Photos of aircraft on the Mountain Fire

Air tanker 07,  a P2V
Air tanker 07, a P2V, July 15 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.

These photos were graciously sent to us by Steve Whitby who took them on the Mountain Fire in July. The fire burned over 20,000 acres in and near the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. Thanks Steve — great pictures!

Air tanker 73, an S2T
Air tanker 73, an S2T, flown by Mike Venable, July 15 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.
Tanker 910, a DC-10, July 16
Tanker 910, a DC-10, July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.
Erickson Air-Crane July 16 on the Mountain Fire
Erickson Air-Crane, July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.

Legislation introduced to transfer 7 C-130Hs to US Forest Service

The U.S. Coast Guard’s idea to give some C-130s to the U.S. Forest Service if the Coast Guard can get at least 14 of the Air Force’s C-27Js is gaining some traction.

Of the 507 amendments that have been introduced to modify the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (Senate Bill 1197), 8 of them are sponsored by Senator John McCain. All of the Senator’s lengthy amendments, covering many topics, have nearly identical language requiring the Department of Homeland Security, referring to the Coast Guard in this case, to transfer seven C-130H aircraft to the Air Force without reimbursement. Then the Air Force will be required to :

…perform center and outer wingbox replacement modifications, progressive fuselage structural inspections, and configuration modifications necessary to convert each HC-130H aircraft as large air tanker wildfire suppression aircraft.

The aircraft will then be transferred to the Forest Service to be used as air tankers, again without reimbursement.

If the bill passes and Senator McCain’s amendment remains intact, two big IFs, we assume that the USFS would use the C-130H air tankers as Government-Owned/Contractor-Operated assets, a new type of venture for the agency. CAL FIRE has been using this model for years with their fleet of 23 S-2T air tankers and it seems to work well for them.

(UPDATE 1-7-2014: The bill passed. Here is a link to the text.)

In addition, the McCain amendments require the Army to transfer, in FY 2014 without reimbursement, up to 15 Short C-23B+ Sherpa aircraft to the Forest Service to be used in fire management.

Apparently Senator McCain has given up on his previous proposal. In July of 2012, with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) he introduced legislation known as the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012 (S. 3441) ”to help replenish the agency’s aging airtanker fleet”. It would have required the transfer of 14 C-27Js to the Forest Service. The bill died, and since then the USFS has said they want 7 of the aircraft.

The Coast Guard would like to have all 21 of the C-27Js that the Air Force is giving away, but since Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the October 28 decision to give seven of them to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), that left the USFS and the Coast Guard to fight over the remaining 14. In an interview we posted November 13, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp said they wanted all 21, but  ”…we are going to press ahead and get as many of those [remaining 14] as we can.” Then he floated the idea of trading their old C-130Hs for the seven C-27Js that appeared to be heading to the USFS.

The upgraded C-130H with the wingbox replacement and an Aero Union RADS 3,500-gallon constant-flow GPS-regulated retardant tank could be an excellent air tanker for the USFS. This is basically what Coulson has done with their Tanker 131, a C-130Q which is nearly identical to the C-130H.

Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.

If they receive them, the USFS could use the Short C-23B+ Sherpa aircraft for smokejumping and for hauling cargo. In 1991 the agency acquired six Shorts 330 Sherpa’s and has used them as smokejumper platforms. The 330s are similar to the C-23B+ Sherpa but have smaller engines and a lower cruising speed.

New owners of Aero Union’s assets intend to sell or lease the P-3s

P-3 Orion air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From zionhelitack.blogspot.com

When we wrote on October 15 that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union had been purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft, it was unknown what the fate of the planes was going to be. The company that bought them and the other assets, United Aeronautical (UAC), was not disclosing their plans and there was concern among those who would like to see the big four-engine turboprops back in the air that they would be parted out or scrapped. While that still could happen, a new development raises the possibility of a continued life for the P-3 air tankers.

