Farm bill allows “leasing” of 5 air tankers

A provision in the farm bill (H.R.2642) passed by the House on Wednesday authorized the U.S. Forest Service to “establish a large airtanker and aerial asset lease program”, allowing the agency to “enter into a multiyear lease contract for up to five aircraft that meet the criteria described in the Forest Service document entitled `Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy‘ and dated February 10, 2012, for large airtankers”. That 2012 strategy stated that the next generation of large airtankers would have a 3,000 to 5,000 gallon capacity and would be turbine powered. These are the specifications of the seven next-gen air tankers that received contracts in 2013. The USFS has been contracting for large air tankers for decades. So, we were confused about the purpose of this language in the farm bill, placed there by two Senators from Colorado, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall. It seemingly allows for what the USFS does routinely, but does not appropriate any additional funds.

We checked with the U.S. Forest Service to try to understand if there was an intended difference between the routine contracting for air tankers that has been going on for decades and this new “leasing” language. We received the following, uh, explanation from their Washington, DC office:

The language in the Farm Bill clarifies our existing authority to lease up to five airtankers annually. Depending on our budget resources, this authority may be useful. At present, the Forest Service is relying on next generation airtanker contracts and the seven C-130 planes transferred in the Defense Appropriations Bill to modernize the fleet as we retire the legacy airtankers in the coming years.

That certainly clears that up.

We reached out to the offices of Senators Bennet and Udall, and received the following from James D. Owens, Press Secretary for Senator Udall:

The United States Forest Service is allowed to acquire large air tankers in two ways: (1) as surplus from other federal agencies or (2) contracting. The provision that Senator Udall successfully included in the Farm Bill gives the Forest Service a third, more flexible option to acquire air tankers, i.e. leasing.

“Leasing” might involve renting the air tankers without pilots, and possibly without a maintenance agreement. We have a hard time understanding why the USFS would want to become involved in that type of situation. They are going to have a hard enough time arranging for the operation and maintenance of the 15 Sherpas and 7 C-130Hs recently acquired from the military and the Coast Guard  — aircraft which they will own.

The bill is now in the Senate. The White House says President Barack Obama will sign it if it reaches his desk.

Paint design approved for USFS C-130H air tankers

C-130H paint design
C-130H paint design, by Scheme Designers

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service has approved the paint design for the seven C-130H aircraft the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard. The National Defense Authorization Act required the transfer of the C-130Hs plus 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpas from the military. The C-130Hs are being converted by the Air Force into air tankers, while the Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. The C-130Hs will be owned by the USFS but will be operated and maintained by contractors. Some of the Sherpas will be flown by agency personnel and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will all be maintained by private companies.

The paint for the C-130Hs was designed by a company in New Jersey, Scheme Designers. Craig Darnett, their founder and CEO, told Fire Aviation that they have also designed the paint for other USFS aircraft, including the DC-3 and some smokejumper planes. Other examples of their work can be found at Airliners.net. Scheme Designers will not actually paint the C-130Hs; most of their work is done on computers, however sometimes the aircraft owner will pay them to be on site and monitor the painting as it is done.

If someone is restoring an automobile that is at least 27 years old, as these C-130Hs are according to our research, paint is the very last step in the process. Five of the seven have to go through a 10-month wing box replacement, and then the rest of the conversion process can begin, including cutting a hole in the belly and installing a retardant tank system.

Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.

Below are some other paint designs on USFS aircraft:

McCall DC-3 retirement
J-42, a US Forest Service DC-3, retires. USFS photo, taken at Ogden, Utah, October 24, 2012.
Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.
Smokejumper aircraft, N143Z
Smokejumper aircraft, N143Z. USFS photo.
USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z
Lead planes at Cheyenne
Lead planes at Cheyenne, WY, May 7, 2013. These were not government owned, but were under contract to either the USFS or BLM. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Fire Watch helicopter
The U. S. Forest Service’s Fire Watch Cobra helicopter. July 28, 2011.
US Forest Service infrared aircraft N149Z
USFS infrared aircraft N149Z at Phoenix in 2013

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Leo

USFS report: no aviation accidents in last three years

The U.S. Forest Service has released an aviation safety report titled “FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary” which theoretically analyses, or at least lists, accident trends. Their presumed safety goal, although we could not find in the report any goals or objectives, is to reduce accidents. We were astounded to read on page 4 a statement that was repeated in various ways on pages 8, 18, and 33:

The Forest Service did not have any accountable accidents again in FY 2013; this was the third year in a row without an accident.

