Firehawks in Boise

I was driving by the Boise airport this week and discovered that Firehawk Helicopters has a facility in the area. They were mostly closed, only Tori the receptionist was in the building, but I talked on the phone with Director of Maintenance Josh Ricciardi who said it was OK if I shot a few photos in their hangar. The Blackhawks ships were all receiving maintenance, getting ready for the fire season. 

Firehawk Blackhawk helicopter

Firehawk Blackhawk helicopter

Firehawk Blackhawk helicopter

California National Guard helicopter training, 2017

The creation of the “Baseline Skunk Works” and the interaction with private industry led to many advances in helicopter water buckets.

By John Yount

(All photos are from the 2017 helicopter water bucket training, shot by Bob Martinez, a Volunteer in Prevention Photographer with CAL FIRE)

California’s annual Army National Guard helicopter water bucket training took place this year near Sutter Creek, California. National Guard and Air Force helicopters from Mather (Blackhawks), Stockton (Chinooks), and Moffet (Pavehawks) participated in the training over the three-day period. Classroom sessions, water drops, and the inevitable exchange of information among personnel will help facilitate a smooth activation when the aviation assets are needed.

California national guard fire helicopter trainingThere is much more to this story than just an annual training. The interaction of the Military and State of California has spanned over half a century.  This cooperative spirit has been the success of the program. Although the Guard and Air Force Reserve have their own mission agendas it is the history of the Guard and CAL FIRE working together during the wet months that has contributed to a significant enhancement in fire bucket reliability, versatility, and performance.

With the introduction of the CAL FIRE (then CDF) Military Helicopter Manager (MLHM) program in California in the late 1990’s it was deemed  important that a CDF aviation person be assigned to each helicopter during an activation. Flying with the Guard, CAL FIRE personnel work as part of a team providing tactical input, complete logistical support, and coordination with the Guard and CAL FIRE command centers.

California national guard fire helicopter training

Development of new helicopter water bucket technology

At the beginning of the MLHM program it was quickly identified that the rigid 2000 gallon Big Dipper buckets and the special production for the Guard  of a 1140 gallon Bambi Bucket needed to be addressed. The lead CDF person approached CDF management with a plan to initiate an updated program with respect to working with the Guard. One of the four components of the plan was to work on the buckets. A phone call to SEI (Bambi) saw an immediately response. Two SEI representatives, the general manager, and chief engineer came to California to work with CDF and the Stockton Guard to make a change.

The following fire season a new generation 2,000 gallon Bambi Bucket was presented to the CDF and Guard for testing during that fire season that became very active. The 2,000 gallon Bambi bucket was put to the test. From the lava beds of the Modoc National Forest to Southern California in a three week period the redesigned Bambi delivered 1.6 gallons of foam enhanced water flawlessly.  The interaction between the Guard, CDF and Bambi wasn’t just a business model but evolved into a “can do” chemistry that saw the development of many new Bambi products.  The hub for new products was the CDF’s Baseline Helibase/Heliport and Fire Camp near Jamestown, California, unofficially known as the Baseline Skunk Works. The next five years saw the development of numerous fire suppression products for helicopters.

California national guard fire helicopter training

One of the concerns of using the larger 2,000 gallon Bambi Bucket was the inability to pick up a full bucket of water in a source less than five feet deep. A skilled inmate work team of four directed by CDF personnel at Baseline started a Bambi modification of a 324 gallon Bambi with SEI providing a submergible pump.  Intermountain Helicopters of Columbia, California provided the copter that would test this 324 gallon “power fill” Bambi while pumping from a 1,000 gallon pumpkin tank. With SEI on site during testing this was the beginning of the power fill bucket era.

A second Baseline Skunk Tank project was to develop a multi-variable drop valve for the buckets. Two prototypes were made. One was divided into two separate chambers, with each having a small rubber valve allowing the load to be split. It was the Stockton Guard that came to Baseline (about 10 minutes from Stockton) and flew a helicopter with the modified bucket.

The second prototype used compressed air to open and close a carburetor butterfly valve. Again the Stockton Guard provided the Chinook, which is an external/internal cargo hauler. Instead of flying a four ton concrete slab around for external flight training the external load training hours were used to practice and develop new ideas in aerial fire fighting.  With SEI working with the Guard and CDF a clearer picture of understanding the needs of the aerial fire fighting community evolved.  Products like the SEI Torrentula Valve with power fill became part of SEI’s product line. Today ninety percent of the California Guard  Chinook helicopter buckets have been equipped with these valves and pumps.

