The U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation discusses the wildfires in 2017 and the outlook for aerial firefighting in 2018
Above: Shawna Legarza speaks at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018.
(Originally published at 8:18 PDT March 13, 2018)
Shawna Legarza, the U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation, gave a presentation at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, March 13, 2018. She said we are no longer experiencing fire seasons — fires now occur year round. Firefighters in Southern California have been saying that for a couple of decades, but the epidemic is spreading.
After her talk we spoke with her for a couple of minutes before she had to leave for a meeting in Arizona. We asked her about the firefighting aircraft that will be available in 2018.
It has a CWN contract but still needs to take a grid test and be approved by the Interagency Airtanker Board.
Above: Air tanker 170 makes a demonstration drop at MCC March 12, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
(Originally published at 9:55 p.m. PDT March 12, 2018)
(I am currently at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento. This venue provides a fire hose of information about fighting fires from the air. Over the coming days we will be posting articles generated here.)
It usually takes much longer to convert an aircraft into an air tanker than initially thought. Four years ago after the Aerial Firefighting North America 2014 conference in Sacramento, Ravi Saip (General Manager) and Paul Lane (Vice President and COO) of Air Spray gave me a tour of the BAe-146 they had just started working on. The interior and the cockpit had been gutted, but there was much more that had to be done.
Fast forward to today, March 12, 2018 when the aircraft, now morphed into an air tanker, made a demonstration drop at Sacramento McClellan Airport in front of a crowd of spectators at the 2018 version of the Aerial Firefighting conference.
The aircraft holds 3,000 gallons in a gravity-powered tank, like the other BAe-146’s and RJ85’s operated by Aero Flite and Neptune, but it looks very different. Some of the more recently developed air tankers have very distinct non-traditional livery, such as the 747 and 737. Air Spray has taken it a notch higher, also using a vinyl wrap, but their version has a forest scene on the aft section. It certainly can’t be mistaken for another air tanker. The “N” number is hard to read (it’s N907AS) but that could be easily fixed.
I appreciate the efforts of the designers of automobile bodies and aircraft livery that create something that is not like all of the others that are on the road or in the air — like the Plymouth Prowler, the Chevrolet SSR truck, and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. That does not mean I would buy one, but there is something to be said for not being boring.
In 2015 the U.S. Forest Service awarded call when needed contracts for 22 large air tankers. The interesting thing about that list was — at least half of them did not exist, or at least they were years away from being converted into air tankers. Air Spray, Neptune, Coulson, 10 Tanker, and Aero Flite have all benefited as their aircraft slowly made the transitions into reality. Air Spray’s N907AS is the latest.
But Tanker 190 still has to prove itself, and a grid test is on its calendar in April along with the other steps on the way to approval by the Interagency Airtanker Board.
In addition to this aircraft, Air Spray owns four other BAe-146’s. Two of those are currently being converted into air tankers.
The drone that landed, caught fire, and ignited what became a 335-acre fire in Northern Arizona was battery-powered and approximately 16″ x 16″, a spokesperson for the Coconino National Forest said. The operator reported the fire and was later cited for causing timber, trees, slash, brush, or grass to burn. The spokesperson did not know exactly how the drone caught fire.
(Originally published at 4:32 p.m. MST March 6, 2018)
Just a couple of hours ago we wrote about how proud the Department of the Interior is of their drone program (as they should be). And there’s no doubt that Unmanned Aerial Systems can play an important part in improving situational awareness for wildland firefighters.
But today investigators have determined that the preliminary cause of a wildfire north of Flagstaff is a drone that landed and caught fire. At 3:25 p.m. MST Tuesday the Coconino National Forest said firefighters had stopped the spread of the resulting wildfire after it burned 335 acres near Kendrick Park by Forest Roads 514 and 524.
There is no information yet about the operator of the drone or if it was powered by a battery or gasoline.
All of these photos were provided by the Coconino National Forest.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
It occurred on a wildfire in Southern Oregon during very smoky conditions
The Department of the Interior has been proactive and innovative recently regarding the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, in land management. And they don’t hesitate to push out information about how they are using the small remote controlled helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.
In January the Department released a large, fancy, colorful infographic extolling the virtues of the drone program. They reported that 312 unmanned aircraft managed by the Office of Aviation Services supports everything from fighting wildfires to monitoring dams and mapping wildlife. In 2017, 200 certified DOI UAS pilots flew 4,976 flights in 32 states. The largest category of flights, 39 percent, was for training and proficiency, with 30 percent used for mapping and 14 percent for interagency fire management.
