Oklahoma firefighters may use a drone on wildfires this year

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been in the news recently. FireFlight UAS, a company in Oklahoma that manufactures small versions of the aircraft, is adding to the hype by marketing their products to firefighters. According to NewsOn6, they have convinced John Hansen, the Director of the Oklahoma Council on Firefighter Training, the vehicles could provide valuable intelligence during suppression of wildfires.

Here is a video report about the UAV.
NewsOn6.com – Tulsa, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports – KOTV.com |

Concept for UAV air tanker

In December, 2009, Wildfire Today covered a patent application filed by John A. Hoffman for an air tanker, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. It would then be piloted remotely from either the mother ship or from the ground, and after dropping retardant on the fire, would land to reload, or might be a single use aircraft and would be “destroyed in the release step”. In the latter case the UAV would be “possibly constructed of frangible material so as to crash into the fire area”.

NitrofirexThanks to a comment by Jerome on a recent article here about FAA approvals for the use of UAVs, we are now aware of a similar concept, this time by Nitrofirex, which appears to be based in Spain. Much more information is available about the Nitrofirex system than Mr. Hoffman’s idea.

Multiple Nitrofirex UAVs would be transported in a large mother ship and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mother ship.

According to the company the system could also be used:

  • “To combat a nuclear, biological or chemical emergency
  • To act on meteorological phenomena.
  • To combat pests or to spray crops in remote or inaccessible areas.
  • For night time fumigation of drug plantations.”

We were not able to find any specifications about the aircraft regarding retardant capacity, speed, range, or cost.

Nitrofirex screen grab
Nitrofirex UAV air tankers. Screen grab from the video.

Assuming that the cost, firefighter safety, and design issues are solvable, the only portion of the concept that troubles me is the assumption that an air tanker could, without a pilot either on-board or at a remote location, effectively drop retardant in the exact location where it was needed and at an appropriate height above ground. In flat terrain over a slow-moving fire this might be possible, but in mountainous areas it would be a challenge. Especially if a “squadron” of them were released at the same time.

What if…. an orbiting aircraft or a ground-based firefighter a safe distance away had a laser designator which the UAV could use as a target? Much like the military does for smart bombs and missiles. Terrain-following radar such as that used in the F-111C could make the drops more accurate and effective.

The company has developed a video which explores the UAV air tanker concept.

FAA approvals for the use of UAVs

FAA approvals for drones
FAA approvals for drones. Map by Electronic Frontier Foundation.

We ran across an interesting map put together by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that displays locations where the FAA has issued permits authorizing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones in the United States. Here is a link to an interactive version of the map with more information.

Below we have pasted some information from the map with a few details about land management agencies that have had these permits. Two of them have expired, and two are still active.
Continue reading “FAA approvals for the use of UAVs”

Former Carson Helicopter employees indicted over charges related to Iron 44 Fire fatalities

Over on Wildfire Today we have the news about two former employees of Carson Helicopters being indicted by a federal grand jury over charges related to the crash of a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter on the Iron 44 fire in northern California in 2008 that killed nine people, including seven firefighters and two crew members.

12 Questions for Bill Waldman

This is the seventh in a series of articles on FireAviation.com featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. We hope to get participation from senior pilots, as well as Air Operations Branch Directors, Air Tactical Group Supervisors, and others that have worked closely with fire aviation. Our objective is to not only provide our readers with interesting articles, but these very experienced aerial firefighters may also reveal a few gems of information that could prove to be valuable to those considering or just beginning a career in fire aviation. If you have a suggestion of someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Today we hear from Bill Waldman who retired as a P-3 air tanker pilot.

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Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
In 4 decades, there were many people that I worked with. I can’t list them all, might forget somebody. The great tanker pilots I knew or still know all believed they were firefighters and the aircraft and pilot skills were their tools. The great lead plane pilots knew how to fight fire, knew how I flew and I trusted them. The best air attack officers knew how to fight fire, didn’t try to con you into unsafe drops, and knew when to call off air ops.

Bill Waldman
Bill Waldman

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
If you don’t know what you are doing, find somebody who does know.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Getting people in the upper Fire & Aviation Management who recognize trees, smoke and aircraft. Few, now at the top, seem to meet these minimum qualifications.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
When working on a fire with tankers, be alert. Due to bad communications or misunderstood directions, you could get a drop when you least expect it.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
During 40 years flying tankers I was always learning. Since I got my first initial attack card with only around 900 hours total time I had a lot to learn.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
Nothing built in the last 20 years can equal the P-3. I would like to be proved wrong.

