Small unmanned quad copter aids Australian firefighters

There is no question that Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) could provide wildland firefighters with valuable real time intelligence. The biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is how to safely integrate them into the airspace above a fire. For incidents with a Temporary Flight Restriction could they be assigned an altitude above all other firefighting aircraft, or should they be restricted to night operations when no other aircraft are working on the fire?

Firefighters in Western Australia have started to use an Indago UAS built by Lockheed Martin. Today the company released information about how it is being utilized.


Western Australia’s Emergency Services Commissioner called upon Lockheed Martin’s Indago quad copterto assist with efforts to contain and extinguish a fire that had the potential to threaten lives and property.

In its first real-world firefighting tasking, the aircraft flew over the live fire and provided real-time intelligence to the Planning and Incident Management team. The Indago was able to provide information on the location of the fire edge, the intensity and location of hotspots, as well as identify people and assets at risk through smoke. The Indago also assessed damage and transmitted real-time images of activities occurring on the ground.

“After Indago’s insertion into our firefighting operations, an estimated 100 homes were saved,” said Wayne Gregson, Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner. “The Indago provided a critical capability while the manned aircraft were grounded at nightfall, and increased our ground operators’ situational awareness.”

For more than 80 years, manned aircraft have been employed in support of ground firefighting operations; currently, aircraft support is available to ground firefighters in Australia for approximately 12-14 hours per day during daylight hours only.

“The Indago can work to fight fires and provide information to operations day and night without risking a life,” said Dan Spoor, vice president of Aviation and Unmanned Systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business. “This real world application signifies the potential for using unmanned systems to augment manned firefighting operations, doubling the amount of time for fire suppression.”

The Indago’s industry-leading flight time and EO/IR gimbaled imager provides high quality data and enhanced situational awareness for operators to make real-time decisions. Indago is capable of providing tactical situational awareness and geo-location, increasing its value in missions such as firefighting.

“The Indago has shown its ability to operate in all weather and visibility conditions,” said Tim Hand, Chief UAV Controller at Heliwest. “Since we began using it in November 2014, it has performed well in temperatures ranging from -12 degrees to 112 degrees; rain to snow; and smoke or dust.”

The Heliwest Group, which is providing aircraft and services in support of the firefighting mission, first took delivery of the Indago in November 2014; since then, Heliwest has flown the Indago more than 200 hours in support of multiple civil operations including firefighting, task inspections and surveying.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Isaac.


Out of fuel airplane parachutes into the sea

The Coast Guard shot this video of a small plane, a Cirrus SR-22, using an emergency parachute after running out of fuel on a flight from the United States mainland to Hawaii. The pilot is safe after ditching his aircraft 253 miles northeast of Maui, Hawaii Sunday. The pilot safely exited the aircraft into a life raft and was later picked up by a passing cruise ship.


Another air tanker study: the use and effectiveness of large air tankers

P2V whoopup fire air tanker

Tanker 45, a P2V, on the Whoopup Fire near Newcastle, Wyoming, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We just became aware of another air tanker study that the U.S. Forest Service commissioned. By our count this is the 13th federal study on the use of air tankers since 1995, and was one of three completed in 2013. (A list of the studies is at Wildfire Today.)

Titled Large airtanker use and outcomes in suppressing wildland fires in the United States, it was written in 2013 and published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire in February, 2014. The document maintained a low profile, possibly because it was behind the journal’s pay wall, rather than being an Open Access document.

The study attempts to determine how effective large air tankers (LAT) have been at preventing fires from escaping initial attack (IA). The authors begin by describing the poor data that they used to develop their conclusions. For example, the sparse data made it very difficult “to track drop location and time, to associate drops to specific fire events, to gather information on the fire environment (fuels, weather, terrain, etc.) at the time of the drop and, critically, to clearly identify mission objectives for each drop.”

The authors used some convoluted methods to make guesses about which retardant drops were on IA fires and which ones were not. And, “due to data availability issues” they only considered stats from two years, 2010 and 2011. In 2010 there were 19 LATs in the fleet at the beginning of the year and 14 in 2011, but by the end of 2011 the study reports there were only 10 available.

Since the air tanker fleet has atrophied from 44 in 2002  to as low as 9 in 2013, it has been impossible to always produce a LAT every time one is needed on IA. And if it does show up, the chances of it arriving while there is still a chance to slow the spread, enabling ground based firefighters to contain the fire, are not as great as they were in 2002 when there were almost five times as many air tankers.

