Colorado to buy two high-tech multi-mission aircraft for aerial firefighting

Pilatus PC-12

Pilatus PC-12. Immigration and Customs Enforcement photo.

The state of Colorado is working on the final paperwork to purchase two multi-mission, high-tech, single-engine, fixed wing aircraft that can be used in a variety of roles for fighting and managing wildfires. The Colorado Firefighting Air Corp, working under the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), is buying two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes that will be configured and outfitted by the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) which is expected to receive the contract to provide and operate the PC-12s.

While the purchase contract is being finalized and the two aircraft are being configured to Colorado’s specifications, one loner PC-12 is being prepared which should be available in Colorado around August 15.

Ralph Pollitt,  the vice president of business development for SNC’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance division, said:

The PC-12 is an ideal multi-mission platform to support the State of Colorado’s firefighting efforts this year. The aircraft is affordable, fast, can stay airborne for a long time, and can be operated from almost any airfield. The suite of sensors and communications equipment provides a capability that can greatly improve the firefighter safety and efficiency in handling an incident.

We asked DFPC Director Paul Cooke about the role of the PC-12s. Besides collecting intelligence about fires, what other roles will they fill, such serving as a Lead Plane or Aerial Supervision Module? Will they be used for non-fire tasks, such as transporting VIPs, cargo, or prisoners? He replied:

When presented to the Governor and Legislature other potential uses of the multi-mission aircraft were discussed, including:

• Transportation of critical medical personnel, supplies, and equipment
• Insect damage and forest assessments for the Colorado State Forest Service
• Office of Emergency Management: disaster assessments/reconnaissance
• Department of Mineral and Geology: mine assessment/compliance
• Dam safety and inspections
• Environmental monitoring and compliance
• Search and rescue missions
• Avalanche control

VIP and prisoner transport are performed by the Colorado State Patrol.

The aircraft will be Part 135 Certified and we expect they will also be ATGS platform carded. However, it will not perform Lead Plane functions and it is not currently planned to serve as an ASM.

According to the Pilatus Corporation, the PC-12 has a maximum cruise speed of 280 KTAS, a maximum operating altitude of 30,000 feet, and a stall speed (MTOW) of 67 KIAS. The U.S. Air Force has been using a variant of the PC-12, the U-28A, for intra-theater support of special operations forces, but they will be replacing them with King Airs.

SNC is not a mom and pop operation, but is multi-billion dollar corporation involved in high-tech electronics, engineering, and manufacturing ventures. One of their most visible projects is the “Dream Chaser”, one of the vehicles that will replace the Space Shuttle. It will launch on a rocket, dock with the International Space Station or perform other tasks in space, and then land on any 8,000-foot runway. The video below shows a Dream Chaser being lifted by an Air-Crane helicopter and then dropped to test its landing capabilities. Unfortunately, the video stops just before the aircraft skidded off the runway and landed sideways when its left landing gear failed to deploy at the last second during touchdown on runway 22L at Edwards Air Force Base in California. SNC said they were going to be able to repair the ship.

A suite of advanced sensors and technology is being installed in the Colorado PC-12s that will enable the aircraft to detect and map wildfires. Additionally, the aircraft will have a communications system that allows the air crew to send collected information to all wildfire response personnel using the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS).

CO-WIMS, developed by SNC’s team member, Intterra, Inc. of Castle Rock, Colorado, is a web-based collaborative information sharing tool that allows any firefighter immediate access to fire location, fire behavior, and other critical pieces of information. CO-WIMS is accessible from tablets, computers, and smartphones and is built specifically to address the needs of the wildfire response personnel. This appears to be a significant step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety we have written about at Wildfire Today, which would provide real time information about the location of firefighters AND the location of the fire.

In 2012 Ryan Maye Handy wrote an excellent article for the Colorado Springs Gazette for which she interviewed a co-founder of Intterra, David Blankinship, who at that time was working on a high-tech intelligence gathering system for the National Interagency Fire Center. Here is an excerpt:

From any computer or smart phone, Blankinship can access the software with a password, and it opens a world of cost charts, topographical maps and resource lists for fires in any region in the United States. He relies on satellite images provided by Digital Globe, a satellite imagining company, to track fire behavior. During the Waldo Canyon fire, for instance, the satellites took images of the fire every morning at 11 a.m., giving Blankinship updates on fire growth that weren’t reliant on an infrared NIROPS flight, which can only capture images at night.

Blankinship describes the software as “cutting edge” for the fire service — very different from a less tech-oriented “boots on the ground” fire fighting approach.

“It’s a geeky thing but it’s revolutionary,” he said.

