In August the U.S. Forest Service issued a Request for Information (RFI) asking for potential vendors that could supply aircraft which could be used as Aerial Supervision Modules. Their intention was to contract for 7 and later up to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors including sophisticated video capability and infrared. The planes would have a duplicate aft crew station with the capability to manage aerial supervision operations in its entirety. The airplanes would be able to carry one pilot, an aerial supervisor, a trainee aerial supervisor, and an instructor.
Friday, before the government shut down, the USFS issued another RFI that is similar to the other one in many ways. The details are HERE in a Word document.
In this new one they are looking for “up to 15″…
…Aerial Supervision/ Lead Plane aircraft to perform initial attack, extended attack, and lead plane operations in support of nationwide wildland firefighting operations.
They are expecting to contract for groups of five aircraft on each line item, with the five being the same make/model and near-identical configuration.
The RFI in August did not mention lead plane and was looking for turboprop dual-engine or single engine. The new one specifies turboprop or jet, and dual-engine. There are some differences in speed requirements, but the Infrared/Electro-Optical sensing systems with color camera and FLIR systems are similar.
At first glance the August RFI seemed to be seeking aircraft to be used as air attack, especially since it did not mention lead plane anywhere in the document. However both RFIs require a “FAA approved smoke generating system”, which would be used in a lead plane role.
The Forest Service seems to be moving away from separate Air Attack and Lead Planes, and wants to combine the two jobs into one aircraft. This, in spite of the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire June 30.
The report from that fire on Page 43 includes this:
The ASM working the fire was very busy fulfilling leadplane duties, which limited their ability to perform full Air Attack responsibilities over the fire at the same time.
The ASM did not hear some of the radio calls from the Granite Mountain Hotshots saying they were in trouble and needed air support.
If there is any chance in hell that combining the Air Attack and Lead Plane roles into one aircraft had ANY part to play in the deaths of the Granite Mountain 19, then this move by the USFS to eliminate lead planes is misguided and will make fighting wildland fires even more dangerous than it is already. This decision, if it has been made, must be reconsidered. The wildland fire agencies need to solicit input from not just the pencil-pushers and accountants who may be trying to fight fire on the cheap, but actual ground and air-based firefighters need to have a chance to provide their input.