CAL FIRE’s acquisition of new helicopter fleet still up in the air

CAL FIRE Firehawk
Model of CAL FIRE Firehawk, by Sikorsky. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After several false starts over several years, CAL FIRE selected a variant of the Blackhawk to replace its aging fleet of 12 Super Huey firefighting helicopters, but that acquisition is stalled. In what appeared to be the final hurdle an administrative law judge ruled in December against a protest filed by a competing company clearing the way for CAL FIRE to purchase up to 12 new Sikorsky S-70i’s (Firehawks), from Air Methods/United Rotorcraft (AMUR).

When the effort began years ago to replace the fleet of aircraft that is now at the end of its useful life, the legislature was told each new helicopter would cost around $12 million, but they realized the price could escalate. The new Firehawks will run $24 million each with the additional features recently added by CAL FIRE and the Department of General Services.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

The Governor’s Office and Cal Fire are ready to start buying the new machines. “We believe we have provided the Legislature with all the necessary and requested information to move forward on this project,” Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

K-MAX lifts vehicles out of Grand Canyon

The two vehicles drove off the edge in 2017

Above: A K-MAX helicopter lifts a vehicle out of the Grand Canyon, March 29, 2018. NPS photo.

On March 29 a K-MAX helicopter at Grand Canyon National Park lifted two vehicles out of the inner canyon that drove off the edge in 2017. The National Park Service didn’t provide any details about how or why the vehicles ended up there, or if anyone was in them at the time, Thelma and Louise style.

K-MAX lifts vehicle grand canyon
A K-MAX helicopter lifts a vehicle out of the Grand Canyon, March 29, 2018. NPS photo.

Apparently this is a recurring project, as you can see in the video from 2009:

And in other Grand Canyon aviation news, the park’s contract helicopter has a new paint job. The MD-900/207E recently returned to the park after having all the old paint sanded off by hand. The sanding and painting took about 6 weeks.

Grand Canyon NP contract helicopter
New paint on Grand Canyon NP contract helicopter. NPS photo.

New paint on new Firehawks

helicopters firehawk
New Los Angeles County FD Firehawks, Photo by LA County FD.

This photo supplied by the Los Angeles County Fire Department shows paint jobs nearing completion on two new Sikorsky Firehawk helicopters. The next step is to add modifications which will build them into aerial firefighting machines.

Getting ready for the wildfire season at HeliMax

Helimax has six Chinook CH-47D’s

After I visited Airstrike’s hanger last week to check on the progress on their P3, Tanker 23, I stopped by the Helimax Aviation facility just down the road. Two of their CH-47D Chinooks were undergoing maintenance in the hangar.

Helimax has two Chinooks on Forest Service exclusive use contracts and two on call when needed contracts, plus two others. Their mandatory availability period begins in early May for the EU ships. Upon mobilization they travel with two pilots, a non-rated crewmember, four mechanics, and one fuel truck driver hauling up to 6,000 gallons. As shown in one of the photos below they also load into the cargo bay a four-wheeler with an attached trailer for hauling the 2,600-gallon Bambi Bucket. The Chinook can cruise at 140 knots (161 mph), pretty fast for a helicopter, and has an endurance of about three hours.

To see large versions  of the photos, click on one of the small images immediately below.

Photos of aircraft at Aerial Firefighting conference

In addition to the static display, three air tankers made demonstration drops.

Above: Air Spray’s Air Tanker 481, a Lockheed Electra L188 on static display at McClellan, March 12, 2018.

On March 12, 2018 two large busloads of attendees at the Aerial Firefighting Conference at Sacramento McClellan Airport were transported from the meeting facility to a nearby ramp where more than a dozen aircraft were on static display. At the conference two years ago the lead bus driver got lost on the three-block drive, but thankfully there were no mishaps this year.

In addition to the static display, three air tankers made demonstration drops with water, one RJ85 and two Fire Boss Single Engine Air Tankers.

Click on one of the small images immediately below to see large versions.

Here is a link to photos we took at the static display during the 2014 conference.

2017 was a busy year for air tankers

In spite of that, the numbers of air tankers and helicopters are being slashed

Above: A water-scooping air tanker, a CL-415, at Sacramento, March 12, 2018.

In our notes from the Aerial Firefighting conference HERE and HERE, we included information about how some air tankers were busier than usual in 2017:

  • Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation, said their air tankers in 2016 averaged 180 hours while working on wildfires. In 2017 that increased to 276 hours each.
  • Rick Hatton of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said each of their three DC-10s averaged about 300 hours on fires in 2017, which is more than usual.
  • Shawna Legarza, the USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, said the two Aero-Flite CL-415 scooping air tankers that were on exclusive use (EU) USFS contracts in 2017 each had over 400 hours of fire flight time.

