Presentations were made by Dennis Pratte, manager of the FAA’s General Aviation/Commercial Division, on public operations conducted by commercial operators on contract to a government agency; and by Frank Gladics, former senior staff member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on legislative issues relative to aerial firefighting.
Other agenda items included unmanned aviation vehicles (UAV), governmental economic crises, and wildfire aircraft operations.
The next meeting of the committee will be on March 5, at HELI-EXPO 2013 in Las Vegas.
An organization that represents some of the companies that provide firefighting helicopters and air tankers to the government has issued a press release explaining how the looming “fiscal cliff”, which Wildfire Today wrote about in October, might affect the availability of aerial resources in the suppression of wildfires:
The aerial firefighting industry is citing the risk of significant cutbacks in its ability to respond to wildland fires, if automatic Federal spending cuts become effective at year end.
“Should Congress and the Administration fail to reach a deficit reduction agreement, our fear is that funding for forest protection will be severely reduced, making it that much more difficult for some of our members to maintain the assets and manpower needed for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The possibility of going over the fiscal cliff is a major concern of our members.”
Todd Petersen, Vice President Marketing, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters, warned that if Congress and the administration are unable to resolve their differences over cutting the deficit, it could lead to cutbacks in the number–and duration of– exclusive use agreements with the US Forest Service (USFS), as well as call when needed contracts. Exclusive use contracts, Peterson explained, are a bread and butter item, usually running anywhere from 90 to 180 days per year–per aircraft. Normally, they are in effect over four years, based on three, one-year renewable options after the first year.
“If the contracts are cut, it could mean that we would have to take some of the helicopters that we have used for firefighting and redeploy them to other kinds of jobs,” Petersen noted. “Those helicopters and crews would no longer be available for firefighting, if they were needed.”
Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot for Lewiston, Idaho-based Hillcrest Aircraft Company, echoed this concern. “For us, the big question is whether the USFS would be forced to cut some of its exclusive use contracts, and rely more on call when needed aircraft in the event of a major wildfire,” he said. “We will have the opportunity to discuss this with the USFS at a meeting with the agency in Boise, Idaho, at the end of this month, and hopefully, we’ll get a clearer picture of what they might do.” A major issue, said Taft, is whether there will be immediate, across the board cuts by the Forest Service, or whether they would defer cuts to certain programs to a later date. “It’s very difficult to predict what might happen,” he remarked.
Taft pointed out that since the USFS is a major Hillcrest Aircraft Company customer, any contract funding reductions directly impacting the operator will mandate scaling back on staffing levels, as well as purchases from vendors. “If we fly less, we will not buy as much fuel; and we won’t have to purchase as many repair parts. It could have a very big impact on a lot of operators and vendors.”
At Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, Chief Pilot Pete Gookin, stated that budget cutbacks could cause the government to consider greater use of military assets for wildland fire protection.
“It’s only my opinion, but in an effort to appear that it’s saving money, the government could try to replace at least some of the private contractors with the military,” Gookin said. “While that might look good to the taxpayers, military crews are (generally) not trained to fight fires, and their aircraft were not designed to be used for firefighting as their primary mission. Aerial firefighting was designed by civilian operators working with the US Forest Service, over the past 40 years. It’s a civilian operation and it should stay that way.”
Columbia Helicopters, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, and Intermountain Helicopter are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.
One of our readers has spotted what he says are three helicopters and one air tanker that show up in satellite imagery visible on Google Earth. Brian found them on satellite photos taken June 12, 2011 which show the Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona actively burning.
Last month on Wildfire Today we had information about three aircraft that showed up on Google Earth satellite photos taken October 26, 2006 during the Esperanza fire in southern California. This link is a Google Earth KLM file that has place marks for all three aircraft. On that imagery, the air tankers were clearly visible. The four reported on the Wallow fire are not as clear, partly because three of them are helicopters, which of course are smaller than air tankers.
But check it out yourself. Here is the information provided by Brian. You can copy the lat/long and paste it into the search box on Google Earth.
AE350B helicopter: 33 32 40.27 -109 24 10.21
B212 helicopter: 33 32 46.02 -109 24 01.06
S64 helicopter: 33 32 55.26 -109 23 13.25
P2V air tanker: 33 32 44.35 -109 26 33.99
Even if the aircraft are not super clear, it is interesting seeing the photos of the active Wallow fire which started May 29, eventually becoming the largest fire in Arizona history, burning 538,040 acres, which includes 15,407 acres after it crossed the border into New Mexico.
Type 1 (High Volume) rotary wing firebombing services
Type 1, 2, and 3 rotary wing services
Type 4 fixed wing firebombing services
A number of other specialist aircraft services, including intelligence gathering
A small number of conventional light fixed wing aircraft services for reconnaissance
Very Large airtankers
Type 1 and 2 multi-engine airtankers
Scooping or self-filling fixed-wing aircraft
Proposals to supply data integration services for AFAMS – the national aircraft tracking and event logging system
The request for proposals for very large air tankers is a little surprising after their experiment during the 2009-2010 fire season. After that trial the Aussies were not entirely pleased with the overall performance of a DC-10, however most of the problems were a result of insufficient skill on the part of the crew, rather than the aircraft — for example dropping far too low or completely missing a target. The first pilots who flew the DC-10 very large air tankers had little or no previous experience flying air tankers when that program began. In the last two to three years they have gained a quite a bit more experience flying low and slow over mountainous terrain and have a good reputation in the United States. The two DC-10s have proven to be a reliable and valuable aviation asset.
