When we think about San Diego, we probably think about SeaWorld and Shamu, the world-famous San Diego Zoo and lots of beautiful weather, the Pacific Ocean and gloriously sandy beaches. However, conquistadors, a Greek goddess and helicopters are a part of San Diego as well. 

The first European to visit the region was Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who sailed his flagship, the San Salvador, from Navidad, Mexico. Cabrillo claimed the bay for Spain and named the site San Miguel. In November 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno arrived with his flagship “San Diego,” also sent north by Spain from Navidad in Mexico. Vizcaíno surveyed the harbor of what is now Mission Bay and Point Loma, naming the area for the Spanish Catholic saint St. Didacus (more commonly known as San Diego). It would be another 167 years before California gained enough strategic value to generate colonization.

Alta California became part of the United States in 1850, following the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. San Diego was incorporated as a city and was named the county seat of the newly established San Diego County.

Greek Goddess

In 1970, San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy introduced a new vision for a policing program that would greatly enhance officer safety and service to the community, a law enforcement helicopter patrol. The program would provide aerial law enforcement support at no cost and would serve all public safety agencies in San Diego. By 1971, Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies (ASTREA), named after the Greek goddess of justice, was formed. The San Diego County sheriff’s department obtained a fleet of three Bell 47 helicopters and successfully established offices, maintenance facilities and staff.

ASTREA’s highest value was found in search and rescue platforms, especially in remote areas and rugged terrain where it was difficult for ground vehicles to go. The crews developed techniques to deliver rescue personnel into remote scenes and bring them and victims to safety. Within a few years, ASTREA acquired three more Bell 47 helicopters. Law enforcement agencies began to rely heavily upon the unit for their air support services.

Despite ASTREA’s initial success, a search and rescue mission caused the unit to reassess its helicopter fleet, when a nine-year-old boy became separated from his family while visiting Palomar Mountain. The unit found that during its search and rescue efforts to find the boy, its Bell 47 helicopters were limited in their performance at altitude. The unit had to turn to the media for its helicopters which were more powerful. The department realized a new aircraft was required that could fulfill a variety of mission requirements.


The Sound of Security

In 1983, ASTREA obtained two Hughes 500D helicopters. This aircraft was faster and could seat more people, allowing the unit to work in nearly impossible conditions. By the early 1990s, the department sold its Bell 47 helicopters and obtained four more Hughes 500 helicopters.

In 1972, a group of citizens complained about the helicopter noise. Sheriff Duffy responded by saying, “The helicopters you hear can save your life or your property ... we’d like to think of that noise as the sound of security.”


The following interview was conducted with the maintenance team that was working the day of the interview. To keep it simple, I will show maintenance supervisor Kim Morgan as providing the answers to the questions, although all participated. 

HeliMx– How long has ASTREA been in operation?

Morgan – We started in 1971, so we are going on our 42nd year.

HeliMx– How large an area do you cover?

Morgan – We cover almost 4,200 square miles and the terrain varies from sea level to close to 6,500 feet and from the waterfront to the High Sonoran desert.

HeliMx– Does ASTREA have any mission statements?

Morgan – The overall mission for ASTREA is “to provide enhanced public and officer safety by providing effective law enforcement, search and rescue, fire suppression and emergency service air support to public safety agencies throughout San Diego County.”

Our maintenance team mission statement is “to practice honest, reliable and quality working practices. We believe we can achieve this mission by employing a highly-qualified staff who understand that attention to detail, integrity and honesty is of the utmost importance.”

HeliMx– How many types and numbers of helicopters do you fly and how many hours a month do they operate?

Morgan – Let’s answer the last question first. We fly approximately 300 hours a month. We achieve that with seven aircraft as follows:

One MD-500D that is the oldest aircraft in our fleet and has been our workhorse since the late 1980s. This aircraft is used for general patrol work and law enforcement duties.

Three MD-530F aircraft, which are specially suited for our work in high-altitude and high-temperature environments. The larger engine, transmission and rotor system gives this aircraft a significant performance advantage over the MD-500D.

We operate one Bell 407 helicopter. This helicopter can seat up to seven people and fly for close to three hours without landing for fuel. It is equipped with a data-link antenna and associated hardware which makes it possible to pass a live video feed to ground personnel. Unlike the four MD-500 models, the pilot flies from the right seat and the tactical flight officer (TFO) sits in the left seat. The TFO operates the thermal imager (FLIR), Nightsun, data downlink, PA system and a suite of radios capable of communicating with any agency in the county.


Last but not least is our two Bell 205 A1++ aircrafts. The two fire/rescue helicopters are equipped with 375-gallon belly tanks and hoists capable of lifting 600 pounds. These helicopters greatly expand our rescue and firefighting capabilities.

ASTREA crew members also work with Cal Fire in the rescue role. Whereas ASTREA deputy sheriffs pilot the helicopter, Cal Fire personnel operate the hoist and deploy on the hoist cable to assist victims on the ground. Initial and recurrent training from a company recognized as the best in the industry helps crew to be as safe and efficient as possible.

HeliMx– You mentioned some of what I call “special mission” equipment. Does any of it pose any issues when it comes to the maintenance side of things?

