Billings Flying Service unveils new facilities

Above: One of Billings Flying Service’s CH-47D Chinooks, at Custer Airport, April 3, 2016.

On Friday Billings Flying Service unveiled their new 24,000 square-foot hangar and maintenance facility near the airport in Billings, Montana (map). It has enough room for four to five of their Chinook helicopters, depending on if rotors are installed on the aircraft.

The company has at least six Chinooks and in 2014 became the first non-military owner of CH-47D’s when they purchased two from the U.S. government. Gary Blain, a co-owner of the company, and another pilot flew the two helicopters from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to the company’s facilities south of Billings, Montana near the Yellowstone River.

Anything you do with aircraft is expensive. Mr. Blain told us at the time that they spent $32,000 for fuel during their two-day trip, with an overnight stopover in Norfolk, Nebraska.

KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.
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Forest Service to reduce the number of Type 1 helicopters on fire contracts

Above: Columbia BV-107 at Custer, SD July 31, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 7:12 p.m. MST March 3, 2017; updated with more details at 10:43 a.m. MST March 4, 2017)

The U.S. Forest Service is reducing from 34 to 28 the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

On February 26, 2016 the USFS issued exclusive use contracts to 13 companies for a total of 34 Type 1 firefighting helicopters. The contracts were initially effective for one year, through April 30, 2017, with the possibility of three one-year renewal option periods.

Six of those helicopters are not being renewed. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said those six ships are two K-MAX BK-1200’s, two Boeing Vertol 107’s, and two CH-54A’s (Air-Crane type helicopters).

Siller Helicopters CH-54A H-781 fire
A Siller Helicopters CH-54A (H-781); a Type 1 helicopter. Photo by Siller.

This list shows the helicopters that are being cut along with the administrative base and operator for each aircraft.

  1. Prineville, Oregon (BK-1200) Swanson Group Aviation
  2. Helena, Montana (BK-1200) Central Helicopters
  3. Hamilton, Montana (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  4. Custer, South Dakota (BV-107) Columbia Helicopters
  5. Lancaster, California (CH-54A) Siller Helicopters
  6. Minden, Nevada (CH-54A) Helicopter Transport Services

Type 1 helicopters are frequently moved around depending on fire danger and incident activity and are often not at their home base.

Type 1 helicopters are the largest that are used for firefighting and can carry from 700 to 2,500 gallons of water. They can be extremely effective in assisting firefighters on the ground if they are prepositioned in order to be quickly available on initial attack. They are also very helpful in support of fire crews on extended attack when building line with hose lays or hand tools, allowing ground personnel to work closer to the fire’s edge. Reducing this capability could allow fires to grow larger or escape initial attack.

Continue reading “Forest Service to reduce the number of Type 1 helicopters on fire contracts”

Firefighting pilot killed in New Zealand helicopter crash

A helicopter pilot was killed February 14 while working on a fire in New Zealand. David Steven Askin was flying the aircraft at a wildfire when it went down in Christchurch’s Port Hills.

Mr. Askin was a pilot and instructor for Way To Go Heliservices, a company based in Rangiora, New Zealand.

Steve Askin
Steve Askin. Way To Go Heliservices photo.

Previously he had been a member of New Zealand’s Special Air Service, a special forces unit of the Army.  He served in Afghanistan and was wounded in a firefight with the Taliban after his unit came to the aid of Afghan police when they were attacked at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul in a five-hour battle.

Police, the Civil Aviation Authority, and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission are investigating the crash.

There are reports that 15 helicopters were fighting the recent wildfires near Christchurch that have burned 600 hectares (1,483 acres).

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Askin’s family, friends, and coworkers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

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Companies providing aerial firefighting resources in Chile accused of collusion in Spain

At least two companies that have received contracts for providing firefighting air tankers and helicopters in Chile have been accused in Spain of collusion and international bribery among other crimes, according to a report by Ahora Noticias. Below is an excerpt from their article; it is very roughly automatically translated by Google:

Collusion, influence peddling, bribery and international bribery, among other crimes, have led to the investigation of the companies of Faasa, Inaer and Martínez Vidau in order to discover how they managed to win several public competitions.

The publication interviewed a consultant in disaster management, Rodrigo Reveco, who implied that a cozy relationship between the companies and the Chilean non-profit organization that has a hand in managing emergency operations, may help explain why there was a reluctance to bring in other aerial firefighting assets as the disastrous wildfire conditions worsened in December.