Erickson Air-Crane, a company in Portland, Oregon, that builds, operates, and sells Erickson S-64 heavy-lift helicopters, intends to purchase Air Amazonia, a subsidiary of HRT Participacoes, a company in Brazil, along with their 14 helicopters.
Erickson’s Air-Cranes are used extensively in fighting wildland fires. At least 15 Air-Cranes or Ch-54 helicopters were on contract with the U.S. Forest Service in 2012. The company has been sending some of the ships to Australia since 1998 to fight fires there during the down-under summer, which of course is winter in the United States. During the 2011-2012 summer there, Erickson had three of them in Australia — aircraft named Elvis, Elsie, and Marty.
“It plays well to our unique capabilities,”Udo Rieder [Erickson’s president and chief executive officer] said during a conference call with analysts on Wednesday.
He said the deal for 14 medium and light helicopters will significantly increase Erickson’s capability in South American markets, adding revenue and making good use of the company’s capital.
“It will reduce the impact of the seasonality of our business and expand our footprint in the gas and oil industry,” Rieder said.
HRT owns seven Sikorsky-61 aircraft, which are smaller but have many similarities to Erickson’s current fleet.
“We’ve always talked about adding medium-lift capability to our operation,” Rieder said. “It’s complementary to our business. The S-61s are little sisters to the air-cranes. Many of the parts are similar and some are identical — the cockpits are the same. This would give us quite a bit more capability at our Central Point facility. This will provide a platform to bring in S-64s and exchange equipment fairly quickly in Brazil and Peru.”
He said the company is unsure of what it will do with the Bell 212s and Eurocopter AS-350s that are part of the deal.
“We have the option to move them anywhere we want near-term,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the demand is, but we’ll pretty much absorb all the aircraft there.”
The deal, however, isn’t expected to close until the second half of 2013, Rieder said, because of “fairly complex regulatory requirements and licensing matters.”
Below is a portion of the text from an announcement by Erickson:
Erickson Air-Crane Inc. Announces Letter of Intent to Acquire Brazilian Oil and Gas Aerial Services Business
Plans Purchase of Air Logistics Business from HRT Participaes em Petroleo, S.A.
Early Stage Transaction Announcement, Closing Expected in Second Half 2013
14 Aircraft Fleet to Position Company as a Leading Air Services Provider in Brazil
PORTLAND, Ore. — (BUSINESS WIRE) — Nov. 6, 2012 — Erickson Air-Crane Incorporated (NASDAQ: EAC) (Erickson Air-Crane or the Company), a leading operator and the manufacturer of the powerful heavy-lift helicopter, the Erickson S-64 Aircrane, today announced that it had entered into a non-binding letter of intent to acquire 14 helicopters and associated personnel and assets from HRT Participacoes em Petroleo, S.A. (HRT).
The letter of intent is non-binding and, for the acquisition to be completed, requires that EAC provide operational services to HRT in the Amazon, including both cargo and passenger transport, through a three-year, renewable contract.
Udo Rieder, Chief Executive Officer of Erickson Air-Crane, commented, We are very pleased to have identified what we believe is a strong future partner. Were confident that this acquisition can be an excellent path to diversification and growth. Brazil is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing industrial markets in the world and we are uniquely suited to provide our expertise and leverage the full capabilities of this fleet and our investment.
About Erickson Air-Crane Incorporated
Erickson Air-Crane specializes in the operation and manufacture of the Erickson S-64 Aircrane (the Aircrane), a versatile and powerful heavy-lift helicopter. The Aircrane has a lift capacity of up to 25,000 pounds and is the only commercial aircraft built specifically as a flying crane without a fuselage for internal loads. The Aircrane is also the only commercial heavy-lift helicopter with a rear load-facing cockpit, combining an unobstructed view and complete aircraft control for precision lift and load placement capabilities. Erickson Air-Crane owns and operates a fleet of 18 Aircranes, which are used to support a wide variety of government and commercial customers worldwide across a broad range of aerial services, including firefighting, timber harvesting, infrastructure construction, and crewing. Erickson Air-Crane also manufactures Aircranes and related components for sale to government and commercial customers and provides aftermarket support and maintenance, repair, and overhaul services for the Aircrane and other aircraft. Founded in 1971, Erickson Air-Crane is headquartered in Portland, Oregon with its principal manufacturing facility based in Central Point, Oregon. For more information, please visit http://www.ericksonaircrane.com.
You may have heard about the wildland firefighter who was rescued from an approaching fire by climbing into a water bucket below a helicopter and being extracted to safety. The story was first written up on our sister site Wildfire Today on October 1, 2012, and the followup details from a Facilitated Learning Analysis were posted there October 24.
Some of us were wondering what the official response from the U.S. Forest Service would be. Might they throw the book at him for violating the rules? However, I doubt if there is a rule that says “Thou shalt not transport a human in a helicopter’s water bucket”. The USFS is not known for bleeding edge innovation in their aviation program. Most deviation from standard procedure is strongly discouraged. And rightfully so in most cases. You don’t want to screw around with rules that provide for the safety of pilots and firefighters.
Fire Aviation is now able to disclose, with his permission, that the pilot was Joseph Berto. Congratulations to Mr. Berto! He may have saved the life of a firefighter.
Much to our surprise, the USFS officially commended Mr. Berto by presenting to him the following plaque.