REGION — The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department will continue its ASTREA training program for several months until pilots are proficient with the new aircraft the department acquired last month.
Last month, the department added two helicopters to its fleet: a 412EPX fire helicopter and a 407GXi patrol helicopter. Sheriff’s officials said ongoing training was needed, even for the most seasoned pilots, focusing on basic operational skills, instrument rating and different fire-rescue and patrol techniques.
“The pilots will be continuing their training for a number of months to become efficient with the new aircraft. There are different aspects of training that will include hoist training and water drops. Some pilots in the program have close to two decades of experience,” said sheriff’s Media Relations Director Lt. David LaDieu.
Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies, or ASTREA, is the sheriff’s department’s aviation unit. ASTREA has provided aerial support to the department and partner agencies since 1971. Officials said ASTREA averages nearly 6,000 missions per year to support patrol and fire and rescue calls throughout the region.
The majority of pilot training is held in San Diego County. However, a preliminary two-week training course is conducted at the Bell Training Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. The training is specific to pilots who will be operating Bell-manufactured aircraft.
Once training in Texas is completed, pilots will resume training three to four days a week at a basic operations facility in San Diego until they gain enough hours to operate the new Bell aircraft. Training will cover such skills as search-and-rescue missions, water drops, hoists and wildfire training.
“Our latest fire helicopter is the Bell 412EPX. This helicopter is designed to operate in challenging environments and weather conditions that are typically encountered during firefighting missions,” LaDieu said.
Two pilots already in training to operate the new aircraft are seasoned pilots with decades of experience, but officials said even experienced pilots need additional training to learn the operating systems and functions of the new aircraft.
New ASTREA pilot recruits are promoted from within the department. Deputies must have one to two years of patrol experience before being considered and admitted into the program.
If accepted into the highly coveted program, qualified deputies start as “observers” who assist the mentor pilot. After acquiring enough hours of experience, they are sent to pilot school, which is paid for by the department.
ASTREA is a highly sought-after assignment, which can make attaining an open pilot slot competitive.
“The number of agencies that ASTREA assists can vary in any given work month. It just varies upon what’s required,” added LaDieu.
The 412EPX is designed to collaborate with Cal Fire, with seven firefighters on board during fire calls.
The 407GXi is dedicated to law enforcement operations, day or night. It comes equipped with precision navigation, allowing pilots to track and respond to incidents accurately. The 407 has a powerful engine for speed in responding to emergencies and patrol coverage crucial for law enforcement missions, and it can be equipped with a bucket to help with water drops, officials said.
“These helicopters empower our first responders to meet the demands of their critical roles. They represent our commitment to your safety and our preparedness to handle whatever challenges may come our way. It is our promise to be there when you need us the most,” according to a statement from the department.
The helicopters cost $21 million, using the department’s budget and Proposition 172 funds.