Trade organization issues press release about the state of fire aviation

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has issued a press release about the current state of contracted aerial firefighting services for the federal government.

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2013  — On the eve of its 2014 Annual Meeting in Boise, Idaho, on November 20, the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has cited some progress over the past year toward airtanker fleet modernization, along with on-going opposition to any increased role for government in the aerial firefighting business.

“After years of discussions between AHSAFA, US Forest Service (USFS) officials, and Congress, multi-year, operating contracts—worth $261 million—were awarded last spring by the USFS to five companies for seven next-generation large airtankers, to be available for the 2013 fire season,” said AHSAFA Executive Director Tom Eversole. “The USFS has said there is a need for as many as 26 modern large airtankers within the next five years. We consider the contract awards to be a major step toward the replacement of the current large airtanker fleet, consisting of seven to eight Cold War Era military surplus aircraft. All indications are that the USFS will not contract for these legacy aircraft beyond the current contract period, which ends in 2018.”
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Yellowstone area helicopters make two short haul rescues

Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.
Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.

Helicopters in the Yellowstone area made at least two short haul rescues in August, both of them with ASTAR B3 ships.

The first occurred on August 17 in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The helicopter from Yellowstone National Park had been assigned to the general area for fire and rescue support working out of Wenatchee when a climber had a medical problem at the 12,000′ level on Mount Rainier at Disapointment Cleaver. The Mount Rainier rangers knew the Yellowstone helicopter was in the area and requested it to respond after they evaluated the condition of the climber and considered the rescue alternatives.
short haul rescue

The other happened on August 27 after a snag struck a Chena Hotshot crew member while assigned to the Kelley fire on the Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho. The rescue was performed by a Jackson, Wyoming Teton Interagency helicopter while the ship was assigned to the fire. The National Park Service describes this rescue:

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“…Immediately after the accident, the Chena superintendent requested a medical evacuation, prompting air attack to request an air ambulance and a hoist-capable helicopter. Hearing the radio traffic, a Teton Interagency Helitack crew member assigned to the helibase notified air attack that the crew and Helicopter N26HX, which was conducting water drops from a dip site near Helibase, were short-haul capable. Short-haul is a rescue technique where an individual is suspended below the helicopter on a 100 to 200 foot rope. This method allows a rescuer more direct access to an injured party, and it is often used in national parks like Grand Teton National Park in the Teton Range where conditions make it difficult to land a helicopter in the steep and rocky terrain. Patients are typically flown out via short-haul with a ranger attending to them below the helicopter.

Operations diverted the helicopter from a water bucket mission, and the crew began preparing for a short-haul. Pilot Chris Templeton and short-haul spotter Garth Wagner flew a reconnaissance mission. Tasks included locating a suitable insertion spot, conducting environmental and power checks, and determining that a short-haul mission was the appropriate tool. Based on the recon flight, the crew completed a short-haul and Green-Amber-Red (GAR) risk assessment, then readied for the mission. They configured the helicopter by removing the doors, attaching a “three-ring” backup to the cargo hook, and inspecting and attaching a 150-foot-long short haul rope to the cargo hook. They also checked the harnesses for the short-hauler and spotter, as well as the communication systems. A litter was prepared with a harness and attachment points.

While the helitack crew was preparing helicopter N26HX for short-haul, another helicopter delivered medical gear to the site of the injured firefighter. An EMT on the Chena Hotshots and other crew members prepared the patient for transport. The helicopter inserted short-hauler Ron Johnson, whose normal job is as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, with a litter and line gear into the extraction site. Rescuers transported the patient on a spine board the 150 feet to the extraction site. Because the patient was already packaged, the helicopter extracted him and the short-hauler about 15 minutes after inserting Johnson on site. They were flown back to helibase where a team of Teton Helitack members caught the patient and litter and transferred him to an awaiting life-flight helicopter.

Teton Interagency Helicopter
Teton Interagency Helicopter. NPS photo.

During the week before the successful rescue mission, the Teton Helitack crew flew nearly three hours of short-haul training in typical terrain for pilot proficiency. Such proficiency training is required every 28 days, and in this case, the training was also essential in preparing the helitack crew to receive the patient and litter at helibase.

Using the short-haul method is relatively new to wildland fire, but is one of the preferred methods of rescue in the rugged terrain of several national parks, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and Grand Canyon. The Yosemite Helitack crew performed a successful rescue earlier in August on the Green Ridge fire on the Deschutes National Forest.”

