12 Questions for Walt Darran

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:

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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.

Photos: aerial firefighting in New South Wales

Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire
Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire. Photo: Kerry Lawrence, NWS RFS

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.

Firebird 211 drops at Camerons Creek
Firebird 211 drops at Camerons Creek. Photo: NWS RFS
SEATs line up to reload at Narrabri
Single Engine Air Tankers line up at Narrabri. Photo: NSW RFS
Supplies are loaded into a helicopter to assist flooding victims
Supplies are loaded into a helicopter to assist flooding victims earlier in 2012. Photo: NWS RFS

(More photos are below)

Continue reading “Photos: aerial firefighting in New South Wales”

Journalism students write about air tankers

A P2V air tanker being reloaded at Rapid City
A P2V air tanker reloads at Rapid City while working on the Myrtle fire, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

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;

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Aero Air buys Butler, intends to convert 7 MD-87s into air tankers

Butler DC-7
Butler DC-7. Photo: Butler Aviation

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.

Erickson Aero Tanker's new Tanker 105
Erickson Aero Tanker’s Tanker 105. November 15, 2012 at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona. Photo by John Oram. (click to enlarge)

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.

 

Thanks go out to Scott and Jeff

Photos of aircraft on Fern Lake Fire

Minden's Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
Minden’s Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer

Paul Filmer took some excellent photos of aircraft working on the Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Estes Park, Colorado, December 4, 2012. The photo above is the first one I can remember seeing of an air tanker dropping with snow in the background.

We thank Paul for allowing us to use his photos. You can see a couple of dozen more that photos he took December 4 at his web site. More information about the Fern Lake Fire can be found at Wildfire Today.

Air-Crane drafting water from a "pumpkin" on the Fern Lake Fire, Photo by Paul Filmer
Helicopter Transport Services’ Skycrane drafting water from a “pumpkin” on the Fern Lake Fire, Photo by Paul Filmer
HeliQuest Aviation's KMAX on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
HeliQuest Aviation’s K-MAX on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer

Composite video of all planes landing at San Diego in a 4-hour period

Landings at San Diego Int Airport Nov 23, 2012 from Cy Kuckenbaker on Vimeo.

The 26-second video above put together by Cy Kuckenbaker is a composite of the 70 planes that landed at San Diego International Airport during a four and a half hour period on November 23. It turns out, he explains, that with a blue sky background, it was not a huge challenge (for him) to superimpose video of all of the aircraft, placing many of them on the video screen at the same time. If I understand it correctly, the aircraft were shot on a beautiful, cloudless day, and time-lapse videos of the bridge and the clouds were added later.

It’s hard to explain… just do me a favor and watch it. 🙂

You’re welcome.

Two air tankers still on active duty

Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21
Tanker 48 at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21. Photo by Bill Gabbert

(Revised at 7:37 a.m. MT, December 4, 2012)

The mandatory availability periods for the nine large air tankers on national contracts ended in August, September, and October, but two P2Vs are still working today due the warm, dry weather that some areas of the country are experiencing. Tanker 48, operated by Minden, and Neptune’s Tanker 43 are the two that are working on a day by day basis through “optional use” provisions in their contracts, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise.

Air tankers were requested early Saturday morning, December 1, for the rapidly spreading Fern Lake Fire that was moving toward structures west of Estes Park, Colorado. Fire managers were told that the only large air tankers sill working were in California but were unavailable due to weather in the Bay Area, according to David Eaker, a spokesperson for the Fern Lake Fire.

Today two large air tankers were supposed to be parked on the ramp at JEFFCO air tanker base northwest of Denver after being ferried in from California, but only one made it, Tanker 48. The other one, Tanker 43 had to stop in Durango, Colorado, unable to climb over the continental divide due to weather. We’re thinking the old P2V does not have de-icing equipment.

If the USFS is going to keep air tankers working into the winter, maybe a better choice of which ones to keep on would be a couple of the BAe-146s, which I assume have de-icing equipment.

The one tanker at JEFFCO, 48, has not been used on the Fern Lake Fire yet due to strong winds over the fire. Mr. Eaker told Wildfire Today that they may be used very soon to pretreat some areas where large burnouts are planned, thanks to improving weather forecasts indicating decreasing winds.

Tanker 43 was responsible for closing the Rapid City Airport for 40 minutes on June 20 when an engine failure on takeoff resulted in the crew jettisoning the 2,000-gallon load of retardant on two runways and a taxiway.

Tanker 43 landing at Rapid City Air Tanker Base
Tanker 43 landing at Rapid City Air Tanker Base, July 21, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

 

(This article was edited to reflect the fact that one of the air tankers was delayed ferrying to JEFFCO. Thanks Rob.)

