Air tanker study has collected data on 7,000 drops

It will be several years before data is released about the effectiveness of aerial resources.

Above: P2V air tankers at Rapid City Air Tanker Base during the Myrtle Fire, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The federal land management agencies spend many millions of dollars flying aircraft over fires dropping retardant or water. When Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ask how the numbers in the annual request for aerial firefighting funds were determined, they are often not satisfied with the answers, which may appear to come off the top of someone’s head. How many air tankers and helicopters do you need? How did you come up with those numbers? Are air tankers effective? How do you know?

After at least 14 studies on the use of air tankers since 1995, are the answers to these questions still scribbled on the back of an envelope?

The number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service has varied substantially in the last 15 years, from 44 in 2002 to 9 in 2013. In 2015 and 2016 there were 21 when the seasons started, plus approximately half a dozen or so on Call When Needed contracts in 2016. This year the numbers will not change much except for a few more that could be on CWN when a new round of contracts is awarded in a few months.

As we often say, aircraft do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions they can slow or temporarily stop the spread of a portion of a fire to enable ground personnel to move in and establish a fireline on the perimeter. Most wildland firefighters believe aircraft are an essential tool in their toolbox and can be very effective if used correctly. Those opinions are based on their experience on the fireground, however it is difficult to transfer that knowledge to decision-makers in Washington.

A report issued by the GAO in 2013 titled, Improvements Needed in Information, Collaboration, and Planning to Enhance Federal Fire Aviation Program Success (it is a very large file), included three recommendations:

  1. Expand efforts to collect information on aircraft performance and effectiveness to include all types of firefighting aircraft in the federal fleet;
  2. Enhance collaboration between the agencies and with stakeholders in the fire aviation community to help ensure that agency efforts to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need reflect the input of all stakeholders in the fire aviation community; and
  3. Subsequent to the completion of the first two recommendations, update the agencies’ strategy documents for providing a national firefighting aircraft fleet to include analysis based on information on aircraft performance and effectiveness and to reflect input from stakeholders throughout the fire aviation community.

Under pressure from Congress and the GAO to justify the aerial firefighting program, in 2012 the U.S. Forest Service began a program to develop metrics and collect data to document and quantify the effectiveness of aircraft in assisting firefighters on the ground.

The new Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) program gathered data from 2012 to 2014. Those first two years, USFS spokesperson Jennifer Jones told us, were preliminary to the full study:

That was done mainly as a methods development process and is not sufficient to provide statistically defensible analysis and results supporting the objectives identified by senior U.S. Forest Service leadership or GAO.

During the next two-year period, 2015 through 2016, data was collected on approximately 7,000 drops from more than 130 fires.

Mrs. Jones explained:

Since this data includes fires from many jurisdictions, fuel, weather and terrain conditions, the process of statistically characterizing the sample in terms of the population it represents requires merging data from many different sources. This work is ongoing, even for the 2015 data, but study management expects the process to be much quicker for subsequent years.

The USFS claims they have accomplished the first two items on GAO’s list regarding collaboration between the agencies. The last task is years away from completion. They plan to publish a peer-reviewed paper soon that will detail the methodology being used. Some early results of the study are expected later this year when they expect to release annual use summaries for 2015 and 2016 during 2017. Additional use summaries will come out several months following each data collection season.

After several more years when the sample size and statistical confidence increases, Mrs. Jones said, they expect to release findings related to the effectiveness and probability of success of aerial resources.

We asked Gary Barrett for his opinion about the AFUE study. Known as “Bean” to our readers, he is a former naval aviator and has contributed articles to this website. He brings a different background and point of view to the air tanker issue. Below are his comments:

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“With data on 7000 drops on 130 fires over 4 years perhaps the AFUE program could have produced a report like this one [from Australia]. Or this one in the International Journal of Wildland Fire [from the US]  . Or this one [from Australia].

