By J Harry Jones
There is no average day for an ASTREA pilot.
Like a patrol deputy, those who fly the sheriff’s helicopters have no idea what might happen any particular day. It might be a bear in a tree, a chase, a search for a missing child.
Sgt. Jon Shellhammer has been a sheriff’s deputy for 32 years, the last 24 assigned to the department’s helicopter unit. ASTREA stands for Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies.
The Ramona resident retired Friday, having recorded more than 8,000 hours of pilot-in-command time. That’s the equivalent of flying a helicopter every minute of every day for nearly a year.
“I still love flying,” Shellhammer, 54, said recently. “But after 10 years of being a supervisor here, I’m kind of burned out on that aspect of it — personnel issues, scheduling issues, those kind of things. But I still love flying.”
Shellhammer said after all that time in the air things tend to blur together. But a few things do stick in the memory.
Like the time about 15 years ago when he and his partner were called to a report of a man who had pistol-whipped someone in Harbison Canyon. They spotted the suspect’s car on the road and followed until the driver turned into a dilapidated garage and maintenance area on the Sycuan Indian reservation.
“He realized we were up above him,” Shellhammer said. “He jumped out of the vehicle, reached in, grabbed his shotgun, and started cranking rounds at us.”
The copter was about 400 feet above and wasn’t hit.
Eventually, deputies chased the guy, who ended up rolling his pickup, taking out a telephone pole in the process, and then running away only to be caught a short time later.
Then there was the one and only time, sometime in the mid-1990s, when the engine of the MD 500D helicopter he was flying at night developed a fuel system malfunction while over Sycamore Canyon.
“We were coming back from a call in Escondido and were just north of the water treatment plant at Santee Lakes,” he said.
“All of a sudden it gets real quiet. It gets real dark because as you’re dropping down you lose the city lights.”
Engine failure is something all the pilots train for regularly.
“We did an auto-rotation,” a maneuver that forces wind into the blades to keep them spinning as the copter falls. Then, just before hitting the ground, he pointed the nose of the helicopter up in order to brake.
“It worked flawlessly,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised how well it worked.”
Then there was the time when he and his partner spotted a black bear in a tree near Ramona. Bears are rare in San Diego County, but residents had been seeing this one for weeks.
“We notified our comm center, and they sent deputies and someone from a wildlife outfit who was going to tranquilize the bear. We were told to leave the area, which we did reluctantly, and as you would guess, the bear got away. We were called back but couldn’t locate it.”
“That’s the only bear I’ve ever seen in San Diego County,” Shellhammer said. “I’ve seen four mountain lions, lots of big horn sheep, but no other bears.”
A few weeks later, a resident shot the bear in the head after it was threatening livestock.
Shellhammer said probably the most rewarding part of the job are the rescues. He did 25 medevacs during his career and rescued just more than 100 people.
“I enjoy the rescue work — finding missing people, pulling somebody out of a predicament that they’ve gotten themselves into that they otherwise might have died.”
He’s also flown countless firefighting missions and made more than 1,500 water drops over the years.
“All we are is a patrol car in the sky,” he said. “We’re working the same kind of calls the guys on the ground are working, it’s just we have a different vantage point. A different perspective. We can see such a large area compared to what they can see. We’re there to support and help them with the job they’re already doing.”