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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 unit/search and rescue "Henry One". (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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.

Debbie Little

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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."


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