Aero Union logoUAC has partnered with a second company, Blue Aerospace, in an effort to sell or lease the eight aircraft. Blue Aerospace made a presentation last month at the Hercules Operators Council in Atlanta promoting the air tankers, and proudly displayed the Aero Union logo. They intend to:

  • Work with the customer community to ensure that the appropriate maintenance is conducted;
  • Provide legacy support for older systems, RADS II and Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS I); and,
  • Regenerate the capability to supply new fully operational MAFFS II units.

Blue Aerospace said in their presentation, “we are not an operator, but seek to make the highly effective assets of UAC available to those who are”.

A pdf of their presentation can be found HERE.

Over the last few years we have received calls from a variety of people asking where they could buy new MAFFS units or arrange for maintenance or parts for existing systems. So there may be a market for new MAFFS and even the Aero Union P-3s.

There are varying reports of how much work and how many dollars would be needed to bring the eight aircraft back into flyable shape. Six of them were still being used on fires when the U.S. Forest Service cancelled their air tanker contract with Aero Union in July of 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed. Shortly after that the company laid off most of their employees and eventually sold all of their assets to a bank.

Trade organization issues press release about the state of fire aviation

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has issued a press release about the current state of contracted aerial firefighting services for the federal government.

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2013  — On the eve of its 2014 Annual Meeting in Boise, Idaho, on November 20, the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has cited some progress over the past year toward airtanker fleet modernization, along with on-going opposition to any increased role for government in the aerial firefighting business.

“After years of discussions between AHSAFA, US Forest Service (USFS) officials, and Congress, multi-year, operating contracts—worth $261 million—were awarded last spring by the USFS to five companies for seven next-generation large airtankers, to be available for the 2013 fire season,” said AHSAFA Executive Director Tom Eversole. “The USFS has said there is a need for as many as 26 modern large airtankers within the next five years. We consider the contract awards to be a major step toward the replacement of the current large airtanker fleet, consisting of seven to eight Cold War Era military surplus aircraft. All indications are that the USFS will not contract for these legacy aircraft beyond the current contract period, which ends in 2018.”
Continue reading “Trade organization issues press release about the state of fire aviation”

Yellowstone area helicopters make two short haul rescues

Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.
Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.

Helicopters in the Yellowstone area made at least two short haul rescues in August, both of them with ASTAR B3 ships.

The first occurred on August 17 in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The helicopter from Yellowstone National Park had been assigned to the general area for fire and rescue support working out of Wenatchee when a climber had a medical problem at the 12,000′ level on Mount Rainier at Disapointment Cleaver. The Mount Rainier rangers knew the Yellowstone helicopter was in the area and requested it to respond after they evaluated the condition of the climber and considered the rescue alternatives.
short haul rescue

The other happened on August 27 after a snag struck a Chena Hotshot crew member while assigned to the Kelley fire on the Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho. The rescue was performed by a Jackson, Wyoming Teton Interagency helicopter while the ship was assigned to the fire. The National Park Service describes this rescue:

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“…Immediately after the accident, the Chena superintendent requested a medical evacuation, prompting air attack to request an air ambulance and a hoist-capable helicopter. Hearing the radio traffic, a Teton Interagency Helitack crew member assigned to the helibase notified air attack that the crew and Helicopter N26HX, which was conducting water drops from a dip site near Helibase, were short-haul capable. Short-haul is a rescue technique where an individual is suspended below the helicopter on a 100 to 200 foot rope. This method allows a rescuer more direct access to an injured party, and it is often used in national parks like Grand Teton National Park in the Teton Range where conditions make it difficult to land a helicopter in the steep and rocky terrain. Patients are typically flown out via short-haul with a ranger attending to them below the helicopter.

Operations diverted the helicopter from a water bucket mission, and the crew began preparing for a short-haul. Pilot Chris Templeton and short-haul spotter Garth Wagner flew a reconnaissance mission. Tasks included locating a suitable insertion spot, conducting environmental and power checks, and determining that a short-haul mission was the appropriate tool. Based on the recon flight, the crew completed a short-haul and Green-Amber-Red (GAR) risk assessment, then readied for the mission. They configured the helicopter by removing the doors, attaching a “three-ring” backup to the cargo hook, and inspecting and attaching a 150-foot-long short haul rope to the cargo hook. They also checked the harnesses for the short-hauler and spotter, as well as the communication systems. A litter was prepared with a harness and attachment points.

