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A Helicopter Mechanic’s Daily Routine Saves Lives

Published: 1/25/2019

One blade in a Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) helicopter's main rotor assembly costs $70,000 – but what helicopter mechanic David Acuna saved was worth infinitely more when he discovered a crack in one of those layered fiberglass blades.  

The crack had developed in an area "of low tolerance" – meaning that if Acuna hadn't found it, there likely would have been catastrophic consequences for the pilots as well as people on the ground.

Acuna averted a disaster that day, thanks to his routine pre-flight inspection of one of the City's two police helicopters.

"I put my life in David's hands," said LBPD officer and helicopter pilot Mike Colbert. "David's maintenance is something that is required for my safety and for the safety of the community. We give him 100 percent trust."   

Acuna, 42, works for the Fleet Services Bureau within the Department of Financial Management, and he is assigned to the LBPD Air Support Unit. He brings 19 years of experience to his position in the LBPD's Federal Aviation Administration-certified helicopter shop at the Long Beach Airport: He's been an LBPD mechanic for 14 years, and he put in five years at the nearby Island Express helicopter shop before that.

"There's something different about Long Beach," said Acuna. "Most places, you clock in, you get your toolbox and you wrench all day. Here, I have four roles to play: I'm the Repair Station General Manager, Chief Inspector, Quality Control Specialist, and Mechanic. Here, we do everything from ordering parts and maintaining the budget to writing the bid specs for all our major contracts, doing flight planning and inventory."    

Acuna has more than $1 million dollars in parts at his disposal, from spare gearboxes and servo-actuators to fuel control units that cost more than $150,000. Still, he said, "the basic inspection tools are a mirror, your eyeballs, and a flashlight.”

Acuna's interest in aviation was piqued early: His father, an emigre from Mexico, worked for Continental Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport, starting off as a cleaner, then a fueler, eventually working his way up to an interior mechanic position.  

"We were around LAX all our lives," said Acuna. "Dad got to retire from Continental with 30-plus years in the tool room. I should have ended up at Continental – that was the plan – but for some reason, I was drawn to helicopters."    

Acuna enrolled in a two-year helicopter mechanic program at the Northrop Institute of Technology in Inglewood, after which he passed the FAA test to get his Airframe and Power Plant license.    

Soon after that, he landed a job with Island Express, a helicopter shuttle with a steady stream of passengers to and from Catalina Island. Five years later, he heard about a mechanic position available in the LBPD helicopter shop, applied online and landed the job.

"It's stressful sometimes," said Acuna, "because if something's broken, there's a lot of pressure to get the aircraft back up. Sometimes you just don't clock out after eight hours. My job's not done until the helicopter is flying."    

The rewards far outweigh the stresses for Acuna. He has the satisfaction of maintaining the LBPD's eye-in-the-sky advantage of the helicopter, which is the most versatile flying machine on Earth. He gets regular praise from the Police Chief Robert Luna, Financial Management Director John Gross and from the pilots he serves. Sometimes the Air Support Unit gets the opportunity to honor community outreach requests and assist with recruitment where children and community members get to see and learn about the unit, which brings Acuna much pride.

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