That statement was backed up by these two charts, and others in the report:

USFS Aircraft accident statistical summary USFS air tanker accidents 10-yr stats

At least four accidents since 2008 with a total of nine fatalities do not show up in these stats:

  • 2008, September 1: crash of a Neptune air tanker at Reno with three fatalities;
  • 2012, June 3: crash of a Neptune air tanker in Utah with two fatalities;
  • 2012, June 3, crash of a Minden air tanker at Minden, Nevada (one landing gear did not lower), irreparable damage, no fatalites;
  • 2012, July 1, crash of a MAFFS air tanker in South Dakota, four fatalities.

There may have been other accidents between 2004 and 2007 that also were not listed.

We checked with the USFS about the discrepancy and spokesperson Jennifer Jones told us that the accidents “were not included in the document because it was a U.S. Forest Service aviation safety report and the airtankers were under the operational control of other agencies when the accidents occurred, so they are not considered reportable accidents for the U.S. Forest Service.”

It turns out that if an air tanker under contract to the USFS is flying on a fire for another agency and crashes, the USFS will not include that accident in the report. However, the MAFFS air tanker crashed while making a drop on the White Draw fire on the Black Hills National Forest.

C-130 MAFFS crash, July 1, 2012
C-130 MAFFS air tanker crash, July 1, 2012. US Air Force photo

A statement in the report absolves the USFS from responsibility for accidents involving military aircraft:

Military aircraft remain under the operational control of the military even while supporting USFS operations.

But the military does not totally agree. In the Air Force report on the MAFFS crash it says on page 5:

Fire suppression management is under civilian control.

And later on page 29:

Second, due to the need for swift reaction to live fires, the practical supervision of executing a MAFFS mission, by default, is under civilian control.

We could not find the word “MAFFS” anywhere in the 33-page FY 2013 Aviation Safety Summary document, or any reference to the nine fatalities we listed above.

In 2012 MAFFS air tankers dropped 2.45 million gallons of retardant on fires, frequently under USFS operational control.

The 2012 landing gear failure on the Minden air tanker was not listed, the USFS said, because “the National Transportation Safety Board determined that it did not meet the definition of an accident”. But part of the definition of an “accident” in this summary report (page 3) is one “in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.”

A reasonable person would think that an aviation summary document that compiled accident statistics would at least mention that aircraft on long term exclusive use contracts to the USFS crashed and killed nine crewmembers, even if they were on temporary loan to another organization for an hour or a few days. The agency selected these aircraft and the contractors, and the fact that there were four major accidents involving their chosen aircraft and contractors deserves mention, at least to honor their service. The nine fatalities and four crashes in a five-year period is a very disturbing trend that should not be ignored. And even more so when you also consider the 2010 accident that does show up in the stats. That one may be the June 26, 2010 accident in which Neptune’s T-44 went off the end of the runway at Rocky Mountain Regional Airport (Jeffco) near Denver due to a hydraulic system failure.

If the USFS analyzed the crash trends involving their contractors, including those occurring on non-USFS fires, they might find, for example, they should reconsider the specs in the contracts, the crash history of  contractors, the suitability of aircraft designed for maritime patrol in the 1950s that are then used for flying in and out of canyons under air frame stresses the engineers did not consider, and the age of the aircraft. If what you are doing is not working, and these crashes and fatalities indicate it is not, then you need to do something different. The next-generation air tanker concept is a step in the right direction, but using jet airliners to fly into canyons is a concept that needs to be proven.

At a minimum, future reports should have a separate section to list the mishaps and accidents that involve their contracted aircraft even if they are on a non-USFS fire. And, accidents that involve MAFFS air tankers working under an agreement with the USFS, and accidents that result in major damage, should be listed as reportable accidents, regardless of specific jargon used by the NTSB.