Chile has wildland fire suppression organizations and procedures that are very different from those in, for instance, the United States. There is no one governmental agency that has the authority, responsibility, and resources to manage wildfires. Recently the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, said via Twitter that she would recommend legislation to create a national forest agency.

The organization that deals most closely with fires in Chile is CONAF.

From Wikipedia:

The National Forest Corporation or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) is a Chilean private, non-profit organization, through which the Chilean state contributes to the development and sustainable management of the country’s forest resources. CONAF is overseen and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture of Chile.

It administers the forest policies of Chile and promotes the development of the sector with sustainable forest management.

CONAF and ONEMI, the National Office of Emergency of the Interior Ministry, according to Ahora Noticias have awarded contracts to the private companies for helicopters and Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) used on fires in Chile. From Ahora Noticias (again, a very rough auto-translation by Google):

These companies have been operating in Chile for years and have won millions of tenders from Conaf, Onemi and major national private companies. In Spain and after a long investigation of justice, its managers were arrested and the modus operandis of these firms were established, which, according to the judicial investigation, were coordinated among themselves to distribute the state tenders, agree prices and conditions Of presentation and also mechanisms of bribery to public officials to adjudicate the licitations, by means of payments, gifts and favors.

Among the antecedents seized, the Spanish justice system found a series of e-mails that report similar practices on the part of these companies, in Spain, as well as in Italy, Portugal and Chile. Correos between executives who speak of agreeing prices, sharing the market and conditions of presentation to the tenders, among others.

Neither the government or CONAF committed any funds for the use of the 747 SuperTanker. Up to now it has been completely funded by private organizations, Ben Walton and his wife Lucy Ana (of WalMart) and Luksic, a Chilean business consortium.

A Chilean Senator, Manuel Jose Ossandón, called for the resignation of the director of CONAF. From Ahora Noticias (translated):

Asked about his expectations after the news broadcast in Ahora Noticias, the former RN said that ” I hope that a deep investigation is made of what is happening and that it is clarified because we are already accustomed to acts of corruption.”

In that sense, he deepened that “the director of the Conaf has to step aside and also the previous director, Mr. (Eduardo) Vial, has to explain in this regard, ” referring to the first contracts between the State and These companies that date of the year 2011, that is to say, during the government of Sebastián Piñera.

ISSUU has an article about FAASA, a Spain-based company that provides under contract firefighting helicopters and SEATs to Chile. The company employs over 300 personnel including 100 pilots and operates 65 aircraft. During the South American summer they move five AT-802s and 21 helicopters to Chile.

One of FAASA’s SEATs crashed in Chile on December 28, 2016 killing the pilot, Ricardo García-Verde Osuna, 47.

Helicopters on the Matanzas Fire in Chile

The base heliport for the wildfire south of Matanzas, Chile was set up near the beach at Matanzas. While there for about half an hour on February 2 we observed four different ships at the site.

Matanzas wildfire Chile helicopter

Matanzas wildfire Chile helicopter

Matanzas wildfire Chile helicopter
Three of these tanks that could be used for refilling a helicopter’s bucket were set up at the Incident Command Post on the Matanzas fire. They contained water, but there was old evidence of a red caked-on substance on the outside that was consistent with the color of fire retardant.
Erickson Air-Crane
An Erickson Air-Crane helicopter arrived in Santiago, Chile on Thursday, February 2, but it may not have been used on the Matanzas Fire. This photo was taken at the Santiago airport by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

An Antonov AN-124 arrived in Santiago, Chile Tuesday morning and unloaded three Bell 205 helicopters, one K-MAX 1200, and a flatbed truck with an attached goose-neck trailer.

Elvis may have arrived in Santiago

Above: An Erickson Air-Crane helicopter arrived in Santiago, Chile on Thursday, February 2. Photo by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

A large strange-looking helicopter arrived at Santiago Chile on Thursday — an Erickson Air-Crane, sometimes called a Sky Crane. It is an aircraft with a very specific purpose, to lift heavy loads. When used on wildfires, which is what is will be doing in Chile, it can be fitted with a tank holding up to 2,650 gallons (10,031 liters) of water or retardant. However the helicopter that arrived at Santiago after flying in from Peru has a different attachment in the location where the usual firefighting tank would be found. Perhaps the conventional fire tank will catch up with the aircraft.

