Montana rancher integrates helicopter into his operation

Gathering cattle with a helicopter

Gathering cattle with a helicopter in Montana. Photo by Kari Greer.

This is not a fire aviation story, but it involves a Bell 206-L4 and a photographer who is well known in the wildland fire community.

Vertical Magazine has an interesting article about a Montana rancher who flies a helicopter as part of his regular ranch activities, at times doing things that would normally be done by a cowboy on a horse. One of the best things about the article is that it has 14 photos taken by Kari Greer who spends her summers on the fireline with firefighters, taking great photos. Examples of her work can be found at Wildfire Today.

Here is how the article begins:

Loretta Lynn once sang, “There’s a built-in troublemaker in every man.” That may or may not be true. But there is undeniably a built-in troublemaker in every cow, and on this bluebird May day in west-central Montana, the troublemaker is acting up in the black heifer who is darting in and out of view through the chin bubble in Bill Galt’s Bell 206L4 LongRanger helicopter.

I’m riding along in the left seat; Galt is in the right, using his L4 to urge a dozen cow-calf pairs toward a crossing of swampy, overgrown Birch Creek. Or trying to. Every time Galt gets the bunch moving in the right direction, the unruly “dry” heifer, who doesn’t have a calf to slow her down, leads them off in a wrong one. Thirty feet above the ground, Galt is doing his best to head her off, maneuvering the LongRanger back and forth like a particularly quick and nimble cowhorse. Reinforcements soon arrive in the form of Galt’s nephew’s wife, Tanya Hill, on an actual horse, but the heifer only redoubles her efforts to evade us…


Congress appropriated $65M for the air tanker fleet — now what?


Lockheed Martin’s new LM-100J

The omnibus federal appropriations bill that was just passed by Congress included a provision to allocate $65 million for the U. S. Forest Service air tanker fleet.


…for the purpose of acquiring aircraft for the next-generation airtanker fleet to enhance firefighting mobility, effectiveness, efficiency, and safety, and such aircraft shall be suitable for contractor operation over the terrain and forested-ecosystems characteristic of National Forest System lands, as determined by the Chief of the Forest Service…

Over a couple of days we attempted to find out what, exactly, the Forest Service is going to do with this $65 million that is now burning a hole in their pockets. We checked with the agency last week after the House approved the bill and were at first told they would not discuss it until the bill passed. Then the Senate approved it on Saturday, December 13 and the President said he would sign it this week. In response to our inquiry, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said on December 14:

We are continuing to work towards bringing 18 to 28 modern airtankers into service as outlined in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy we submitted to Congress in 2012. If this bill passes and is signed into law we will use the funding to further those efforts and we will be happy to provide specifics once we have them worked out.

To summarize, the official word is, the Forest Service says they don’t know how they will spend the 65 million in taxpayer dollars. This would tend to indicate, if true, that the request to place the provision in the appropriations bill came from somewhere other than the agency or the administration. That leaves congressmen and senators.

We began checking with the usual suspects, the Senators who have been vocal over the last two years about rebuilding the atrophied air tanker fleet. No one in the offices of John McCain, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, or Lisa Murkowski wanted to take credit for the proposal. Next we called the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, and struck pay dirt in the House.

Jason Gagnon, a spokesperson for Representative Ken Calvert from California, said that Representative Calvert, who is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, advocated for the inclusion of the provision. The final negotiations were done by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.

Mr. Gagnon said the funds will be spent to purchase air tankers, “a C-130 to be specific”. Representative Calvert, Mr. Gagnon said, “supports the expansion of the airtanker fleet since there is a significant need… This provision is just a step in that direction as more aircraft will be needed… While the Forest Service has been unable to get a request to purchase new aircraft for its fleet, there’s been support within the Forest Service to modernize its fleet by purchasing new aircraft rather than continuing to rely on older aircraft passed along by other federal agencies. This idea has been around for a few years now as the Service has struggled with the costs of maintaining an old fleet. Mr. Calvert made it a priority in the bill and got it across the finish line.”

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, Jennifer Hing, had a similar response, saying, “The funding is for the acquisition/purchase of new aircraft.”

If it is actually true, that the Forest Service will buy one or more new aircraft to serve as air tankers, it will be the first time in 40 to 50 years, if ever. Historically since the 1960s anyway, they have contracted with private companies to supply and operate air tankers and have not owned outright any, to our knowledge. This was known as a Contractor Owned/Contractor Operated (CO/CO) system and was the paradigm until seven used C-130Hs were “given” to the Forest Service by the Coast Guard earlier this year. They are undergoing maintenance and retrofitting by the Air Force, and are expected to begin entering the USFS fleet in Fiscal Year 2018. The aircraft will be Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO).  A joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. This is probably a wise decision since the Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics.

What kind of new, next-generation air tanker will $65 million buy?

It would probably buy a couple of Russian designed Be-200s. They might even be made by a Colorado company, although who knows if the aircraft will ever be certified to operate in the United States.