Bill Waldman, P3 dropList the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?
B-17, B-26, C-119, DC-4, P2V, P-3. The P-3 is the best all-around tanker platform.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
This incident happened on standby in Silver City 20 years ago. No names will be mentioned to protect the guilty. Alongside the tool repair shop was a platform of plywood over pallets. There was a shade cover over the area. People sat on the platform finishing tool handles and painting the steel. You could also hear new lies, oops stories you hadn’t heard before, and you could get a free haircut. The problem that arose was caused by the local skunks that set up housekeeping in the pallets. The skunks were prolific and there were at least 2 dozen in residence. It was decided that it was time for eviction. So started “The Great Silver city Skunk Hunt.” The plan was to lift the north edge of the pallets with a fork lift and then unleash a 1-1/2” fire hose to flush out the striped enemy. Waiting on the south side was a group of variously armed hunters. This motley crew consisted of a proficient bow hunter with a quiver full of deadly arrows and a tall skinny guy who looked something like the rake with which he was armed. The others, fearing a scented charge, were armed from 22 cal to 357 mag. Things went as planned until the enemy returned fire. The man with the rake was holding his own in close combat and the target skunk was being fatally raked. The bow hunter took a direct hit from his opponent and dropped his bow while barfing in the bushes. The gun toters decided that long-range was prudent and their skunks got a good head start. The gunfire faded down the road and over the plains to the south. The hunt was an unqualified success. Few skunks were buried. However, the terrified remnant has taken up residence in northern Mexico and have not been seen again at the tanker base.

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
Approximately 8,800

Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?
Young Men and Fire

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
Co-pilot, B-17, Tanker-19, Redding, CA, 1969

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
When I started in the tankers there were no ATM’s. You carried a lot of cash and on long trips you tried to cash checks at local banks. The advent of bank cards and ATM’s ended the problem. The bank card – never leave home without it.

12 Questions for Gordon Harris

This is the sixth in a series of articles on FireAviation.com featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. We hope to get participation from senior pilots, as well as Air Operations Branch Directors, Air Tactical Group Supervisors, and others that have worked closely with fire aviation. Our objective is to not only provide our readers with interesting articles, but these very experienced aerial firefighters may also reveal a few gems of information that could prove to be valuable to those considering or just beginning a career in fire aviation. If you have a suggestion of someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Today we hear from Gordon Harris. After being a smokejumper, his first job as an aerial firefighting pilot was flying Volpars on a Bureau of Land Management smokejumper aircraft contract in Alaska. After that he began flying the U.S. Forest Service Infrared aircraft and serving as a Relief Smokejumper Pilot. Later he became the Chief Pilot for Infrared Flight Operations and after that the National Aviation Officer for the USFS. He was also a member of the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board. When Gordon retired in 2007 from the U.S. Forest Service he was the National Smokejumper Program Manager and the Air Tactical Supervisors Coordinator.

In a later article Gordon will describe for us a harrowing incident in a smokejumper aircraft, a Shorts Sherpa, when it was descending flat at about 5,000 fpm with virtually no indicated airspeed.

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Gordon Harris
Gordon Harris, with the Sabreliner Infrared aircraft.

Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
Nels Jensen – One of the most totally “involved” leaders and enthusiastic people I’ve known with the advantage of being a highly skilled pilot and firefighter.

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
Do not let any perceived sense of “urgency or emergency” over-ride the facts of Safety, protocol, procedure and most of all – Common Sense. “Use your Checklist”.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Tough one! Safety is the standard answer probably, but I think effective use of resources is really foremost – on the ground side, when night ground firefighting was curtailed or greatly reduced, it seems to me that fires started getting bigger, more destructive and more dangerous. On the aerial side, the big safety push for grounding airtankers for airworthiness issues eliminated a lot of resources for the aerial aspect and as a result put immensely more pressure on the remaining resources. I’m not convinced these moves improved safety at all.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
Don’t call for aerial resources if you don’t really need them – use them effectively if you do.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Just because a job pays better or looks like a great career move, does not necessarily mean it is the right job at the right time for you. Make sure you develop your career in a logical manner! Take things slow when moving up the career ladder.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
I do not have a well formed opinion on this, although I always thought the BAE-146 looked like a likely candidate and have not heard anything on how that project went. I also always thought the P3 was one of the best ones out there.

List the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?

  1. Beech Volpar Turboliner
  2. King Air B200
  3. Merlin II
  4. Baron 58P
  5. Cessna Citation
  6. Sabreliner 80
  7. Shorts Sherpa
  8. Dehavilands Twin Otter
  9. Caribou
  10. DC-3
  11. DC-3TP
  12. Pilatus Turbo-Porter

Of the aircraft listed, I was pilot in command on the first 8 listed and was a smokejumper in the others (except DC3-TP which I flew as co-pilot and gave smokejumper captain check rides in)

My favorite to fly and “best tool for the job” are two different things. I loved flying the Volpar, Shorts Sherpa, Sabreliner and Merlin the most. Best tools are different – and there again, variations.

