Bay Area's busiest law enforcement helicopter back in action

The Bay Area's busiest law enforcement helicopter is no longer grounded after the return of its pilot. 

"Henry 1", a Bell 407 aircraft, belongs to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, but has been available to any agency that needs help.   

"I'm very proud of what we do here," pilot Paul Bradley told KTVU Wednesday, his first day back on the job. "It's about what we can do as a team."

After 14 years shepherding Henry 1, Bradley left the department in August to fly for a private helicopter company, but found firefighting and surveying power lines, wasn't as rewarding.

"Saving somebody's life, or recovering a deceased victim for the family's closure, even catching that bad guy who's broken the law, you really can't get that anywhere else, " Bradley explained, " and so coming back fulfills all that emotionally."

Bradley says he missed the satisfaction of public service, and the adrenaline rush of long line rescue.

It's the specialty of Henry 1, and not often attempted by others.

Bradley flies to a trouble spot, puts down in a landing zone, then flies his paramedic, dangling from a 100 or 200 foot rope, to the person in distress.

That victim is harnessed together with the paramedic, and they're both lifted to safety.

In water, or on mountains, where access is difficult, it can make the difference between life and death.

"The rescuer on the end of that long line is really a tiny speck looking down one hundred feet," observed Sgt. Pete Quartorolo, who supervisors the Henry 1 unit. "Paul moves us around with precision. And we have all the confidence in the world in him." 

Henry 1 flies about nine hundred missions a year, and about 100 are rescues. During his five month absence, with no pilot, there was no program.

"Every time I would hear a call that we could use Henry 1, I was just going nuts, " admitted Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Greg Miller.

CHP and Coast Guard helicopters helped fill the gap, and were appreciated, but couldn't replace such a nimble aircraft, able to get to the Sonoma Coast in six minutes, and save people so swiftly.  Efforts to recruit a replacement were stymied by the lack of candidates with similar experience.

"It's a group effort, with Paul our pilot, and everybody on board contributing to rescues," noted Miller.

"It takes years to get where they're at. That's why it was such a big loss for the few months they were down."

Asked if he's ever nervous, Bradley admits some flight situations are more dangerous than others, and require heightened awareness and focus.

He recalls the time the crew plucked nine people off an ocean cliff near Crescent City.

The group was first responders themselves, fire and rescue personnel who had become stranded as the tide rose, and some had become hypothermic.

Rather than wait for daylight, Henry 1 plucked them, three at a time, off the rock. That rescue brought national recognition. 

Only weather has turned the crew away from a mission.        

"You kind of have that moment, where you know it's going to be a riskier one. But we train enough, and if you have that confidence and you take it slow, there's really nothing that will get in our way."

Now, Bradley says only retirement will get him out of the cockpit again.

"I'll definitely stick it out until I can't do it. They're going to have to pull me out next time!," he joked. "At the end of the day, this place truly is my home."