Interview with lead plane pilot Jamie Tackman about the 747 air tanker

On January 24, 2017 the 747 SuperTanker left its base in Colorado Springs, Colorado for an assignment in Chile. It returned on February 13 after dropping on many wildfires in the South American country, making as many as seven sorties in a day each with 19,200 gallons of water enhanced with an additive to help make the water more effective, since long term retardant was not available.

After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie Tackman transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.

Air tanker briefing 

This photo was taken this morning during the daily air tanker briefing on board the 747 Supertanker in Santiago, Chile.

Smoke from the wildfires has reduced the visibility in the city to about one mile. 


Above: looking out one of the 747’s doors at the local firefighters setting up the water system for reloading the aircraft. 

Report released for fatal Mississippi helicopter crash

One person was seriously injured in the 2015 crash. The pilot and a USFS employee were killed.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a 90-page “Learning Review” about the March 30, 2015 crash of a helicopter that occurred during prescribed fire operations on a National Forest in Mississippi approximately 20 miles north of Gulfport. The accident took the lives of Forest Service employee Steve Cobb, contract pilot Brandon Ricks, and seriously injured another Forest Service employee on detail from Montana.

The helicopter was igniting a prescribed fire by using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD), a device that drops small balls that burst into flame after they land on the ground. Steve Cobb was serving as the Firing Boss [FIRB] and the detailed employee was operating the PSD out of the right-rear door.

According to the pilot’s personal flight logbooks, he had accumulated 6,471 total hours of flight experience, about 6,300 hours of which were in the accident helicopter make and model. The owner estimated that the pilot had accrued 22 additional flight hours in the 90 days that preceded the accident.

N50KH Bell 206-L
The helicopter that crashed was N50KH, a Bell 206-L.

Before the flight the engine on the helicopter failed to start on the first try, but the second attempt was successful. Later over the prescribed fire the aircraft made about 12 passes over the project and had been flying for about an hour when the crash occurred.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS report:

The PSD operator recalled they “were flying along 25-to-30 feet above the highest tree…things were going really well,” and they were nearly through the first bag of balls when he heard two alarm warning buzzers go off simultaneously or nearly so followed immediately by the pilot stating, “We lost power,” and FIRB saying, “We’re going in; we’re going in.”

The PSD operator swung his right leg over the PSD machine and back inside the helicopter, just as he had practiced in his head when he envisioned this scenario. He didn’t want his leg broken or trapped under the helicopter if it were to roll on its side. As he tightened his lap belt and pushed his back against the seat, hands on his knees in the crash position, he felt the helicopter tip backwards and to the right slightly. The PSD operator believed the pilot initiated this position purposefully, possibly as part of an autorotation. The descent through the tree canopy was not violent, and the helicopter slipped through the trees tail first. The impact with the ground was “abrupt.” The PSD operator felt the lap belt catch him; the impact knocked the wind out of him.

The PSD operator remembers the helicopter coming to rest more or less upright, and it was quiet. The PSD operator could hear breathing over the intercom system and “crackling” as the balls they had just dropped began to establish fire. He thought to himself, “I’m still alive!” He unbuckled the lap belt and unhooked the gunner strap’s tether from the helicopter, then reached forward to jostle the pilot, yelling at the pilot and FIRB, “We gotta get outta here.” He exited the helicopter from the right side and once on the ground, moved towards the front of the aircraft. He yelled again, “We gotta go,” calling each by name while realizing they were unconscious and that he wouldn’t be able to move them with his injuries. As it was, he was having difficulty breathing and standing up. He now heard the roar of the fire that had grown from small individual spots of fire to a wall of flames surrounding them; he knew it was time to move.

He turned and faced the wall of flames and thought, “I just survived a helicopter crash; I am going to live.” He recounted, “I started walking, through the wall of flames 10-to-15 feet thick, then all the glowing ashes on the other side and residual heat…hands over my face and screaming into my hands and saying, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall’…everything was glowing and I just kept going…I could feel myself burning…the watchband melting on my wrist.” The PSD operator walked approximately 900 feet in a westerly direction to reach the 415A road and the western edge of the burn unit sometime between 1448 and 1451.

