Sunday, September 1, 2019

A Guide to L.A. Area Helicopters

“What’s that helicopter overhead?”

Here’s a guide to most of the helicopters you’ll see flying around Glendale and northeast Los Angeles. There are also apps (I use FlightRadar24 and OpenADSB) that show you the location and info of most (but not all!) helicopters and aircraft overhead, so with a mixture of app and eyeball, you’ll be able to ID just about anything. Photos were all taken by me.

Rules of thumb:

  • If they’re low and circling, they’re law enforcement
  • If they’re hovering (and not near an airport or helipad) they’re TV news
  • If they’re very loud and make a deep thumpa-thumpa sound, they’re probably LA County or LAFD firefighting helicopters

Law Enforcement

The most common helicopters I see throughout the L.A. area (even in Glendale) are LAPD Eurocopter AS350 A-Stars. Police helicopters generally circle overhead rather than hover, and will fly lower than most other helicopters you’ll see. LAPD helicopters have spotlights and round sensor balls.

LAPD AS350 A-Star

LAPD runs the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world, flying 19 helicopters, 14 of which are variants of the Eurocopter AS350 A-Star. Most of LAPD’s helicopters are now painted in black and white just like a patrol car, but a few have an older silver-and-blue paint scheme. In addition to the A-Stars, LAPD also has 2 Bell 206 Jet Rangers, and 1 larger Bell 412 utility helicopter (an evolution of the classic Vietnam-era “Huey”).

LAPD AS350 A-Star
LAPD Bell 206 (older silver & blue paint scheme)

LAPD AS350 A-Star (older silver & blue paint scheme)

LAPD AS350 A-Star sensor ball

Burbank and Glendale PD operate a joint air support unit based at the Burbank airport which operates 3 small MD520N helicopters, which are an evolution of the classic egg-shaped Hughes 500 (the “Magnum P.I.” helicopter), but with a NOTAR fan inside the tailboom rather than a traditional tail rotor. Thanks to the NOTAR system, MD520N’s are quieter and make a distinctive muffled “whoosh” sound. Occasionally you will see one land on top of Glendale PD headquarters.

Glendale/Burbank MD520N. Notice lack of of an external tail rotor.

Pasadena PD operates two OH-58/Bell 206 helicopters that are larger and heavier than the Glendale/Burbank MD520N's. They use a 2 bladed rotor that makes a percussive “thump thump thump thump” sound. They also operate an MD500E which is basically the same as the classic Magnum P.I. helicopter. Pasadena’s MD500E does not have the NOTAR fan system and uses a traditional tail rotor, so it’s slightly louder than Burbank and Glendale’s MD520N's. N224KB is one of Pasadena's OH-58’s, and I hear it over the eastern side of Glendale frequently. Pasadena PD's helicopters operate from the Benedict Heliport just north of the 210. In 2012, two of their helicopters were destroyed when they collided at the Heliport, but no one was seriously injured. NTSB narrative here.

Pasadena PD OH-58 over Glendale during recent brushfire in Eagle Rock at the 2/134 freeways

The LA County Sheriff also has an air bureau with 14 Eurocopter A-Stars painted in gold, yellow and green, as well as 3 AS332 Super Puma rescue helicopters. The Super Pumas are, by the standards of this list, enormous, and are primarily used for rescue and airlift duties.

An LA County Sheriff Aero Bureau Super Puma departs the helipad at Huntington Hospital

There are also surveillance helicopters used by federal agencies throughout the county, but they are fairly uncommon. They are usually AS350’s, don’t carry prominent agency markings, but may have a small sensor ball on the belly. This one was involved in a mishap at Fullerton Airport - if you look closely you’ll see the sensor ball.

The California Highway Patrol also has helicopters, mostly AS350’s and Bell 206’s, but I don’t see them often.


The second most common category of helicopter you’ll see overhead are TV news helicopters. As far as I know, all of the news stations in Los Angeles guessed it, Eurocopter AS350 A-Stars. Most local news helicopters are based at Helinet at the Van Nuys Airport, and there’s also a fleet of news helicopters operated by Welk Aviation based at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. The local TV stations don't actually own their helicopters, they contract their helicopter operations out to Helinet or Welk. If you hear helicopters hovering, those are almost always news helicopters over the scene of an accident or other newsworthy event. You can also tell news helicopters by the stabilized cameras with huge zoom lenses on the front of the helicopter.

AS350 A-Star operated by Welk Aviation for NBC 4 News
AS350 A-Star used by ABC7


Most of the recreational helicopters you’ll see are Robinson R22’s and R44’s. R22’s and R44’s are, by the standards of this list, very light, small and inexpensive, and are also commonly used for sightseeing tours. You’ll see them flying tours over the beach and near the Hollywood sign very frequently. Their piston engines don’t have the high pitched turbine whine sound of the other helicopters I’ve mentioned. Robinson helicopters are built locally at the enormous Robinson Helicopter factory at the Torrance Airport, which you can tour (for free) - highly recommended!

