Any professional knows that a good toolkit is essential to get a job done right. The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) has a number of them, from the Jaws of Life to specialized vehicles, that are critical to shaving down minutes on response time and saving lives in a variety of environments. When it comes to the air, the helicopter holds a critical role in the service ability of the LAFD Air Operations and its existence in the department is due to one man from its ranks: Fireman Theodore “Bud” Nelson.
No stranger to flight, Nelson signed up as a firefighter in the LAFD at the age of 27 in 1949, shortly after flying planes in World War II as part of the Ferry Command in Japan. According to his daughter Connie Rich, he was a natural aviator from a young age, having built a small operational plane himself in his mother’s backyard in Pasadena where he was born and raised.
Right after joining the LAFD, the Korean War broke out and Nelson felt obligated to stand by his country as the U.S. rushed to South Korea’s aid. Unbeknownst to the administration, he moonlighted as an air attack airplane pilot flying borate bombers and racked up 55 nighttime missions.
At the end of the war, Nelson turned his attention back to the home front. During his flight work with the U.S. Forest Service, he was fascinated by the ongoing construction of the Palm Springs Tramway, an engineering marvel which kicked off in 1961. With an aviator’s eye, he appreciated how the newly constructed turbo-supercharged Bell 47 G3 helicopters were used to precisely lower support poles into position. Then it clicked for him: what if helicopters could be used by the LAFD in rescue missions and targeted fire support?
Daring Mission: Flying LAFD Helicopters in Smoke and Flames
Nelson had found his next mission. He approached his chief with the idea, undeterred by the fact that he hadn’t actually flown a helicopter personally. As daughter Connie recalled, the chief took to the idea, telling him, “Nelson, if you want to start this, go learn to fly a helicopter.”
“Well my dad was like, well okay I will!” she shared. “He could fly big planes, little planes, and a helicopter flies too, so why not?”
Along with two other firefighters, Nelson went to Texas to learn. He ended up convincing the LAFD to purchase its first helicopter, which went into service in 1962. The helicopter was a three-seater Bell model 47-G3B with a 260-horsepower engine and approximately three hour flight time. Previously, the Air Ops utilized only fixed wing aircraft
When she was 9 years old, Connie vividly remembered her dad operate the first LAFD helicopter’s brush fire call that same year in La Tuna Canyon. She watched as her dad disappeared into a wall of black smoke during the fire.
“I just looked at it and thought, ‘he’s nuts’” Connie fondly recalled. “A fireman, you have to be a bit nuts, but a helicopter pilot, it’s even more so. You have to be daring.”
That spirit came in handy two years later when a wall of water exploded from the dam at the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in L.A., taking with it cars and structures alike. It was all-hands on deck as firefighters on the ground worked to save 2,000 affected by the flood. Five people perished.
As Connie and her mother Ginnie watched the rescues live on TV, she remembered watching with pride and fear as a helicopter was maneuvered into position to save three people trapped on a garage roof. She wasn’t sure at the time if that was her dad piloting the rescue – she watched as the helicopter’s blades sliced into tree limbs that partially covered the roof as it sought a place to land. She learned only a few days later that it indeed was him.
Her dad’s daring showed through in his own words, as reported in Fire Engineering magazine at the time.
“I decided to gamble a little as the water was still getting deeper—about 8 or 9 feet by now,” said Nelson. “I hovered in very closely…with my skids about 1 to 2 feet above the roof and started to clip the smaller lower branches from the trees with the rotor blades. I was finally able to move in far enough to get a solid place for the skids.”
In two separate landings, Nelson rescued the three from the roof. His bravery and skill ended up earning him Outstanding Pilot of the Year by the Helicopter Association of America. He also was awarded a Medal of Valor alongside fellow LAFD helicopter pilots Ross Reynolds and Howard Payne for their efforts in rescuing a total of 18 flood victims.
Lasting Honor: The Medal of Valor and Air Ops Dedication
Despite commanding a distinguished career, Connie said her father, lovingly called “Daddio,” was humbly quiet about his exploits. He was quick to share jokes with his friends (she recalled him tying a toilet seat to a friend’s tree, for a since-forgotten inside joke) and was principled in his ways of safety and service.
“If a friend needed help, he’d go help, no matter what it was, fixing a car or whatever,” she said. “He could do almost anything.”
Fireman Theodore “Bud” Nelson retired from the LAFD in 1978. In his honor, the training center at the Air Operations Unit at Fire Station 114 at the Van Nuys Airport was dedicated in his namesake. When he passed away in 2006, the service was held at La Cañada Presbyterian Church in La Cañada. Part way through the service, a member of the LAFD in attendance sent word over the radio.
From Van Nuys Airport, three helicopters took to the air and roared down Foothill Boulevard, lights flashing and sirens blaring, heading straight for the church. Over the church, one peeled off in a nod that the force was now missing one of their own in the “Missing Man” formation.
Connie recalled that the family’s minister was sick at the time and unable to perform the service. With another standing in for him, he traveled up to Angeles Crest Highway to reflect and watch the formation peel off from afar.
“It was very beautiful to see the Missing Man,” Connie recalled him telling her. “I wept.”
In respect for Bud Nelson’s life and service to others, Connie and her mother Ginnie requested in the Grapevine bulletin that those touched by his life please donate to the Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firemen’s Fund. Her mother, who had become a widow herself, felt the need for support to be available to others. Virginia Nelson passed away in 2017.
“A lot of times, it’s your close-knit friends and they will donate for the love of the person who has passed,” shared Connie. “It’s just the idea that if there’s someone in need, there’s the Fund.”
Read more about Our LAFD Heroes