After a while he was found by firefighters and was eventually transported by ground ambulance to a waiting air ambulance which flew him to the University of Southern Alabama Hospital in Mobile, Alabama. His injuries included fractures of two cervical and two lumbar vertebrae, left ocular and left side ribs; and intestinal and hernia tears.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the helicopter experienced a “loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined”. The helicopter did not catch fire when it hit the ground, but it was soon ignited by the spreading prescribed fire, hampering the NTSB investigation.

The USFS Learning Review emphasized several issues related to the accident — not necessarily causes, but items for discussion. One was the decision to ignite the project from a helicopter rather than from the ground.

The primary purpose for utilizing helicopters for aerial ignition in this region is to mitigate the exposure of ground resources to the hazards of hand-lighting units. For Unit 1459, like most units on the De Soto Ranger District, a combination of the vegetation, terrain, and fire behavior make hand-lighting units inefficient and hazardous. Flame lengths of greater than four feet combined with difficult walking conditions raise a red flag for a burn boss concerning firefighter safety. Plants such as palmetto (Serenoa repens), gallberry (Llex spp.), ti-ti (Cyrilla racemiflora), and smilax (Smilax spp.) when combined with needles from longleaf, slash, and Loblolly pines can create flame lengths in excess of 10 feet with as little as a two-to-three year accumulation of dead material. These species are also very difficult to traverse. Smilax vines can ensnare firefighters and drip torches and stop them in their tracks. This area also still has some large dead fuel concentrations as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In these areas people working in the woods may encounter downed timber that can stop heavy equipment from forward progress.

Using an airborne resource for igniting a fire rather than personnel on the ground does not eliminate risk. It transfers it.

Another issue was the required flight characteristics of a helicopter while igniting a fire with a PSD. An air tanker when dropping retardant has to fly low and slow to be effective. Similarly, with the current versions of the PSD, a helicopter’s recommended speed should not exceed 50 mph (43 knots), while the preferred altitude is 300 feet above ground level (AGL).

Hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) is the typical flight profile.

The last data from the helicopter provided by the Automated Flight Following (AFF) before the crash indicated it was at 132 feet AGL and traveling at 43 knots.

From the report:

It is clear how organizational processes influenced the acceptance of risk. As a result, risk assessments did not consider the flight profile, as it was already determined that low/slow was necessary in order to accomplish the work. The fact that the recommendations for airspeed and altitude were heavily influenced by the capability of the PSD likely influenced a gradual decay over time of the options and decision space for the pilot to maintain optimal combinations of airspeed and altitude. The fact that this is a successful tool available for conducting prescribed burn operations, sets the stage to “justify” its use, rather than to prompt the agency to look at better options or technology.

The acknowledgement of these flight conditions in agency guides likely affects the deliberate acceptance of a “low and slow” profile as necessary for the accomplishment of the mission. A low/slow flight profile makes sense because it is suggested within written procedure. Over a period of time (4+ decades), confidence and acceptability of the flight parameters strengthens with each successful mission, along with a slight departure from the awareness of the hazards associated with the flight profiles. This is a demonstration of how the production goals creep into mission planning to dominate the protection goals without recognition of such. In this case, all required policy was followed and personnel were conducting their work within the operational norms set up by agency policy and culture.

The Learning Review has numerous recommendations, including modifying the existing PSD machines to enable the helicopter to fly higher and faster. Another is to invent an entirely new method of aerial ignition in order to mitigate the low and slow flight profile.

Air tanker flyover honors the Granite Mountain Hotshots

A squadron of air tankers conducted a flyover in a missing man formation as the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park opened earlier this week. “The Chopper Guy” got some aerial footage as the four single engine air tankers flew toward the memorial site. As they approached, one of the SEATs trailed smoke as it climbed and turned to the right.

On June 30, 2013 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed as they fought the Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona, 90 miles northwest of Phoenix.

Firefighting in Alaska in October

water bucket frozen
We understand that a person in Big Lake, Alaska forwarded this photo, via John T. Johnson. The helicopter was working on the Moose Creek Fire.

(Updated at 1:43 p.m. MDT October 21, 2016)

Firefighters are confident that the 303-acre Moose Creek fire north of Palmer, Alaska will be fully contained after this weekend.

