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Above and Beyond : Chris Spangenberg Is a Deputy With an Unusual Beat--Up In the Sky

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Ventura County sheriff’s helicopter swung low through the remote canyon in Los Padres National Forest as several sets of eyes peered into the dry brush, searching for marijuana plants.

“I see something green, but I don’t think it’s what you’re looking for,” said Deputy Chris Spangenberg from his pilot’s seat to the narcotics detective sitting behind him. “The creek’s dried up. Maybe he ran out of water and transplanted them, or maybe he harvested them already.”

“No, it’s too early to pick them,” the detective responded. “Everything we’ve yanked so far this year hasn’t had any bud on it.”

For Spangenberg, a former Army combat pilot, the drug reconnaissance flight Thursday over countless acres of backcountry and a residential neighborhood west of the Conejo Grade was a relatively mundane detail.

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As a member of the sheriff’s helicopter unit, Spangenberg’s time is more often spent attacking brush fires from on high, airlifting critically injured accident victims to area hospitals and assisting ground patrols in pursuit of fleeing crime suspects.

“This is like a hobby that I get paid to do,” Spangenberg said.

His unit, based at Camarillo Airport, costs the department about $1 million a year. Along with three pilots and about a dozen part-time crew chiefs, the team includes about 30 volunteer nurses and paramedics who frequently ride along for medical emergencies.

Spangenberg, a 46-year-old resident of Camarillo, joined the unit in 1979, after a decade as a commercial pilot. He got his initial training in 1964, when he signed up for Army flight school and fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a flyboy.

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“I heard on the radio the ‘Be All You Can Be’ jingle, or whatever it was back then, and went and enlisted,” said the Buffalo, N.Y., native. “I was everything they wanted, young and real gung-ho.”

Spangenberg flew combat missions in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 and was discharged in 1968. Three of the unit’s four choppers are Vietnam War surplus Bell UH-1Bs, the same model he flew in Southeast Asia.

“Combat experience, whether in the air or on the ground, becomes an enduring litmus test of how well someone performs under pressure,” he said. “People who have experienced that pressure know what they’re made of.”

Following his discharge, Spangenberg worked as a commercial chopper pilot on varied assignments: dropping seismic teams on Alaska’s North Slope to test for oil, fertilizing trees for the logging industry, ferrying rig workers and supplies to offshore oil platforms and battling forest fires in national parks.

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The work required extensive travel, so, seeking a “settled lifestyle,” he pursued a tip he got while fighting a forest fire in Hemet, Calif.

Spangenberg became a sworn sheriff’s deputy, academy trained and licensed to carry guns. His job, however, is distinct from those of his fellow officers.

“The pilots don’t get the day-to-day patrol exposure that you do driving around in the black-and-white,” said Lt. Arve Wells, the unit’s commander.

In summer, most dispatches are fire-related. This year has been an exception, Spangenberg said, because the lingering fog and cooler weather in much of the county have put a welcome damper on fire outbreaks.

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“There is a real thrill to fighting fires,” said Spangenberg, whose chopper is equipped with a 350-gallon tank of water for aerial drops. “You see nature on the rampage, and it’s a real team effort to put them out.”

In the other seasons, Spangenberg’s work generally involves assisting ground patrols and search-and-rescue details. Much of his four-day workweek is spent on the ground since the unit does not go out on patrols, unlike his counterparts in Los Angeles County.

The most difficult assignments are rescuing accident victims in backcountry areas inaccessible to ground transport, he said.

“When you’re maneuvering on the side of a hill, the rotors may be a few feet, or in some cases, just inches, from rock. The only reason you use a helicopter is . . . you can’t do it the easy way.”

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