Erickson attaches nicknames conspicuously on the nose of their Air-Cranes. We have an unconfirmed report that the one the company sent to Santiago is “Elvis”. That particular ship usually operates in Australia during their summer, but it is not there this year.

"Elvis", an Erickson Air-Crane
File photo of “Elvis”, an Erickson Air-Crane. Credit: Erickson

Another aircraft to be added to the temporary aerial firefighting fleet in Chile is a BAe-146, a 3,000 gallon (11,356 liters) air tanker. Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation, said the four-engine jet should arrive on Friday, February 2. Neptune usually bases their jet air tankers in Missoula during the North American winter.

(UPDATE 11 p.m. February 2, 2017 Chile time: The BAe ran into a problem in Texas and its arrival in Chile will be delayed by a day.)

Bae-146 landing Redding
File photo of a Bae-146 landing at Redding August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Helicopter Express sends four helicopters to Chile on Antonov AN-124

Above: An Antonov AN-124 after it arrived in Santiago, Chile carrying four helicopters. Photo by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

An Antonov AN-124 arrived in Santiago, Chile Tuesday morning and unloaded three Bell 205 helicopters, one K-MAX 1200, and a flatbed truck with an attached goose-neck trailer. The Chilean government contracted with Helicopter Express out of Chamblee, Georgia to supply the equipment during the siege of wildfires that has been plaguing the country for the last several weeks.

Helicopter Express helicopters Antonov AN-124
Helicopter Express helicopters before loading onto the Antonov AN-124 at Atlanta, Georgia. Helicopter Express photo.

The helicopters and the truck were loaded onto the Ukrainian freighter at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport Monday for the flight to South America.

CNN Chile reported that one of the helicopters has night-flying capabilities.

More air tankers en route to Chile

The extended drought and a siege of wildland fires has brought to light the fact that Chile does not have any large air tankers or an infrastructure for supporting the aircraft. However the bomberos (firefighters) have done an outstanding job creating a very elaborate temporary water system for refilling the 747 SuperTanker at Santiago. Now that the the aircraft has been in the country since January 25 and proven to be a valuable tool in the firefighters toolbox additional air tankers are reportedly enroute to assist those on the ground. Most of the following information is preliminary and subject to change.

Russian Ilyushin IL-76

IL-76TD air tanker
IL-76TD air tanker. Photo by Shahram Sharifi

There is no doubt at least one Russian IL-76 is en route but we have not confirmed the number. It appears there will be two of the planes with a slip-in 11,574-gallon tank (43,812 liters) with each aircraft bringing two helicopters in their cavernous cargo holds. Instead of working out of Santiago along with the 747 it may be based at La Araucanía International Airport, also known as Temuco Airport, in southern Chile.

On July 1, 2016 an IL-76 working on a fire in Russia was reported missing. Two days later the wreckage was found. Ten people died in the crash.

Brazilian MAFFS

maffs c-130
The first version of a MAFFS with retardant exiting out of the rear cargo ramp. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Koenig.

An aviation publication in Chile, TallyHo, is reporting that the Brazilian Air Force is sending a C-130 with a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). From the description, it must be a MAFFS Version 1.0 since it has multiple retardant tanks, no built-in air compressor, and the retardant exits through two tubes sticking out of the rear cargo ramp. Brazil is also bringing a second C-130 carrying a compressor and portable water tanks.

(UPDATE 1446 January 30, 2017: the Brazilian C-130’s arrived Sunday and are expected to move to Concepción today.)

Coulson’s Tanker 132

air tanker 132 at Avalon
Air tanker 132 at Avalon during the 2015-2016 Australian fire season.

Coulson’s Tanker 132, an L-382G commercial variant of the C-130 platform, has worked in New South Wales Australia during their last two summer bushfire seasons. Their current contract began September 6, 2016 and was extended for a month and since then has been extended week by week. Amid reports in Chile that T-132 was going to be working in the country, we checked with Britt Coulson who told us that their company has been contacted about sending one of their C-130 class air tankers to Chile but they are still under contract. He said “it’s really heating up in Australia” and it seems unlikely they will release them. The company’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q, is also under contract in Australia, in Victoria.

Air-Cranes

There has also been talk about bringing in Air-Crane helicopters, but nothing is confirmed yet.