We had a report that said it started last weekend when there were sustained 65 mph winds with temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

Though the wind has abated, the cold conditions continue to pose problems for crews. Firefighters have had to winterize pumps and engines to keep the plumbing from freezing in the sub-freezing temperatures and any hose lines left out overnight are frozen in the morning. In addition, the cold temperatures have made conditions miserable for firefighters trying to stay warm. Firefighters are going through considerable amounts of coffee and hot chocolate to combat the cold temperatures.

Tanker 912 back on the job

DC-10 Hayden Pass Fire
A DC-10 air tanker dropping on the Hayden Pass Fire. Undated/uncredited photo uploaded July 14 on InciWeb.

Tanker 912, the DC-10 that embedded its wing tip into the side of a hangar at Pueblo Airport on July 9 has been repaired and was back on the job yesterday. John Gould of 10 Tanker Air Carrier confirmed that it became airworthy again Wednesday and dropped retardant on the Hayden Pass Fire.

Sorry, but the extremely low resolution photo above was the only one we could find of a DC-10 on the Hayden Pass Fire.

Tanker 60 makes emergency landing at Chico

Air Tanker 60, an Erickson Aero Tanker DC-7B, made an emergency landing at the Chico, California airport Thursday morning. A person who was monitoring radio traffic told Fire Aviation that the pilot declared an emergency after shutting down the #3 engine and losing all hydraulics. The video was apparently captured by someone on the nearby Eaton Road that borders the airport.

The pilots deserve kudos for keeping the aircraft on the runway.

Click on the image above and you’ll be taken to the Action News Now website where you can view it. The resolution on the video is very poor, but you can pretty much tell what is happening.

Tanker 60
File photo of Tanker 60 taken by Bill Gabbert at Madras, Oregon June 13, 2016.

This DC-7B is 58 years old, manufactured in 1958. Over the last three to four years several P2V air tankers in that same age range have had serious problems with hydraulics that resulted in problems as they landed.

In 2006 a P2V operated by Neptune lost an engine due to a bad piston shortly after taking off from Chico. Pilot Dale Dahl dumped the retardant east of the airport and landed without incident.

Blown tire on air tanker closes runway at Redmond Airport

Above: Air Tanker 44, with a blown tire, on the runway at Redmond. Photo by Redmond Fire Rescue.

A runway at the Redmond Airport closed for approximately an hour June 9 after Air Tanker 44, a Korean War vintage P2V, blew a tire while landing after reporting problems with the landing gear. The tanker had been working the ‪Akawana Fire in Oregon‬. There were no injuries.

In 2010 Air Tanker 44 had a problem with the hydraulic system which caused a brake failure upon landing at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado. It slid off the end of the runway, but thankfully both pilots walked away.

P2 crash in Colorado
Tanker 44 off the runway at JeffCo, June 26, 2010. Photo: Cliff Grassmick

Because of an ongoing paving project, there is only one functioning runway at Redmond, so all landing and takeoff activity was shut down, including commercial aircraft and tankers assisting with the Owyhee Canyon and Akawana fires. The firefighting aircraft were diverted to Klamath Falls for reloading and refueling.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KBND:

…Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky was there. He tells KBND News the emergency call initially came in just before 12:30 p.m. that a plane’s landing gear wasn’t working. “It was coming from the fire near Camp Sherman. When it came into view the landing gear was down, and it stayed down. However, as it reached about halfway across the runway, the left rear tire blew; so it skidded and began to bank a little bit to the right, but the pilots did a great job at keeping it straight. There were no injuries, no fire, no smoke; but, just a totally destroyed tire.”

…No word on how many tankers were impacted by the 50-minute closure, but Witcosky says they are busy at the Redmond Airport, right now. “We were out here for a half an hour, waiting for that plane to come in and we saw three tankers go in and out, within about a half an hour to an hour…

Tanker 44 blown tire Redmond
The tire on Tanker 44. Photo by the City of Redmond.

It is unknown if the blown tire was related to the problem with the landing gear, but we are aware of at least three crashes or accidents caused by problems with the P2V landing gear or hydraulic system — T-44 at JeffCo in 2010, T-55 at Minden in 2012, and T-48 at Fresno in 2014.

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