Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

Representatives from three private helicopter companies in Montana have waded into the controversy about the U.S. Forest Service not approving modifications made to helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The lack of approval means the helicopters cannot be used for fires on national forest land.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program.

On August 21 Montana Governor Steve Bullock called the Forest Service’s position on the issue “nonsensical”, according to Newsmax, and in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote:

I am doing my part to mobilize every available firefighting resource at my disposal, and make them available to all fire protection agencies. I encourage you to do your part by directing leadership within your respective agencies to rescind this unnecessary and artificial restriction on Montana aircraft as soon as possible.

The FEPP program requires helicopters to be in full compliance with FAA regulations, however the DNRC stated in 2010 that they do not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates.

The representatives from the Montana helicopter companies say there is much more to the story. We received the following letter written by Will Metz of Vigilante Helicopters, Gary Blain from Billings Flying Service, and Mike Mamuzich of Minuteman Aviation.

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September 18, 2015

“To: Bill of Fire Aviation   

RE: Use of Montana UH-1H Firefighting Aircraft on Federal Lands is Suspect

From 2009-2012 Aviation Watch Inc., a non-profit organization that represented private aircraft operators and contractors, conducted a review of the MT DNRC Aviation Program. This in depth FOIA review discovered concerning and glaring operational and maintenance issues regarding Montana DNRC Aircraft. These technical and sometimes complicated issues are previous to this year’s fire season and are ongoing. 

Although in recent articles the DNRC has explained some of the issues away as good ideas in the name of performance, the facts remain.  The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to. For instance, letters written to the DNRC by Billings Flying Service and the response by the DNRC, along with the related engineering report, you will see items highlighted that are of continuing concern. 

The last page of their own engineering report, Fig 13 Weight Altitude and Temperature (WAT) Chart, which is required, clearly limits their lifting capability. This has been referred to in recent press articles as “the bucket issue”. It is not the size of the bucket but rather the weight you can lift with approved performance data. The DNRC has surreptitiously omitted this from their own flight manual supplement and apparently it is not applicable to them, even though they paid for the data.  Civilian helicopters are capable of lifting more than the performance charts allow as well, but they cannot self-approve themselves to do so, nor is it safe.

There were numerous other issues raised, some egregious, as part of the operator review that are available. Even the possibility of one such discrepancy in the civilian world would ground aircraft, some permanently.  These Documents, attachments and others are available on a website. 

As they should, the Forest Service requires all aircraft fighting fires on Federal lands to adhere to the same performance and standards for safety and standardization reasons. The MT DNRC requires private operators contracting with them to adhere to these standards as well, of which they themselves do not meet.

Every year all aircraft go through a carding or approval process with the Federal Government to fight fires on Federal lands. They either receive a card or authorization letter. This happens early in the season so there is an inventory of available and approved aircraft for Federal Fires. This includes the MT DNRC and they were certainly aware going into this fire season they did not meet contract specifications. There were serious issues. This does question whether the DNRC chose not to comply, believing they are exempt, or given the opportunity to rectify, and did not. Further, can they comply with the way they have modified these aircraft? Further yet, should they?

These five surplus UH-1H aircraft are not owned by the State of MT. Rather, they are owned by the USFS and are on loan to the state through the FEPP (Federal Excess Personal Property)  program. As such, they are to be maintained in accordance with the original military standards or a combination of military or commercial (FAA) standards, whichever are more stringent. The DNRC has done neither. There is criteria to acquire and operate FEPP aircraft per the FEPP rules.  Specifically; States may not acquire aircraft through the FEPP Program to support the Forest Service or other federal agencies! Furthermore, Government competition with private industry is not allowed. The Government should not use FEPP to provide services for others when there are commercial services reasonably available

They simply cannot create their own standards, or choose which rules to ignore or comply with, as they apparently have.

Curiously, did the Governor, the Representatives and the editors know this or about the wholesale modifications of these aircraft before press articles and opinions went out? Do they understand FEPP regarding aircraft, and the agreements, rules and regulations that FEPP aircraft are required to adhere to? Does a MT Super 205 actually exist or is it a figment of their imagination? If so, should the State of Montana be in the aircraft manufacturing business?  Should Government whining, grandstanding, bullying, pressure and politics be paramount to safety and established agreements? Should our elected officials be concentrated on perpetuating a state bureaucracy? Or should they be providing contracting opportunities for private U.S. operators of aircraft and ground equipment alike?