“August 2017, two of the Alaska Type 1 Incident Management Team’s remote pilots flew a drone in support of a burnout operation on the Umpqua North Fire Complex in Southern Oregon. The burnout was conducted as a necessary means to restrict the fires encroachment towards a five mile stretch of highway 138, where the Toketee Dam power plant, houses, and the USFS Toketee Ranger Station were located. The values at risk were estimated to be worth in excess of $50 million. Smoke limited visibility to 100 feet and grounded all manned aircraft. The drone used was a small battery powered quadcopter fixed with an IR [infrared] camera providing a live video feed to firefighting personnel.
“The flight’s objective was to provide situational awareness for the division supervisor during the burnout operation” the infographic says. “A secondary objective was to monitor an active section of the fire, which was sending airborne firebrands behind the established control line. During the operation, a spot fire was discovered utilizing the IR [infrared] camera feed. The location was established, division supervisor notified and several resources dispatched to contain it before it got out of control.”
According to the DOI, drones:
“Limits exposure and reduces risk to pilots and wildland firefighters.
Able to fly when manned aircraft are not able.
Limits cost – Each 3DR Solo drone costs $1,800. The IR sensor package costs $6,000. Other costs are the wages for the operator. If that mission was flown with a contracted light helicopter: AStar 350 B3 costs $3,480.00 for daily availability and $1,500 per flight hour.
Easily packable and able to fly in remote locations.”
Metal fatigue cracking was identified as an issue in several crashes
T-910 on the Soberanes Fire south of Monterey, California in 2016. Photo by Wally Finck.
(Originally published at 9:50 a.m. MST March 5, 2018)
The National Transportation Safety Board published this article March 1, 2018 on their NTSBSafety Compass website. It provides details about how the U.S. Forest Service and the NTSB have worked together to attempt to mitigate some of the risks of flying old aircraft converted to air tankers low and slow close to the ground while experiencing high load factors.
By Jeff Marcus and Clint Crookshanks
One enduring image of the fight against forest fires, like those that devastated California last year, is of a large airplane flying low and dropping red fire retardant. These firefighting air tankers are invaluable, and they operate in extreme environments.
Over the years, we’ve investigated several accidents involving firefighting aircraft, identifying issues and making recommendations to ensure the safety of these important assets. For example, in 1994, we investigated an accident in which a retired Air Force Lockheed C-130A Hercules, which had been converted into a firefighting airplane and was under contract to the US Forest Service (USFS), crashed while battling a fire in the Tehachapi Mountains near Pearblossom, California, killing all three flight crewmembers. In June 2002, another retired Air Force Lockheed C-130A Hercules, also converted into a firefighting aircraft and under contract to the USFS, crashed while dropping fire retardant near Walker, California, killing the three flight crewmembers onboard. Just a month later, a retired Navy Consolidated Vultee P4Y-2 Privateer, again under contract to the USFS to fight forest fires, crashed while maneuvering to deliver fire retardant near Estes Park, Colorado, killing both flight crewmembers. We determined that the probable cause in each of these accidents was in‑flight structural failure due to fatigue cracking in the wings, and we concluded that maintenance procedures had been inadequate to detect the cracking.
Firefighting operations inherently involve frequent and high-magnitude low-level maneuvers with high acceleration loads and high levels of atmospheric turbulence. A 1974 NASA study found that, at that time, firefighting airplanes experienced maneuver load factors between 2.0 and 2.4—almost a thousand times more than those of aircraft flown as airliners. The NASA study concluded that, because the maneuver loading in firefighting airplanes was so severe relative to the design loads, the aircraft should be expected to have a shortened structural life. Repeated and high‑magnitude maneuvers and exposure to a turbulent environment are part of firefighting service, and these operational factors hasten fatigue cracking and increase the growth rate of cracking once it starts.
Aerial firefighting is an intrinsically high-risk operation; however, the risk of in‑flight structural failure is not an unavoidable hazard; rather, fatigue cracking and accelerated crack propagation should be addressed with thorough maintenance programs based on the missions flown. Aircraft maintenance programs, which are typically developed by airplane manufacturers, usually point out highly stressed parts that should be inspected for signs of fatigue cracking, and they give guidance on how often these parts should be inspected. When specifying a maintenance program, manufacturers typically consider the expected loads that an airplane will encounter; however, in the past, for many aircraft used in firefighting operations, very little, if any, ongoing technical and engineering support was available because the manufacturer no longer existed or did not support the airplane, or the military no longer operated that type of aircraft. The maintenance and inspection programs being used for the firefighting aircraft mentioned above did not account for the advanced age and the more severe stresses of the firefighting operating environment.
