In December, 2009, Wildfire Today covered a patent application filed by John A. Hoffman for an air tanker, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground, and after dropping retardant on the fire, would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.
Multiple Nitrofirex UAVs would be transported in a large mother ship and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mother ship.
According to the company the system could also be used:
“To combat a nuclear, biological or chemical emergency
To act on meteorological phenomena.
To combat pests or to spray crops in remote or inaccessible areas.
For night time fumigation of drug plantations.”
We were not able to find any specifications about the aircraft regarding retardant capacity, speed, range, or cost.
Assuming that the cost, firefighter safety, and design issues are solvable, the only portion of the concept that troubles me is the assumption that an air tanker could, without a pilot either on-board or at a remote location, effectively drop retardant in the exact location where it was needed and at an appropriate height above ground. In flat terrain over a slow-moving fire this might be possible, but in mountainous areas it would be a challenge. Especially if a “squadron” of them were released at the same time.
What if…. an orbiting aircraft or a ground-based firefighter a safe distance away had a laser designator which the UAV could use as a target? Much like the military does for smart bombs and missiles. Terrain-following radar such as that used in the F-111C could make the drops more accurate and effective.
The company has developed a video which explores the UAV air tanker concept.
After they leave the aircraft the container lids, attached by four straps, separate, and act like a parachute. The straps then put pressure on the plastic bladders, ripping them open, allowing the liquid to be dispersed. The 100 pounds of the other components, the plywood, and cardboard, fall to the ground tethered by the nylon straps. The plastic bladder, hopefully empty, falls separately.
The company says 16 units fit inside a C-130. We estimate that each one weighs 2,212 pounds, and 16 of them would hold 4,224 gallons for a total weight of 35,392 pounds. They claim a C-27J can carry 6 units, which would be 1,584 gallons with an estimated weight of 13,272 pounds. A C-130 with a Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) usually carries 2,200 to 3,000 gallons of retardant, depending on the density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. Last summer the MAFFS were dropping an average of 2,394 gallons per flight.
In November the Romanian Air Force tested the Caylym system using a C-27J Spartan to drop the containers. According to the company:
…Expectations from testing were surpassed — all aspects of safety, handling and deployment of the Guardian System by the C-27J are anticipated to achieve certification from the Alenia test and evaluation team. Follow-up training is planned for the spring of 2013 in Romania.
The C-27J Spartan is an ideal aircraft for the aerial firefighting mission,” said Rick Goddard, managing director of Caylym. “The versatility and responsiveness of the C-27J in a firefighting mission, using the Guardian System gives the Romanian Air Force the ability to drop more than 1,500 gallons (6000 L) per mission, from a safe altitude over all types of terrain, day and night.”
We talked with Rick Goddard, the Managing Director of Caylym, who told us that in their tests the system could deliver six to eight gallons per 100 square feet and even more if the containers were loaded in two rows so that they would exit the aircraft two at a time. Mr. Goddard said they do not expect to spend $100,000 to conduct a standard cup test to determine the exact uniformity and quantity of the retardant coverage until the U.S. Forest Service expresses more of an interest in using the system.
Below is a video that was uploaded by Caylym on January 22, 2013. It shows their containers being assembled, filled, and then dropping from an aircraft.
Caylym has rebranded their system. Formerly called a “precision container aerial delivery system” (PCAD), they have renamed it “Guardian Deployment System”.
If these were ever actually used on a wildfire, there would have to be an even greater emphasis than usual on removing firefighters and other personnel from the target area than there is now when only liquids fall from the sky. In addition, the owner of the land would either have to be OK with leaving the debris from the containers in place after the drop in perpetuity, or crews would have to search the area and carry it out for disposal in a landfill. Debris removal would have to be included in the estimated costs of using a system like this, which could be difficult or even impossible in some areas, complicated by topography and vegetation. Depending on the climate, it could take many years or decades for the plastic bladder, plywood, cardboard, and straps to decompose if it were not removed.
Today the folks at the National Interagency Fire Center uploaded a video that covers air to ground communication and tips about working with Air Attack and aerial resources. It stars Gil Dustin, the Bureau of Land Management Air Attack Program Manager.
Seeing Walt Darran’s photo of him cranking a TBM at Hemet reminded me of some photos I took of some TBM’s dropping on fires in southern California in 1972. In those days there was not much of an effort to get firefighters out of the area when air tankers were dropping. Of course today, instead of carrying 300 gallons, air tankers are dropping 600 to 20,000 gallons.
Cleaning retardant off a 35mm camera while you’re fighting fire is not the easiest thing in the world.
