Over the past 10 days, the Woolsey Fire has burned nearly 100,000 acres of Southern California, destroying some 1,500 buildings. It has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and killed at least three.
The damage and death toll would have been far worse were it not for the efforts of first responders like David Nordquist and Joel Smith. On November 9, as the fires were tearing through the hills around Malibu, the Los Angeles Fire Department Air Operations helicopter pilots answered a call to help three people trapped atop Castro Peak, in the middle of the inferno.
Flying a helicopter is always hard. Flying into a fire zone, where wind, smoke, and heat muddy the already complex aeronautics by changing how the aircraft moves through the air, is harder. “Flying around a mountainous area, while the mountain is on fire, is one the most challenging things you can do as a helicopter pilot,” says Lasse Brevik, the chief helicopter instructor at Oregon’s Hillsboro Aero Academy.
But you might not know it when you listen to Nordquist and Smith work their way through the problem, captured in a helmet cam video shared Monday by the LAFD. They make it seem almost simple. “You can hear these guys’ deep knowledge and expertise.” And, even as their fuel levels dwindled, Nordquist and Smith flew into a fire zone and balanced on a narrow ridge long enough to pull off the rescue.
This rescue operation combined a terrifying number of complicating factors. Mountains don’t just make for massive obstacles, they shape how the wind moves—and thus how helicopters move. Valleys become funnels for air, ramping up its speed. Ridges create downdrafts that push helicopters around. Choppers lose power when it gets hot, because the higher temperatures expand the air, reducing the amount of oxygen feeding the combustion engine. Higher heat means lower pressure, which reduces the rotors’ ability to create lift and keep the aircraft airborne. “Pilots are 25 percent weathermen,” Brevik says. Nordquist and Smith didn’t have the right gear to hoist the trapped civilians to safety, so they had to get the helicopter onto the ground, in a spot crowded with cars, trees, bushes, and antenna towers.
Brevik points to a few things these pilots did especially well, starting with how they communicate constantly and clearly, about what they’re doing, what they see, what the other needs to know. Consider this exchange, as they start, then abandon, an attempt to land in a small lot atop the peak:
“Well here’s the thing I’m too close to these trucks now.”
“Yeah, this is gonna be too tight.”
“OK, I’m gonna go straight up, and we’ll go with the nose in thing.”
“OK, don’t come any more left.”
“Go straight forward, and we’ll go around.”
That steady back-and-forth seems obvious, but it’s crucial to maintaining situational awareness, Brevik says. “At no point is there any doubt between the two pilots what their intentions are.” And that’s extra important in this sort of stressful, dangerous circumstance.
Ultimately, pilots fly a bit to the east, and find a small, mostly flat spot between a pair of bushes. Nordquist slowly drops altitude, with Smith helping guide him down, letting him know when he’s got room to maneuver, and when he has just a few feet to play with. When they get down, Smith hops out of his left seat to escort the trapped people to the aircraft, and Nordquist tells him, “I’m not gonna go flat pitch.”
That bit of jargon reveals the deftness of Nordquist’s flying. Flat pitch is the term for angling the rotors so that they keep spinning without producing lift. It’s handy when you’re on the solid, flat ground of an airport. But it’s a no-go when you’re on atop a narrow ridge cluttered with bushes with barely enough room for the aircraft, and when you can only get one skid down safely: You can’t rely on the ground to support you.
“That means he’s still flying the helicopter,” Brevik says. And he’s doing it while being buffeted by wind, and with four adults (counting Smith) and two big dogs climbing into and around the aircraft, shifting hundreds of pounds around. “That is pure skill.”
With three relieved people and at least one not so happy English Mastiff aboard, the pilots lifted off again. “That was close,” Smith says. “That’s enough excitement for me today.”
“You and me both brother,” Nordquist says, as he flies away from the flames—at least until it’s time to head back in.