Like many in the aviation field, Dave Nordquist’s passion for aviation started at an early age. At age five, Nordquist was given his first taste of flight in October of 1966 by his aviator uncle, Bill Clutterham, a former WWII B-17 air/sea rescue pilot who flew missions in the pacific in WWII in the United States Air Force before becoming a firefighter. His first flight, coincidentally taking place from the same airport that he would later in life be stationed at during his career.
Nordquist was hooked from that point on and would frequently tag along on rides growing up with his cousins who also became pilots, becoming in his own words “very comfortable at the controls of a Cessna” by the time he was in his early teens.
In 1976 at the age of 15, Nordquist decided to start taking flying lessons, to finance that, he took a job at Van Nuys Airport as an aircraft refueller, soaking up every piece of aviation knowledge he could in the process. Beginning his training with Scott Dweck, who would go on to be a mentor. “I would listen in on what instructors were telling their students in an effort to learn anything I could about flying while I was fueling a plane.”
Just a year later, Nordquist’s dream to be a pilot started to take shape as he soloed an aircraft on his 16th birthday, followed by gaining his private pilot certificate at the age of 17, his instrument rating at 18, adding his commercial fixed wing rating by age 19.
By his own admission, Nordquist was not strong in academics and although a solid aviator, he found himself not challenged by his schooling. Quickly bored by school, he said he never really applied himself to his studies even though with the hindsight of age and experience, he now knows he should have.
Upon graduating high school, he quickly realized that to become a commercial pilot, he would need a degree, and while lacking a permanent direction, he began taking classes at junior college to continue working towards his goal slowly.
Around the same time, his uncle and father, who were both firefighters at the Los Angeles City Fire Department encouraged him to become a firefighter. At the time, Nordquist couldn’t imagine a career that didn’t involve him flying, telling his uncle and father “I don’t really want to be a fireman, I want to be a pilot.”
Shortly after this conversation took place, his father while sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper showed him a newspaper headline stating that eastern airlines were now in the process of furloughing 400 pilots and said: “Don’t you want a job that’s a little more stable?”
At the age of 19, Nordquist responded to his father “I don’t care, I will just go get another job” stating in hindsight – that is how his teenage brain saw things. He considered himself at the time somewhat of a “scatterbrained” kid. Reflecting that he was always good in the cockpit, good mechanically, loved working on cars and still restores cars as a hobby today – but at the time, rated himself as “not academically or financially the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
So, while still trying to find his way, and half wanting to satisfy his family wishes, he filled out an interest card with the Los Angeles City Fire Department. Also entertaining other career paths, like visiting the control tower at Van Nuys airport to speak with an air traffic controller to find out what it would take for him to be an air traffic controller. Even visiting military recruiters as he tried to find a place to fit in and find a firm direction by putting out feelers into many fields looking to see which stuck.
As fate would have it, the fire department was the first to act on his interest, so before he knew it, he had graduated fire training and was working as a firefighter in his early 20s, soon after meeting and marrying his wife and having several children.
Although marrying and having a family was not a downside, Nordquist like many others before him in aviation found that his flying soon had to take a backseat to his career and family life and the responsibilities that went with it. Before he knew it, although his passion for aviation never subsided, he had not sat in the cockpit for nearly ten years.
In the early 1990s, the opportunity to fly again presented itself, thankfully for Nordquist, his responsibilities were at a point where he was able to return to the cockpit. He gained his instructor rating and soon after joined the California branch of the Civil Air Patrol which in turn, led to an instructor role flying for the Navy flying club at Point Mugu in the venerable T-34 Mentor which he recalls as a fun time in his career.
It was at this point Nordquist’s passion finally began paying for itself, even leaving a little aside for a rainy day instead of costing him money as it had for a great deal of his earlier flying. That rainy-day fund would soon find use when he ran into an old friend and fellow firefighter, Scott Bowman, who was now part Los Angeles City Fire Department aviation unit. He encouraged Nordquist to pursue adding a helicopter rating as he correctly predicted there would be a spot opening in the next few years in the highly sought-after position within the aviation unit.
Thinking there was no way his wife would agree to the substantial investment in gaining another aviation rating with the slim chance of obtaining a position within the agencies air operations, Nordquist pitched the idea to his wife who, to his surprise encouraged him wholeheartedly to pursue it.
This was the beginning of a difficult path, as he turned down overtime shifts at the fire department to sit at the airport praying for a student to walk through the door so he could continue to finance his next rating, which he said worked out for the best as he reflects on his nearly 39 year career.
In April of 2004, all the hard work paid off as he was moved into the department’s air support unit. But the transition into air operations was set to be a rocky one for Nordquist filled with bumps in the road that had never occurred with any other firefighting pilot on the unit before or after him. For the next several years as he embarked on what is likely the most non-traditional method of being onboarded and trained for a pilot position.