While the helitack crew was preparing helicopter N26HX for short-haul, another helicopter delivered medical gear to the site of the injured firefighter. An EMT on the Chena Hotshots and other crew members prepared the patient for transport. The helicopter inserted short-hauler Ron Johnson, whose normal job is as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, with a litter and line gear into the extraction site. Rescuers transported the patient on a spine board the 150 feet to the extraction site. Because the patient was already packaged, the helicopter extracted him and the short-hauler about 15 minutes after inserting Johnson on site. They were flown back to helibase where a team of Teton Helitack members caught the patient and litter and transferred him to an awaiting life-flight helicopter.

Teton Interagency Helicopter
Teton Interagency Helicopter. NPS photo.

During the week before the successful rescue mission, the Teton Helitack crew flew nearly three hours of short-haul training in typical terrain for pilot proficiency. Such proficiency training is required every 28 days, and in this case, the training was also essential in preparing the helitack crew to receive the patient and litter at helibase.

Using the short-haul method is relatively new to wildland fire, but is one of the preferred methods of rescue in the rugged terrain of several national parks, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and Grand Canyon. The Yosemite Helitack crew performed a successful rescue earlier in August on the Green Ridge fire on the Deschutes National Forest.”

Students design fire-hunting UAV

Fire-hunting UAV
From left: Jennifer Hull, Steven Vo, Matthew Mannebach, Robert Harden and Coryn Mickelson with the fire-hunting UAV they designed and built over the summer at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Image courtesy of Mike Logan.

From NASA:

NASA Langley Student Team Designs Fire-Hunting UAV

Sept 26, 2013

You could say that the idea came to him in a cloud of smoke.

Over the summer, Mike Logan, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, put a group of students to work designing and building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that could one day help to snuff out fires in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.

The origins of the project go back to August of 2011. A lightning strike in the swamp sparked a blaze that ended up burning for four months. At one point, wind pushed the smoke as far north as Maryland. Logan, who lives due north of the swamp in South Hampton Roads, often found his house in the path of the acrid cloud.

“After choking down a few dozen clouds worth of peat bog smoke, which I found out I’m allergic to, I thought, you know, there really ought to be a better way,” he said.

So Logan made a phone call to the local fire captain. They had a couple of conversations and visited the swamp to do a sight survey. Logan learned that lightning causes the majority of the fires in the swamp, and that the only way swamp personnel are able to locate fire sources is to hire an outside contractor to do a manned aircraft survey.

It’s an expensive solution, and one that didn’t happen until nearly a week and a half after the 2011 fire started. By that time, the blaze had already spiraled out of control.

But that gave Logan an idea: why not develop a UAV that could fly over the swamp and detect fires before they get out of hand?

It was a simple solution to complex problem, and Logan tasked his student team with bringing it to fruition.

“I said, you know, this would be a perfect opportunity to give them some hands-on learning experience and oh, by the way, solve this massive problem pretty inexpensively,” he said.

The team, which included Aerospace Project interns Jennifer Hull, Robert Harden, Matthew Mannebach and Coryn Mickelson, and Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars (LARSS) intern Steven Vo, had 10 weeks to design and build the UAV. Logan specified that it had to be low cost and operable by Great Dismal Swamp personnel. It also needed to be deployable within minutes or hours of a storm and able to autonomously detect, provide images of, and provide precise GPS coordinates for, small hotspots that might develop into serious fires.

“At first I was daunted,” said Hull, a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who didn’t have much experience building UAVs prior to tackling Logan’s project.

But Logan guided his team through the process, showing them how to cut foam parts for the UAV on a CNC hot wire machine. He also taught them to apply composite skins like Kevlar and fiberglass using a vacuum bagging system that molds and seals the composites to the body of the aircraft.

