Fire monitoring helicopter crashes in Russia, reportedly killing three

A helicopter used for monitoring wildfires crashed May 4 in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan, according to TASS which received information from regional emergency services. Three people were on board when it went down 30 kilometers south of the community of Inzer in the Beloretsk district. The reports are that there were no survivors.

Below is an excerpt from TASS:

The helicopter belonged to the Lightair company. The news it went missing came at 14:20 Moscow time. The helicopter had left Bashkortostan’s capital Ufa for Beloretsk. The distress signal from its emergency beacon was picked up by a satellite rescue system. The local office of the Investigative Committee has launched a probe.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers.

Air tanker 116 at Redding

The U.S. Forest Service distributed these photos Thursday of air tanker 116 at Redding, California. Normally the aircraft is based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento, but it ventured north for “aerial firefighter training”.

The agency did not specify if the lawn chairs in the shade are part of the regular equipment inventory on the aircraft.

This plane is one of seven HC-130H’s that are transitioning from the Coast Guard to the USFS. The program has experienced delays but is expected to be complete by the end of this decade.

tanker 116 HC-130H tanker 116 HC-130H

Picture day for Coulson’s C-130’s

While Coulson’s three C-130-type air tankers were all together in Reno last month for carding by the U.S. Forest Service and pilot training the company took the opportunity to grab some photos of the aircraft while they were flying in formation.

They are all variants of Lockheed’s C-130 platform — Tanker 131 is a C-130Q while Tankers 132 and 133 are L-382G’s. Tanker 133, the newest addition to the fleet, just became operational a couple of weeks ago.

Scroll down to see how Dan Megna got the photos.

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tanker

To take the photos Coulson rented an OV-10 that conveniently has a small compartment in the rear. Professional photographer Dan Megna sat in that tiny space to get the shots.

Smokejumper transition — round canopy to square

smokejumper square canopy
Smokejumper lands under a ram-air canopy. From smokejumplers_on_ig

Change is hard.

A change being made in the U.S. Forest Service smokejumper program is not only hard, but can result in hard landings.

In early 2015 a decision made in Washington, DC started the agency on a transition from the round parachute canopy they had used for 75 years to a ram-air or “square” canopy.

The round canopy has been improved over the last three-quarters of a century evolving into the current FS-14 version. There have been no fatalities directly related to that canopy.

The ram-air is a high-performance flying wing. The two canopies have been described as comparing a race car with a minivan. The race car can do astounding things at high speed, while the minivan cruises at comfortable speeds. Driving a race car requires a great deal of training and experience, much more than a minivan. A crash in a race car will probably result in injuries more severe than a fender bender in the van.

One of the reasons for transitioning to the ram-air is the assertion that the pilot can land in stronger winds. Former smokejumper Chuck Sheley, in a February, 2016 article for Smokejumper Magazine, wrote about this ability:

The stated advantage to the square is its ability “to jump in higher winds than round parachutes.” In my eyes the ram-air is being touted because of its ability, according to the BLM Spotter Handbook, to “land comfortably in open terrain with ground winds up to 25-30 mph.” However, in the April 15th practice jumps at Black’s Creek, two jumpers were injured and the jumps stopped with winds of 15-18 mph. Two square jumpers were injured on the Sequoia with only 100 yards drift. Where did the 25-30 figure come from?

Mr. Sheley also wrote:

The ram air canopy has a 20-25 mph forward speed vs 9 mph for the FS-14 round canopy.

Malfunctions of the round canopy are extremely rare. Someone with knowledge of operations at the Missoula smokejumper base told us that jumpers at the base have not had a malfunction in about 30 years.

Since 1991 there have been three ram-air fatalities:

  • Billy Martin, May 31, 1991. That ended the first attempt by the FS to transition to the ram-air.
  • David Liston, April 29, 2000.
  • Mark Urban, September 27, 2013.

On May 1, 2017 there was a ram-air malfunction out of the Missoula jump base, and a couple of weeks earlier there was one at Boise.

Before Tom Harbour, the Forest Service National Fire Director, retired in January, 2016 he led the decision to transition to the square chute. In the video below during the December, 2015 exit interview we conducted with him he discusses the decision beginning at 9:00.

Mr. Harbour was an advocate for inserting a Type 3 Incident Management Team, comprised of jumpers, into a fire in a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) area. This new mission for jumpers, if ever implemented, might be ammunition for smokejumper diehards against the suggestions that helicopter-borne firefighters could be the modern evolution of airborne fire personnel.

The “two-manner in the Bob” he refers to, we believe, is two smokejumpers suppressing a small fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana.

Last month we asked Mr. Harbour’s replacement, Shawna Legarza, about the round versus the square canopy:

From the best that I know, Bill, you know Tom Harbour implemented that — would have done it in June I believe of ’15 and from what I understand and I’ve talked to a lot of smokejumpers about it, it sounds like the round chute that we’ve had in the Forest Service for so long was almost a legacy chute where this new square chute evidently has more adaptability than we could progress with the round chute.
And we all know that square chutes were originally with the BLM. The land in Nevada is flat and low, not hills and terrain like in the forest. And we all know that the round chute was going like straight down into the trees or whatever and so it sounds like the new chute has more adaptability between the different types of land and topography I guess we’re going to be jumping into.
So it goes back and forth some of the folks here are excited about doing that and the others are not so much, right? And so I’ve given my leader’s intent to the jump base when I saw them last year that we don’t have to rush through this.
I want people to take their time implementing it and do it right and do it safe and and to work through it because it’s a pretty significant change as you know.

