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Dedicated sheriff's deputy moving on from helicopter duty

Debbie Little is a tactical flight officer on the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office helicopter Henry-1.

(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 7:47 a.m.

Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Debbie Little understood why the man clinging to the hull of an overturned boat in Tomales Bay did not want to be rescued.

Two of his children were trapped in the boat's cabin.

But Little's job, as she dangled from a helicopter's 200-foot rope, was to get him off the boat, by force if necessary, so rescue swimmers could try to reach his kids.

And it took some force. "I said, 'We're going to take care of your kids,' but he was defiant, pushing me away," said Little, recounting the difficult mission two months later from the sheriff's hangar at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

It was one of the hundreds of missions she has participated in, part of the 40-year history of the deputies and medics assigned to the sheriff's helicopter team who have been saving people from the rugged terrain and treacherous waters of the North Coast.

The program started with a daredevil deputy in his own chopper and evolved into a multimillion dollar program with a highly skilled crew known to many by its radio call sign: Henry 1.

Little became a deputy at age 44 after beating breast cancer and, for the better part of five years, has been a familiar sight at the end of the rope as a tactical flight officer and a familiar voice on the emergency radio frequency. This year, a new deputy will take Little's post as she returns to patrol duty.

"Getting called in the middle of the night not just by our department but from other agencies -- it takes a lot of work; she's truly shined," said Sgt. Ed Hoener, who oversees the Henry 1 team.

That day in Tomales Bay, unrelenting sets of waves crashed over the boat as the 5-foot-2 deputy struggled to get a rescue collar over the burly, distraught father.

"We can't just say, 'We'll be back when you're ready,' " said pilot Paul Bradley, who was watching Little from above. "She's a little ball of fire."

Bradley maneuvered the helicopter to pull them both into the water, where Little had the upper hand. She secured the rescue collar and signaled Bradley to lift them into the air.

Nine minutes after Bradley and Little first heard "overturned boat" on the radio, they set the father on shore with his family while a rescue swimmer was tapping back and forth on the hull with the two trapped children as the team prepared to cut them free.

In the end, the two adults and four children, none wearing life jackets, were rescued.

"She's always accomplished the mission," said Bradley, who has piloted Henry 1 for 12 years. "It is a very demanding job -- easier to count the days you're not on duty."

Little moves on from the helicopter team after years as the defacto public face of Henry 1, aiding in more than 150 rescues a year.

She's plucked dogs, children and men off cliffs. She's been lowered into a remote forest at dusk in the snow.

"She has been on call five days a week for every week of the year," Hoener said.

Once, she was shopping in Oliver's Market in Santa Rosa when a man tapped on her shoulder and asked her: "Are you that little girl on the helicopter? I listen to you all the time," Little recalled.

She's taken a roundabout route to her place as a sheriff's deputy. "It took me 20 years to get here," Little said.

In part that's because Little, 51, did not set out to become a cop.

The Marin County native comes from a family of firefighters. Growing up on a ranch in Forest Knolls on the edge of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, her father drove heavy equipment for the county fire department. One of her first jobs was scanning the horizon for smoke at the Mount Barnabe Fire Lookout, since renamed the Dickson lookout.

She became a dispatcher for the San Rafael Fire Department and in 1985 was hired by Sonoma County.

For 19 years, Little worked on the end of the phone lines as an emergency dispatcher for the Sheriff's Office. She was the dispatcher in 1995 calling for backup when Deputy Frank Trejo was shot and killed by a man now on Death Row.

"You never forget," she said.

Trained as an emergency medical technician, Little loved helping people in moments of crisis over the phone in a room full of her peers.

"You're always with somebody when bad things happen," she said of that duty.

But Little grew restless. A lifelong athlete, she is nearly always in motion. She races a 1990 Saleen Mustang and drives a Corvette to work.

Little met her husband, airline pilot Craig Little, while earning a pilot's license in 1989. They fly a red, white and blue Extra 300 aerobatics plane they keep at a hangar at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Little's idea to become a deputy came to her during a training drill with the sheriff's SWAT team. Little was on hand as a field dispatcher but asked a sergeant if she could compete with deputies in an obstacle course.

On a team with a paramedic, she rapelled walls, assembled a rifle for the first time and finished fourth.

She applied to become a deputy.

Little had lost all of her hair during four months of chemotherapy for breast cancer when she received a call from the Sheriff's Office asking her how soon she could enter the academy.

When she started, at age 44, her hair had just started growing back and was short and curly. She and Brandon Cutting, then 35, were the oldest in the class.

Cutting, now 42 and a violent- crimes detective, said Little's experience as a dispatcher and her take-charge attitude quickly impressed her classmates.

"Everybody looked up to Debbie," Cutting said.

The helicopter unit also runs the sheriff's search and rescue team, a crew of about 60 volunteers. Over the past three years, Little helped build and train a team of people with a broad range of expertise.

"It's the middle of the night, 3 a.m., and we're standing around a table looking at maps," said Tim Admire, a volunteer and search manager with the search and rescue team. "Debbie will walk in -- she's got a smile on her face -- and she'll say, 'You guys tell me what you need, 2and I'll take care of it.' "

On Oct. 21, 2010, Patricia Scott, 68, was kayaking in the Russian River when she overturned in fast-moving water. As she clutched a boulder, trying to decide whether she would survive if she attempted to swim to shore, she heard a helicopter overhead.

She saw Little on the end of a rope with a rescue basket being lowered into the rapids.

"She said not to worry," Scott said. "It was like a professional doing surgery, zip zip zip and then I was up."

You can reach Staff Writer

Julie Johnson at 521-5220, julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.

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