Students design fire-hunting UAV

Fire-hunting UAV
From left: Jennifer Hull, Steven Vo, Matthew Mannebach, Robert Harden and Coryn Mickelson with the fire-hunting UAV they designed and built over the summer at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Image courtesy of Mike Logan.

From NASA:

NASA Langley Student Team Designs Fire-Hunting UAV

Sept 26, 2013

You could say that the idea came to him in a cloud of smoke.

Over the summer, Mike Logan, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, put a group of students to work designing and building an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that could one day help to snuff out fires in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.

The origins of the project go back to August of 2011. A lightning strike in the swamp sparked a blaze that ended up burning for four months. At one point, wind pushed the smoke as far north as Maryland. Logan, who lives due north of the swamp in South Hampton Roads, often found his house in the path of the acrid cloud.

“After choking down a few dozen clouds worth of peat bog smoke, which I found out I’m allergic to, I thought, you know, there really ought to be a better way,” he said.

So Logan made a phone call to the local fire captain. They had a couple of conversations and visited the swamp to do a sight survey. Logan learned that lightning causes the majority of the fires in the swamp, and that the only way swamp personnel are able to locate fire sources is to hire an outside contractor to do a manned aircraft survey.

It’s an expensive solution, and one that didn’t happen until nearly a week and a half after the 2011 fire started. By that time, the blaze had already spiraled out of control.

But that gave Logan an idea: why not develop a UAV that could fly over the swamp and detect fires before they get out of hand?

It was a simple solution to complex problem, and Logan tasked his student team with bringing it to fruition.

“I said, you know, this would be a perfect opportunity to give them some hands-on learning experience and oh, by the way, solve this massive problem pretty inexpensively,” he said.

The team, which included Aerospace Project interns Jennifer Hull, Robert Harden, Matthew Mannebach and Coryn Mickelson, and Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars (LARSS) intern Steven Vo, had 10 weeks to design and build the UAV. Logan specified that it had to be low cost and operable by Great Dismal Swamp personnel. It also needed to be deployable within minutes or hours of a storm and able to autonomously detect, provide images of, and provide precise GPS coordinates for, small hotspots that might develop into serious fires.

“At first I was daunted,” said Hull, a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who didn’t have much experience building UAVs prior to tackling Logan’s project.

But Logan guided his team through the process, showing them how to cut foam parts for the UAV on a CNC hot wire machine. He also taught them to apply composite skins like Kevlar and fiberglass using a vacuum bagging system that molds and seals the composites to the body of the aircraft.

In addition, the students had to optimize the UAV’s airflow, install an auto navigation unit, test different motor-propeller combinations, and set up payloads (the aircraft had to carry a video camera and an infrared camera). They even manufactured a camera mount with a 3D printer and a heat sink that was cut using a water jet at NASA Langley’s fabrication shop.

“They learned all these things about how you fabricate stuff that they wouldn’t have gotten at the university,” Logan said.

Vo, a student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, certainly found it enlightening.

“I feel like this hands-on experience will help me become a better designer in the future as I will be able to better understand the feasibility of certain designs and where to compromise between design ideals and ease of manufacturing,” he said.

Toward the end of their 10 weeks, Logan’s team was ready to send its fire-hunting UAV up for a first test flight, but windy conditions thwarted one attempt and a last-second technical glitch stopped another.

Though the students have since left, Logan is hoping to make another attempt soon. Not only would this UAV potentially save the Great Dismal Swamp money, it could also save taxpayers money. Between the 2011 fire and another fire in 2008, taxpayers had to cover nearly $25 million in firefighting costs. That makes the idea of a UAV that could pinpoint hotspots and lead firefighters to them before they get out of hand that much more appealing.

Logan also sees commercial potential for the aircraft, and had the students design it with that in mind.

“The idea is to make this as easy to produce as possible,” he said. “And that was one of the items that I kind of stressed to the students is that hey, every time you have to perform an operation — what the people in the industry call touch labor — every step that you have to make, whether it’s turning a screw, whether it’s a vacuum bagging process or whatever, that costs money.”

Hull, who started the project daunted, but ended it “excited” and “confident,” said it was a great experience.

“There are many people out there who do not feel like they are contributing enough with their job and want to make a bigger and better impact on society, and this internship was amazing in that it let us do that,” she said. “If our UAV or a UAV inspired by ours is ever used by a park ranger in the Great Dismal Swamp and prevents just one wildfire, it will have my made summer.”

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

Tanker 131 on the Wheeler Fire

T-131 on the Wheeler Fire, November 14, 2013

Britt Coulson sent us this very impressive video and the excellent photos of their C-130-Q, Tanker 131, dropping on the Wheeler Fire in southern California. The still photos were taken by Michael Meadows on Thursday, November 14 and are used here with his permission.