As part of the process, Nordquist had to take a demotion from engineer to firefighter. This at the time, was the only way he could onboard as a pilot trainee. Further complicated due to another instructor and student pilot crashing the departments only training helicopter, a Bell 206B, which left him with no training helicopter to train as a pilot for the agency in.
Politics in city government led to an even more extended training period due to the current fire chief at the time refusing to authorize funding to replace the training helicopter, leaving Nordquist somewhat in limbo without an aircraft to train in, instead, filling his time as the head crew chief in the back seat. Nordquist, however, took the setback in his stride and bided his time until the opportunity surfaced to finish his training.
Adding a frustrating situation was the impending arrival of the first of five Leonardo AW139 firefighting helicopters – the first agency in the United States to use that aircraft type for firefighting missions. Yet, at the time, Nordquist was unable to train on the new helicopters as he had not yet completed his initial training phase and had no means to do so due to the only training helicopter now being written off after the accident.
Nordquist noted an interesting aside during training. Uniquely, he found himself as one of the agencies two pilots qualified as CFII’s. Being that the AW139 required that all pilots held an instrument rating, before his transition into actual fire pilot status- he was training more senior pilots. Even though he at the time was still technically a trainee pilot within the agency, all before he was actually qualified to fly fires for the agency, despite hundreds of hours as an instructor.
Help was finally received from the Los Angeles Police Department to complete Nordquist’s training in 2006, who at the time had a single remaining OH-58 still used as a training helicopter which Nordquist was then able to fly until transitioning back into the city-owned Bell 206L3 to complete all department requirements for him to be an operational pilot. At the time, Nordquist was told the helicopter would “never be used as a training helicopter” under the old administration. This thankfully changed after a leadership change as he was granted his wings in 2007, having been the only pilot in the agency to have gone through this very non-traditional method of gaining flight status in the agency’s history.
What followed for Nordquist was many months of additional training, learning to fly the agency’s Bell 412. Flying that aircraft for a year until gaining a type rating on the agencies AW139 helicopter. Which within weeks of obtaining the necessary certifications and flight time, saw Nordquist assist the agency on one of the most significant fires in the agency’s history at the time. The Sayre fire burned over eleven thousand acres and destroyed more than 600 structures in the LA area that Nordquist refers to as his “literal baptism of fire” entrance into operational aerial firefighting missions.
Although during his nearly fifteen years of flying for the department where he accumulated more than 4200 flight hours of his over 6000 total flying hours in helicopters, his most memorable flight was to occur in the last few months before retirement.
In a video shot by Nordquist’s in cockpit camera that went viral, he and a co-pilot conducted hilltop rescue of three people and two dogs during the catastrophic Woolsley fire on Castro Peak in the hills above Malibu on November 9th, 2018.
With Nordquist at the controls and Joel Smith in the co-pilot seat, the pair had just completed a water drop when they were asked to conduct the rescue. In cockpit audio captured by the in-cockpit camera, the severity of the situation was evident.
“This is rapidly becoming very ugly,” Nordquist says as he brings the AW139 into land among bushes on Castro Peak.
“Yeah, it is,” Smith responds.
Once on the ground, Nordquist’s co-pilot exited the helicopter to retrieve the three victims and two dogs, one of which required some coaxing as flames and smoke began to worsen.
In a release from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, both Nordquist and Smith were commended on a job well done during the mission that ultimately resulted in the saving of several lives that may have become an additional toll to the 84 lives lost during that and other surrounding fires during that period.
“Pilot Nordquist and Pilot Smith fully exemplified the core values of the Los Angeles Fire Department; Service, Professionalism, Integrity, Respect, Innovation, and Trust,” Stewart said. “Their professionalism, technical expertise, and complete dedication to their mission was directly responsible for saving the lives of three people and two dogs.”
Although his career is filled with many triumphs from the hundreds of rescue calls that he has been a part of – that Nordquist refers to as the agency’s “bread and butter.” He still values the ability to impart his knowledge on younger pilots coming into the agency as one of his favorite parts of his nearly 39 years with the agency that helped form their flying abilities and giving them the skills to do their job in the safest way possible. Nordquist looks back fondly on the many mentors that made a difference in his career; Glenn Smith, Rickey Wheeler, Phil Clark, Jeff Moir, Scot Davidson, Dale Gant, Ken Obi and Peter Lowry and hopes that one day some of the pilots he helped look back fondly on his input as being something that had a positive impact on their careers as his mentors did with his over his decades of service to the people of Los Angeles.
While Nordquist will miss flying with his agency, he noted that he doesn’t think his flying days are quite over yet and that he may continue flying in the near future, although he does not have any firm plans just yet and plans to enjoy retirement a little more with his wife and family first.