Thoughts about the Air Force report on the crash of MAFFS #7

(Revised at 9:22 MT, November 30, 2012)

It takes a while to digest the 49-page report on the July 1 crash of MAFFS #7, the military C-130 air tanker. Earlier we posted a summary of the report, but here are some additional thoughts.

MAFFS crash, radar at 1733L
MAFFS crash, radar at 1733, five minutes before the crash.

The radar image above, 5 minutes before MAFFS #7 impacted the ground at 1738 local time, recorded a very large thunderstorm cell southwest of the crash site. The middle of the concentric circles is the location of the crash. The circles indicate 5, 10, and 15 nautical miles from the impact site. The light green areas may have been virga, rain that was not reaching the ground. The red, light brown, dark green, and possibly the yellow areas were most likely rain, accompanied by strong winds. The longest east-west line is the South Dakota/Nebraska state line. The longest north-south line is the boundary between Wyoming and the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

In addition to the C-130 working on the fire, there was also a Bureau of Land Management Air Supervision Module aircraft which was flown by a lead plane pilot and also carried an Air Tactical Group Supervisor. It was acting as the lead plane at the time of the accident.

Wildfire Today was the first to report the day after the crash that:

The ASM/Lead experienced a severe downdraft while approaching the intended retardant drop zone with the C130 in trail. This is being investigated by the US Forest Service as a separate Incident With Potential.

The third fixed wing aircraft to arrive at the White Draw fire that was mentioned in the report served as Air Attack. It was piloted from the left seat by Air Attack 3 (AA3 in the report), and in the right seat was the Air Tactical Group Supervisor. Both were employed by the State of South Dakota.

Before the crash, the air attack aircraft encountered sudden updrafts and downdrafts with airspeed fluctuations between 20 to 40 knots, which forced the aircraft into bank angles of approximately 90 degrees.

Here are some interesting passages from the report that discuss the weather conditions:

At 17:38:18L, MP1 ordered an e-dump of the retardant, which was immediately conducted. At the same time, Firefighter 1 (FF1) a ground firefighter, was located approximately 1.5 miles west-southwest of the future mishap site. FF1 witnessed the MA [mishap aircraft] jettison their retardant load, at which time she experienced variable surface winds with estimated gusts up to 50 miles per hour. At the same time, in Air Attack, ATGS observed the smoke lying down and “sheeting” of the fire, indicating to him “hellacious” surface winds. ATGS and AA3 lost altitude, experienced updrafts and downdrafts with airspeed fluctuations of 20 to 40 KIAS and severe turbulence. Air Attack lost an estimated 1,000 ft due to the weather conditions. ATGS did not see the MA jettison the retardant load.

Between 1730L and 1745L, Incident Commander 1 (IC1), a member of the Army National Guard, was traveling on a motorcycle, southbound on Highway 18 approximately seven miles north of Edgemont attempting to get to an 1800L meeting at the White Draw Fire incident command center in Edgemont, South Dakota. While heading towards Edgemont, IC1 witnessed the MA flying to his right, approximately one mile away, making a bank as the MA prepared for their approach to the drop area. IC1 lost sight of the MA while going down the hill towards Edgemont, at that same instant, IC1 was “hit with this extreme, fierce wind”. IC1 described it as side wind because it “pushed me over to the other side of the highway”.

The MAFFS crew received a briefing on the weather for the Arapahoe fire they dropped on earlier in Wyoming, but they did not have any specific weather information on the weather for the White Draw fire in southwest South Dakota and no update was requested when they were diverted to that fire.

From the report:

On 1 July 2012 at 1650L, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for northeast Wyoming and western South Dakota encompassing the area surrounding Edgemont, South Dakota and the White Draw Fire. The severe thunderstorm watch, valid from 1650L to 2300L, was issued for potential hail up to two inches in diameter and wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour. However, there was no evidence the MC requested or received forecast weather information for South Dakota or the White Draw Fire area at any time on 1 July 2012.

After dropping on the Arapahoe fire in Wyoming, the MAFFS was dispatched to the Highlands fire west of Custer, South Dakota. But en route they were diverted to the White Draw Fire which was 24 miles southeast of the Highlands Fire.

At that time I was taking photos at the Highlands Fire and the Oil Creek Fire, the latter being farther west  across the state line near Newcastle, Wyoming. Between 1730 and 1830 I remember seeing massive, very dark thunderstorm clouds to my southeast. The photo below taken at 1715 is looking south toward the Highlands Fire. In the background the dark clouds farther south can be seen.

