Helicopter Unit

The helicopter is based at the Charles M. Schultz (Sonoma County Airport) in Santa Rosa and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is typically staffed and on-duty 10 hours a day, but crew members remain available (on call) the following 14 hours and will respond for emergency call-outs.


The helicopter unit responds to an average of 1,000 missions annually and is one of the busiest rescue helicopter programs in the country. Because of its nationally recognized rescue skills, Henry-1 is occasionally requested for rescues and other emergencies outside of the county where no helicopter program with matching capabilities exists.


The History

Sgt. Ed Wilkinson, who in the 1960’s, occasionally used to fly his own helicopter on patrol, pioneered the sheriff’s helicopter program. His helicopter was destroyed in a 1964 accident near Jenner. He later flew a county-owned Bell 47 helicopter beginning in 1972 dubbed, “Angel-1” and performed many life-saving missions. Angel-1 crashed in 1977 while returning to the airport after searching for a lost child, killing Sgt. Wilkinson. 


Old Sheriff’s Helicopter

Old Sheriff’s Helicopter

Sheriff's Helicopter

Following the death of Sgt. Wilkinson, thousands of county residents signed petitions demanding that the Sheriff’s helicopter program continue. In October of 1977, the Board of Supervisors showed their continued support for the program by authorizing the purchase of a Hughes 500C helicopter which was to be piloted by Sheriff’s Deputies. The duties of this new helicopter, “Angel-2”, were expanded to include medical transports. Unfortunately, a crash in October of 1980, killed both Deputy Sheriffs aboard, Brent Jameson and Bliss Magley, as they were returning to the airport following a late night call-out for an officer involved shooting.


In 1981, the county purchased a factory new McDonald Douglas 500D helicopter which was put into service as, “Henry-1”, the name still used today. “Henry” stands for the letter, “H” in the police phonetic alphabet. This helicopter was troubled with numerous mechanical problems including five emergency landings due to engine failure. The final emergency landing in the summer of 1982 left the helicopter severely damaged on tidal rocks North of Jenner.

A radical change in operation occurred in 1983 when the county elected to lease a helicopter and a commercial pilot from a private vendor. The vendor supplied a Bell 206 (Jet Ranger) and a civilian pilot while the Sheriff provided a deputy to act as the flight crew, law enforcement officer and emergency medical technician on board. A local civilian paramedic was eventually added to make a flight crew of three, which became the standard of present day. The program was now able to accomplish law enforcement, medical, search and rescue missions. 

This model of using vendors continued until 2008.  During the contract years the department used Jet Rangers, Long Rangers, and eventually a Bell 407.  Although the flight crews were able to perform amazing work, the program was plagued with issues that came up between the vendors and the County.  In recent years, the helicopter spent many days out of service due to these issues. 

After “renting” for 25 years, the county purchased a 1996 Bell 407 in 2008.  This helicopter had been previously owned by the Los Angeles Police Department.  The positions of Sheriff Pilot and Sheriff Paramedic were also created in 2008 to provide a method of retaining qualified people who in years past would leave for jobs with security and benefits.  The department also secured a contract with a Bell Helicopter Customer Service Facility to perform all maintenance.

In June of 2018, the Sheriff’s Office took delivery of a brand new Bell 407 GXP.  While being the same model helicopter the Sheriff’s Office had previously operated, the newest model offered enhanced avionics, engine, and mission equipment.


The Crew

Helicopter crew

The helicopter flight crew consists of a sworn Deputy Sheriff, called the “Tactical Flight Officer” or “TFO”, a non-sworn paramedic and a non-sworn pilot who must hold at least a commercial pilot’s certificate prior to applying. A Sheriff’s Sergeant supervises the unit and also acts as a TFO during flight.


A full-time Deputy, supplemented by a pool of part-time Deputies, act as the TFO on all flights. The TFO is responsible for overseeing and accomplishing the assigned requirements of each particular flight and is the authority in all matters concerning law enforcement and mission related decisions. The TFO is trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a rescue technician.