And if wildfire fighting in the US is being done by a combined integrated air ground team, why aren’t reports like this one available after our big fires?

Why is it that Australia seems to encourage ops analysis and its application to firefighting and here in the US we haven’t caught up with the concept. Until US ops analysis gets going, there will be no definitive answers on the utility of US air tankers and how they are utilized.

Even New South Wales in Australia has an opinion on the utility of heavy air tankers and has initiated a study on large air tankers operating in Australia.”

Sell Art Online

Flying Black Hawks over the Tennessee wildfires

Above: File photo of South Dakota National Guard Black Hawk helicopter during training at Angostura Reservoir, May 20, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Knoxville News Sentinel has an interesting article about the crews that flew the National Guard Black Hawk helicopters in Tennessee during the siege of wildfires at the end of last year.

Here is an excerpt:

You’re piloting a Black Hawk helicopter through the smoke choking the sky over Gatlinburg, a city consumed in fire.

Your co-pilot sits beside you, squinting ahead, listening to communications, watching the instrument panels. Behind the co-pilot sits a Tennessee Division of Forestry officer who earlier instructed you on which fire to hit but is now looking out a small side window. In the back are two crew chiefs, their backsides planted on the bottom edges of open doors on either side of the helicopter. They are held in by harnesses as their legs dangle in open air. This is so they can look straight down at the 600-gallon water bucket hanging by a cable from the ‘copter. They are holding button devices; one will let loose water from the bucket when the time is right.

You’re all talking – constantly communicating through headsets not only with each other but also with other helicopters, air traffic controllers and, most importantly, a spotter on the ground. Talking and looking.

[…]

“Fighting fires is pretty stressful,” he said. “You are tense. A ‘copter does not fly very well (because of the 1,500-pound weight of a mostly filled water bucket). It flies like it’s drunk almost. You get that slow, little go-forward, pull-back. It’s almost like it starts to sway a little.

“You get a little tight, a little tense. You’re flying into places where you can barely see because of the smoke. You also have wires and trees to watch out for.”

RJ85 pilot — from Arctic Circle to Tambo Crossing

The Victoria Country Fire Authority in Australia has a story about Conair pilot Ray Horton, one of the pilots flying the company’s Avro RJ85 during the summer bushfire season.

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“Canadian pilot Ray Horton has travelled the long way around to fight bushfires in Victoria.

One of the world’s most respected aerial firefighters, Ray and the aircraft he flies – the Large Air Tanker ‘RJ’ – have become a welcome sight in Victoria’s skies over the past three summers.

So how did this one time “city slicker from Vancouver” find himself in Tambo Crossing [map], the Mallee and points in between?

His story begins in Canada’s Arctic North. The young pilot was building his hours in 40-below conditions, doing some “fantastic fun flying” as he puts it.

Then, one summer, he found himself flying supplies into the fire camps that are a base for summer firefighting in the Arctic summer.

Bomber 391
Bomber 391, an RJ85, at Avalon, Victoria. Photo by Avalon Airport.

It was the season that changed Ray’s life.

In quick time, he had a job with Conair, the Canadian aerial firefighting operator whose aircraft and pilots work fire seasons in North America, Europe and Australia.

He started in the Bird Dog – the observer aircraft that guides the larger air tankers to fires and coordinates aerial attack with ground crews. After that, it was 10 years flying the tankers themselves, many of them 1950’s US military aircraft repurposed for aerial firefighting.

Antsy for a change, Ray spent 10 years as an Air Canada captain. But civilian life was not for him.

“I had been spoiled fighting forest fires,” reflects Ray. “Once fire gets in your blood, there is always the challenge of trying to win. I had a tough time letting go of the challenge.”

Ray re-joined Conair and in 2014 arrived for his first fire season in Victoria. He’s returned every season since with RJ, the ‘next generation’ Large Air Tanker with which he’s been deeply involved since the aircraft’s infancy.