Highlands Fire
Highlands Fire, 1715 MT, July 1, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

From 1630 until 1645 a Canadian “Bird Dog” and a CV-540 were over the Highlands fire. They were asked to drop, but refused, saying there were too many people on the ground in the intended drop area. It would be interesting to know where they went after being released from that fire, or if the weather affected the decision about their destination.

CV-540, T44, over Highlands Fire
CV-540, T44, over Highlands Fire, at 1708 MT, July 1, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The MAFFS has a capacity of 3,000 gallons, but each time MAFFS #7 reloaded that day they refilled with less retardant. At the White Draw fire it was only carrying 2,346 gallons which it split into two drops on the fire.

Crew rest or fatigue were not issues, according to the report.

Regarding the radio transmissions from the lead plane pilot saying “I got to go around” after encountering the downdraft and coming within 10 feet of the ground, and a few seconds later calmly advising the MAFFS to “drop your load when you can”, (meaning an emergency release of retardant to lighten the load, enabling the aircraft to more easily maneuver) the report said:

MAFFS aircrew members attested that a call for a go around is most commonly heard regarding misalignments for drops rather than urgent situations. It is possible that [the lead plane’s] call for a go around while meant to abort the mishap drop, was not interpreted by the [MAFFS Crew] as significantly urgent, based on their prior experience.

According to the report the overall flying experience of the MAFFS crew was high.

However [the pilot, the aircraft commander] had limited experience as a MAFFS aircraft commander and [the navigator] was participating in his first MAFFS mission. [The pilot] was a current and qualified Senior Pilot with over 1,900 total C-130 hours, however prior to the day of the mishap he had accomplished only seven drops as a MAFFS copilot and zero drops as a MAFFS aircraft commander.

The second pilot was more experienced with MAFFS and served as a MAFFS instructor pilot for this sortie.

The emergency locator transmitter (ELT) failed to activate when the C-130 crashed. One of the survivors called 911 on his cell phone and reported the crash but he said he didn’t know where he was.

The flight data recorder for the C-130 was found and shipped to the Air Force Safety Center for data retrieval and analysis. The report said the last 12.8 hours of data on the device were corrupt and unusable for investigation purposes.

There was no evidence that aircraft weight or the MAFFS unit in the cargo hold were factors in the crash. “Prior to the mishap, the MAFFS unit was operating at 100 percent capability and an emergency dump was successfully completed.”

About 34 minutes after the crash, firefighting helicopter crews assigned to the fire that were on the ground at the nearby Edgemont Municipal Airport were notified about the crash. But they were unable to fly at that time due to heavy rain, gusty winds, and a low ceiling. While waiting, an EMT loaded medical equipment on N935CH, call sign 5CH.

At the time of the crash the air attack ship was at 1,500 feet above the ground and following the MAFFS aircraft, observing the drop. On that pass the air attack ship had their hands full, experiencing extreme turbulence which resulted in bank angles of approximately 90 degrees. After the crash it had to leave the area due to the strong turbulence and the approaching thunderstorm. It loitered at a safe distance for about 30 minutes before it was able to access the area again, after which it led one of the fire’s helicopters, H-535, to the site.

During the last pass, the lead plane over-temped (or “smoked”) the aircraft engines while attempting to recover from being pushed down to within 10 feet of the ground and had to go to the Rapid City Airport.

When the weather improved, the two helicopters, N911FS, call sign H-535 (from the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California), and 5CH, departed and proceeded toward the mishap site. When they landed at the site at approximately 1850, the EMT on 5CH met the survivor who was still talking to the 911 operator on his cell phone. The EMT assessed and began treating him while the other helicopter crewmembers searched for other survivors, eventually finding the second survivor “wandering near the mishap site”. Helicopter 5CH transported both survivors to the Custer Airport, about 10 minutes away. One of them was then flown by an emergency medical helicopter to Rapid City while the other went by ground ambulance to a hospital.

As Wildfire Today reported on September 17, the pilot and at least two crewmembers of H-535 were given awards for their actions related to the crash. It is possible that others involved in the emergency response to the incident also received awards.

MAFFS 7 awards
Firefighters Daniel Diaz (center), Kevin Walters (left), and pilot Chuck MacFarland (right) receive their awards for their actions following the crash of MAFFS 7. Photo credit: San Bernardino National Forestx

Wildfire Today has an article about the differences between a military and a US Forest Service accident investigation.

 

A paragraph in this article was revised November 30, 2012 to clarify the actions of the air attack and lead plane immediately after the crash.