Drone hinders aviation on Sand Fire

A privately operated drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) caused concern on the Sand Fire south of Placerville, California on Sunday. The person that was controlling the aircraft and getting video footage of the blaze was told by authorities to stop because of the potential danger to helicopters, lead planes, and air tankers flying over the fire.

A video shot from the drone was uploaded to YouTube showing that the aircraft was directly over the fire, which could have been a serious hazard to helicopters and air tankers operating at 50 to 180 feet above the ground.

There are reports that Air Attack, when informed of the drone, came close to grounding all firefighting aircraft until the threat could be mitigated. However the operator was found and instead, the drone was grounded.

A person would think that a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) which was probably in effect over the fire would prohibit all non-authorized aircraft including drones under 400 feet, from operating in the area. If so, then penalties could be applicable. A pilot of an airplane can lose their pilot’s license for 90 days or so if they bust a TFR. Of course a doofus who buys $1,000 worth of drone and does stupid things with it has no license to begin with.

This problem will get worse before it gets better. There will be more and more consumer-grade drones flying around and keeping them out of fire areas is going to be very difficult.

As we have said before, Air Attack needs to live up to its name and be armed with air to air missiles (kidding!).


Video from a MAFFS cockpit as it drops on a fire in Utah

This video was shot from Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) 3 as Lt. Col. Todd Davis and his crew dropped retardant on the Rockport Fire near Park City, Utah, July 25, 2014. Lt. Col. Davis and the lead plane pilot can be heard discussing where the drop should go to most effectively assist the firefighters on the ground.


Report: One MD-87 air tanker to resume service next week

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014, showing what appears to be retardant on the fuselage on and above the wing in front of an engine. Photo by Jeff Ingelse.

The Oregonian is reporting that one of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87 air tankers will return to service the week of July 27 with a second to return the following week.

On June 27 the company recalled the three MD-87s they were operating, tanker numbers 101, 103, and 105, “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Oregonian reported today that Glen Newton, the air tanker operations manager for Erickson, said the aircraft were shut down because retardant was being ingested into the engines. Engineers are making modifications at the drop doors which they expect will solve the problem.

Erickson bought seven MD-87 airliners, planning to convert them into air tankers. The first two, Tankers 101 and 105, began working for the first time on contract to the U.S. Forest Service on June 4 and June 8, respectively. Soon thereafter, a third, Tanker 103, reported for duty.

We ran a story (with the photo at the top of this article) on June 9 which raised the possibility of retardant being ingested into the engines.

The way the U.S. Forest Service runs the air tanker program, most of the responsibility and costs for research and development for the airborne tools that ground-based firefighters need is left on the shoulders and at the discretion of private companies. It can cost millions of dollars to convert an airliner into a firefighting machine, and even more if the wheel has to be invented again for a new model of aircraft which requires a custom-engineered retardant system. It is inevitable that as these new designs are integrated into the fleet, bugs will be discovered. Engineers will have to go back to the drawing board and tweak certain systems. Neptune is on Version 3.0 of the retardant system in the five BAe-146 airliners they have converted.

Building an air tanker from an aircraft designed to carry a hundred passengers is a risky undertaking for a private company. They have to invest millions, and then hope that the U.S. Forest Service will give them contracts to operate it for 10 or 15 years so that they can recoup their investment. Some of the next-generation air tankers that have entered service for the first time over the last year are working on a five-year contract. When the companies have been allowed to bring on a second or third aircraft, in most cases those are on a one-year “additional equipment” contract, with no certainty that they will be used after that.

A banker evaluating a loan application for a company with a business model having such an uncertain future probably has some sleepless nights.


Two air tankers avoid mid-air collision by 400 feet

As two air tankers were descending before landing at the uncontrolled Porterville Airport on July 12 in California, they narrowly avoided a mid-air collision by 400 feet. The aircraft were close to occupying the same space in the sky when the Traffic Collision Alert Device (TCAD) notified the lower tanker crew about the near collision threat from another tanker above. They took evasive action and lived to tell the story. The upper aircraft was a next-generation air tanker that could have been moving at almost twice the speed of the lower legacy aircraft; 330 to 340 knots versus 165 to 200 knots for legacy air tankers.

Next-gen air tankers would include the BAe-146, Avero RJ 85, C-130Q, MD-87, and DC-10. The legacy category has the P2v, S-2T, and Single Engine Air Tankers.

The entire Lesson Learned can be read here. Below is an excerpt:

As the two aircraft were returning to the AAB at the Porterville Airport (an uncontrolled airport) both flight crews made their calls over the CTAF to announce their positions. When the pilots of the Legacy AT heard the NextGen AT announce their position of “15 miles out” at that moment the Legacy AT crew knew they also just announced their position “15 miles out”. The TCAD (Traffic Collision Alert Device) simultaneously reported traffic on the display and over the intercom. The NextGen AT then descended directly over the top of the Legacy AT. The Legacy AT flight crew reported that the TCAD displayed 400 feet vertical separation and confirmed it visually. The Legacy AT Pilot-in-Command took action to obtain separation from the NextGen AT avoiding the possibility of encountering wake turbulence. The NextGen AT crew did not receive a resolution advisory (RA) on their TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and proceeded to the airport, unaware that an incident had occurred. Both aircraft landed without further incident.


Helicopter 205RH on the Bingham Complex

Bingham Complex

Helicopter 205RH on the Bingham Complex. Photo by Richard Parish.

The photo shows helicopter 205RH inserting firefighters on the Bingham Complex on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. The ship is operated by Hillsboro Aviation and is on contract for the Grants Pass Heli-rappellers. In the photo, pilot Joseph Berto is at the controls and the firefighters in the foreground are Mayfield, Johnson, Hastings, and England.

The Bingham Complex has burned 452 acres in and near the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. The incident management team is calling it 55 percent controlled.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Joseph.


MAFFS units fight fires in western Utah

Two C-130s carrying MAFFS units were deployed to fires in Utah on Monday. The units were officially called up on Saturday morning, to be based out of Boise.

Updates Tuesday from the planes (you can follow them on Twitter):

  • On Monday the planes did 12 drops of 18,000 gallons of retardant.
  • Drops were made three times over the Lincoln and Sheep Fires in Utah.
  • Six drops were made over the Tunnel Hollow fire in Utah as well.


Petition to reinstate the Martin Mars

Martin Mars at Lake Elsinore, California

Martin Mars at Lake Elsinore, California

An internet-based petition to urge the government of British Columbia to issue another contract for the water-scooping Martin Mars air tanker has garnered over 16,000 supporters.

The appeal on the petition site, Change.org states:

Our province is burning. The Martin Mars waterbombers have stood the test of time. They are the best, most efficient and cheapest way to get the most water on a fire in the shortest amount of time. Contract the Coulson Martin Mars Waterbombers for 5 more years to protect BC from wildfires. Our province is burning and these are the best planes for the job! It cost $750,000 for a season. You are paying $3 million a day right now. Do the right thing! These planes are a bargain!

The Coulson Company announced in September of 2013 that they no longer had a contract with the government of British Columbia for the Martin Mars. The 7,000-gallon aircraft helped firefighters suppress fires for 53 years, and dropped over 8,000 loads. Built in the 1940s, it was converted into an air tanker with the capability to drop plain water or gel on fires.
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Mark.