The Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs is being used as a forward refueling point for the military helicopters working on the Black Forest Fire on the outskirts of the city. The helicopters being used are Chinooks, Lakotas, and Black Hawks.
(Originally published June 4, 2013; revised June 5 to add more details about the staffing of the helicopter and the status of the ownership of the air attack ship.)
The U.S. Forest Service has not had a helicopter with night flying capabilities since around 1980 — until recently. Now there is a night flying ship based on the Angeles National Forest in southern California, designated Helicopter 531.
Three to four night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City have been used for the last four nights on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. They were coordinated by personnel in another new addition to the USFS’s fleet, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. It is a Turbo Commander 690, much like the one in the photo. The air attack ship is not USFS owned as reported by the agency, but it is leased on a call when needed contract. It is equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.
The long term goal of the USFS is to retrofit an old agency-owned piston engine Shrike 500 Commander to take the place of the contractor supplied aircraft.
Helicopter 531 is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s web site says they operate 22 helicopters. During the day to fill its tank it will typically draft water from a water source while hovering. But at night, for safety purposes, it will only refill by landing and filling from a hose staffed by firefighters.
Yes, according to information we received from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea and someone else closely associated with the operation, the helicopter will be staffed 24 hours a day, using five personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There are four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.
The helicopter will be flown by one pilot during the day, but will add a co-pilot at night. It will respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more travel by ground vehicle.
The helicopter and the air attack ship will work out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. They can be used on initial attack during the day and night in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, and all of the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland National Forests.
In a news release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was quoted as saying:
The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.
Both the Turbo Commander and Helicopter 531 began their contract June 1. While the fixed wing has been in use since then, the helicopter and pilots have been going through training and obtaining certifications and the module is expected to be available at the end of the day on June 5.
The USFS was criticized for attacking the 2009 Station fire near Los Angeles on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive. The fire was three to four acres at 7 a.m. on the second day, but no air tankers or helicopters were used the first night or until later in the morning on the second day. The fire took off at mid-morning on day two and later burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters from Los Angeles County Fire Department. Nearby night-flying helicopters operated by Los Angeles County were not used the first night.
After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency later said they would study the concept, again, and three years after the disastrous fire they announced on August 16, 2012 that they would get back into night flying on a very limited basis with a single helicopter in 2013.
The southern California FIRESCOPE organization and the national forests in the area have established guidelines and procedures for the program. Here is a link to a FIRESCOPE document written in 2007. And below are more recent guidelines from the San Bernardino National Forest. Following the San Bernardino document, there are some excerpts from the FIRESCOPE procedures.
Continue reading “USFS tiptoes back into the night flying business”
The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada has released a report on the crash of a firefighting helicopter that occurred about 20 nautical miles northwest of Lillooet, British Columbia July 29, 2010. Two pilots were on board dropping water on the Jade fire — both of them were hospitalized with injuries. The helicopter was on contract to the B.C. Fire Service by TransWest Helicopters, based in Chilliwack.
The helicopter lost power due to a fuel flow problem. Below are some excerpts from the report:
As the helicopter slowed and started to descend past a ridgeline into the creek valley, the engine lost power. The pilot-in-command, seated in the left-hand seat, immediately turned the helicopter left to climb back over the ridgeline to get to a clearing, released the water bucket and the 130-foot long-line from the belly hook, and descended toward an open area to land. The helicopter touched down hard on uneven, sloping terrain, and pitched over the nose. When the advancing main-rotor blade contacted the ground, the airframe was in a near-vertical, nose-down attitude, which then rotated the fuselage, causing it to land on the left side. A small post-crash fire ignited. The pilot-in-command sustained a concussion and was rendered unconscious. The copilot escaped with minor injuries and dragged the pilot-in-command from the wreckage. The pilot-in-command regained consciousness a few minutes later. The helicopter was substantially damaged. The 406-megahertz emergency locator transmitter was activated, but its antenna fitting fractured; as a result, the search and rescue satellite network did not receive a signal.
Findings as to causes and contributing factors
- The engine fuel control unit was contaminated with metallic debris that likely disrupted fuel flow and caused the engine to lose power.
- The nature and slope of the terrain in the touchdown area caused the helicopter to roll over during the emergency landing.
The 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill passed by the Senate included an earmark of $4,160,00 for fixed belly tanks for National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. It was referred to as the Recoil UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter R60 Wildland Fire-Fighting Tank System. When we covered that on October 7, 2009 at Wildfire Today that is all we knew about the project. But a little more information has emerged. It appears that the tank in these photos may be what was funded in the legislation passed by the Senate.
The photos are from the web site of SHG, a company in Israel that deals in fire suppression equipment. They represent the manufacturer of the tanks, Recoil Suppression Systems, in Merlin, Oregon. SHG also represents Caylym, the outfit that is trying to sell the boxes that when filled with water or retardant would be dumped out of the back of a C-130 or other cargo plane, hopefully slowing the spread of a wildfire.
SHG describes the Blackhawk tank:
A circular-framed retractable suppressant tank that attaches to the airframe at the cargo hook point. The electric operating mechanism is located within the helicopter itself, to operate by crew members. In addition, the system has a security mechanism for a rapid emptying in case of an emergency. The system is approved for use in urban areas. The tank volume is 3,800 liters [1,000 US gallons], and can contain all kinds of water – fresh, brackish and salty water.