After we reported the information above, Jason Robinson, the Chief CL-415 pilot for Aero-Flite contacted us to supply more details. He generally  confirmed the numbers reported  by Ms. Legarza and said their two EU and two CWN CL-415’s averaged 410 hours each. In July and August alone the four scoopers flew 1,036 hours. The company brought in extra staffing to provide seven-day coverage and manage pilot fatigue. He said that in 2017, 12 Canadian CL-415’s and CL-215’s worked in California and Montana.

Mr. Robinson said they have operated CL-415’s in Alaska for up to 12 hours a day by double-crewing the aircraft.

Due to a reduction in the federal firefighting budget by the Administration and Congress, there will be no scoopers on the EU list this year. Some are still on a CWN contract, but they may or may not be available if the USFS Calls them When Needed. The large air tankers are being cut from 20 to 13 while the large Type 1 helicopters have been reduced from 34 to 28.

Opinion: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires

Firefighting and warfighting are both expensive

Above: Whoopup Fire, Wyoming, 2011

The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.

No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.

The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.

Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.

Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.

I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.

You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.

Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Appropriately and adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.

Maybe we need some teenagers to take on this issue!

News from the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento, Part Two

Above: Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation

Earlier we posted Part One of  a few notes that I scribbled in a notebook at the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento this week. Here is Part Two.


Neptune Aviation
Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation, said their air tankers in 2016 averaged 180 hours while working on wildfires. In 2017, a very busy year, that number increased to 276. Their P2V’s have retired from firefighting, leaving the company with nine air tankers, all BAe-146’s.

No one outside the U.S. Forest Service knows when the agency will issue the next round of exclusive use and call when needed next-generation air tanker contracts, affectionately called Next-Gen 3.0. When forced to guess, Mr. Hooper said the aircraft receiving those new contracts may not be activated until 2019. He may know more than most, since his former job was supervising air tanker contracting for the FS.

Phos-Chek
One of the major suppliers of fire retardant, Phos-Chek, is changing hands again. In a matter of days its parent company will be Perimeter Solutions. But as in the previous four iterations it will retain the brand name Phos-Chek.

Here is the product’s history of parent companies:
1963-1997: Monsanto
1997-2000: Solutia
2000-2005: Astaris
2005-2018: ICL
2018- ???? : Perimeter

Global Supertanker

Global Supertanker bob soelberg jim wheeler
L to R: Bob Soelberg and Jim Wheeler of Global Supertanker

Jim Wheeler, CEO of Global Supertanker Services, said the company currently has CWN contracts with CAL FIRE and two counties in Colorado — Douglas (just south of Denver) and El Paso (Colorado Springs). Other pending contracts that they hope to sign later will be with the states of Colorado, Texas, and Oregon.

Colorado

Vincent Welbaum, Colorado Aviation Unit Chief
Vincent Welbaum, Colorado’s Aviation Unit Chief

Vincent Welbaum, Colorado’s Aviation Unit Chief, said they are talking to vendors and expect to award a call when needed contract to at least one vendor that can supply large or very large air tankers. The state has been operating their own two Pilatus PC-12 Multi-mission aircraft for several years, using it to detect and map wildfires.

Colorado will have two Single Engine Air Tankers on exclusive use contracts supplied by CO Fire Aviation and Aero Seat as well as four other vendors on call when needed contracts. The state will also have two Bell 205’s on exclusive use contracts.

Helimax

Helimax Pat Pilolia
Pat Pilolia, of Helimax

Helimax Aviation is one of two subsidiaries of Heligroup Holdings. The other is CHI at Howell, Michigan which concentrates on heavy lift, while Helimax, at Sacramento McClellan Airport is in involved in aerial firefighting.  Helimax recently sold all of their Type 2 helicopters, and now have six Type-1’s, Chinook CH-47D’s.

MAFFS Group
MAFFS GroupBradford Beck, COO of MAFFS Group said the company recently sold a MAFFS II system to the Tunisia Air Force in Northern Africa. The country has operated two of the original versions of the MAFFS for 10 to 15 years. They will continue to operate the MAFFS I systems on a C-130B and will use a C-130H for the new MAFFS II which will be delivered in the third quarter of this year.  The most challenging wildfires in Tunisia occur in the Atlas mountains.

This is the second MAFFS II that the MAFFS Group has sold. The first is now being used in Columbia, South America.

Viking Air

Viking Air
The Viking Air display at the conference.

Viking Air director of Special Projects, Sales, and Marketing Christian Bergeron said the company is currently gathering information from potential customers about what they would like to see on a new version of the CL-415 water scooping air tanker.  The company expects to decide by the third quarter of this year if they will proceed with the project, which will be named CL-515. At this stage, Mr. Bergeron said, they expect it to have a larger cargo door, glass cockpit, updated avionics, and will be able to land with a full load of water. Available options will include an infrared camera system and night vision compatibility. Viking’s manufacturing facility is in Calgary, Canada.