You have to watch this video. I have seen lots of forward-looking videos shot from the cockpit of air tankers, but this one looking toward the rear allows you to see where the retardant hits the fire. Very impressive. We asked Britt for some details about the camera:

It is the newest version of GoPro and they mounted it on the rear ramp door. The C-130Q has a hole where the low frequency RF cable used to go out that was later converted to a window with bars over it so it doesn’t get damaged. We build a housing that attaches to the bars and holds the camera. I believe they activated it before they took off then just cut the video down.

They have another camera mounted on a wing tip but it was not turned on for this flight. The photo below was taken from that camera.

T-131 from wing tip camera

The Wheeler Fire, north of Santa Paula in Ventura County, was contained at 64 acres. T-131 dropped 10,500 USG over 3 sorties and 5 drops.

Coulson’s exclusive use contract with the U.S. Forest Service ended for the year on November 15 but the agency gave them an extension based on fire activity.

Click on the photos to see larger versions.
T-131 on the Wheeler Fire, November 14, 2013 T-131 on the Wheeler Fire, November 14, 2013Thanks Britt and Michael!

Walt Darran, rest in peace

Walt Darran passed away yesterday, November 15, 2013.

Walt Darran

Walt Darran, a good friend, passed away yesterday, November 15, after fighting a battle with stomach cancer. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his wife, Christine.

Walt was the first person we went to when we began our series of articles featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. Below is what we posted on Fire Aviation January 18, 2013.

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We begin the series with one of the most experienced and well-respected pilots, Walt Darran. Walt has retired from active duty as an S2T air tanker pilot with CAL FIRE/DynCorp, and is now the Safety Committee Chairman of the Associated Aerial Firefighters and also serves as the Chairman of their Board of Directors.

Here are Walt’s responses to our questions:

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Walt Darran cranking air tanker at Hemet
Walt Darran starting Tanker 68, a TBM at Hemet

Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
Don Ornbaum, airtanker pilot. In addition to his outstanding stick & rudder skills, Don’s ability to succinctly, powerfully, and without reservation present his ideas, both positive and critical, based on many years of aerial firefighting, which added greatly to the legend and store of Tribal Knowledge in the early days of aerial firefighting.

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
Think. Never forget the option to just say “no”.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Two-way communication; outreach to firefighters in the field, both boots on the ground and aircrews, preferably one-on-one face time. There is currently a severe disconnect. Desk-bound managers at Fire & Aviation occasionally riding jumpseat on live missions, and maybe living out of a suitcase attached to an airtanker for 3-4 months at a time away from home, would help close the gap in their understanding and empathy.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
Better communication. Visit your local airbase occasionally and have a cup of coffee with the aircrews. Better yet, call and debrief after an incident with suggestions (or even praise!) about a specific drop or incident. Check into airtanker.org; consider joining Associated Aerial Firefighters.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
“Lessons Learned” —Tribal Knowledge; now available in NTSB accident reports, NAFRI I and II, Cal Fire Safety seminars, and airtanker.org forum and archives. Experience is one way of learning, but it’s not always the safest, most effective, or most efficient way.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
If I had to pick only the two most cost-effective, flexible, Initial Attack aircraft that are FAA certified I’d have to say the Sikorsky S70C Firehawk and the Airtractor AT802AF (lots of them, all over the place, real IA, on “exclusive use” contracts, not CWN; including the Wipaire FireBoss amphibian option). Bombardier CL415 and AW319 are close behind. C130J with MAFFS II is OK for surge, but probably cost-prohibitive, and not as effective/efficient as a C130 with RADS.

Remanufactured, or newly converted, choices would include BAe146 (and RJ85), Erickson Sky Crane, DC10, B747, Grumman S2T, DeHavilland Dash 8-Q400, and C130H with RADS. Beriev BE200, Shinmaywa US-2, and Kamov KA-32A11BC have potential if/when FAA certified and given adequate OEM support. But they are all just tools in the tool box—each works well if, and only if, dispatched in a timely manner, then properly applied by a proficient crew in the appropriate situation.