Messages we left with Recoil Suppression Systems asking for information were not immediately returned, and we were not able to find a web site for the company. Dunn and Bradstreet says the company has annual sales of $950,000 and has 17 employees. But we have no confirmation that any of the tanks were ever produced and sold.
At least one other company is working on a Blackhawk belly tank, Simplex.
Pilots and firefighters at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs conducted training earlier this month with the goal of becoming qualified to use CH-47 helicopters to drop water on wildfires. Below is an article provided by the Fort Carson Public Affairs Office.
Story by Sgt. Jonathan Thibault
FORT CARSON, Colo. – Splish splash — Colorado Springs wildfires could be getting a bath. Pilots of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, were conducting Bambi Bucket training on Fort Carson, April 4.
A Bambi Bucket is a specialized bucket that carries about 2,000 gallons of water, suspended on a cable carried by a helicopter for aerial firefighting. When the helicopter is in position, the crew opens the release valve to battle the fire below.
Officials with 4th Inf. Div. and the Fort Carson Fire Department are working together to receive approval of the Bambi Bucket mission, so the 4th CAB can assist with firefighting efforts in the Colorado Springs area.
“These missions would give 4th CAB the capability to help other agencies fight wildfires,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Dowdy, battalion standardization officer and senior CH-47 Chinook pilot, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th CAB, 4th Inf. Div. “4th CAB could help reduce or prevent the loss of lives and property damage due to wildfires.”
“We hope to get a positive interaction from the surrounding communities and support them the best way we can,” said Capt. Sean Pearl, commander, Company B, 2nd GSAB, 4th Avn. Reg. “We have three crews training for this mission and will train future Chinook crews as they arrive to 4th CAB.”
The CAB soldiers could be a strong reactive force in preventing and fighting wildfires in Colorado.
“Due to our training, we would be able to react quicker than most agencies and our helicopters can get into areas that most aircraft cannot,” said Dowdy. “The ability to respond quickly to these emergencies makes 4th CAB versatile and allows our Chinooks to perform at various locations worldwide.”
“We are currently discussing protocols with Colorado Springs firefighting agencies to better facilitate our mission to best fit their needs,” said Pearl.
The aviators hope to get the Bambi Bucket missions to get more flight training and prevent the spread of future wildfires. “It is a fairly simple mission because our CH-47 Chinooks are designed to carry external loads, such as the Bambi Bucket,” said Dowdy. “This mission would provide 4th CAB aviators a real-world mission that cannot be done through simulation and also make a positive impact on the surrounding civilian population.”
Fort Carson and the 4th Inf. Div. can only deploy military resources to support firefighting efforts when requested by the National Interagency Fire Center and approved by the Secretary of Defense. At that point, Fort Carson’s support would be coordinated through U.S. Northern Command, located at Peterson Air Force Base. NIFC can only request Department of Defense support after all other local, state and federal resources have been exhausted.
The photo above, a screen grab from ABC7, shows Tanker 71, an S2T, dropping on the Madison Fire in Monrovia, California, east of Los Angeles, at 5:40 p.m. PT, April 20, 2013.
(Updated at 1:51 p.m. MT, April 10, 2013)
The NTSB report mentions that the pilot was texting on his cell phone the day of the accident, including “during the accident flight”. An article at Bloomberg.com has more details about the texting, including:
…The NTSB documented at least 240 texts sent and received by the pilot during his shift the day of the accident, according to records cited by Bill Bramble, an NTSB investigator. There were 20 such texts with a coworker before and during the accident, the safety board found.
Freudenbert received four texts, three of them from a friend at work, and sent three others during the flight, according to NTSB records. He was planning to have dinner with the coworker, according to the records.
Another 13 texts were logged on his phone in the 71 minutes before the flight, including two during a previous flight, according to NTSB records.
(Originally published April 9, 2013)
The National Transportation Safety Board has released the cause of the crash of an EMS helicopter August 26, 2011 near Mosby, Missouri. The agency’s report concludes the crash, which killed the pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic and patient, occurred because the helicopter ran out of fuel and the failure of the pilot to execute a successful autorotation.
The finding about the possible reason for the autorotation failure after the engine failure at cruise speed may have implications for other pilots.
Below is the NTSB’s announcement:
“April 9, 2013
NTSB DETERMINES FATAL MISSOURI HELICOPTER ACCIDENT WAS CAUSED BY FUEL EXHAUSTION, POOR DECISION MAKING AND INABILITY TO PERFORM CRITICAL FLIGHT MANEUVER
WASHINGTON — A pilot’s decision to depart on a mission despite a critically low fuel level as well as his inability to perform a crucial flight maneuver following the engine flameout from fuel exhaustion was the probable cause of an emergency medical services helicopter accident that killed four in Missouri, the National Transportation Safety Board said today.
Continue reading “NTSB report: EMS helicopter crashed after running out of fuel and failure to autorotate”
A K-MAX helicopter is being used in an urban area near Sandy, Utah to haul away brush and trees that hand crews cut in an area near homes. Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the crews spent about 800 hours cutting and spraying brush to reduce the threat from wildfires. KSL has a video and still images of the project.
The K-MAX in the picture below from July 10, 2012, is operated by Swanson Group Aviation and was assigned to Custer, SD last year,