26 December 2015: Shortly before midnight, Christmas Day, a wind-driven fire threatened the tiny coastal community of Solimar Beach, just west of the City of Ventura, California. Low humidity and gusty winds whipped the fire out of control and emergency evacuations were ordered. Winds were clocked at 42 miles per hour (19 meters per second). Highway 1, California’s famous Pacific Coast Highway (or just “PCH”) was closed to traffic in both directions.
Almost immediately, Copter 7 flew from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Air Unit base at nearby Camarillo Airport (CMA). The pilot of the helicopter was Deputy Sheriff Jim Miller Dalton, a 45-year-veteran helicopter pilot who has served with the Air Unit for more than twenty years.
Copter 7 is a 1970 Bell HH-1H Iroquois, originally a U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter, serial number 70-2472, and now carrying the FAA registration N205SD. The HH-1H was a variant of the U.S. Army UH-1H transport helicopter.
The Bell Helicopter Co. UH-1H Iroquois (Model 205A-1) is an improved variant of the UH-1D (Model 205), which was itself derived from the UH-1B (Model 204). The type’s initial military designation was HU-1, and this resulted in the helicopter being universally known as the “Huey.”
The UH-1H is a single main rotor/tail rotor medium helicopter powered by a turboshaft engine. It can be flown by a single pilot, but is commonly flown by two pilots in military service. The helicopter has an overall length of 57 feet, 0.67 inches (17.375 meters) with rotors turning. The fuselage is 41 feet, 5 inches (12.624 meters) long. The two blade semi-rigid, under-slung main rotor has a diameter of 48 feet, 3.2 inches (14.712 meters), and turns counter clockwise when viewed from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) At 100% NR, the main rotor turns 324 r.p.m. The two blade tail rotor assembly has a diameter of 8 feet, 6 inches (2.591 meters). It is on the left side of the pylon in a pusher configuration and turns counter-clockwise as seen from the helicopter’s left. (The advancing blade is above the axis of rotation.) The helicopter has a height of 13 feet, 7.4 inches (4.150 meters), measured to the top of the mast.
The UH-1H is powered by a Lycoming LTC1K-4 (T53-L-13) turboshaft engine rated at 1,400 shaft horsepower, though it is derated to the helicopter’s transmission limit. The T53-L-13 is a two-shaft free turbine with a 6-stage compressor (5 axial-flow stages, 1 centrifugal-flow stage) and a 4-stage axial-flow turbine (2 high-pressure stages, 2 low-pressure power turbine stages). The T53-L-13 is 3 feet, 11.9 inches (1.217 meters) long, 1 foot, 11.0 inches (0.584 meters) in diameter and weighs 549 pounds (249 kilograms).
The UH-1H has a maximum gross weight of 9,500 pounds (4,309.1 kilograms). Its maximum speed, VNE, is 124 knots (143 miles per hour, or 230 kilometers per hour). With full fuel, 206.5 gallons (781.7 liters), the helicopter has a maximum endurance of three hours.
5,345 UH-1H Hueys were built, and many of the earlier UH-1Ds were upgraded to the UH-1H standard.
‘Copter 7, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department HH-1H helicopter, was rebuilt and upgraded to Bell’s Huey II configuration in 1998. The revised aircraft features the driveline and rotors of the more powerful Model 212. The tail rotor has been moved to the right side of the tail rotor pylon in a tractor configuration, reversing its direction of rotation to clockwise, as seen from the helicopter’s left side. (The advancing blade is below the axis of rotation.) The original 1,400 shaft horsepower Lycoming T53-L-13 has been replaced with a T53-L-703, rated at 1,800 shaft horsepower (de-rated to the transmission limit). This engine is more durable, more fuel-efficent and increases the Huey’s maximum gross weight to 10,500 pounds (4,763 kilograms). The overhaul interval (TBO) increases from 2,400 hours, to 5,000 hours. The Huey II is optimized for “hot and high” operation, with increased hover ceilings, both in (HIGE) and out (HOGE) of ground effect.
‘Copter 7 also uses the BLR Aerospace FastFin for improved tail rotor performance. Water is dropped from a Simplex Aerospace Model 304 Fire Attack System which can carry 369 gallons (1,397 liters) of water, and is equipped with a snorkel to allow the helicopter to take on water while hovering over a source.
Dalton’s helicopter was soon joined by ‘Copter 16, a Sikorsky S-70A Firehawk of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Mutual aid between agencies is critical with limited air attack resources available.
After sunrise, ‘Copters 7 and 16 were joined by two more Huey air attack helicopters from the Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit and Cal Fire, along with four fixed-wing air tankers. More than 600 firefighters fought the flames from the ground. Two of them were injured.
By early afternoon on the 26th, the Solimar Fire was contained after burning 1,236 acres (500 hectares). Traffic was restored and residents were allowed to return to their homes.
The fire was caused by arcing power lines.
Jim Dalton retired from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department in March 2016.
‘Copter 7 was retired 31 August 2021 after 27 years of service with Ventura County.
On 31 August 2023, Jim Dalton was presented with the Federal Aviation Administration’s prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department also operates a Bell 206L-1 LongRanger II (Copter 3), Bell 205A-1 (Copter 8), and a Bell 212 (Copter 9). The Department has acquired three very low-time Sikorsky HH-60L Black Hawks from the General Services Administration. They were modified to the Firehawk configuration by United Rotorcraft, Englewood, Colorado. The Sikorskys entered service in Ventura County in May 2021.
© 2021, Bryan R. Swopes