(Originally published June 4, 2013; revised June 5 to add more details about the staffing of the helicopter and the status of the ownership of the air attack ship.)
The U.S. Forest Service has not had a helicopter with night flying capabilities since around 1980 — until recently. Now there is a night flying ship based on the Angeles National Forest in southern California, designated Helicopter 531.
Three to four night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City have been used for the last four nights on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. They were coordinated by personnel in another new addition to the USFS’s fleet, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. It is a Turbo Commander 690, much like the one in the photo. The air attack ship is not USFS owned as reported by the agency, but it is leased on a call when needed contract. It is equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.
The long term goal of the USFS is to retrofit an old agency-owned piston engine Shrike 500 Commander to take the place of the contractor supplied aircraft.
Helicopter 531 is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s web site says they operate 22 helicopters. During the day to fill its tank it will typically draft water from a water source while hovering. But at night, for safety purposes, it will only refill by landing and filling from a hose staffed by firefighters.
Yes, according to information we received from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea and someone else closely associated with the operation, the helicopter will be staffed 24 hours a day, using five personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There are four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.
The helicopter will be flown by one pilot during the day, but will add a co-pilot at night. It will respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more travel by ground vehicle.
The helicopter and the air attack ship will work out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. They can be used on initial attack during the day and night in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, and all of the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland National Forests.
In a news release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was quoted as saying:
The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.
Both the Turbo Commander and Helicopter 531 began their contract June 1. While the fixed wing has been in use since then, the helicopter and pilots have been going through training and obtaining certifications and the module is expected to be available at the end of the day on June 5.
The USFS was criticized for attacking the 2009 Station fire near Los Angeles on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive. The fire was three to four acres at 7 a.m. on the second day, but no air tankers or helicopters were used the first night or until later in the morning on the second day. The fire took off at mid-morning on day two and later burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters from Los Angeles County Fire Department. Nearby night-flying helicopters operated by Los Angeles County were not used the first night.
After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency later said they would study the concept, again, and three years after the disastrous fire they announced on August 16, 2012 that they would get back into night flying on a very limited basis with a single helicopter in 2013.
The southern California FIRESCOPE organization and the national forests in the area have established guidelines and procedures for the program. Here is a link to a FIRESCOPE document written in 2007. And below are more recent guidelines from the San Bernardino National Forest. Following the San Bernardino document, there are some excerpts from the FIRESCOPE procedures.
Continue reading “USFS tiptoes back into the night flying business”