Colorado to buy two high-tech multi-mission aircraft for aerial firefighting

Pilatus PC-12
Pilatus PC-12. Immigration and Customs Enforcement photo.

The state of Colorado is working on the final paperwork to purchase two multi-mission, high-tech, single-engine, fixed wing aircraft that can be used in a variety of roles for fighting and managing wildfires. The Colorado Firefighting Air Corp, working under the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), is buying two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes that will be configured and outfitted by the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) which is expected to receive the contract to provide and operate the PC-12s.

While the purchase contract is being finalized and the two aircraft are being configured to Colorado’s specifications, one loner PC-12 is being prepared which should be available in Colorado around August 15.

Ralph Pollitt,  the vice president of business development for SNC’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance division, said:

The PC-12 is an ideal multi-mission platform to support the State of Colorado’s firefighting efforts this year. The aircraft is affordable, fast, can stay airborne for a long time, and can be operated from almost any airfield. The suite of sensors and communications equipment provides a capability that can greatly improve the firefighter safety and efficiency in handling an incident.

We asked DFPC Director Paul Cooke about the role of the PC-12s. Besides collecting intelligence about fires, what other roles will they fill, such serving as a Lead Plane or Aerial Supervision Module? Will they be used for non-fire tasks, such as transporting VIPs, cargo, or prisoners? He replied:

When presented to the Governor and Legislature other potential uses of the multi-mission aircraft were discussed, including:

• Transportation of critical medical personnel, supplies, and equipment
• Insect damage and forest assessments for the Colorado State Forest Service
• Office of Emergency Management: disaster assessments/reconnaissance
• Department of Mineral and Geology: mine assessment/compliance
• Dam safety and inspections
• Environmental monitoring and compliance
• Search and rescue missions
• Avalanche control

VIP and prisoner transport are performed by the Colorado State Patrol.

The aircraft will be Part 135 Certified and we expect they will also be ATGS platform carded. However, it will not perform Lead Plane functions and it is not currently planned to serve as an ASM.

According to the Pilatus Corporation, the PC-12 has a maximum cruise speed of 280 KTAS, a maximum operating altitude of 30,000 feet, and a stall speed (MTOW) of 67 KIAS. The U.S. Air Force has been using a variant of the PC-12, the U-28A, for intra-theater support of special operations forces, but they will be replacing them with King Airs.

SNC is not a mom and pop operation, but is multi-billion dollar corporation involved in high-tech electronics, engineering, and manufacturing ventures. One of their most visible projects is the “Dream Chaser”, one of the vehicles that will replace the Space Shuttle. It will launch on a rocket, dock with the International Space Station or perform other tasks in space, and then land on any 8,000-foot runway. The video below shows a Dream Chaser being lifted by an Air-Crane helicopter and then dropped to test its landing capabilities. Unfortunately, the video stops just before the aircraft skidded off the runway and landed sideways when its left landing gear failed to deploy at the last second during touchdown on runway 22L at Edwards Air Force Base in California. SNC said they were going to be able to repair the ship.

A suite of advanced sensors and technology is being installed in the Colorado PC-12s that will enable the aircraft to detect and map wildfires. Additionally, the aircraft will have a communications system that allows the air crew to send collected information to all wildfire response personnel using the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS).

CO-WIMS, developed by SNC’s team member, Intterra, Inc. of Castle Rock, Colorado, is a web-based collaborative information sharing tool that allows any firefighter immediate access to fire location, fire behavior, and other critical pieces of information. CO-WIMS is accessible from tablets, computers, and smartphones and is built specifically to address the needs of the wildfire response personnel. This appears to be a significant step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety we have written about at Wildfire Today, which would provide real time information about the location of firefighters AND the location of the fire.

In 2012 Ryan Maye Handy wrote an excellent article for the Colorado Springs Gazette for which she interviewed a co-founder of Intterra, David Blankinship, who at that time was working on a high-tech intelligence gathering system for the National Interagency Fire Center. Here is an excerpt:

From any computer or smart phone, Blankinship can access the software with a password, and it opens a world of cost charts, topographical maps and resource lists for fires in any region in the United States. He relies on satellite images provided by Digital Globe, a satellite imagining company, to track fire behavior. During the Waldo Canyon fire, for instance, the satellites took images of the fire every morning at 11 a.m., giving Blankinship updates on fire growth that weren’t reliant on an infrared NIROPS flight, which can only capture images at night.