There have been unconfirmed reports that some jumpers have left the program rather than transition to the ram-air. Any smokejumper who does not want to transition to the ram-air has 10-years from the start of the transition that officially began in 2016 before they will be moved into other positions for which they qualify.

Our source told us that the typical number of rookies in the annual combined Missoula, Grangeville, and West Yellowstone class is less than 10. This year there are 27. After checking with the smokejumper program, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the FS, told us that the class usually has 12 to 16 rookies.

She said the agency’s primary reasons for transitioning to a different canopy are:

  1. Enhance the smokejumper program’s operational effectiveness by increasing the capability to staff wildfires during more severe environmental conditions (higher winds) when they are most vulnerable to escape, reducing the risk that they will become large, costly, and dangerous to other firefighters and the public.
  2. To accomplish this without increasing, and with the goal of reducing, the likelihood of serious and minor injuries attributed to parachute landings.

“Busy drop zone during our last proficiency jump of the season. #NPSB #ominecasmokejumpers #bcfs #smokejumper” 🎥: @npsb_ig

A post shared by Smokejumper Photos and Video (@smokejumpers_on_ig) on

Forest Service jumpers from Region 1 and Region 5 are entering into training season with an early refresher in Redding California. 🎥: @smkj94

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Firefighting helicopter goes down in Florida lake

Above: photo by Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

A Marion County Sheriff’s Office helicopter went down in a lake during water bucket operations on a wildfire in Florida Tuesday at about 6:30 p.m. In his last radio transmission pilot Sgt. John Rawls said he was going down, then after the helicopter rolled over at least once he exited the ship and swam about 50 yards to shore.

Only the tip of one rotor blade sticking out of the water is visible at the lake now, according to officials. The Sheriff’s Office said the helicopter experienced a malfunction as it was refilling the water bucket.

The Florida Forest Service and Marion County Fire Rescue assisted Sheriff deputies in making a path to the lake with heavy equipment in order to reach the pilot. Sgt. Rawls was transported to the hospital and is currently in stable condition.

The NE 212th Street Road fire is in Marion County, Florida about 20 miles northeast of Ocala. It has been burning for about a month.

map fire helicopter crash florida
Map showing the approximate location of the fire that the helicopter was working on when it crashed.

Sgt. Rawls has been with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office since 1998. He is also an Army helicopter pilot veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Our pilot is OK and, though he does have some injuries, he should be fine,” said Sheriff Billy Woods. “The Marion County Fire Rescue and the Florida Forest Service did an outstanding job in helping us get to our pilot out there in order to get him to the hospital, and I want to thank each of them for the services that they provided to us. We are extremely grateful to everyone who worked tirelessly to make sure Sgt. Rawls got the emergency care he needed.”

Two Aero-Flite scoopers began contracts this week

Two of Aero-Flite’s CL-415 scoopers, Tankers 260 and 263, began the Mandatory Availability Period on their exclusive use contracts on Monday. The company is hoping their other CL-415’s, Tankers 261 and 262, will be awarded call when needed contracts on the scooper solicitation that closed in March.

four CL-415 cody wy
Four CL-415 water-scooping air tankers at Cody, Wyoming during the week of August 1, 2016. Photo by Becky Lester Hawkins.

Aero-Flite also has two RJ85’s actively working on contracts and two others begin in the third week of May. They have one or two others available as call when needed depending on maintenance status.

Aero-Flite's Tanker 161
Aero-Flite’s Tanker 161, an RJ85, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Helicopter drop on the Jameson Fire in California

Above: Helicopter drops on the Jameson Fire in Temescal Valley in California, April 30, 2017. CAL FIRE/Riverside County FD photo.

This is a spectacular photo of a helicopter dropping on the Jameson Fire in southern California’s Temescal Valley, April 30, 2017.

The first arriving engine company reported approximately five acres in a drainage with heavy fuels. The fire was contained at 7:30 PDT on Monday after burning 12.5 acres.

Erickson emerges from bankruptcy

Above: An Erickson Air-Crane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Erickson Incorporated, known to wildland firefighters for their Air-Crane helicopters that can carry up to 2,500 gallons of water, has emerged from bankruptcy after declaring for Chapter 11 on November 8, 2016. Soon after the company purchased Evergreen Helicopters and Air Amazonia and their 78 aircraft in 2012 and 2013 the bottom fell out of the oil exploration industry and they lost military and firefighting contracts. Suddenly finding themselves no longer a small business Erickson lost their eligibility to compete for U.S. Forest Service firefighting contracts.

President and CEO Jeff Roberts said on April 28, 2017, “We are very pleased to have completed our financial restructuring in such an efficient and timely manner. Chapter 11 allowed us to achieve rationalization of our aircraft fleet and deliver our balance sheet by over $400 million in debt. We are exiting the restructuring process with significant available liquidity to fund the company’s present and future business opportunities.” Mr. Roberts continued, “With a stronger financial foundation and reduced cost structure, we are well positioned under the new business model to fund our operations and to further develop and expand our business in order to better serve our customers and enhance value for all stakeholders for years to come.”

Mr. Roberts said the company will move forward as a privately-held small business, effective immediately.

Susan Bladholm, a spokesperson for Erickson, told us that they currently have 20 Air-Cranes, but could not comment on the potential to bid on or obtain firefighting contracts since the company is under new ownership and some issues still need to be worked out.