Morgan – The special mission equipment that we carry is very common among law enforcement air support organizations. We have a rescue hoist, extraction equipment, Nightsun, FLIR and NVIS. These systems have their own maintenance manuals and we perform maintenance on them in accordance with their ICAs. The maintenance that we perform has become routine so that in the overall scheme of things, there really is no wayward effect on any of our other maintenance functions.

HeliMx– Earlier you mentioned that you operate in quite a varied topographical environment. For this reason, do you use engine inlet barrier filters?

Morgan – Yes. They are installed on all our aircraft. The environment we work in deals in everything from saltwater to desert. There is always something blowing in the air and the filters do a wonderful job of protecting the engines. From a maintenance perspective, we may clean them more frequently than other organizations, but based on the environment we’re flying in, it is a small price to pay for the protection they provide.

HeliMx– How frequently do you deal with high and hot operations?

Morgan – It seems that all we do are high and hot operations. Along the coast it is not so bad, but once you move inland, the temperature can get hot very quickly.

HeliMx– Are there any special maintenance tasks that you perform?

Morgan – Again, from a maintenance perspective, due to our operating environment, we do extra freshwater washes. The combination of working in the salt air and the desert means we have to be very judicious in keeping the aircraft and engines clean. Because of this, we probably wash the aircraft more frequently than if you were operating where you do not have a desert or saltwater environment.

HeliMx– Have you ever had the situation where an aircraft had to put down someplace out of the way and it was basically AOG?

Morgan – Yes. It does happen, and in those instances if we think we know what’s needed, we will fly maintenance personnel and parts to the location and see what we can do. If, for some reason, the aircraft has to stay overnight in that location, we will have sheriff’s personnel go out and secure the aircraft to ensure that no unauthorized personnel get near it. If it cannot be fixed in place, we will make arrangements to get the aircraft put on a truck, which means we need a truck and a crane to lift the aircraft and drive it back here.

HeliMx– For maintenance, under what FAR do you work?

Morgan – Since we are not an authorized repair facility, we operate under Part 43.

HeliMx– How many personnel are in your maintenance department and what are their titles?

Morgan – We have one maintenance supervisor and seven A&P mechanics. Two of our mechanics share the duty of driving the fuel truck and two other mechanics are IA qualified. Our team has acquired a total of 244 years of experience working on helicopters, so they really know what they are doing.

HeliMx– How many maintenance shifts do you operate?

Morgan – We have just one maintenance shift, from 0600 to 1700 daily. We have personnel that work Monday to Friday, Tuesday to Saturday and Wednesday to Sunday, since we are a 365-days-a-year operation.

HeliMx– During any given month, how many 100-hour inspections do you perform?

Morgan – At least one and possibly two — it just depends on how many hours are on the aircraft.

HeliMx– Since you are a Part 43 operation, what maintenance tasks do you outsource?

Morgan – We outsource engine and transmission overhaul and any maintenance that we are not tooled up to do. With the number of aircraft and personnel that we have, it makes good financial sense to outsource those tasks to an MRO or the OEM.

HeliMx– From start to finish, please outline the procedure for accomplishing a maintenance task.

Morgan – All work starts with a write up stating there is a discrepancy. Our mechanics have flexible responsibilities and each of them has a background specialty, and in some cases this will overlap. The mechanic that is assigned this task inspects the aircraft and determines if the discrepancy is valid. If it is valid, he will take the appropriate action to determine what is wrong and correct it. Once completed, the work will be inspected and the appropriate log book entry will be made.

HeliMx– Of all the maintenance work and inspections that you perform, what would you say is the most labor intensive?

Morgan – Without a doubt, it is the two-year inspection on the Bell 205. It takes two weeks to complete this, with the entire crew working the inspection. There is just an awful lot of work that has to be done.

HeliMx– Who performs your pre-flight and post-flight inspections?

Morgan – Our flightcrew always perform the pre-flight inspections. Once the aircraft has returned from a mission, maintenance performs the post-flight inspection.

HeliMx– In support of the daily mission requirements, who assigns the aircraft to flight ops?

Morgan – Either the maintenance supervisor or one of the IAs can assign aircraft to flight ops. This flexibility is necessary if one or more of these personnel are not available.

HeliMx– Who informs the maintenance department of the daily missions so maintenance knows how many aircraft will be required and when they are required?

Morgan – The duty sergeant will brief us and tell us if there is anything out of the ordinary going on, or if there’s some training that needs to be addressed. We will also look at daily inspections that are due and check write ups. We also check aircraft flight hours to see which one is coming into inspection next and assign aircraft to flight ops accordingly.

HeliMx– Last but not least, if you were looking to hire another person for your team, what qualifications would interest you the most?

Morgan – Technically, the individual would need to have an A&P license and a minimum of two years’ experience working on helicopters. As you saw from talking with our team, they have quite a bit of experience, and even more important to some extent is the fact that they have known each other and worked together for a long time. In total, they have close to 250 years of experience working on aircraft. Many have worked together for more than 20 years, so we know each other and we get along quite well. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and this helps them put the right individual on the work they do best. They are an extremely valuable asset for us. From a personality standpoint, the individual would have to have a personality that would fit in. Our maintenance team is like a well-oiled machine, and we would like to keep it that way.

From Spanish conquistadors to a Greek goddess, from routine patrol to fire suppression and rescue, ASTREA provides the sound of security in San Diego County.