It’s much like the surgical wing of the local trauma center.
Their patients – often referred to as birds – are rolled in and connected to an array of cables. A modest team of three people works to delicately disconnect an expansive pair of black, yellow and white metal wings.
The bird’s belly, a silver-colored rectangular water reservoir, is surgically removed.
A sturdy man in a blue T-shirt floats his attention to his in-patient’s black and yellow tail boom. His identity remains hidden behind the contour of a baseball cap as he slides a weathered hand over bold lettering emblazoned on the tail wing.
“It’ll be completely taken apart and inspected,” the man said to a small group assembled under the florescent light of the Pacoima-based aircraft hangar.
“It’ll be a couple of months before it can fly again,” he added, patting a sizable Los Angeles County seal stamped to the side of the helicopter’s door.
The man is one of many mechanics assigned to maintain the helicopter fleet tasked with plucking people dangling from some of Southern California’s most jagged and elevated cliffs.
Aside from that, the modified military aircraft must be in tip-top shape to take on their most public task – water bombing.
It’s up to the county air operations maintenance team to ensure the fire department’s aerial line of defense is qualified to squeeze themselves between homes and hillsides ablaze.
“It’s a great mission – helping people, saving lives, saving property,” said James Ring, senior helicopter mechanic.
Ring takes great pride in seeing the end result which generally comes in the form of one of the helicopters being featured on television or in the newspaper.
“You see your aircraft on the news saving houses, saving lost hikers, search and rescue, ocean rescue, diving rescues near Catalina Island,” he said.
Ring said the team’s work differs significantly from a typical car mechanic.
If the crew fails to properly complete a task, pilots don’t have the same opportunity afforded to drivers to pull to the side of the road and call a tow truck.
“If something goes wrong with an aircraft it’s in the air, it’s usually a catastrophe,” Ring said.
The man, tall in stature, exercises a detail-oriented and cautious approach across the various projects to rehab ill birds – yes, the metal ones.
“A lot of attention to detail is required which comes with experience,” he said. “There’s a certain type of personality required to be a mechanic and that’s part of it.”
Aside from the typical Phillips screwdriver and pliers, many of the mechanics on staff have a military background in their tool belts.
But each day’s list of problems to correct brings about a new sense of excitement for the small, but modest crew.
“On Sunday nights, most people are like ‘Ugh, Monday morning, I’ve got to go to work,’” Ring said. “But I’m up for it. I’m all in.”
Each day begins at 8 a.m., when the fleet of helicopters, currently eight in total, depart Barton Heliport in the San Fernando Valley to take positions at several points within Los Angeles County’s wide-ranging borders.
The birds are typically away from their concrete and metal nest for about 22 hours and it’s during this timeframe that the helicopters experience the most wear and tear.
Responding to a variety of what the air operations section calls “missions,” the copters return to Barton at 7:30 a.m. often coated in soot and in need of jet fuel.
“At this point, the mechanics go out to each aircraft and perform the daily inspection,” Ring said.
The race to restore the fleet to working order and inspect every nook, cranny and crevice begins. Two to three mechanics tend to each helicopter for about 45 minutes to an hour.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department employs two types of aircraft in its fleet – the Bell 412 and the considerably larger Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk.
The latter of the two is a variant of the UH-60 Blackhawk used by U.S. armed services. Aside from the two jet turbo shaft engines, it’s a complex aircraft with digital controls – but it’s the favorite for the county’s fire crews.
The pilots credit the helicopter to being the howitzer in a knife fight.
“Even though I’ve been doing it for over 30 years, it still amazes me what a helicopter can do,” Ring said.
But with elaborate systems is the need for intricate minds. Each member of the maintenance team has five to 10 years of formal schooling to meet the challenge.
The same group of machine doctors are also tasked with routinely disassembling each aircraft, from nose to tail.
After 500 flight hours, the helicopters must go through a major inspection.
“The engines are off, the gearboxes are off,” Ring explained. “Everything is torn apart, completely inspected and reassembled.
“We have a great crew. They rise to whatever level needs to be risen to in order to get the job done.”
Ring paused and took a moment to turn his attention to the crew working on Copter 19.
“It really is one big family,” he said.