The authors addressed the timing of air tanker drops:

Therefore, the determination of whether or not a fire will benefit from LAT drops in IA will be directly related to the delay from ignition to drop occurrence. This delay allows a fire to grow and cross a critical threshold where fireline production of IA resources cannot catch the growing fire perimeter. When evaluated in this light, the demonstrated low success rate for IA containment could be addressed by reducing the time between ignition and LAT arrival on these fires with a high potential to escape. This would require an improved ability to rapidly recognize an individual fire’s escape potential so that LATs are ordered very early in the event. Further, this suggests that if we can improve our ability to identify when and where these types of ignitions are likely to occur we should be able to effectively pre-position LATs before an outbreak of fires. If the IA success rate could be improved through such a system, overall LAT demand may be reduced because many of the evaluated drops were associated with IA fires that ultimately escaped.

And they wrote about the resistance to control of fires that receive retardant drops on IA:

That the rate of escape associated with fires that receive drops during IA is so high – far higher than the general escape rate of approximately 2 to 5% – is strongly suggestive that LAT use, when it does occur in IA situations, occurs on the more difficult fires (i.e. Category C fires as defined by Keating et al. 2012)

The “Keating et al 2012″ report is more commonly known as the Rand Report.

They also make the point that although the USFS’ policy is to prioritize LAT use on IA rather than Extended Attack (EA) fires, a high proportion of LAT drops occur on EA fires.

In spite of these conditions, the authors apparently felt comfortable making the following statement in the paper’s introduction:

Results suggest that containment rates for fires receiving large airtanker use during initial attack are quite low.

A statement like that when taken out of context, or without understanding the limitations of the report’s data, can be very misleading.

If air tankers are going to be effective in IA, first they have to be near enough to the fire to arrive, preferably, within 15 to 30 minutes after being dispatched. And, they must be dispatched if not at the first report of smoke, at the first confirmation that there is a wildfire. If there is a delay until a fire officer arrives at the scene to make the decision to order aircraft, that could be the difference in effective or ineffective air tanker use.

As we have stated many times, the prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

Below is a graphic that we put together showing the Unable to Fill rates for LAT requests, the number of LAT requests, and the size of the air tanker fleet since 2002.

large air tankers unable to fill orders


Forest Service interested in Unmanned Aerial Systems

The U.S. Forest Service has released information indicating that they are “highly interested” in Unmanned Aerial Systems, usually called “drones” these days.


Ikhanna“The U.S. Forest Service is highly interested in new technologies and believes there is potential to use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to support a host of natural resource management activities, including forest health protection, wildfire suppression, research, recreational impacts, and law enforcement.

The agency has been exploring the potential to use UAS for several years, and it has tested different UAS platforms during wildfires, prescribed fires, and in other natural resource management settings.

U.S. Forest Service policy stipulates that UAS must be considered the same as manned aircraft, in terms of acquisition, approval and carding of pilots and aircraft, inspections, maintenance, avionics, training, and operations.  However, the agency currently does not have a formal UAS program in place, which is needed to ensure appropriate, safe, and cost-effective use of UAS.  The U.S. Forest Service has chartered an interdisciplinary UAS Advisory Group to develop guidance for the use of UAS and associated technologies to support operational needs throughout the agency.

The UAS Advisory Group has been tasked with several items, including conducting a thorough review of agency policy, making policy recommendations, completing a risk assessment, and developing a strategic plan. After the UAS Advisory Group has completed these tasks, U.S. Forest Service leadership will determine the future of a UAS program for the agency.”


Progress toward outfitting the USFS C-130s and hiring crews

C-130 paint design Forest Service

The paint design that has been approved by the Forest Service for the seven C-130s that were transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Air Force are taking steps toward installing fire retardant tanks and hiring flight crews for the seven C-130Hs that the USFS acquired from the Coast Guard. The aircraft will be converted into air tankers and will be Government Owned but Contractor Operated (GO/CO).

The Air Force is responsible for performing the required maintenance, replacing the wing boxes as needed, and purchasing and installing retardant tanks in the aircraft. They have issued a Request For Proposals for up to seven “Retardant Delivery Systems” that would have a 3,500-gallon capacity. The presolicitation RFP was first issued in July, but has been changed or amended 12 times. The latest response due date is January 23, 2015. It is obvious that until now the Air Force has never solicited for an air tanker fire retardant tank.

Meanwhile, the USFS has issued a Request for Information (RFI) about potential contractors that would be interested in providing crew(s) for the C-130Hs. They do not intend to award contracts based on the request for information — presumably that would occur later.

C-130H 1709 w-Jeanie Menze

One of the Coast Guard C-130Hs, #1709, being transferred to the USFS — shown with Jeanine Menze, the first USCG African American female aviator. She earned her wings June 24, 2005.

The agency’s plan is to operate one C-130H in 2015 and 2015 with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) installed “to provide an initial capability and to gain experience in operating the aircraft while wing and airframe modifications are being completed and gravity tanks are being developed and installed”, according to Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service.