A pool of part-time local paramedics who are well known for their skills as experienced paramedics in local fire departments and ambulance companies is on each flight. They are highly trained in advanced lifesaving skills and are responsible for accomplishing the emergency medical service requirements of the mission. The paramedic is the authority in matters concerning patient treatment, stabilization and evacuation. They are also skilled rescue technicians.

The pilot is responsible for the operation of the helicopter and is the final authority in matters concerning flight safety and control of the aircraft. Presently, there are two pilots for Henry-1, Paul Bradley and Nigel Cooper. They have logged tens of thousands of hours and are seasoned at performing the unique style of “long-line” rescue utilized by our agency. To meet the program’s minimum qualifications, a pilot must have previously logged 3,000 total hours; including, mountain, night flight experience and precision vertical reference “long-line” experience. They must also posses the ability to fly under stressful law enforcement and rescue conditions.  



The Current Helicopter (2018)
Call Sign "Henry 1"

 The Bell 407 GXP is a highly maneuverable, four bladed, single turbine engine powered helicopter manufactured by Bell Helicopter, Fort Worth, Texas. The Bell 407 GXP can be flown with a single pilot and configured for up to five passengers or - in the EMS role - three crew members and a patient.

 Henry 1 is equipped with:

Sheriff's helicopter
  • Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR)

  • Wire Strikes

  • External Oxygen tank for medical missions

  • PA speakers

  • Dual hook system for long line rescue operations

  • Night Vision system (NVG)

  • Moving Map

  • Rescue Equipment

  • Medical Equipment


    The Missions


    Law Enforcement
    The helicopter is utilized as an aerial law enforcement platform for assisting ground patrol units with on-view or in-progress crimes including pursuits, searches and surveillance. It is also used as an aerial platform for crime scene photography, and as an airborne observation and command center for major incidents. It can be deployed to expeditiously transport deputies to remote and/or inaccessible locations. On occasion it may be the first or only responding unit to a call in a rural area and the law enforcement crew member on board may be off-loaded to take action as needed.

    The on-board paramedic assisted by the EMT-trained TFO enables the helicopter to rapidly transport patients to local hospitals as well as trauma or burn centers. Medical studies show that rapid transport to a hospital greatly increases the chance of survival for the critically ill or injured. The flight crew understands this philosophy and decisions are made rapidly to make sure the patient gets the appropriate treatment. Because of the configuration of the helicopter and the pilot/crew training and local knowledge, Henry-1 is able to locate emergency scenes and land in difficult terrain and conditions.



    The helicopter has proven itself time and time again as a very efficient tool for extricating people who may be stranded in locations where they cannot safely escape and conventional rescue may be difficult, delayed or involve a greater risk. Henry-1 regularly rescues people from cliff faces, ravines, swift water and ocean surf regions using a long-line method. 

    We have learned over the years that victims make poor candidates for “self-rescue”, meaning simply lowering a line to a victim or allowing them to “hold on” to the helicopter or rescue device is not sufficient. All victims rescued by Henry-1 are rescued by a crew member who is deployed into the environment with the victim by various means. This is why crew members continually train in the ocean, rivers, and lakes, on the cliffs and in the back country. They must be comfortable in these arenas.

    The most common rescue involves the use of a rescue strop, or “horse collar”. A crew member is flown on the end of a 100-foot line to the victim. The crew member secures the victim in the strop and holds onto him as the victim and rescuer are flown to safety. This method has worked effectively both in the water and on land. Other options exist for evacuation including the use of spinal immobilization devices.


    The helicopter is a useful tool for rapidly surveying large areas for lost individuals or fleeing suspects. A forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR) may also be utilized to locate individuals who may not be readily visible due to darkness or terrain.


    The helicopter is capable of carrying a 150-gallon “Bambi Bucket” suspended below the aircraft. This bucket is dipped into a lake, pond, river, or other water source and the water is carried and released over the fire. Henry-1 has been the first aircraft on-scene to fires and has assumed a role of protecting structures until more resources arrive.


Sheriff's Helicopter