A veteran of fires seasons around the world, Ray had one word about the challenges of Victorian conditions – “Wind.”

“Most of the time when we are chasing fires in Victoria it is because of high winds and the high temperatures – they seem to come together,” says Ray.

“In North America, sure we get high winds. But then you’ll get a slew of thunderstorms come through. They may start 50 fires overnight. But then the wind will die down and you methodically get to as many fires as you can.

“Here in Victoria, that same storm will come through but with really high winds. Then you have your fuel types – the eucalyptus and others. The fires run much faster here – much, much faster.”

The other major difference, Ray believes, is the sheer number of volunteers working the fire ground in Victoria.

“That is something we just don’t see in North America. We don’t see the volunteer crews you have here. It’s amazing what Australia can do, particularly in Victoria with CFA and the number of volunteers.

“Here, we will typically see crews on the ground by the time we get to the fires. In North America, there are only so many crews to go around.”

Air crew and ground crew as one is a theme emphasised by Ray and his aerial crew colleagues.

“We know that we don’t put fires out,” stresses Ray. “We are here to allow the firies to get in and to support them. Hopefully we can make the difference that allows them to catch the fire.

“Our challenge – and the one we are called in for – is to put the water or retardant where the ground crews need it. When there are high winds and high heat, the challenge is really on us.

“Put it this way, it’s a long way to fly not to make any difference.”  “

Report released for fatal Mississippi helicopter crash

One person was seriously injured in the 2015 crash. The pilot and a USFS employee were killed.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a 90-page “Learning Review” about the March 30, 2015 crash of a helicopter that occurred during prescribed fire operations on a National Forest in Mississippi approximately 20 miles north of Gulfport. The accident took the lives of Forest Service employee Steve Cobb, contract pilot Brandon Ricks, and seriously injured another Forest Service employee on detail from Montana.

The helicopter was igniting a prescribed fire by using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD), a device that drops small balls that burst into flame after they land on the ground. Steve Cobb was serving as the Firing Boss [FIRB] and the detailed employee was operating the PSD out of the right-rear door.

According to the pilot’s personal flight logbooks, he had accumulated 6,471 total hours of flight experience, about 6,300 hours of which were in the accident helicopter make and model. The owner estimated that the pilot had accrued 22 additional flight hours in the 90 days that preceded the accident.

N50KH Bell 206-L
The helicopter that crashed was N50KH, a Bell 206-L.

Before the flight the engine on the helicopter failed to start on the first try, but the second attempt was successful. Later over the prescribed fire the aircraft made about 12 passes over the project and had been flying for about an hour when the crash occurred.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS report:

The PSD operator recalled they “were flying along 25-to-30 feet above the highest tree…things were going really well,” and they were nearly through the first bag of balls when he heard two alarm warning buzzers go off simultaneously or nearly so followed immediately by the pilot stating, “We lost power,” and FIRB saying, “We’re going in; we’re going in.”

The PSD operator swung his right leg over the PSD machine and back inside the helicopter, just as he had practiced in his head when he envisioned this scenario. He didn’t want his leg broken or trapped under the helicopter if it were to roll on its side. As he tightened his lap belt and pushed his back against the seat, hands on his knees in the crash position, he felt the helicopter tip backwards and to the right slightly. The PSD operator believed the pilot initiated this position purposefully, possibly as part of an autorotation. The descent through the tree canopy was not violent, and the helicopter slipped through the trees tail first. The impact with the ground was “abrupt.” The PSD operator felt the lap belt catch him; the impact knocked the wind out of him.