The USFS does not mention how many crews they would need, but they describe a crew as having 5 personnel:

  • 2 US Air Force Trained C-130H/J MAFFS II Qualified Instructor Pilots,
  • 1 US Coast Guard trained C-130H Instructor Flight Engineer, and
  • 2 US Air Force Trained C-130H/J MAFFS II Qualified Instructor Loadmasters

The aircrew must be current and qualified in the aforementioned requirements within the last two years from the date the solicitation closes. It will be interesting to see how difficult or easy it will be to meet that specification.

The RFI indicates that the aircrew members would be based in Sacramento, California for one year with the option for an additional two years.

In addition, a Project Manager qualified as a U.S. Military C-130H Instructor Pilot will be required to oversee the contractual requirements from Boise, Idaho at the National Interagency Fire Center.

Mrs. Jones said the RFI applies only to the single C-130H that they expect to operate in 2015 and 2016 with a MAFFS tank.

The aircrew description indicates that it would be structured so that they could utilize the slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that have been used since the 1970s in Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard aircraft when there are not enough contracted air tankers available during a busy fire season. A MAFFS has two air compressors that pressurize the 3,000-gallon tank in order to force the retardant out a large pipe that exits the aircraft on the left side through a modified paratroop door.

In a MAFFS-outfitted C-130, two loadmasters operate the MAFFS retardant unit. If the “new” USFS C-130Hs are equipped with a conventional gravity-based retardant tank, it is unlikely that any loadmasters would be necessary.

Planning for seven GO/CO air tankers

Mrs. Jones said the additional six C-130Hs will be brought into service “beginning in 2017, but we don’t have a specific schedule available yet”. We asked for copies of plans the USFS may have about how to incorporate into the fleet and then manage the seven C-130Hs under the new Government Owned/Contractor Operated program. We were told that information would only be available through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The USFS will have similar issues with the 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpa aircraft that they received from the military at the same time they got the C-130Hs.

While we wait for the FOIA request to be honored, lets take a look at the scope of the new GO/CO program.

Based on the first award (that was later cancelled) for the next generation air tankers in 2013, the USFS would have been paying in the range of $50,000 per day for each Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated aircraft — and this may not include the cost of fuel. If we assume that same $50,000 cost for a C-130H with crew, that works out to about $56,000,000 a year for seven, or $560,000,000 for 10 years.

We asked Jack Kendall of OK Aviation what a typical used C-130H would sell for. He said the price varies a lot based on the number of hours on the airframe, the status of programmed maintenance, how much work would have to be done in the cockpit, and whether or not a new C-130J-style wing box has been installed. But he said generally they would sell for $12,000,000 to $20,000,000. Assuming the mid-range price of $15,000,000, the USFS has approximately$105,000,000 worth of C-130Hs if they had been bought on the open market.

In addition, before the aircraft are finally turned over to the USFS, the Air Force is authorized to spend up to $130,000,000 for all of the maintenance and modification work, including installing new wing boxes in at least five of them and putting retardant tanks in all seven. Any additional work would have be paid for by the USFS.

Using these very rough figures, it works out to a program worth about $795,000,000 over ten years. And that does not take into account the 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpas which will probably be used for smokejumpers, cargo, paracargo, and personnel transport.

More than three-quarters of a billion dollars of taxpayer money for the seven aircraft is a very, very large program, especially when it is something the USFS has never done — the beginning of a new GO/CO paradigm. No doubt, as in any major new program, mistakes will be made.

We hope the agency is prepared to take on this new responsibility.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers

P3 air tanker

A P3 air tanker makes one of its last drops on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3’s were cancelled by the USFS a couple of weeks later and the company, Aero Union, was forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS.

A private company has launched a campaign asking for $4,950,000 in donations so that they can begin flying P3 air tankers again.

A company called Orion Aerial Firefighters, with Dale Head as the CEO, is described as “a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who are passionate and dedicated to provide effective aerial firefighting service in order to protect lives and assets.” Their stated goal is to return the P3 “as the critical component of the US Forest Service’s national firefighting fleet.”

Mr. Head said “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with, and pilots feel that the maneuverability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

The company is asking for donations through Indiegogo, where as of January 20, 2015 they have raised $1,857 since January 15 toward their goal of $4,950,000. They have 55 days left in their money raising campaign.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.

At that time some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

Tanker 17 at McClellan P3

Tanker 17 at McClellan, March 21, 2014.

In late 2013 the eight airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us in January, 2014, that  the P-3s at McClellan were still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

Buffalo P3

Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways on his purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the P3s was in Canada undergoing major maintenance when the USFS cancelled the contract and it will never fly again. The other seven sat at McClellan near Sacramento until one was purchased in March 2014, by Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, leaving six.