantee that by the end of today we’ll have at least three more aircraft in here. We have six inspections going on right now.

HeliMx: At any given time on a typical day, how many ASD aircraft are actually airborne to assist at any given time? 

Pat: From 0830 until 0400, our deployment is three aircraft up at all times for normal patrol. Each aircraft and crew flies a two-and-a-half hour shift. We do that throughout the day. We try to never make it a maintenance issue, but that’s not always the case. There are times we only deploy two aircraft. You asked me how many aircraft we have up in a given time. That doesn’t account for our special flight missions which could be another two aircraft which may be performing a downlink or surveillance mission. We are a full-time training shop, so there are also some training flights going on at any given time, and we also have our check rides. 

To give you an example, I had a supervisor call me last week. He said “I don’t know how you guys did it, but thank you.” We deployed 12 aircraft today at one time. We’re real good with scheduled stuff. It’s like clockwork. Today we just learned that our camera ships need to be up on a mission all weekend long. One of them was within a couple of hours of scheduled maintenance and the other one was not too far behind. That means I have to notify the maintenance department of the new requirement and they have to adjust their schedules, but that’s what happens because we are very reactive and we try to think ahead. That’s our normal deployment, but it could be anything. 

“Normal” is an interesting word here, as it could mean many things. When I talked about the change in the maintenance schedule at 0530 this morning, there was an incident where somebody shot at a policeman and I get a call from my boss saying “spool up, we need both camera ships in the air.” “That’s going to be tough to do,” I told him, “because you just told me you need them on the weekends,” and because of that requirement, we pulled them into maintenance and they’re halfway through. That’s how things work. We adjust and make things work.

HeliMx: What maintenance tasks are outsourced to an MRO or back to the OEM, and why?

Dave: The tasks that are outsourced are basically those that are beyond our capabilities, such as engine overhauls. Rolls-Royce turbine engine overhauls are sent to Rolls-Royce. We have Turbomeca engines, we have Pratt engines. That stuff is outsourced because we don’t have the capability to do Level 3, Level 4 or overhaul-type maintenance. We work on engines; we just don’t do the overhauls. 

Overhaul of air frame components for the Eurocopters is outsourced because again, there is no capability here to do it.

The expense to tool up and get trained is too high for our needs. I think you have to go to France for the tooling rigs and that work is beyond what we’re good at doing. With the Bells, however, it is different. We have a long experience in overhauling Bell helicopter components, so we do keep that in house. Starter generators and hydraulic servos are outsourced also. For us, it makes good economic sense to do it in that fashion. The rest of the maintenance tasks we keep in house. We used to outsource completions but now we do all those in house also. We set up new aircraft here.

HeliMx: Does the aircraft come to you already painted or do you do the painting?

Dave: We do outsource the aircraft painting. We do spot painting and touchup and we paint components, but we will not paint an aircraft.

HeliMx: From start to finish, what’s the procedure for doing a maintenance repair or inspection? Flight crew has logged a discrepancy. Take us through the process to find and correct the discrepancy.

Pat: The flight crew has logged a discrepancy. Maintenance is notified and they review the discrepancy. Depending on what the discrepancy is, the appropriate maintenance specialist looks at the aircraft and troubleshoots the discrepancy in order to perform the necessary corrective action, and then returns the aircraft to service. Depending on what the corrective action was, it may or may not need to be checked by inspection personnel. If the maintenance specialist had to replace a flight critical component like a pitch change link that had worn out rod end bearings, that would require an inspection person to come and inspect that particular repair. Returning the aircraft to service, he signs off the discrepancy and returns the log book back to the flight department.

HeliMx: Who has the responsibility of assigning aircraft to flight ops? 

Pat: The maintenance coordinators have that responsibility. If any test flight is required, they are the ones that provide that test flight and do the sign off.

HeliMx: Maintenance, by and large, is being done over here and flight ops are actually taking place at the Hooper facility 20 miles away. Does somebody at flight ops call you up and say “tomorrow I’m going to need X number of aircraft” for whatever? 

Pat: No, every day I send them a list of what aircraft to fly and in what order. All the maintenance actions that are scheduled, both long- and short-term, are considered when making the list. Maintenance and flight ops interact all day long, so we are very much in tune to each other’s needs. If flight ops have four flights that day, they fly the first four aircraft on the list. If another mission comes up, they then go to number five, and so on. On that list I also define which aircraft are in maintenance.

There may be a mission requirement that comes up that, in order to support it, flight ops may have to skip ahead of an aircraft on the list to get an aircraft with the right equipment. The next day, we look at the aircraft maintenance times again, see what was actually flown and adjust the list for the next day. Maintenance may need to hold time on an aircraft because it’s going to need an engine overhaul and we don’t have a replacement engine back yet. Whatever the reason, we adjust aircraft availability list on a daily basis, based on what our needs are here at the maintenance facility and what is actually happening downtown at flight ops. 