In addition, the students had to optimize the UAV’s airflow, install an auto navigation unit, test different motor-propeller combinations, and set up payloads (the aircraft had to carry a video camera and an infrared camera). They even manufactured a camera mount with a 3D printer and a heat sink that was cut using a water jet at NASA Langley’s fabrication shop.

“They learned all these things about how you fabricate stuff that they wouldn’t have gotten at the university,” Logan said.

Vo, a student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, certainly found it enlightening.

“I feel like this hands-on experience will help me become a better designer in the future as I will be able to better understand the feasibility of certain designs and where to compromise between design ideals and ease of manufacturing,” he said.

Toward the end of their 10 weeks, Logan’s team was ready to send its fire-hunting UAV up for a first test flight, but windy conditions thwarted one attempt and a last-second technical glitch stopped another.

Though the students have since left, Logan is hoping to make another attempt soon. Not only would this UAV potentially save the Great Dismal Swamp money, it could also save taxpayers money. Between the 2011 fire and another fire in 2008, taxpayers had to cover nearly $25 million in firefighting costs. That makes the idea of a UAV that could pinpoint hotspots and lead firefighters to them before they get out of hand that much more appealing.

Logan also sees commercial potential for the aircraft, and had the students design it with that in mind.

“The idea is to make this as easy to produce as possible,” he said. “And that was one of the items that I kind of stressed to the students is that hey, every time you have to perform an operation — what the people in the industry call touch labor — every step that you have to make, whether it’s turning a screw, whether it’s a vacuum bagging process or whatever, that costs money.”

Hull, who started the project daunted, but ended it “excited” and “confident,” said it was a great experience.

“There are many people out there who do not feel like they are contributing enough with their job and want to make a bigger and better impact on society, and this internship was amazing in that it let us do that,” she said. “If our UAV or a UAV inspired by ours is ever used by a park ranger in the Great Dismal Swamp and prevents just one wildfire, it will have my made summer.”

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

Tanker 131 on the Wheeler Fire

T-131 on the Wheeler Fire, November 14, 2013

Britt Coulson sent us this very impressive video and the excellent photos of their C-130-Q, Tanker 131, dropping on the Wheeler Fire in southern California. The still photos were taken by Michael Meadows on Thursday, November 14 and are used here with his permission.

You have to watch this video. I have seen lots of forward-looking videos shot from the cockpit of air tankers, but this one looking toward the rear allows you to see where the retardant hits the fire. Very impressive. We asked Britt for some details about the camera:

It is the newest version of GoPro and they mounted it on the rear ramp door. The C-130Q has a hole where the low frequency RF cable used to go out that was later converted to a window with bars over it so it doesn’t get damaged. We build a housing that attaches to the bars and holds the camera. I believe they activated it before they took off then just cut the video down.

They have another camera mounted on a wing tip but it was not turned on for this flight. The photo below was taken from that camera.

T-131 from wing tip camera

The Wheeler Fire, north of Santa Paula in Ventura County, was contained at 64 acres. T-131 dropped 10,500 USG over 3 sorties and 5 drops.

Coulson’s exclusive use contract with the U.S. Forest Service ended for the year on November 15 but the agency gave them an extension based on fire activity.

Click on the photos to see larger versions.
T-131 on the Wheeler Fire, November 14, 2013 T-131 on the Wheeler Fire, November 14, 2013Thanks Britt and Michael!

Walt Darran, rest in peace

Walt Darran passed away yesterday, November 15, 2013.

Walt Darran

Walt Darran, a good friend, passed away yesterday, November 15, after fighting a battle with stomach cancer. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his wife, Christine.

Walt was the first person we went to when we began our series of articles featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. Below is what we posted on Fire Aviation January 18, 2013.

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We begin the series with one of the most experienced and well-respected pilots, Walt Darran. Walt has retired from active duty as an S2T air tanker pilot with CAL FIRE/DynCorp, and is now the Safety Committee Chairman of the Associated Aerial Firefighters and also serves as the Chairman of their Board of Directors.