If I had to single out one airplane as “most suitable” for multi-missions, probably the Beechcraft King Air 200 for being “user friendly” and good performance.

Each airplane had its “best aspects” and “not so good” for different mission profiles, not really a one-size fits all. I could write more on each airplane and which specific mission profile I thought each was best at or why I like it/dislike it but I think that is probably outside the scope of this survey.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
Flying from Missoula to McCall one day in a Cessna 206, Nels Jensen and I could see an airtanker ahead of us flying very slow and doing S turns. We caught up with it, followed awhile, Nels recognized the plane and knew who was flying (not to mention names, he was the son of an Airtanker company owner). Finally Nels keyed the mic and said (calling the pilot by name), and so what do you think you’re doing, aren’t you suppose to “reload and return”, like today sometime? Maybe you should push the throttles up a little and fly a straight line! All the other pilot said was “oh damn, you are everywhere Nels”, and then bumped it up about 30 knots and managed to fly straight. He was “milking the Hobbs meter”.

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
Rough estimate is 3,500-4,000 hours.

Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?
Young Men and Fire

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
From 1969-1972, then first pilot job flying as aerial firefighter was flying a Volpar Turboliner on a smokejumper contract for BLM Alaska. That year (1980) I got to bring the first contingent of BLM Smokejumpers to Grand Junction, CO when they started developing the Great Basin Smokejumper Program. Became full-time USFS Infrared Pilot (Merlin II and King Air 200) and relief Smokejumper pilot (Twin Otter) in 1987 at Boise.

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
GPS is sure nice.

12 Questions for Hugh Carson

This is the sixth in our series of articles on FireAviation.com featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. We hope to get participation from senior pilots, as well as Air Operations Branch Directors, Air Tactical Group Supervisors, and others that have worked closely with fire aviation. Our objective is to not only provide our readers with interesting articles, but these very experienced aerial firefighters may also reveal a few gems of information that could prove to be valuable to those considering or just beginning a career in fire aviation. If you have a suggestion of someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Today we hear from Hugh Carson, an Air Operations Branch Director. He served as the Bureau of Land Management’s State Aviation Manager for Utah and Nevada, later becoming the Aviation Training Developer for the BLM at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

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Hugh Carson
Hugh Carson

Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
I’m with Walt Darran, it’s gotta’ be Don Ornbaum, whom I had as PIC for the Stead contract my first year as a State Aviation Manager for the BLM in Nevada. One of the smartest, crustiest, most humorous guys I’ve ever run into. I sure wish we’d followed up on that airtanker pilot oral history project – Don would have had a lead role, for sure. But Don also had a co-pilot named Wally Griffin, whom I hired the next year as the Nevada OV-10 pilot ‘til he absconded north to be the AFS Aviation Manager.

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
Review situation awareness cues and LCES. It all comes down to that in staying alive.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Being open to “new” technology and platforms that, outside of the feds, are becoming ubiquitous. I would put Unstaffed Aerial Vehicles at the head of this list, followed by the use of the CL-415 as a primary airtanker. And we should not spend 5 years studying aircraft and systems whose use is a no-brainer. If the feds don’t understand the train is leaving the station, the states and municipalities will leave the feds in the dust.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
Fire suppression: Measured, slow, and aware. Aircraft: Get with the helitackers and ATGS/ASMs early, one on one. Ask questions, do some what ifs. The more ground folks understand aviation, the less friction we have, and the easier it is to develop synergy.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Active listening.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
CL-415, and an un-built one for which we should have obtained funding 20 years ago. An airtanker specifically built for the environment. Still a dream.

List the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?
Lama [helicopter]. Power.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
This not something I saw, but rather something that happened. Happy Camp, ’87. Team is anticipating aerial firing with PSD potassium permanganate ping pong balls. Carson orders 30,000 PSD Unit on Equipment order but the balls have to go on a Supply Order. Despite specific cross-referencing of the orders, sure enough, 2 days later someone said that a Ryder truck was outside with my ping pong balls. The driver opens the back gate and . . . and . . . there they were. 30,000 regular ping pong balls, though minus paddles and tables. The buzz on this had pretty much calmed down, but this should give it some more legs.

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
1000

Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
AD-1 Helitack Crewmember, 1970, Glenallen, AK.

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
Since I’m a DJ on community radio, it’s my 2 Tb External Drive with 28,000 songs on it.