As a result of our investigations, we issued safety recommendations to the USFS to hire appropriate technical personnel to oversee their airtanker programs, improve maintenance programs for firefighting airplanes and to require its contractors to use these programs. The USFS responded promptly and effectively, substantially improving the safety of its firefighting operations. The USFS hired a team to build out its Airworthiness Branch, to lead their effort to comply with the NTSB recommendations, and with this staff of engineers and technicians made needed revisions to the contracting, oversight, and operations of the USFS program using airplanes to fight forest fires. The agency hired aircraft engineering companies that performed in‑depth stress analyses on the firefighting airplanes in operation. The results were used to improve maintenance programs by identifying parts of the aircraft structure in need of continuing inspections and proposed the time and use intervals needed between inspections to prevent fatigue cracks from developing into catastrophic structural failures. The USFS also outfitted firefighting aircraft (tankers as well as helicopters and lead aircraft) with equipment that measures and records the actual flight loads experienced while fighting forest fires, then used that data to further improve the inspection program for airplanes in use and to develop programs for new types of airplanes being introduced to fight forest fires.
Clint Crookshanks, an NTSB aviation structural engineer and aircraft accident investigator who worked on these airtanker accidents, helped the USFS review its contractors’ maintenance and inspection program documents and provided advice on how they could better address our recommendations. On November 5, 2010, the USFS issued its first iteration of a Special Mission Airworthiness Assurance Guide for Aerial Firefighting and Natural Resource Aircraft, which contained the method, schedule, and standards for ensuring the airworthiness of firefighting aircraft. The USFS has revised the guide twice since then, with the latest revision issued on November 6, 2015. The guide now includes standards for USFS aircraft contracts, which are required for all aircraft used in USFS firefighting missions, satisfying our recommendations. Since these improvements were implemented, no aircraft performing aerial firefighting missions for the USFS have experienced an in‑flight structural failure.
We continue to work with the staff at the USFS to improve the safety of firefighting flights. At the beginning of January 2018, Clint attended a meeting in Missoula, Montana, to discuss the current and future large airtankers on contract to the USFS. Our recommendations are still relevant to the USFS and its contract operators and were the basis for most of the discussion at the Missoula meeting. The current USFS contract requirements have ensured that all contractors have effective maintenance and inspection programs that account for the extreme operating environments seen in aerial firefighting. Aircraft providing aerial firefighting services contain equipment that records the loads on the aircraft and even provides an alarm in real-time when a flight’s loads may have overstressed the airplane. In addition, the data recorded is downloaded and supplied to Wichita State University for mission profile development. British Aerospace, which originally manufactured the jet powered BAe 146 and RJ-85 airplanes currently used for USFS firefighting operations, provides technical support for these airplanes’ operators. The US Air Force also provides firefighting service using C-130 airplanes equipped with a Mobile Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) to assist the USFS on an as needed basis. The manufacturer of the C-130, Lockheed-Martin, is working with the Air Force to continually monitor and analyze the loads on airplanes used in the firefighting mission.
The importance of keeping these unique aircraft and their crews safe and functional becomes even more evident during every forest fire season. The lessons we’ve learned from our accident investigations have been used to identify needed changes that have made it possible to more reliably and safely fight forest fires from the air and protect life and land.
Jeff Marcus is an Aviation Transportation Safety Specialist in the NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications. Clint Crookshanks is an aviation structural engineer and aircraft accident investigator in the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Isaac. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
Can crunching the numbers in the annual fire reports provide any insight about how many aircraft are needed?
Above: Tanker 912, a DC-10, drops on the Lolo Peak Fire near Florence, Montana south of Missoula. Photo by John Ames.
(Originally published at 9:39 a.m. MT March 4, 2018)
Every year the National Interagency Fire Center compiles a Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Report. It usually runs about 70 pages and has piles of data about fire occurrence, weather, and the resources deployed. Since the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts has varied from 44 to 9 since 2002, (and 13 this year) an obvious question is, how many do we need? The number of Type 1 helicopters was cut in 2017 from 34 to 28, and that reduction will remain in effect this year.
I have been discussing the data in the annual reports with one of our frequent contributors, Bean Barrett, who has taken the data analysis to a different level. Some of the key information includes aircraft requests, unable to fill (UTF) rates, and fire occurrence. We both agree that UTF information is imperfect. It is very possible that if an Incident Commander or Dispatcher knows that no air tankers or helicopters are available, they may not waste time sending in a request. Tracking these historical non-requests at this time is impossible.