The concept of a portable water tank of over 10,000 gallons was imagined at the Baseline Skunk Works.  SEI was contacted and liked the idea. Within two months the first Heliwell arrived at Baseline. Although the Guard wasn’t used to dipping from the Heliwell, the “test to destruction” was accomplished by dropping 2,000 gallons of water into the well’s opening from fifty feet. The tank performed as designed, a tribute to SEI engineering and manufacturing.

The next project for the Guard and CDF was how to fill from a small or shallow water source, as many of the water dip sites for helicopters in arid California are less than four feet in depth. A manufacturing company, TMR Fabrications in Merced, California was contacted. The idea was to build an external rectangular tank that could be transported inside a Chinook. The tank needed to be capable of being loaded and unloaded in less than ten minutes The TMR Water Rat Tank was built with input from the CDF Baseline Skunk Works and the Stockton Guard. What evolved was a self-contained 1,800 gallon water tank powered by a twelve horsepower engine driving a snorkel pump at the end of a twelve foot 5 inch hose.  The Water Rat filled to capacity in less than a minute. The “Rats” dump valve could release a partial load or all the water in less than 8 seconds. Once again the Guard flew the tank under a Chinook and was able to use it at no charge.

California national guard fire helicopter trainingOne of the significant features of the Water Rat was the safety of redundant slings, connecting to the Chinooks fore and aft hooks. This was a great safety feature in case of an accidental hook release. This project led to a military self-contained 2,000 gallon internal Chinook water tank that discharges the entire load in less than 8 seconds.

Other projects that came from the Imagineers at the Skunk Works included the Marine Recovery Device (MRD) and  the first Fire Sock initially built by Intermountain Helicopters fabric shop.  A 10 gallon foam concentrate system for the Chinook designed at the Skunk Works and built by SEI came in two models, gravity and pressure demand.

Although this year’s training near Sutter Creek was just part of the preparation for the upcoming 2017 fire season, the relationship between the CAL FIRE and the Guard over the decades have made a significant contribution to helicopter fire fighting products word wide.

Norwegians use a Bambi Bucket to fill a pumpkin

Check out this video, in which teamwork pays off in Norway when you’re using a helicopter and a 766-gallon Bambi Bucket to fill a portable water storage tank, or “pumpkin”.

Via Bambi Bucket.

Video: Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

Above: Air tanker 07, a P2V, on the Myrtle Fire, July 9, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2015 and 2016 the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study collected data on 7,000 drops of water or fire retardant on wildfires. This is partially in response to demands by Congress and the Government Accountability Office to provide actual data to justify the huge expense of using helicopters and air tankers on fires. Anecdotal information generally indicates that aircraft are effective under certain conditions to slow but not extinguish fires, however something more conclusive is needed when answering questions in front of a Congressional committee making decisions about allocating hundreds of millions of dollars.

And, we have not been able to determine, definitively, how many air tankers and helicopters are actually needed. The Forest Service likes to point to one of more than a dozen air tanker studies, the 2012 Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy, to answer this question, but it does not address the quantity of aircraft that are needed.

This video released today is an overview of the AFUE, which began in 2012.

For some reason NIFC never tells you what the acronym seen in the film, “WFSTAR”, stands for, but it is “Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher”.

Articles on Fire Aviation tagged “AFUE”.

Art Prints

2,800-gallon internal water tanks being used in two CH-47D helicopters

Above: A 2,800-gallon internal water tank in a Columbia CH-47D Chinook. Screen grab from Columbia video.

The last time we wrote about the 2,800-gallon internal water tank for Columbia Helicopters CH-47D Chinooks was April 6, 2016 as Simplex was developing the system soon after they had been granted a supplemental type certificate by the FAA. The tank can be filled in 60 seconds using a pump on a 12-foot-long 10-inch hose. Foam concentrate can be added to the water from a 140-gallon reservoir. The water tank can be rolled onto the helicopter and attached with four bolts. Multiple drops can be selected by the pilot and it has an emergency drop feature.

The tanks were fully operational during the 2016 wildfire season and were used by two of Columbia’s CH-47D’s for a total of 740 hours.

One of their ships was on display during the HAI HELI-EXPO conference in Dallas earlier in March. Thanks go out to Mark Johnson at Columbia for the photo and videos.

internal water tank Columbia CH-47D
Columbia CH-47D Chinook at the HAI HELI-EXPO 2017 conference in Dallas earlier in March. Columbia photo.

