“We don’t know what we don’t know”

The  U.S. Forest Service says “We don’t know what we don’t know” about managing a new government-owned air tanker program.

Coast Guard HC-130H 1721

This aircraft, #1721, will be the first of the HC-130Hs to arrive at McClellan Airport and is expected to be available for firefighting in July using a MAFFS slip-in retardant system. The MAFFS will eventually be replaced with a conventional gravity-based retardant tank. Photo by Alan Stern.

The U.S. Forest Service is struggling to figure out how to manage a new, very complex, government-owned large air tanker program. On December 27, 2013, President Obama signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which directed the Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. The legislation also directed the Air Force spend up to $130 million to perform needed maintenance on the aircraft and to convert them into air tankers.

On June 1, 2015 the FS distributed a “Briefing Paper” that revealed the agency is not prepared to manage a long term safety oversight program for this government owned/contractor (GO/CO) operated venture. On that date, 522 days after Congress began the process of transferring the aircraft, the the FS had no detailed operating plan and had not hired or appointed any long-term, full-time safety personnel.

“The time frame to create one or more new positions to provide aviation safety oversight duties”, the Briefing Paper said, “would likely be lengthy and not meet Agency HC-130H requirements in time for the 2015 fire season.”

The document also stated that “the military model for a squadron of seven HC-130H aircraft is to have TWO [sic] full time safety officers assigned”. With the first HC-130H scheduled to arrive at McClellan Airport (MCC) in Sacramento in mid-June (not mid-May as originally planned) the FS has not used the 522 days to become prepared for the beginning of a new paradigm of large air tanker use.

At the end of those 522 days, they came to a conclusion, according to the Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

Until now, all federal air tankers, from single engine to jumbo jet sized, have been contractor owned and contractor operated (CO/CO). The actual operation and maintenance of the tankers, including the on-site, day to day safety, has been the responsibility of the privately owned companies. Even though some high-ranking officials in the agency have been asking for brand new GO/CO C-130J air tankers for years, they appear to be woefully unprepared now that they received a version of what they have been begging for.

The first two HC-130Hs to arrive at MCC this summer will be 27 and 31 years old. It is likely that they will require more safety oversight than a new C-130 right off the assembly line.

FOIA request

On January 20, 2015 we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Service asking for copies of plans related to the management of the HC-130H GO/CO air tanker program. The agency refused to comply with the request, telling us on March 19, 2015, that basically there were no completed plans:

The  records related to the C-130H Aircraft Transfer, which you requested, exist only in draft and contain opinions, recommendations, and advice. It is important to protect these discussions, which may help formulate the  Forest Service’s opinions and to release the draft would likely stifle honest and frank communication within and outside the Forest Service.

We checked with the FS again today, June 8, 2015, asking if any plans had been developed. Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the agency, said, “An operational plan will be in place prior to the aircraft being available for wildfire response” in July.

Why no plans?  Continue reading


Firefighters attempt to shoot down drone above structure fire

The video above, uploaded to YouTube by John Thompson on June 4, shows aerial footage recorded by a drone while flying over a structure fire. Beginning at about 12:00, firefighters made a couple of attempts to shoot it down with streams of water. It may not have been successful, since the aircraft continued to fly and record video for another three minutes. However, the effects of the water may not be evident for a while.

Firefighters on wildland fires might keep this tactic in mind. If drones are spotted over these fires it is likely that firefighting helicopters and air tankers will be grounded since collisions with drones could be very serious.

drone over wildfire


Aviation briefing, June 5, 2015

Washington adds to their helicopter fleet

Washington DNR helicopter

Washington DNR helicopter. Photo by WA DNR.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources is adding an eighth UH-1 Huey to their helicopter fleet. Their goal is to have six operational helicopters at any given time during the fire season. King5 has a video report.

Seattle SeahawksIt is interesting how the color scheme on the helicopters is similar to that of the Seattle Seahawks.

Reno-Stead air attack base prepares for fire season

KTVN has a story about how the  BLM air attack base at Reno-Stead is getting ready for the wildfire season.

Wired writes about smokejumpers

Wired has a lengthy article about how smokejumpers and hand crews in Redding, California are training and preparing for the fire season.




Fire drones

The feature story in the June issue of Aerospace America is titled “Fire Drones”. It covers the limitations and possible benefits of using unmanned aircraft over wildfires to collect intelligence and possibly one day to haul supplies and even drop water. Below is an excerpt from the article:


…One way to [map fires, move supplies, relay communications, and drop water] without threatening piloted aircraft would be to fly unmanned aircraft over fires when darkness or smoke prevents manned aircraft from flying near a blaze. That’s what Mark Bathrick and Bradley Koeckeritz of the U.S. Interior Department are proposing. Bathrick, a former U.S. Navy aviator and test pilot, directs the department’s Aviation Services Office; Koeckeritz is the unmanned aircraft specialist there.

They note that in January, the FAA and Interior Department signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Interior to use unmanned aircraft weighing 55 pounds or less and flying below 400 feet to monitor natural resources and to conduct search and rescue missions on the agency’s land. Interior personnel can now fly unmanned aircraft after submitting a special type of COAs — Certificates of Waiver or Authorization — to the FAA, called a COA by notification. Unlike traditional COAs, the Interior Department’s enables it to file flight plans and fly immediately without waiting for the FAA to approve the plan.

Koeckeritz and Bathrick want to establish a similar policy to test unmanned or optionally piloted planes against fires. They know that it could take years before the FAA establishes rules to allow manned and unmanned aircraft to operate in the same airspace at the same time. Hence their proposal to fly unmanned at night in the mountains or through smoke to ferry food, water, fuel, chainsaws and other supplies to firefighters. Piloted planes would be nowhere around in those situations.

On a good day, when conditions permit, manned aircraft typically support firefighters for about eight hours. “With optionally piloted aircraft, we have the potential to more than double those hours,” Koeckeritz says. “If a pilot could fly the aircraft during the day and operate it remotely at other times, that could make a substantial impact on our ability to contain and eventually extinguish fires.”

One thing I’m surprised the author did not point out is the option to fly an intelligence collecting drone at an altitude above all of the other firefighting aircraft, higher than the helicopters, air tankers, lead planes, and air attack. As long as it remained in the Temporary Flight Restriction, interference with piloted aircraft would be minimized. This, I believe, is what the Predator B borrowed from the California National Guard did when it was flying for 20 hours at a time over the Rim Fire that burned 257,000 acres in and near Yosemite National Park in 2013.

These videos describe the use the Predator on the Rim Fire.

HERE is a link to a 17-second video which can’t be embedded, but it shows the operator’s screen.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to @jetcitystar.