R22 at the Robinson Helicopter factory in Torrance
An R44 at the Robinson Helicopter factory in Torrance. Nerds will note that it's wearing an Ecuadorian registration rather than a US N-number.


If you hear an unusually loud helicopter overhead, it’s probably a firefighting helicopter. Both LAFD and LA County operate fleets of firefighting/rescue helicopters that see heavy use during summer fire season. LAFD primarily flies red and white AugustaWestland AW139 helicopters based at Van Nuys Airport, and LA County operates a mix of Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks (a firefighting version of the military Blackhawk) and Bell 412’s (an evolution of the Huey) painted yellow, white and black and based at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. These helicopters can carry water to drop on fires, can hoist lost and injured hikers, and are heavier and more powerful than most of the other helicopters here, so if you hear a deep thumpa thumpa sound, it’s likely one of these guys. LA County also contracts an Erickson Air Crane helicopter (as well as 2 firefighting Super Scooper aircraft) during the summer fire season - the Air Crane looks like a big dragonfly and frequently has a hose hanging down for sucking up water. The Air Crane is based at Van Nuys Airport. 

LAFD AW139 over the recent fire at the 2/134 freeways

LAFD AW139 at Hansen Dam

LA County Fire S-70 Firehawk

LA County Fire Bell 412
Erickson Air Crane (contracted to LA County)


If you’re near a hospital, you’re going to see medical helicopters used to transport patients taking off and landing. Most commonly, I see the two Sikorsky S-76’s operated (and donated) by Helinet which serve Children’s Hospital LA.

Military/Coast Guard

There are a number of military installations (Camp Pendleton, Pt Mugu, March ARB, Los Alamitos AAF, Fort Irwin) throughout southern California, and it’s common to spot military helicopters transitioning from one base to another or on a training exercise, frequently flying in pairs and following freeways. The most common military helicopters you'll see are variants of the UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopter which is used by all branches of the military. I most often spot grey Navy Seahawks over Glendale, usually in pairs headed west along the 134, probably headed towards Pt Mugu. V-22 Osprey tiltrotors are also pretty common, and I’ll spot Marine Corps AH-1 Super Cobra attack helicopters as well every few weeks. Other Army helicopters like the tandem rotor Chinook or Apache gunship pop up occasionally, but not as often. Perhaps once a year there will be a larger scale military exercise with more military helicopter activity than normal.

Levitated Army UH-60 over Levitated Mass at LACMA
An Army UH-60 Blackhawk at Long Beach Airport
Army UH-60 Blackhawk
UH-60 Blackhawks based at Los Alamitos Army Airfield
V-22 Osprey tiltrotor
Marine Corps AH-1 Super Cobra landing at French Valley Airport

The United States Coast Guard also operates an Air Station based at NAS Pt Mugu and flies bright orange-red HH-65 Dauphin helicopters that make a high pitched turbine whine. They are not as common inland, but I did see a Coast Guard Dauphin over Silver Lake recently.

Coast Guard HH-65 Dauphin at NAS Pt Mugu

Bonus: Presidential

Not very common, but quite spectacular: If you see a mixed gaggle of large military helicopters that includes two white and green Sea King helicopters, those are the helicopters used by the president. They are pre-positioned locally about a week before POTUS arrives in town, and they do a dry run, flying all over town familiarizing themselves with the routes and landing zones they will use so things go smoothly and safely when POTUS is on board. I’ve seen the dry runs several times, and in 2013, I watched President Obama’s helicopters take off from the field at Toll Middle School in Glendale.

Marine One (with President Obama aboard) taking off from Toll Middle School 

Marine One (with President Obama aboard) taking off from Toll Middle School 
CH-53 Super Stallion taking off from Toll Middle School
CH-53 Super Stallion taking off from Toll Middle School

This list should cover 95% of what you'll see nearby, but if you can't ID something, feel free to tweet me @tropicostation with a photo. Hat tip to John Wiseman for inspiring this with his guide. If you're interested in this stuff, follow Matt Hartman at Shorealone Films; if an aircraft or helicopter is flying in Southern California, Matt has taken better quality photos of it than I have.

I recommend visiting the American Heroes helicopter show at Hansen Dam on November 9th, where you can see most of these helicopters up close, talk to the crews and learn more about the roles they serve.

Another great place to watch helicopters is on the patio at the 94th Aero Squadron at the Van Nuys Airport. Helinet is a few hundred feet away, and during summer the Super Scoopers and Sky Crane are based right next door. LAFD's base is also just across the runway on the other side of the airport, so there's always interesting activity. Happy spotting!