The PSD operator remembers the helicopter coming to rest more or less upright, and it was quiet. The PSD operator could hear breathing over the intercom system and “crackling” as the balls they had just dropped began to establish fire. He thought to himself, “I’m still alive!” He unbuckled the lap belt and unhooked the gunner strap’s tether from the helicopter, then reached forward to jostle the pilot, yelling at the pilot and FIRB, “We gotta get outta here.” He exited the helicopter from the right side and once on the ground, moved towards the front of the aircraft. He yelled again, “We gotta go,” calling each by name while realizing they were unconscious and that he wouldn’t be able to move them with his injuries. As it was, he was having difficulty breathing and standing up. He now heard the roar of the fire that had grown from small individual spots of fire to a wall of flames surrounding them; he knew it was time to move.

He turned and faced the wall of flames and thought, “I just survived a helicopter crash; I am going to live.” He recounted, “I started walking, through the wall of flames 10-to-15 feet thick, then all the glowing ashes on the other side and residual heat…hands over my face and screaming into my hands and saying, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall’…everything was glowing and I just kept going…I could feel myself burning…the watchband melting on my wrist.” The PSD operator walked approximately 900 feet in a westerly direction to reach the 415A road and the western edge of the burn unit sometime between 1448 and 1451.

After a while he was found by firefighters and was eventually transported by ground ambulance to a waiting air ambulance which flew him to the University of Southern Alabama Hospital in Mobile, Alabama. His injuries included fractures of two cervical and two lumbar vertebrae, left ocular and left side ribs; and intestinal and hernia tears.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the helicopter experienced a “loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined”. The helicopter did not catch fire when it hit the ground, but it was soon ignited by the spreading prescribed fire, hampering the NTSB investigation.

The USFS Learning Review emphasized several issues related to the accident — not necessarily causes, but items for discussion. One was the decision to ignite the project from a helicopter rather than from the ground.

The primary purpose for utilizing helicopters for aerial ignition in this region is to mitigate the exposure of ground resources to the hazards of hand-lighting units. For Unit 1459, like most units on the De Soto Ranger District, a combination of the vegetation, terrain, and fire behavior make hand-lighting units inefficient and hazardous. Flame lengths of greater than four feet combined with difficult walking conditions raise a red flag for a burn boss concerning firefighter safety. Plants such as palmetto (Serenoa repens), gallberry (Llex spp.), ti-ti (Cyrilla racemiflora), and smilax (Smilax spp.) when combined with needles from longleaf, slash, and Loblolly pines can create flame lengths in excess of 10 feet with as little as a two-to-three year accumulation of dead material. These species are also very difficult to traverse. Smilax vines can ensnare firefighters and drip torches and stop them in their tracks. This area also still has some large dead fuel concentrations as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In these areas people working in the woods may encounter downed timber that can stop heavy equipment from forward progress.

Using an airborne resource for igniting a fire rather than personnel on the ground does not eliminate risk. It transfers it.

Another issue was the required flight characteristics of a helicopter while igniting a fire with a PSD. An air tanker when dropping retardant has to fly low and slow to be effective. Similarly, with the current versions of the PSD, a helicopter’s recommended speed should not exceed 50 mph (43 knots), while the preferred altitude is 300 feet above ground level (AGL).

Hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) is the typical flight profile.

The last data from the helicopter provided by the Automated Flight Following (AFF) before the crash indicated it was at 132 feet AGL and traveling at 43 knots.

From the report:

It is clear how organizational processes influenced the acceptance of risk. As a result, risk assessments did not consider the flight profile, as it was already determined that low/slow was necessary in order to accomplish the work. The fact that the recommendations for airspeed and altitude were heavily influenced by the capability of the PSD likely influenced a gradual decay over time of the options and decision space for the pilot to maintain optimal combinations of airspeed and altitude. The fact that this is a successful tool available for conducting prescribed burn operations, sets the stage to “justify” its use, rather than to prompt the agency to look at better options or technology.

