by Battalion Chief Mitch Brookhyser
The value of the helicopter as a platform for rescue and fire attack is accepted in the fire service today without question. In fact, the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) supports the largest fleet of helicopters used by any fire department in the country.
Helicopters offer a wide range of load and mission capabilities to meet the ever-demanding needs of ground-based operations. The LACoFD wisely embraced the flexibility and immediate response capabilities of rotor wing aircraft back in the 1950s, primarily guided by one man, Roland Barton.
Roland James Barton—or “Bart,” as his friends called him—was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1930s and ’40s. He always dreamed of guiding the controls of flying machines. As a teenager, too young to serve in World War II, he took a job at a local airport sweeping floors and cleaning hangars to pay for flight lessons.
In 1949, at the age of 22, he earned his pilot’s license and started flying as a crop-duster near his home.
He would often invite his girlfriend, Patricia, up for sight-seeing in his plane. He later married Patricia; they moved to California in the 1950s, where he took a job with the firm Rotor Aide in Ventura County, flying geological and mapping surveys along the West Coast in helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft.
In 1957, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) purchased four surplus Bell 47-G2 helicopters for surveillance. The LASD needed experienced pilots to operate these machines, and Barton was well qualified.
One of the helicopters, “Copter 2,” was leased back to the LACoFD for its exclusive use. On Aug. 8, 1957, the Fire Department took delivery of this helicopter. Barton was the pilot.
As Forester and Fire Warden, Chief Keith Klinger worked with local nurseries to mitigate soil erosion along the front country caused by wildfires. The Fire Department initially used the helicopter for aerial reseeding. As Barton learned more about the Fire Department’s mission, he envisioned a broader scope for the 47-G2.
At the time, seasonally contracted fixed-wing aircraft, such as the Grumman TBM and North American AJ-1, were used as water-dropping bombers. Because the Bell 47-G2 had more weight in its useful load, Barton suggested using it in a fire attack role. Klinger agreed.
Barton tested the 47-G2’s water-dropping capability throughout the 1950s. Initially, a 35-gallon canvas bag was attached to the undercarriage. A cable attached to a release valve was routed to the cockpit; when pulled, it allowed water to flow downward in a uniform stream. It was through these trials that Barton developed the concept of a rigid aluminum tank in the early 1960s.
Barton began extensive research on the drop tank. At the time, no prototype of a rigid water tank attached to a helicopter existed. Barton collaborated with JEB Aircraft Company in Burbank to attach the drop tank to the belly of the 47-G2, and the firm was eventually awarded the contract to build the first tanks.
The Fire Department’s Bell 47-G2 was modified to accept the 105-gallon tank (later called “the L.A. County Tank”) that could be attached in two minutes. By August 1961, the first rigid drop tank used by a helicopter to fight fire was in service with the LACoFD.
The Loop Fire’s Legacy
As the only pilot assigned to the Fire Department’s Air Arm throughout the 1960s, Barton was on call 24 hours per day. On Nov. 1, 1966, Bart and Patricia were at home having a family barbecue when the Loop Fire broke out in the Angeles National Forest (ANF). During the incident, the load limitations and water-dropping capabilities of the Bell 47-G2 were put to the ultimate test.
At 3 p.m., a crew from El Cariso was cold-trailing in a steep chimney canyon. At 3:35 p.m., the fire changed direction, ran upslope, and spotted directly below the crew.
Before the crew could subdue the spot, fire ran up the chimney and enveloped them. Ten members of the El Cariso crew were killed, while 11 others were seriously burned and remained, clinging to life, on the hillside.
Barton was flying fire attack along the county boundary with the ANF. Ignoring orders to the contrary, he began rescue operations even as the fire raged all around the crew. In a demonstration of great personal courage and flying skill, Barton evacuated the remaining injured crew members in the Bell 47-G2. These evacuations were limited by the range, configuration and load capacity of the small helicopter.
Barton was later awarded the Medal of Valor for his efforts on the Loop Fire.
What occurred on the Loop Fire had a profound effect on Barton. He witnessed the agony of the burned firefighters and prolonged evacuation times due to the limits of the Bell 47-G2. It gave him the impetus to campaign Klinger for a helicopter with greater lifting capacity and mission scope.
On his recommendation, the Fire Department took delivery in March 1967 of its first large-capacity helicopter, a turbine-powered Bell 204B. The Bell 204B was capable of carrying 4,000 pounds of payload in the form of either a 10-man crew or a new, larger capacity, 360-gallon aluminum drop tank designed by Barton and mechanic Doug Mathews.
With the Bell 204B now in service, Barton suggested utilizing the helicopter as a transportation and evacuation platform to remove the injured and deploy crews to construct line in remote areas.
What followed was the purchase of additional high-capacity helicopters. The helicopter became a priority line item in all subsequent LACoFD budgets.
As a result, the Fire Department purchased a Bell 206B Jet Ranger in 1968 as a reconnaissance (HELCO) platform and a series of three Bell 205A-1s in the early 1970s to augment the fleet. These ships became the workhorses of the Fire Department’s Air Operations program.
Barton went on to serve as chief pilot into the 1970s. He was responsible for the administration and coordination of all air operations. His duties included pre-planning, budget preparation, supervision of the heliport and defining the screening process for new pilots and mechanics.
He also served as a check pilot and was the liaison officer who coordinated aerial fire attack with the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry, Los Angeles City Fire Department and other agencies on the ground.
His peers recognized him as one of the finest pilots ever to fly a helicopter. His fearlessness and precision during airborne rescues were legendary throughout the fire service.
On Feb. 2, 1976, Barton died at age 48 from a heart ailment. He was survived by his wife, Patricia; daughter, Lynn; and son, Michael.
The Barton Heliport in Pacoima is named to honor his contributions to both the LACoFD and fire service.