HeliMx: When you start the morning shift, is there a meeting with everybody? Do you go over what’s the priority aircraft today or what has to be done? 

Dave: The priorities established are updated each morning. However, there is a morning meeting between the shift supervisor and the mechanics, and that’s when the work gets assigned. It’s based on priorities from overnight or leftover priorities from the day before. As the day progresses, those priorities may change like the request that came up today. A camera aircraft is required, so the priority has shifted from what it was earlier to what is needed now; it is ongoing, takes the priorities from overnight or yesterday’s priorities, assigns the work in the morning based on that, and then reacts to the day as it goes on.

HeliMx: Of all the maintenance tasks that you perform, there are many that I would call gas and go, and there are others that are time consuming. Can you think of any tasks that give you heartburn? Do you have any workarounds, lessons learned or tips that you can share with our readers?

Dave: The most troublesome squawk is the one that comes and goes. It’s the intermittent fault that you troubleshoot, think you found the problem, fix it and it comes back again. We had several episodes of starting problems with our Turbomeca engines. These are not the engines that have the FADEC Division, the 1D1s; these have the start drain valves and they have all kinds of plumbing, and ultimately a fuel controller and the sequencing of all that the start cycle has to go through to start the engine. When these starting issues come up, it could be one of the fuel valves, it could be the pilot, it could be the cable, and then it comes and goes. It happens and you change something and it solves the problem. Then it comes back 100 hours later because what you did didn’t really fix the problem. These are the problems that drive you crazy — the intermittent problems. As for a troubleshooting tip for this, if you have a recurring problem, try to find out when it first went wrong, and if you can tag it to some other maintenance activity that occurred or some event. I go there first almost all the time.  

Tinkeritis 

I remember an instance where we were tracking something. Tracking your numbers can be very helpful. It was an engine issue and we were able to focus on a certain event that finally nailed down what the issue was: a ball joint on the governor cable. Connected through the linkage to the collective and ending up on the governor’s side of the fuel control is a ball joint that allows the cable to move up and down. As the collective travels, the cable needs to move up and down a little bit. These ball joints were wearing out. Some of them were wearing out with less than 100 flight hours, and we had this long issue about what was going on, so we tracked it back and found that we had changed nine or 10 of these ball joints on one aircraft over a time frame of about 1,000 flight hours. What happened 1,000 hours ago that may be the cause of this? Well, it was “tinkeritis.” We had changed something — specifically what, I do not remember at this moment — and that was the cause. Anyhow, we changed the item again and we stopped eating up those ball joints. 

HeliMx: Who does the preflight and postflight inspections on the aircraft? 

Pat: Our pilots do the preflight. They do the post-flight but we also have the mechanics do a daily inspection on all our aircraft. 

HeliMx: Dave, do you assign the maintenance tasks daily?

Dave: I could, but I don’t. The supervisor’s job is to assign the work. I give them the priority and they assign the work. Most of the time it goes unsaid what the priority is because these guys are very good.

HeliMx: What’s a typical day like here in the maintenance department? 

Pat: I get in and the first thing I do is turn on my computer and go through all my emails. That usually clears up a lot of things or it creates a lot of work. Somewhere in that process, we all sit down either formally or informally and discuss issues. There are days where we spend our whole day on the flight line running up aircraft. Then there are days when we do administrative work, whether hunting down contracts, working with companies to get contracts on equipment or researching information for our completion aircraft. We are a support function of our crews and if there is a need for something, we work with maintenance and research issues and find a way to fix what needs to be fixed. It’s talking with the safety officer. It’s going over incident reports. Were there maintenance functions or procedures that contributed to the incident? Does it affect maintenance even if it is not a maintenance issue? If a mission is added to the flight schedule, how is that going to affect maintenance? Even though flight ops and maintenance functions operate out of different locations, we still have to interact with each other multiple times each day. We get involved in a lot of that. 

HeliMx: When we were taking the tour earlier, looking at the computers and the tech library and everything else, the days of the mimeograph and carbon paper and everything else is long gone. How much play or interaction do you rely on or does the maintenance function rely on as far as cell phones, computers and all the modern technology we have at our disposal? If you’re spread out on the flight line, does the guy get on his cell phone and say “I need something” and someone brings it out to him, or does he have to get on his bike and drive back in here like we used to in the old days? 

Dave: What happens is we have several electric vehicles that the guys run back and forth with to get stuff they need. There should be very little phone calling, although it does happen, because the distance isn’t really that great from here to the fire department aircraft. However, for the Air Support Division, the phone is used all the time. We have a mechanic we assign to flight ops at the Hooper location daily and we also have a mechanic that goes over there in the evening. Avionics has a guy over there, too, on kind of like a split shift. 