In FY 2015 the Defense Department expects to pay $88.9 million for each C-130J. However, Lockheed Martin has started selling a less expensive civilian version, the LM-100J, which will be priced at around $65 million. Coincidence? Well, keep in mind that Mark Rey who oversaw the Forest Service as the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, has been a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin since he left the federal government through that proverbial revolving door. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Since 2009 Mr. Rey has been paid at least $380,000 by Lockheed Martin according to Open Secrets.

If the Forest Service and their Inspector General’s Office have the balls to buy an aircraft at the request of a lobbyist who was the former boss of the Chief of the Forest Service, then the agency might end up with a brand new LM-100J.

Maybe Mr. Rey will autograph it as it rolls off the factory floor in Marietta, Georgia.

What are your thoughts about how the Forest Service should spend their $65 million, which according to the legislation is supposed to go toward “acquiring aircraft for the next-generation air tanker fleet”.


Inventec’s enclosed water bucket system

Inventec water bucket

Inventec has developed a water carrying device for firefighting helicopters that, unlike conventional buckets, is completely enclosed. In addition to filling quickly, 1,000 liters (265 gallons) in four to five seconds, the company says no water will escape even if the helicopter travels at high speed. It can be filled from a water source that is only 10 to 12 inches deep.

The device can be strategically located on the ground separate from the helicopter so that firefighters can fill bladder bags from it or use it on a hose lay if it can be positioned at the top of a hill, taking advantage of gravity flow.

Inventec water bucket on ground


Large air tankers in Australia drop on their first fire

Conair's RJ-85

Conair’s RJ-85 returns from making its first retardant drop on a fire in Victoria, Australia December 16. Photo by Michael Austin.

The two large air tankers that are on contract in Victoria, Australia made their first down under retardant drops on a fire December 16. Conair’s RJ-85 and Coulson’s C-130Q each made one drop on a wildfire near the town of Wodonga in northeast Victoria, with both of them putting about an hour and a quarter on their hours meter. These photos were taken by Micheal Austin as the retardant-stained aircraft were returning and landing at Avalon.

The photo of the RJ-85 above shows a retardant stain coming from what appears to be a small orifice high up on the rear section of the bolt-on tank, which could be some sort of overflow function. (Click on the photos to see larger versions.)

The Border Mail has some fascinating photos of the fire, including many shots with lightning in the background.

Coulson's C-130Q

Coulson’s C-130Q returns from making its first retardant drop on a fire in Victoria, Australia, December 16. Photo by Michael Austin.

As we reported earlier, at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday the two air tankers and seven other firefighting aircraft were formally introduced to the Australian media. Both the RJ-85 and the C-130 made demonstration drops with water. A few hours later in the early afternoon they were dispatched to the fire near Wodonga.

Below is an excerpt from ABC, reporting on the introduction of the large air tankers:

…Two Canadian water bombing aircraft doing a practice run for the media at Avalon Airport were called in to help fight the blaze.

The Hercules and RJ tankers can hold more than 12,000 litres of water or fire retardant, which is almost double the capacity of the largest water bombers used last year.

Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the two tankers would be crucial to firefighting this summer because they can fly longer distances.

“They’ll be based at Avalon but they can reach either ends of the state,” he said.

“[They can go] over to Mallacoota or across into the far south-west in around 30 minutes, so their flying time is quite significant.”

Conair's RJ-85

Conair’s RJ-85 makes a demonstration drop at the Avalon airport, December 16, 2014 in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Michael Austin.

Conair is in partnership with the Australian company Field Air in making the RJ-85 aircraft available in Australia. They have launched a Facebook page dedicated to the RJ-85 in Australia, and posted a video that details the development of the air tanker.


Large air tankers to be introduced to the Australia media

T-131 (B390) and T-162 Avalon Airport

T-131 (B390) and T-162 at the Avalon Airport in Victoria. Photo by Wayne Rigg

The two large air tankers that are under contract to Victoria for their 2014/2015 summer bushfire season will be introduced to the Australian media on Tuesday. Conair’s Tanker 162, an RJ-85, and Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q (known in Australia as Bomber 390), will be at the Avalon airport Tuesday, December 16 at 10 a.m. local time. In addition to the two large air tankers, seven other aircraft will be available including two other air tankers and some helicopters, including Coulson’s S-61 (known in Australia as HT347).


T-131 departing for Australia. Photo by Britt Coulson.

T-131 conducting a demonstration drop

T-131 conducting a demonstration drop in Victoria. It is sporting the Emergency Management Victoria logo and its down under ID number, Bomber 390. Photo by Wayne Rigg.


Videos demonstrating the Multi-Link Drop Computer

An article we posted on December 9 described a system being developed by Matt Richardson, an Avionics Systems Engineer with Canaan Avionics LLC, that would electronically designate drop points for firefighting aircraft. While three videos were available that demonstrated the system, Mr. Richardson asked that we not embed them on Fire Aviation, saying they were “a bit esoteric” and only intended for a few people in a federal agency. However, after the article appeared he was contacted by a number of people interested in his work who then saw the videos — and they did not really care about the production quality, Mr. Richardson said. He then said it was OK if we put them on the site. So… here they are.