And, aircraft don’t put out fires. In ideal conditions they can slow it down enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and actually put it out — or at least stop the spread on a section of the fire.
With those caveats, check out the work below that Bean has done, crunching the numbers in the annual fire reports. On his graph legends, “T1-2” refers to Types 1 and 2 fixed wing air tankers. If there is an “H”, it is about helicopters. Type 1’s are larger than Type 2’s.
By Bean Barrett
Maybe there is a story in the data after all as far as air tankers go. All derived from NIFC data. Not exactly ops research but perhaps useful for some insight. Like all data, this was probably measured with a micrometer, marked with a felt tip pen, and cut with an axe. So don’t take this one to the bank.
Aircraft requests and fires larger than 40,000 acres
I didn’t draw in the trend line on the fires above but the number of fires >40K acres is clearly increasing [red line]. The number of fires are on the right axis in red and the number of tanker requests by type are on the left axis.
Judging from the number of requests, the response to the increasing trend in large fires has been an increasing number of requests for T1/T2 air tankers [purple line]. Seems obvious.
What isn’t obvious is why the nearly straight line increase in fixed wing requests. Is there some kind of learning curve going on that has resulted in a steady increase in the perceived or actual value of T1-2 fixed wing air tankers? This nearly constant rate of increase in demand needs explaining and nothing in the NIFC data helps.
The requests for helos remained flat. What is curious is that there is little difference between Type 1 Helos and Type 2 helos. You would think that there would be a larger increase in requests for Type 1 helos when there is an increase in the number of big fires.
Aircraft requests and the number of significant fires
This slide looks at the number of requests and the number of NIFC significant fires. Significant fires are defined as >100 acres in timber or >300 acres in grass. The number of significant fires is on the right axis in red and the number of tanker requests by type are on the left axis.
I looked at significant fires because you would think that by the time a fire got to 100 acres / 300 acres someone would be thinking about air tanker IA support. Not much of a trend in the number of significant fires.
If anything, there has been a slight decrease in helo requests over the last three years while there has been a big increase in the number of significant fires. Why doesn’t the demand for helo support follow the number of significant fires? Aren’t helos used for IA? Are the majority of helo requests not related to suppression? Why isn’t the demand for helo support reflected in the number of fires?
Not much correlation between fixed wing requests and the number of significant fires pre 2014. Better in the last 3 years. Maybe fixed wing has been more involved in IA? However, the next slide changed my mind.
Significant fires exceeding 40,000 acres and air tanker UTF rate
Since there was no NIFC data on early suppression success rates when compared to tanker availability, I made an assumption for this and the next slide. I divided the number of fires > 40K acres by the number of significant fires and assumed that percentage roughly represented the significant fires that were not successfully suppressed before they could grow >40K acres. Percentage of significant fires that grew to >40K acres is on the right axis and the UTF % for T1/2 tankers is the left axis.
Up to 2014 it looks like fixed wing T1/2 UTF rates were correlated with the percentage of fires that grew >40K acres. [High UTF rates meant more significant fires grew >40K acres].
However, UTF rates went down for the last 3 years and were unrelated to the number of significant fires that grew >40K acres. Fixed wing availability didn’t correlate well with suppression efforts that kept significant fires from growing >40K acres. Perhaps the majority of fixed wing requests are not for suppressing significant fires.
Significant fires exceeding 40,000 acres and helicopter UTF rate
This slide might be the most important one provided someone can sort out the difference between correlation and causation. The red line is the percentage of significant fires that grew>40K acres [right axis]. The UTF rate for helo types is on the left axis.
Interpretation 1. Helo availability is THE key to more effective early suppression and preventing significant fires from turning into large costly fires. When helo UTF rates were below 20%, significant fires that grew >40K acres were at or below 1.5%. If this is indeed a causal relationship, contract for a much larger helo fleet for IA and the huge wildfire suppression bills will come down considerably.
Interpretation 2. Helos aren’t requested until a significant fire becomes unmanageable and then a large number of requests saturate the system resulting in a high UTF rate. I tend to discount this interpretation because [see # Requests and Significant Fires above] total request numbers don’t go up when the number of fires go up. They don’t. Only the UTF changes. This would indicate an overall helo inventory shortfall.
Either way, there simply aren’t enough helos when they are needed. If the number of helos under contract was closer to a reasonable objective, UTF rates would not have the peaks shown above.