Newcomers to the fire world — anyone who has been in the business for less than 10 years — are favoring more technology in fire fighting, Blankinship said.

“If you’ve been around for longer than that you’re a ground pounder, and looking at things on the back of a truck,” Blankinship said.

The DFPC has also awarded contracts for three firefighting helicopters.

SNC’s Dream Chaser:


NTSB report on Tanker 48′s collapsed nose gear

Tanker 48 at Fresno

Tanker 48 lands on collapsed nose gear at Fresno.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released preliminary information about the June 15 accident in which Minden’s Tanker 48, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure, resulting in the nose gear collapsing while it landed at Fresno, California.


“NTSB Identification: WPR14TA248
14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Sunday, June 15, 2014 in Fresno, CA
Aircraft: LOCKHEED SP 2H, registration: N4692A
Injuries: 2 Uninjured.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.

On June 15, 2014, about 2044 Pacific daylight time, a Lockheed SP-2H, N4692A, was substantially damaged when the nose wheel landing gear collapsed during landing roll at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), Fresno, California. The airplane was registered to Minden Air Corporation, Minden, Nevada, and operated as Tanker 48 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forestry Service, as a public use flight. The airline transport pilot (ATP) rated captain and the ATP rated first officer were not injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a company flight plan was filed for the local fire fighting flight. The flight originated from Porterville Municipal Airport (PTV), Porterville, California, at 1934.

The captain reported that following an uneventful aerial drop, the flight was returning to PTV. During the descent check, he noticed that the hydraulic pressure indicated 0 and that the first officer subsequently verified that the sight gauge for the main hydraulic fluid reservoir was empty. The first officer opened the jet engine doors successfully as the captain selected gear down with no response. The captain notified base personnel at PTV of the situation and informed them that they would be orbiting to the east of the airport to troubleshoot. The captain and first officer performed the emergency checklist, and extended the nose wheel landing gear successfully. The captain stated that the first officer then installed the pin to the nose wheel landing gear as part of the emergency checklist.

The flight diverted to FAT due to a longer runway and emergency resources as both pilots briefed the no-flap landing procedure, airspeeds, and approach profile. As the flight continued toward FAT, the flight crew informed Fresno Approach Control of the hydraulic system failure and continued to perform the emergency gear extension checklist. The first officer extended the main landing gear using the emergency gear release, which resulted in three down and locked landing gear indications in the cockpit. As the flight neared FAT, the first officer added two gallons of hydraulic fluid to the main hydraulic reservoir while the captain attempted to extend the flaps unsuccessfully. Subsequently, the flight landed on runway 26R. During the landing roll, the nose wheel landing gear collapsed and the airplane came to rest nose low.

Examination of the airplane by representatives from the Forest Service revealed that the forward portion of the fuselage was structurally damaged. The airplane was recovered to a secure location for further examination.”


Below is photo of Tanker 48 after landing on all three wheels at Rapid City, July 21, 2012, while working the Myrtle Fire.

Tanker 48 at Rapid City. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Tanker 48 at Rapid City. Photo by Bill Gabbert.


Drone hinders aviation on Sand Fire

A privately operated drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) caused concern on the Sand Fire south of Placerville, California on Sunday. The person that was controlling the aircraft and getting video footage of the blaze was told by authorities to stop because of the potential danger to helicopters, lead planes, and air tankers flying over the fire.

A video shot from the drone was uploaded to YouTube showing that the aircraft was directly over the fire, which could have been a serious hazard to helicopters and air tankers operating at 50 to 180 feet above the ground.

There are reports that Air Attack, when informed of the drone, came close to grounding all firefighting aircraft until the threat could be mitigated. However the operator was found and instead, the drone was grounded.

Last month the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert about the hazards of unmanned aerial vehicles operating near wildfires.

A person would think that a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) which was probably in effect over the fire would prohibit all non-authorized aircraft including drones under 400 feet, from operating in the area. If so, then penalties could be applicable. A pilot of an airplane can lose their pilot’s license for 90 days or so if they bust a TFR. Of course a doofus who buys $1,000 worth of drone and does stupid things with it has no license to begin with.

This problem will get worse before it gets better. There will be more and more consumer-grade drones flying around and keeping them out of fire areas is going to be very difficult.

As we have said before, Air Attack needs to live up to its name and be armed with air to air missiles (kidding!). (EDIT: Or, as we said in a comment, some of the Air-Cranes have a front mounted water cannon that could be very effective, non-lethal [except to the drone], and would not start additional fires!)


Video from a MAFFS cockpit as it drops on a fire in Utah

This video was shot from Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) 3 as Lt. Col. Todd Davis and his crew dropped retardant on the Rockport Fire near Park City, Utah, July 25, 2014. Lt. Col. Davis and the lead plane pilot can be heard discussing where the drop should go to most effectively assist the firefighters on the ground.