Blankinship describes the software as “cutting edge” for the fire service — very different from a less tech-oriented “boots on the ground” fire fighting approach.

“It’s a geeky thing but it’s revolutionary,” he said.

Newcomers to the fire world — anyone who has been in the business for less than 10 years — are favoring more technology in fire fighting, Blankinship said.

“If you’ve been around for longer than that you’re a ground pounder, and looking at things on the back of a truck,” Blankinship said.

The DFPC has also awarded contracts for three firefighting helicopters.

SNC’s Dream Chaser:

8 thoughts on “Colorado to buy two high-tech multi-mission aircraft for aerial firefighting”

  1. The PC-12 is a great choice and seems the ideal aircraft for the proposed roles. It also makes much more financial and operational sense than a helicopter.
    However…I question the push to link ground firefighter safety to the presence of an aircraft or any aerial viewing perspective overhead. The so-called Holy Grail should remain the teaching of basic firefighting principles, sound decision making and the understanding of factors that potentially lead to poor choices. Investing in a gee-whiz aircraft for fire intelligence is one thing. Depending upon it for safety is extremely misguided.

      1. Sure Bill, but my point was about depending upon an aircraft – any aircraft – for firefighter safety. Advocating this CO-WIMS tool that provides real-time info on fire & firefighter locations and implying that aerial monitoring will provide a safety buffer is a dangerous line of thinking that many wildfire agencies will not pursue. Real-time monitoring (we must remember that “real time” provides a snapshot and can not predict trends in fire behaviour and resource movement) will not prevent every instance of independently-minded ground assets putting themselves into a compromised situation.
        I’m sure the PC-12 will perform admirably in a mapping/recon role and for ferrying people & stuff from place to place. I certainly hope advertising it as a safety enhancement tool will not introduce a false sense of protection within the ground ranks. Believing there can be a Holy Grail for safety can only lead towards institutional complacency.

        Anyway…PC-12. Good choice.

        1. Chris

          If near real time fire position and unit position info was available, would you use it or would you reject it altogether?

          I think the issue is that, as an enabler, it would increase safety and efficiency. It would only create vulnerabilities and dependencies if it was used as a substitute for well proven tactics, techniques, and procedures.

        2. Chris, should we eliminate hard hats because they provide “a false sense of protection within the ground ranks”, or because they “can only lead towards institutional complacency”?

          If you knew that providing the location of the fire and firefighters could prevent some fatalities, would you still be against it?

          1. Let’s not take this to silly extremes. I merely stated that relying on aircraft for firefighter safety is misguided. I stand by my opinion.

  2. Basic skills are not part of the discussion, but ya’ll opened the can so here I go.

    The military uses airborne resources to provide enhanced situational awareness to ground troops. There is no ” ignore what I see in front of me”. This concept works well for the military and will work for wild land FF.

    The biggest value of the new aircraft and the special equipment is that it will be able to pinpoint small fires and direct crews efficiently while they are still small.

    The State of COLO also is looking at other mission that the PC12 can be used for during the off season or idle times.

    Given the PC12’s history of reliability, cost effectiveness and versatility: they pick the right plane to serve as a platform.

  3. “The biggest value of the new aircraft and the special equipment is that it will be able to pinpoint small fires and direct crews efficiently while they are still small. ”

    I think the biggest value of the aircraft and its systems will be to provide landbase managers with the ability to determine the current fire perimeter and overlay that onto map layers showing values at risk, fuel types, firefighting resources etc. It will take much guesswork out of determining an appropriate response and shorten the delays inherent in the first stages of any incident, while providing still and moving images to all agencies involved. For the above, I agree the PC12 is an excellent selection.

    Detecting and pinpointing fires and directing crews efficiently while they are small can be done using a Cessna 172 and a pair of eyeballs.

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