We are beginning a new series of articles on FireAviation.com, featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. We hope to get participation from senior pilots, as well as Air Operations Branch Directors, Air Tactical Group Supervisors, and others that have worked closely with fire aviation. Our objective is to not only provide our readers with interesting articles, but these very experienced aerial firefighters may also reveal a few gems of information that could prove to be valuable to those considering or just beginning a career in fire aviation. If you have a suggestion of someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.
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 CALFIRE/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:
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?
Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?
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.
While the wildfire season in most of the United States is in hiatus, our friends down under in New South Wales are busy — VERY busy, during one of their busiest bush fire seasons in years. We want to thank the Rural Fire Service for these photos of some of their aircraft that have been working on the fires.
Four students studying journalism at Washington State University have written an article that summarizes the state of the federal air tanker program. It is interesting in that it quotes several knowledgeable people who have close ties to management of the fleet, including Jim Hall, former Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Ron Hanks, head of aviation safety with the U.S. Forest Service. They also interviewed Dick Mangan, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire.
Mr. Hall, who chaired the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel following the crashes of two air tankers that killed five aviators that year, continues to lament the current state of the air tanker program, much as he did earlier this summer.
Mr. Hanks apparently told the student reporters:
Right now, we have 17 aircraft, and that includes the Canadian aircraft that we have borrowed.
That puts an extremely favorable spin on the fact that as the fire season ends there are nine large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus two BAe-146s that were put on temporarily as “additional equipment” on Neptune’s contract. The Canadian air tankers and lead planes that Mr. Hanks referred to were borrowed for a month or so last summer. In 2002 we had 44 large air tankers.
Here is a video that illustrates the student’s story;
Aero Air of Hillsboro, Oregon, has purchased the air tanker operations of Butler Aircraft from Travis Garnick. Aero Air acquired Butler’s three DC-7 air tankers, support equipment, and spare parts in Madras, Oregon. They will take over the lease of Butler’s new city-owned hangar at the Madras Municipal Airport (map) as well as the contracts with the state of Oregon for the three air tankers. The company did not have a contract with the US Forest Service for the DC-7s.
Kevin McCullough, now the President of Aero Air, and Jack Erickson, founder and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, became co-owners of Aero Air in 1998 and since then have been growing the company. After Mr. Erickson sold Erickson Air-Crane to ZM Private Equity Fund in 2007, they began talking about getting into the air tanker business. A couple of years ago they decided to go with MD-87s and pulled together teams to develop a tank design and to handle obtaining the supplemental type certificate (STC) from the FAA.
They have purchased seven MD-87s, most of them from SAS airlines, and the conversion process is 99 percent complete on one of them, Mr. McCullough told Wildfire Today on Tuesday. The parts for the others are being fabricated in Hillsboro where all of the conversion work will be done. The other six MD-87s are at Hillsboro, Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona (map), and Madras. Some of them have already been painted at Phoenix Goodyear prior to beginning the other modifications.
After the conversions are complete, Aero Air will conduct all of their air tanker operations out of the facilities in Madras that were formerly owned or leased by Butler. That branch of the company will be known as Erickson Aero Tanker, and that is what is being painted in large letters on the MD-87s, similar to the style of the lettering on the DC-10 and 747 very large air tankers.
The 4,000-gallon internal tanks will rely on gravity, rather than pressurized air, to force the retardant out of the tank. An MD-87 can cruise at 504 mph and is powered by two rear-mounted jet, or turbofan engines. The company has secured a block of air tanker numbers from the USFS, 101 through 112 — which is more than seven, you’re thinking. Right. Mr. McCullough told us that their long term plans are to operate 12 to 15 MD-87s.
Technicians from the USFS’ San Dimas Technology and Development Center have been at Aero Air this week checking the design of the tank system to determine if it is in compliance with the very extensive and complex requirements for federally-contracted air tankers. Aero Air has already done a static test, expelling water from the tank while the aircraft is on the ground, but more are scheduled. In the Spring they hope to pass the airborne retardant drop tests where the retardant is captured in hundreds of cups arranged in a grid pattern on the ground. If the STC and the approvals from the Interagency Air Tanker Board have positive results, there may be at least one MD-87 dropping on fires next summer.
Assuming… that the U.S. Forest Service completes the evaluation of the proposals from air tanker companies for “next generation air tankers” and awards a contract to Aero Air. The company, along with three others, was notified last Fall that they were going to receive contracts, but before the contracts were actually awarded and signed, two companies that were not slated to get contracts, 10 Tanker Air Carrier and Coulson, protested, and the USFS halted the process. Months later they started over, amending the request for proposal which then closed again in November. If the contracts had actually been awarded, Aero Air would have been expected to provide two MD-87s beginning in 2013. The other companies that almost got contracts were Neptune for BAe-146s, Minden for BAe-146s, and Aero-Flite for an Avro RJ85, a derivative of the BAe-146.