Report: One MD-87 air tanker to resume service next week

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014

MD-87 at Redmond, June 9, 2014, showing what appears to be retardant on the fuselage on and above the wing in front of an engine. Photo by Jeff Ingelse.

The Oregonian is reporting that one of Erickson Aero Tanker’s MD-87 air tankers will return to service the week of July 27 with a second to return the following week.

On June 27 the company recalled the three MD-87s they were operating, tanker numbers 101, 103, and 105, “due to intermittent engine surges when dropping [retardant at] high coverage levels”, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Oregonian reported today that Glen Newton, the air tanker operations manager for Erickson, said the aircraft were shut down because retardant was being ingested into the engines. Engineers are making modifications at the drop doors which they expect will solve the problem.

Erickson bought seven MD-87 airliners, planning to convert them into air tankers. The first two, Tankers 101 and 105, began working for the first time on contract to the U.S. Forest Service on June 4 and June 8, respectively. Soon thereafter, a third, Tanker 103, reported for duty.

We ran a story (with the photo at the top of this article) on June 9 which raised the possibility of retardant being ingested into the engines.

The way the U.S. Forest Service runs the air tanker program, most of the responsibility and costs for research and development for the airborne tools that ground-based firefighters need is left on the shoulders and at the discretion of private companies. It can cost millions of dollars to convert an airliner into a firefighting machine, and even more if the wheel has to be invented again for a new model of aircraft which requires a custom-engineered retardant system. It is inevitable that as these new designs are integrated into the fleet, bugs will be discovered. Engineers will have to go back to the drawing board and tweak certain systems. Neptune is on Version 3.0 of the retardant system in the five BAe-146 airliners they have converted.

Building an air tanker from an aircraft designed to carry a hundred passengers is a risky undertaking for a private company. They have to invest millions, and then hope that the U.S. Forest Service will give them contracts to operate it for 10 or 15 years so that they can recoup their investment. Some of the next-generation air tankers that have entered service for the first time over the last year are working on a five-year contract. When the companies have been allowed to bring on a second or third aircraft, in most cases those are on a one-year “additional equipment” contract, with no certainty that they will be used after that.

A banker evaluating a loan application for a company with a business model having such an uncertain future probably has some sleepless nights.


Two air tankers avoid mid-air collision by 400 feet

As two air tankers were descending before landing at the uncontrolled Porterville Airport on July 12 in California, they narrowly avoided a mid-air collision by 400 feet. The aircraft were close to occupying the same space in the sky when the Traffic Collision Alert Device (TCAD) notified the lower tanker crew about the near collision threat from another tanker above. They took evasive action and lived to tell the story. The upper aircraft was a next-generation air tanker that could have been moving at almost twice the speed of the lower legacy aircraft; 330 to 340 knots versus 165 to 200 knots for legacy air tankers.

Next-gen air tankers would include the BAe-146, Avero RJ 85, C-130Q, MD-87, and DC-10. The legacy category has the P2v, S-2T, and Single Engine Air Tankers.

The entire Lesson Learned can be read here. Below is an excerpt:

As the two aircraft were returning to the AAB at the Porterville Airport (an uncontrolled airport) both flight crews made their calls over the CTAF to announce their positions. When the pilots of the Legacy AT heard the NextGen AT announce their position of “15 miles out” at that moment the Legacy AT crew knew they also just announced their position “15 miles out”. The TCAD (Traffic Collision Alert Device) simultaneously reported traffic on the display and over the intercom. The NextGen AT then descended directly over the top of the Legacy AT. The Legacy AT flight crew reported that the TCAD displayed 400 feet vertical separation and confirmed it visually. The Legacy AT Pilot-in-Command took action to obtain separation from the NextGen AT avoiding the possibility of encountering wake turbulence. The NextGen AT crew did not receive a resolution advisory (RA) on their TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and proceeded to the airport, unaware that an incident had occurred. Both aircraft landed without further incident.


Helicopter 205RH on the Bingham Complex

Bingham Complex

Helicopter 205RH on the Bingham Complex. Photo by Richard Parish.

The photo shows helicopter 205RH inserting firefighters on the Bingham Complex on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. The ship is operated by Hillsboro Aviation and is on contract for the Grants Pass Heli-rappellers. In the photo, pilot Joseph Berto is at the controls and the firefighters in the foreground are Mayfield, Johnson, Hastings, and England.

The Bingham Complex has burned 452 acres in and near the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. The incident management team is calling it 55 percent controlled.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Joseph.