Communication between flight ops and here is very important. All our books and tech pubs are available to the flight ops location via the computer there. The computer talks to a server over here so the publications are up to date and both locations are looking at the same data. The mechanics assigned to flight ops always take their tools with them. They also have a few parts over at flight ops, but communications is primarily by telephone. We have faxed information back and forth from here to Hooper, but it is primarily done by phone.

Pat: As far as we do business here, it’s all email here, and the communication with the OEMs has never been better or easier. With the use of emails and digital photographs it is great.  A big help is that just about everyone has a smart phone now. We, as the maintenance pilots, typically will get a call from one of our pilots and they ask “Hey, what do you think about this?” A lot of times they can’t explain it enough, but we ask them to take a picture of what they are talking about. I take a look at the photo and the mechanics look at it and say “this is not a big deal” or “it is a big deal.” You can’t do that over the phone without a photo if you’re not absolutely sure. 

Dave: We have a server here and through it we keep all types of electronic records — not necessarily electronic log books, but we track all the times and cycles and information of that kind. 

Doug: I start off the same way, I check my emails. We have both a maintenance pass down and a QA pass down of what’s happened the night before to see where we are with our work status. Then, usually at some point in the morning, I try to get together with Dave or one of the day maintenance supervisors to see what their priority is to see if it’s changed, and then relate that information to our guys. We also want to keep abreast of what’s happening at flight ops. We don’t typically put an inspector at flight ops unless it’s called for. If they’re working on a problem down there, we want to know so we can send an inspector there to support that function. 

HeliMx: What you have is a little bit different from the vast majority of operators in the country have in the sense that usually flight ops and maintenance are co-located. Do you find that poses a problem as far as “I’ve got to get something down to Hooper and I’m up here?” 

Doug: One of the things we have is that there is almost always an aircraft up in the air. So if we need a part downtown or we need to get a mechanic or an inspector downtown, almost always we have a patrol ship to take him there. If they’re busy and can’t break away, our guy can grab a city car and drive down there. 

HeliMx: How far away are we roughly?

Dave: Twenty miles, a 10-minute flight or a 40-minute to a hour-and-a-half drive, depending on traffic. It’s really the geography, the weather and other things that make it like this, along with the times of the year. We’re heading into those months where we get what we call the June flu, where we have all this fog and weather and you just can’t get from here to there as quickly as you want to. Most of the activity is at Hooper, and there’s no place down there to have a maintenance facility like this close to flight ops. They are in the heart of the city. We’ve got a big maintenance facility here. Other than that, why are they separate? I don’t know. The Air Support Division is downtown. We have water and power that’s up in Silmar — that’s about eight miles in the other direction. Only the fire department is right next door. They’re the only ones that operate right out of here.

HeliMx: If you were looking to hire a mechanic, what skill set would you be looking for?

Dave: We require a minimum amount of experience. We don’t hire people straight out of school. You have to have been working as an A&P for three years with an A&P license and with two years working on helicopters. If you’re military, that’s fine. You have to have been working on civil aircraft, returning them to service for a minimum of three years. We like people with experience on the type of aircraft we work on. We turn a lot of hours here. We turn a lot of 100-hour inspections, so we’re looking for guys who can do 100-hours, mostly, but we do some overhaul and we have some specialty stuff. 

Mostly, the skill set I’m looking for is a communication skill set. It’s not talking that I’m looking for, it’s listening so a person can learn — that‘s the type of person I’m looking for ... the person that comes in here with the required amount of experience but is also willing to listen and learn, and we’re always willing to listen to them because you don’t get better by staying insular. Every time we hire someone, we get better because we’re taking all of their experience and adding it to ours.

 

David Honeywell began working on helicopters for the U.S. Army in 1976. Since then, he has accumulated more than 30 years of civil helicopter maintenance experience and expertise. Dave has spent the past 23 years with the L.A. DGS Helicopter Division.

 

Doug Postal graduated from Glendale Community College in 1983 with his AS and A&P degree and received his A&P license the same year. He started his career working on fixed-wing aircraft, moving on to turbine fixed-wing maintenance, and eventually to a Part 135 charter operator that had a few Lear jets and some helicopters. Doug came to work for the City of Los Angeles in 1998. He was promoted to helicopter mechanic supervisor in 2003 and to chief inspector in June 2010.

Officer Patrick McNamara joined the LAPD 26 years ago and has been assigned to the LAPD ASD for the past 20 years. He has worked as a tactical flight officer, pilot, CFI and maintenance pilot. He currently holds the position of maintenance coordinator.