It should not make any difference, for statistical, reporting, and accident prevention purposes, if the cause of an accident is mechanical, weather, or pilot error — they all should be recorded and reported. If the objective is learning lessons and preventing future accidents. they must be tracked and remembered. Splitting hairs and using imaginative criteria for leaving out certain accidents can turn the entire accident reporting program into a farce.

Cause of helicopter hoist fatality similar to earlier rappel death

Harness connection
A demonstration of the improper harness connection. Air Force photo.

An investigative report determined that the cause of a fatality that occurred to a volunteer while he was being lowered by a helicopter’s hoist over the Sequoia National Forest was similar to a previous rappelling accident that killed a U.S. Forest Service employee in 2009.

Use of hoist
File photo. Pararescuemen from the 304th Rescue Squadron Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., practice their rescue skills with an HH-60 Pave Hawk and crew from the 305th RQS at nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ruby Zarzyczny

The Air Force report released last week by the Virginia-based Air Combat Command said improper rigging and inadequate oversight caused the death of Shane Krogen, executive director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, 30 miles east of Visalia, California, on September 12, 2013.

Mr. Krogen was participating in an environmental clean-up and restoration of a contaminated marijuana grow site in the Sequoia National Forest that was carried out by California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing. While preparing to be lowered by the hoist on an HH-60G Pavehawk helicopter, a variant of a Blackhawk, Mr. Krogen mistakenly attached the aircraft’s hoist to a non-load-bearing plastic D-ring of a tactical vest instead of to the load-bearing metal D-ring of his harness. When the plastic D-ring broke, Mr. Krogen fell from the aircraft to the ground from an approximate 45-foot hover and sustained fatal injuries.

The report concluded that the helicopter crew’s safety man did not maintain adequate oversight during flight and hoist operations and that Mr. Krogen’s use of his personal equipment “excessively cluttered the area around the load-bearing metal D-ring”, interfering with a safe connection and visual inspection. And, “due to the extremely close proximity of the Yates harness load bearing D-ring in relation to the Condor tactical vest’s non-load bearing D-ring, and the concealment of both D-rings by the cluttered pouches on the Condor tactical vest, which included a handgun, the [safety man] incorrectly concluded the Civilian Fatality was properly secured”.

The report also said that according to the Pentagon only law enforcement personnel should be allowed on counterdrug flights and that Mr. Krogen, as a civilian, was not authorized to be on the helicopter.

Thomas Marovich, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, died on July 21, 2009 when he fell while performing routine helicopter rappelling proficiency training while assigned to the Backbone fire near Willow Creek, California. The USFS report was posted and later removed from the Lessons Learned web site, but Wildfire Today was able to report on it while it was still public. The National Transportation Safety Board Narrative revealed that Mr. Marovich’s “J” hook had been attached to a rubber “O” ring, rather than to a load-bearing Tri-link (see the photos below).

Marovich gear

Before the rappelling attempt, four people looked at or inspected Mr. Marovich’s rappelling gear: the spotter trainee who installed the “O” ring, Marovich, and in the helicopter a spotter, and another helitack crewperson who did a “buddy check”.

Legislation to be introduced in Colorado would provide 4 firefighting helicopters and an air tanker

A Colorado state senator will be introducing legislation that would provide $9 million for four helicopters and an air tanker to suppress wildfires. A bill approved last year created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) but failed to appropriate any funds to run the agency or acquire any aviation assets.

The legislation specifies that a contract be issued for one Type 1 air tanker or a very large air tanker and four helicopters.

(The rest of the story, including the permanent acquisition of four air tankers, is on Wildfire Today.)

Update on Aero Union P-3 air tankers

There is still a chance that some of the P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union could see service as aerial firefighters. The company was forced out of business after their U.S. Forest Service contracts were canceled citing safety violations. United Aeronautical (UAC), which primarily deals in aircraft parts, bought the eight aircraft from the bank and then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Aero Union P3s at McClellan 8-13-2013
P3s at McClellan AFB that were formerly owned by Aero Union. Google Earth photo, August 13, 2013.

As we wrote in November, they do not intend to operate the aircraft, but hope to sell them.