List the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?
Flown on fires: Grumman TBM, Grumman Ag-Cat, Grumman S2A/T, Stearman PT-17, Lockheed P2V-5/7, Beech D18, MELEX Dromader M18T, Consolidated PBY5A, Fairchild C119C, Douglas B26, Douglas C54E. Carded on DC7B. Flight time in (airline/military, not airtanker conversions) Lockheed L100 Electra, DeHavilland DH4 Caribou, MD80 (series), DC10-10/30, Douglas AD4 Skyraider, Pilatus Tirbo-Porter. Airtanker evaluation flights, with drops, in BAe146-200, DC10-10 (jumpseat on fires), Airtractor 802 AF, and FireBoss. Loved them all, but felt most at home in S2A and S2T. The S2T has a big advantage in reliability, tank system, capacity, speed, maneuverability, performance, and comfort.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
Joe Satrapa describing to a reporter how a Heavenly vision of John Wayne told him to open the overhead hatch in his S2T, piss on a rag, and use it to clean his windshield in flight (after the retardant from the previous airtanker drop had totally obscured his cockpit vision).

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
2,646

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

  1. Firebombers Into Hell, Linc Alexander.
  2. Air Attack on Forest Fires, Alexander Linkewich (Linc Alexander).
  3. Firecrew, Ben Walters with Kelly Andersson.

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
Pilot for Hemet Valley Flying Service, 1971.

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
GPS, TCADS [a collision avoidance system], iPhone with lotsa apps, air conditioning. Wish list; GPS moving map display with IR (Max-Viz) SVS overlay, ARINC with printer, auto-pilot, Electronic Flight Bag on iPad, Appareo Flight Reconstruction System. Folding gas-powered motor scooter.

New USFS aircraft engineering contract requires C-27 experience

C-27J lands at Qalat, Afghanistan.
C-27J taxis after landing at Qalat, Afghanistan. USAF photo by Master Sgt Jeffery Allen.

The U.S. Forest Service has awarded an aircraft engineering support services contract to Aeronautica. Issued on November 4, the specifications in the solicitation require the contractor to have experience as an engineer with the G222, C27A or C27J. It is also necessary for the contractor to have a Designated Engineering Representative on staff that is fluent in Italian.

The USFS hopes to acquire seven Italian-designed C-27Js from the U.S. Air Force, but the Coast Guard is battling them and wants to get all of the remaining 14, possibly giving the USFS some old Coast Guard C-130s instead. The C-27Js are almost brand new and the USFS wants to use them as air tankers, smokejumper platforms, or for hauling cargo and firefighters.

Since the engineering contract specifically mentions the C-27J, the USFS must have been pretty certain when the solicitation was issued August 2, 2013 that they were going to obtain the aircraft. However the one to five-year contract, with a not-to-exceed amount of $300,000, has provisions that could apply to other planes as well, including:

  • Aircraft certification
  • Aircraft operational loads monitoring
  • Assist in determining contract compliance for other aircraft
  • Small Scale Engineering Projects
  • Integration of retardant delivery systems on large aircraft

It will be interesting to see how the negotiations between the USFS and the Coast Guard turn out.

Coast Guard wants to trade with the USFS, C-130s for C-27s


The fate of the 21 almost new C-27J Spartan aircraft that the Air Force wants to get rid of is still not clear. On October 28 Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made the decision to give seven of them to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), but he has not determined the fate of the remaining 14 according to Pentagon spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. The U.S. Forest Service wants 7 of them for firefighting operations.

In the video above, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp said they wanted all 21, but  “…we are going to press ahead and get as many of those [remaining 14] as we can.” The portion of the interview in which the C-27J is discussed begins at 4:25.

Adm. Papp also broke the news that the Coast Guard is negotiating with the U. S. Forest Service to give them some old C-130s if the Coast Guard can get all 14 C-27Js after SOCOM takes the first 7.

Of course this throws a large monkey wrench into the Forest Service plans. But, the C-27J would not qualify as a next-generation air tanker since it could only carry 1,850 gallons of retardant according to a study that cost the agency $54,000. They want large air tankers that can carry at least 3,000 gallons, however there is something to be said about a mix of aircraft with their individual niche capabilities. A C-27J might be better used as a smokejumper platform, to haul cargo to fires, and transport two or three 20-person fire crews.

The Admiral did not say what model of C-130s the Coast Guard wants to get rid of, although he did mention C-130Js at one point. Nor did he say WHY the Coast Guard wants to get rid of the old C-130s (and get almost brand new replacement aircraft!). If they are low-usage C-130Js in good shape with lots of life left in them, the USFS could create a government-owned, contractor-operated large air tanker program. But Coast Guard aircraft are used in a maritime environment, much like the old P2Vs which were converted to air tankers, which could accelerate aging issues.