When the National Interagency Fire Center started mobilizing aircraft to the central plains after a million acres burned in Kansas and Oklahoma, they dispatched the helicopter you see in the photo above while it was at the conference.

Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations, for Columbia explained that transitioning the helicopter from a static display to a mission-ready firefighting aircraft involved removing the rotor blades, exiting the convention center, then reinstalling the rotor blades. This was followed by a flight to a nearby airport for refueling and overnighting. Called up on March 9, the helicopter was deployed the following day to Ardmore, Oklahoma with two pilots, five mechanics and ground support equipment drivers.

internal water tank Columbia CH-47D
A 2,800-gallon internal water tank being loaded into a Columbia CH-47D Chinook. Screen grab from Columbia video.

The video below shows one of the CH-47D’s making a water drop.

The next video is a Columbia promotional video, but it has some brief interior shots of the internal tank system.

Helicopter mobilized from the showroom floor of convention

Columbia BV-107
File photo of a Columbia BV-107 at Custer, SD July 31, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
While some have said the National Interagency Fire Center responded slowly to the very busy wildfire activity that started March 6 in the central plains where about a million acres burned in a few days, eventually they did take action.

In an effort to mobilize a Type 1 helicopter they contacted Columbia Helicopters who had one on display at a helicopter convention.

 “This is the first time we have received a resource order for firefighting duty, while displaying our helicopter at a convention,” said Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations, for the Portland, Oregon-based company.  Reached by phone at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) convention in Dallas, Saylor explained that transitioning the helicopter, from a static display to a mission-ready firefighting aircraft, involved removing the rotor blades, exiting the convention center, then reinstalling the rotor blades.  This was followed by a flight to a nearby airport for refueling and overnighting.  Called up on March 9, the helicopter was deployed the following day to Ardmore, Oklahoma, under an optional use clause of a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract.  The helicopter was dispatched with two pilots, five mechanics and ground support equipment drivers.

A former US Army-operated CH47D Chinook, the helicopter was modified by Columbia Helicopters with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water, jells, foam, or retardant dropping, and had been flown to the convention following firefighting duty on East Coast fires.

Also responding to the fires, Neptune Aviation Services dispatched three of its BAe-146 air tankers to multiple locations, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company.  Three of the tankers were dispatched from Missoula between March 9 and 11, and flown to USFS tanker bases in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Abilene, Texas, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Airport, near Denver, Colorado.  A fourth BAe 146 tanker will continue to fly out of a base at Lake City, Florida, where it has been on duty since February 20.

On March 16 Neptune mobilized T-05, the first of their P2V piston engine tankers to start an assignment this year, which will probably be the model’s last season as the company completes their transition to the jet-powered BAe-146 airframe.

Forest Service to conduct aviation workload analysis

Aero-Flite air tanker T-260, CL-415,
Aero-Flite’s T-260, a water-scooping CL-415, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a solicitation for a contractor to conduct an “Aviation workload analysis to analyze current and future workload requirements and staffing”. Their goal is to identify a mixture of government and commercial best practices that could be adopted to create a more effective and efficient organization.

The solicitation listed focus areas that have been added or have shown significant growth since a baseline organization chart from 2010:

  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems
  • Large Airtanker Modernization (Next Gen)
  • Large Airtanker Modernization (Aircraft Acquisition)
  • C-130H program
  • C-23B/SD3/60 program
  • Ram-Air parachute system transition
  • Emergency Medical Short-Haul
  • Water Scooping/Amphibious aircraft
  • Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFs) improvement program
  • Airtanker Bases and other aviation facilities
  • Night Aerial Firefighting
  • Aerial Supervision
  • Safety Management System

The list fails to mention the introduction and growth of the Very Large Air Tanker program. But perhaps the author was lumping all large and VLATs into one group. There are three DC-10’s under contract and the 747 has received approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and may show up on the new CWN contract that should be awarded later this year.

Responses are due to the solicitation by March 30 and the contractor will have 150 days to produce the final report. Assuming it will take, generously, two months to make the award, the report will be due around October 27, 2017.

It will be interesting to see the results from this taxpayer-funded enterprise. A “more effective and efficient organization” is a laudable goal.

Historically the Forest Service has been very reluctant to release reports like this. When it becomes available we will add it to the list of 16 other air tanker-related studies that U.S. citizens have paid for since 1995.

Watch this space.