Blue Aerospace specializes in providing support and parts for  P-3s, C-130s, F-16s, and T-56s, and they are a licensed distributor for Lockheed Martin and other original equipment manufacturers. Before Aero Union shut down, they provided spares and repairs for their P-3 air tankers.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us that the seven P-3s that are still at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California are still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

When Aero Union ceased operation, one of their P-3s was in the middle of heavy maintenance in Canada. The engines and other parts had been removed. It was, and still is, “in pieces”, Mr. Benz said, and will never fly again. But there is hope for the other seven. He said there has been considerable interest from potential buyers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

 

MV-22 Osprey evaluated for fighting fires

MV-22 Osprey with bucket
MV-22 Osprey with bucket. DOD photo.

The Marines have conducted some tests to determine how feasible it would be for the MV-22 Osprey to fight wildland fires. As you may know, the Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing. When airborne, it can cruise at over 300 mph, can carry 24 to 32 troops, or 15,000 pounds of external cargo.

In March, 2011 the Marines tested the Osprey with a 900-gallon Bambi Bucket suspended from 50-foot and 100-foot ling lines attached to the rear cargo hook while flying at up to 90 knots. After the tests, they came up with the following recommendations:

  • Maximum airspeed with bucket empty – 90 KIAS
  • Maximum airspeed with bucket full – 90 KIAS
  • Maximum airspeed when dumping – 50 KIAS
  • Max angle of bank- 30 degrees AOB
  • Use of Automatic Release Mode is prohibited.
  • Bambi bucket should be positioned to the 6 o’clock position of the aircraft prior to takeoff or landing.
  • Aircrew shall continuously monitor load for oscillations or unusual load movement.

The report can be found here (2.6MB).

However, there are some issues that would stand in the way of the Osprey fighting fires, such as the very powerful rotor wash that has injured people nearby, the extreme heat that comes out of the engine exhaust which has started wildland fires and damaged flight decks on ships, and the high cost of $83,256 dollars an hour.

We have written a number of articles at Fire Aviation and at Wildfire Today about the MV-22 Osprey, and its suitability for fighting fires.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ross.

CAL FIRE: an air tanker over a fire in 15 minutes

drop by an S-2T
A drop by an S-2T on the Jesusita Fire near Santa
Barbara in 2009

On Wildfire Today we have referred many times to our prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

The Los Angeles Daily News has an interesting article about the recent 1,952-acre Colby Fire east of Los Angeles. Much of the article covers preparedness and the aggressive response to the fire. The article quotes Fire Captain Mike Mohler, saying:

“We can have an air tanker over a brush fire anywhere in the state in — at most — 15 minutes.”

This week CAL FIRE took the very unusual step of contracting for two DC-7s to be available so that they could begin rotating their 23 S2-T air tankers in for annual maintenance, while still maintaining initial attack capability during the extreme drought conditions in the state.

The U.S. Forest Service sometimes has few if any air tankers in the state, even during the conventional fire season, to protect the 20.8 million acres of land in their 18 California National Forests. They have come to take for granted the CAL FIRE S2-Ts which will, when asked, respond to fires on National Forest land if they are available. But, perhaps turning over a new leaf, on Saturday the Forest Service hired one of the DC-10 very large air tankers to stand by at Santa Maria, and they have had a couple of P2Vs available in southern California in recent days.

Below is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Daily News article:

…Fire Capt. Mike Mohler, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the danger posed by wildfires in a time of drought cannot be underestimated.

“We’re seeing unprecedented weather conditions,” he said. “Already this year, just since Jan. 1, CalFire has responded to 150 fires statewide that have burned 600 acres.

“At the same time last year, we had only 25 fires spanning 40 acres.”

LACoFD is monitoring weather conditions “basically every hour,” added Tripp, because 2013 was the driest year in 135 years of record keeping, and offshore winds are further sucking moisture out of the chaparral, turning it into tinder in the foothills from San Bernardino County to Malibu.

Already, LACoFD has decided to lease the Super Scoopers for at least another seven weeks and CalFire has activated its fixed-wing tanker base in Chico — seven months earlier than usual.

CalFire also refused to furlough personnel at four “air attack bases” across the state that normally don’t operate in the winter. As a result, Mohler said, “We can have an air tanker over a brush fire anywhere in the state in — at most — 15 minutes.”