The text below is a transcript of a portion of Adm. Papp’s statement in the interview:

We were interested in getting our hands on all 21 of them. Special Operations Command I believe is going to get 7 of them and some number of aircraft were promised or at least directed to the Forest Service for firefighting.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the details of the negotiations right now but we’re working with the Forest Service to make sure that that is the particular aircaft that would suit their needs. We have C-130s that we can convert and turn over to them that might be better for them but we have staff that are working right now. Ideally out of the remaining aircraft we would like to get 14, that allows us to fully outfit 3 air stations and anything less than that, we would have to go back and really reevaluate the project… We are going to press ahead and get as many of those as we can.

In July of 2012 Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation known as the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012 (S. 3441) ”to help replenish the agency’s aging airtanker fleet”. It would have required the transfer of 14 C-27Js to the Forest Service. The bill died, and since then the USFS has said they want 7 of the aircraft.

C-27Js at Mansfield, Ohio Feb. 13, 2013. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph Harwood
Air National Guard C-27Js at Mansfield, Ohio Feb. 13, 2013. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph Harwood.

The report the USFS commissioned concluded the C-27J could carry 1,850 gallons of retardant if 3,200 pounds of unneeded equipment were removed, including flight deck armor (approximately 1,100 lbs), miscellaneous mission equipment such as litter stanchions, tie-down chains, ladders etc. (approximately 1,000 lbs), and the cargo loading system (approximately 1,200 lbs).

Smokejumpers could exit the C-27J through the two side doors or the aft ramp. Depending on how the aircraft was configured, it could transport between 24 and 46 jumpers. According to the report, the aircraft configuration can be changed and fitted with standard outer and center seating to accommodate 68 passengers with limited personal equipment plus 2 loadmasters. The maximum allowable flying weight for a hotshot crew is 5,300 pounds.

The study said the aircraft could carry between 12,222 and 25,353 pounds of cargo.

 

Thanks go out to Dave

Australian aviation fleet prepares for bushfire season

Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire
Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire in New South Wales. Photo: Kerry Lawrence, NWS RFS

As the bushfire season begins in Australia the firefighting agencies in their States and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre are ramping up the fleet of aerial resources to be ready for the fires which got a much earlier start than normal in October when the “worst wildfire conditions in more than 40 years” destroyed more than 200 homes. During that siege two two fixed wing aircraft crashed killing both pilots.

The bushfire season has historically started in late November or early December and lasted through February, but now that we have warmer and more extreme weather across the globe fire managers in Australia and around the world are having to adapt.

Most of the firefighting aircraft in Australia are privately owned and work under contracts for the government. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) coordinates the procurement of the aircraft on behalf of the States and Territories.

 National Aerial Firefighting Centre Richard Alder, the General Manager of the NAFC, told Fire Aviation that about one third of the 75 contracted aircraft have started work already and the majority will be on by early to mid-December, depending how the fire season develops in the south part of the country. As the summer temperatures increase, the down under fire season moves from north to south. The 75 aircraft includes helicopters, Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), and fixed wing aircraft that are used for reconnaissance and other purposes.

During last year’s 2012-2013 fire season, NAFC had the following on contract:

  • 14 SEATs (Air Tractor AT 802 and AT 602)
  • 3 Bell 206-L
  • 2 Bell 205
  • 5 Bell 212
  • 2 Bell 214-B
  • 5 Erickson S 64 Air-Crane
  • 12 Eurocopter AS 350, 355, and 365
  • 2 Kawasaki BK 117-B2
  • 4 Sikorsky S 61-N

This season, 2013-2014, in addition to the smaller helicopters, Mr. Alder said they will have:

  • 23 SEATs, which includes one water-scooping FireBoss. (All are on exclusive use, three-year contracts with options to extend to five years.)
  • 6 Erickson S 64 Air-Cranes (from Kestral Aviation via Erickson)
  • 2 Sikorsky S 61-N (from Coulson Aircrane Australia, a subsidiary of Coulson Aircrane in Canada)
  • 10 Bell 214-B, which the NAFC considers a Type 1 helicopter (from McDermontt Aviation)
  • Other aircraft, including 30 SEATs, are available on call when needed contracts.

There are no air tankers larger than SEATs working in Australia, in spite of a request for proposals that NAFC issued in November, 2012. They advertised it at the time via Twitter:

That RFP indicated their intention to contract not only for various types of helicopters, but also for water-scooping, large, and very large air tankers. We asked Mr. Alder what became of the effort to procure the larger aircraft. He responded:

The RFP is a component of a major project we have running to closely examine the applicability of larger fixed wing airtankers in the Australian situation. The project is ongoing and we are continuing to (actively!) gather and analyse data and related information on these capabilities (and are particularly grateful to our colleagues in the US for sharing their experiences over the recent season).