Private contractors contribute to the tax base versus depleting it. They provide jobs, buy goods and services, and most importantly pay taxes.  In truth private contractors would welcome the opportunity to bid on state contracts. Unnecessary encroachment by government agencies into services normally performed by the private sector seem deceptively attractive. However, the taxpayer picks up the bill and the private sector and the tax base is the victim. The private sector can more efficiently and cost effectively provide these services.  

Recent articles have suggested that the DNRC expects changes next spring and are close to resolving this issue. Are these changes going to make them exempt from the standards the current operators are held to? Is that necessary and fair? Do we have to break the rules to accommodate them? It seems likely the MT DNRC taking their position in the heat of the fire season was pure political fodder and grandstanding at the expense of safety and recognized aviation standards for operation of these aircraft.  Unfortunately, opinion columns are printed without some investigation into relevant facts, history and representation from opposing viewpoints. Curiously enough, information has been provided to nearly all the interested parties since the first articles came out and not one mention has been made of it. Also this season, a modified DNRC UH-1H aircraft was seriously damaged and removed from service due to the aforementioned bucket damaging the aircraft to the point of extensive repairs. Why hasn’t this been reported in the press or disclosed? Who pays for that, and what’s it going to take?

Notwithstanding the State DNRC press releases and editorials, with the extensive amount of issues and concerns raised, it seems questionable a perfunctory review of their program over a two day period has completely rendered their operation safe. Quite possibly there are issues that are far from resolved. Moreover, a complete overhaul and evaluation of this program is in order.  Per the FEPP Agreement, Forest Service aircraft on loan to State forestry agencies are subject to recall if not used in accordance with Federal aviation laws and regulations and property management laws and regulations.

The Forest service has done a good job of managing available aircraft resources by utilizing private contractors for fires on federal lands and state aircraft for initial attack on state lands.  That is the very premise of the FEPP program. Give them credit, there are established rules and agreements to follow. The Forest Service has made the correct call in this case and hopefully they won’t bow to political pressure and bullying.

5 thoughts on “Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies”

  1. Can someone with more insight than I have address this statement for me?

    “Specifically; States may not acquire aircraft through the FEPP Program to support the Forest Service or other federal agencies!”

    But this does not preclude state operated FEPP aircraft from operating on Federal jurisdiction fires, right? We see an awful lot of S2Ts dropping retardant on USFS, BLM and NPS fires in CA

    1. And Super Hueys like Montana has…A private company could not legally operate a Huey like CalFire does, how’s Montana any different?

  2. For states to aquire FEPP aircraft they need to follow FEPP rules. They are allowed to use their FEPP aircraft to fight fires on state protect lands. If they are used on federal protection land then they can only be used for inititial attack and contractor aircraft must be ordered. FEPP aircraft are not suppose to be used for federal extended attack.
    Montana DNRC could not be used on federal fires at all because MT DNRC never did the first step, which is to request the federal gov’t inspect and approve their aircraft and pilots. As of my knowledge MT never made that request, therefore the Forest Service can not approve them even if they wanted to. This is done on a yearly basis nationally with all states and contractors. This step is initated by the state or contractor, the Forest service can not show up and do it on their own. So the fault lies with MT DNRC for not even requesting this service before the fire season. By not being inspected by the feds, either FS or DOI, it automaticly makes the DNRC aircraft non-approved and can not be used on federal protect lands. So the question should be asked, why didn’t MT DNRC, Mr Harrington, request the FS to inspect their aircraft and pilots so they could be approved for federal protection, inititial attack fires. Mr Harrington never mentioned that in all his news interviews and he mislead the people of Montana and the Governor of Montana. He as also mislead everyone when it comes to why the DNRC aircraft can’t be used. So why don’t people start asking the right questions and not just follow Mr Harrington’s gibberish and misleading statements, he has an agenda and is hanging the Montana Governor’s political careerr out, over misleading statements. The Governor and his staff should dig into the whole situation a lot more and find out what it is all really about and not just take Mr Harrington’s words as facts.

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