Here are Walt’s responses to our questions:

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Walt Darran cranking air tanker at Hemet
Walt Darran starting Tanker 68, a TBM at Hemet

Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
Don Ornbaum, airtanker pilot. In addition to his outstanding stick & rudder skills, Don’s ability to succinctly, powerfully, and without reservation present his ideas, both positive and critical, based on many years of aerial firefighting, which added greatly to the legend and store of Tribal Knowledge in the early days of aerial firefighting.

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
Think. Never forget the option to just say “no”.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Two-way communication; outreach to firefighters in the field, both boots on the ground and aircrews, preferably one-on-one face time. There is currently a severe disconnect. Desk-bound managers at Fire & Aviation occasionally riding jumpseat on live missions, and maybe living out of a suitcase attached to an airtanker for 3-4 months at a time away from home, would help close the gap in their understanding and empathy.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
Better communication. Visit your local airbase occasionally and have a cup of coffee with the aircrews. Better yet, call and debrief after an incident with suggestions (or even praise!) about a specific drop or incident. Check into airtanker.org; consider joining Associated Aerial Firefighters.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
“Lessons Learned” —Tribal Knowledge; now available in NTSB accident reports, NAFRI I and II, Cal Fire Safety seminars, and airtanker.org forum and archives. Experience is one way of learning, but it’s not always the safest, most effective, or most efficient way.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
If I had to pick only the two most cost-effective, flexible, Initial Attack aircraft that are FAA certified I’d have to say the Sikorsky S70C Firehawk and the Airtractor AT802AF (lots of them, all over the place, real IA, on “exclusive use” contracts, not CWN; including the Wipaire FireBoss amphibian option). Bombardier CL415 and AW319 are close behind. C130J with MAFFS II is OK for surge, but probably cost-prohibitive, and not as effective/efficient as a C130 with RADS.

Remanufactured, or newly converted, choices would include BAe146 (and RJ85), Erickson Sky Crane, DC10, B747, Grumman S2T, DeHavilland Dash 8-Q400, and C130H with RADS. Beriev BE200, Shinmaywa US-2, and Kamov KA-32A11BC have potential if/when FAA certified and given adequate OEM support. But they are all just tools in the tool box—each works well if, and only if, dispatched in a timely manner, then properly applied by a proficient crew in the appropriate situation.

List the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?
Flown on fires: Grumman TBM, Grumman Ag-Cat, Grumman S2A/T, Stearman PT-17, Lockheed P2V-5/7, Beech D18, MELEX Dromader M18T, Consolidated PBY5A, Fairchild C119C, Douglas B26, Douglas C54E. Carded on DC7B. Flight time in (airline/military, not airtanker conversions) Lockheed L100 Electra, DeHavilland DH4 Caribou, MD80 (series), DC10-10/30, Douglas AD4 Skyraider, Pilatus Tirbo-Porter. Airtanker evaluation flights, with drops, in BAe146-200, DC10-10 (jumpseat on fires), Airtractor 802 AF, and FireBoss. Loved them all, but felt most at home in S2A and S2T. The S2T has a big advantage in reliability, tank system, capacity, speed, maneuverability, performance, and comfort.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
Joe Satrapa describing to a reporter how a Heavenly vision of John Wayne told him to open the overhead hatch in his S2T, piss on a rag, and use it to clean his windshield in flight (after the retardant from the previous airtanker drop had totally obscured his cockpit vision).

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
2,646

Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?

  1. Firebombers Into Hell, Linc Alexander.
  2. Air Attack on Forest Fires, Alexander Linkewich (Linc Alexander).
  3. Firecrew, Ben Walters with Kelly Andersson.

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
Pilot for Hemet Valley Flying Service, 1971.

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
GPS, TCADS [a collision avoidance system], iPhone with lotsa apps, air conditioning. Wish list; GPS moving map display with IR (Max-Viz) SVS overlay, ARINC with printer, auto-pilot, Electronic Flight Bag on iPad, Appareo Flight Reconstruction System. Folding gas-powered motor scooter.