The acknowledgement of these flight conditions in agency guides likely affects the deliberate acceptance of a “low and slow” profile as necessary for the accomplishment of the mission. A low/slow flight profile makes sense because it is suggested within written procedure. Over a period of time (4+ decades), confidence and acceptability of the flight parameters strengthens with each successful mission, along with a slight departure from the awareness of the hazards associated with the flight profiles. This is a demonstration of how the production goals creep into mission planning to dominate the protection goals without recognition of such. In this case, all required policy was followed and personnel were conducting their work within the operational norms set up by agency policy and culture.

The Learning Review has numerous recommendations, including modifying the existing PSD machines to enable the helicopter to fly higher and faster. Another is to invent an entirely new method of aerial ignition in order to mitigate the low and slow flight profile.

Smokejumper aircraft experiences problem during landing

Due to an issue with an engine on the C-23A Sherpa, the crew idled it, but during landing the engine went to takeoff power uncommanded.

Above: photo of the Sherpa’s tire failure from the Rapid Lesson Sharing document.

After an incident on April 13, 2016 while a C-23A Sherpa was transporting smokejumpers on a training mission, the Redmond, Oregon Air Group conducted an After Action Review and wrote a Rapid Lesson Sharing document. Below are excerpts:

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“NARRATIVE

On the morning of April 13, 2016, a crew of three experienced captains performed a Smokejumper Mission Check Ride during a practice jump. The Pilot in Command of the C-23A Sherpa retarded the left power lever in preparation for the jump run and the engine did not respond appropriately. The number 1 engine would not reduce to flight idle as commanded.

We elected to discontinue the check ride and return to the airport to land.

The crew reduced the engine RMP power lever back to almost idle and the left engine stabilized at idle. We consulted the emergency checklist and decided to leave the engine running.

During line up for final the crew elected to keep the engine running due to a 90 degree crosswind condition in case a go around was required. On landing the left engine went to take-off power, un-commanded, and aircraft started to depart the runway. During subsequent actions to control the aircraft, brakes were applied and on ground contact the right main tire failed. The pilot in command ordered the left engine shut down and second in command shut the engine down. PIC was able to exit the runway and airplane was shut down on an adjacent taxiway.

LESSONS

After the mission an AAR was conducted between the crew, maintenance, leadership and the participating smokejumpers. The only possible action in hindsight the crew indicated was not bringing the power levers over the gate into ground fine range which may of influenced the rapid RPM increase. The aircraft fuel controller was removed and sent in for overhaul. Disassembly of the fuel unit revealed a small burr on the throttle shaft bushing.

Questions for discussion between crews:

  • When would you declare an abnormal event an emergency and roll the trucks?
  • What situations would you consider it safer for the remaining jumpers to exit the aircraft than return with it?
  • What other abnormal conditions have you encountered that are not in the abnormal procedures (Chapter 4) section and how would you handle them?
  • What discussions need to take place with the guys in the back during occurrence of unplanned events?
  • Discussions on the above topics during ground time can save valuable time in the air when abnormal conditions do occur.

This year will likely be the farewell tour for P2V air tankers

Above: A P2V air tanker on final approach at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Updated at 8:50 a.m. MST January 12, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service expects to issue a new round of Exclusive Use and Call When Needed air tanker contracts in the “near future”. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, said they plan to solicit proposals for Next Generation 3.0 Exclusive Use and 2.0 Call When Needed air tankers. Next Generation 3.0 is intended for operations in 2018 and Call When Needed 2.0 is for this fire season.

It is very unusual for the USFS to begin a contracting process more than a year before the expected mandatory availability period (MAP). In recent years they have attempted to award the contracts only a few months before the aircraft are needed to begin work. The first Next Gen contract, V1.0, was awarded 550 days after being advertised.

In 2015 we wrote:

The USFS should get their [stuff] together and advertise the solicitation, not the Request for Information, at least one year before the mandatory availability period. Top quality air tankers, crews, and maintenance personnel can’t be magically produced out of thin air.

So this Next Gen 3.0 being advertised about 14 months before the expected MAP is a huge step in the right direction — but only if it takes much less than 550 days to make the awards.

The current “Legacy” Exclusive Use contract issued in March, 2013 under which seven air tankers operated by Neptune Aviation are working includes six P2Vs and one BAe-146. It expires at the end of this year. Dan Snyder, President of the company, told us that as far as he knows there are no plans for the USFS to issue any more contracts for which the Korean War vintage aircraft could qualify — the P2Vs can’t meet the specifications for Next Gen air tankers.

So this year will likely be the farewell tour for the P2Vs. Take pictures while you still can.

The last CWN and Exclusive Use contracts allowed very large air tankers such as the DC-10 to qualify. If that continues to be the case in this next round of contracts there could be a 747 and possibly more DC-10s in the sky. Currently two DC-10s are on Exclusive Use contracts and third on CWN worked for much of the 2016 fire season. Last week the 747 SuperTanker received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board.

And speaking of Neptune, Mr. Snyder said that by the time the Next Gen 3.0 contract is in effect next year they will have a total of nine BAe-146s fully converted and available. The ninth one arrived at their facility in Missoula on November 20, 2016.

In addition to their air tanker business, Neptune Aviation has the contract for maintenance of the C-23B Sherpas the USFS received from the U.S. Army which includes modifying them to be eligible to be certificated as civilian SD3-60’s. Their work was at first done in Ogden, Utah, but has been relocated to Missoula.  Field Aviation in Oklahoma City received a contract for installing glass cockpits.

Neptune has completed the work on three Sherpas and has started on a fourth. They “woke up” or serviced an additional seven that were in long term storage to make them flyable again.  A timetable for converting those seven will be determined by the USFS, who expects to use the Sherpas to haul smokejumpers, personnel, and cargo.

747 air tanker receives federal approval

Above: the 747 Supertanker at McClellan Air Field, March 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The 747 SuperTanker has received interim approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global SuperTanker, the operator of the air tanker, said he first heard from the IAB on January 6 that the approval had been granted.

Interim approval is the last step before full approval. It means the company can compete for and receive contracts to serve as an air tanker for federal agencies in the United States. If it receives a contract, the performance and effectiveness of the aircraft will be evaluated while under this status. Then if satisfactory, it can be elevated to full approval. The interim approval is valid through June 15, 2017, Mrs. Jones said.

When the Neptune Aviation BAe-146s were first converted to air tankers they were given “interim” status while bugs in the new system were found and eventually mitigated. For example, the company added additional drop doors farther forward on the fuselage in order to improve the dispersal of retardant while making a downhill drop.

However the retardant delivery system on this 747 has been used on previous 747s and was fully certified by the IAB years ago. Over the last year it has been installed in a 747-400 which has more powerful engines than the 747-100 and 747-200 used by Evergreen, the company that first built a 747 air tanker. Global Supertanker bought the hardware and intellectual property for the retardant system when Evergreen declared bankruptcy.

The 747 can hold 19,200 gallons, much more than any other air tanker. For comparison, the DC-10 very large air tanker carries 11,600 gallons, while the BAe-146, RJ85, and C-130 hold up to 3,000 to 3,500 gallons. The P2V Korean War vintage aircraft that has been the workhorse air tanker for decades usually carries less than 2,000 gallons. The S-2T used by CAL FIRE holds up to 1,200 gallons.

Last summer the 747 Supertanker received a Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA and the agency’s Federal Aviation Regulations Part 137 certificate.

T-944 mountain flying
Global Supertanker.

In November it made a non-stop flight to Israel and after arriving dropped on two wildfires at the request of the country’s government.

“IAB approval is an essential requirement in airtanker contracts for some wildfire agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS),” Mr. Wheeler said. “With this approval, we look forward to bidding on – and winning – upcoming domestic and international contracts. We are grateful and excited to join the team of airtankers currently serving a critical mission for the United States and globally, and look forward to continuing to work with the USFS, CAL FIRE, and the IAB during the final approval process.”

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