Might the USFS acquire military surplus Predator drones?

With 24 hours of endurance they could provide continuous real-time intelligence to firefighters on the ground.

Above: MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

A decision by the U.S. Air Force to retire an aircraft could help the U.S. Forest Service and other wildland fire agencies provide a safer working environment for their firefighters.

The Air Force will stop flying their MQ-1 Predator drones as early as July 1 of this year as they completely transition to the much more capable MQ-9 Reaper. The MQ-1 was never designed to carry weapons since it was built with a payload capacity of only 200 pounds. Eventually some of the aircraft had their wings and hard points beefed up and were able to carry various combinations of Hellfire, Stinger, and Griffin missiles.

The replacement, the MQ-9, can carry up to 4,000 pounds of both missiles and bombs.

A long-endurance drone orbiting over a wildland fire for up to 24 hours at a time would help provide an often missing and very important piece of situation awareness information — the real time location of the fire and the location of personnel and equipment. We call this the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.

Using its true color and infrared sensors it could help fireline supervisors make decisions about where to deploy, and more importantly not deploy, firefighters based on their view of exactly where the fire is, the intensity, and the rate of spread. Too many firefighters have perished in part because they were not aware of where the fire was in relation to their location.

Drones have been used before on wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.

And in 2013 we wrote:

The California National Guard is operating a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. The MQ-1 Predator is streaming real-time video down to the Incident Command Post and reportedly alerted firefighters to a flare-up they otherwise would not have immediately seen.

A drone orbiting over a fire could also serve as a radio repeater and provide an aerial hub for a network of location trackers carried by firefighters which would enable icons representing their real time locations to be shown on maps.

In recent years the US Forest Service has shown a willingness to utilize discarded military aircraft, such as the Sherpa and the HC-130H.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
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Forest Service to conduct aviation workload analysis

Aero-Flite air tanker T-260, CL-415,
Aero-Flite’s T-260, a water-scooping CL-415, at McClellan, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a solicitation for a contractor to conduct an “Aviation workload analysis to analyze current and future workload requirements and staffing”. Their goal is to identify a mixture of government and commercial best practices that could be adopted to create a more effective and efficient organization.

The solicitation listed focus areas that have been added or have shown significant growth since a baseline organization chart from 2010:

  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems
  • Large Airtanker Modernization (Next Gen)
  • Large Airtanker Modernization (Aircraft Acquisition)
  • C-130H program
  • C-23B/SD3/60 program
  • Ram-Air parachute system transition
  • Emergency Medical Short-Haul
  • Water Scooping/Amphibious aircraft
  • Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFs) improvement program
  • Airtanker Bases and other aviation facilities
  • Night Aerial Firefighting
  • Aerial Supervision
  • Safety Management System

The list fails to mention the introduction and growth of the Very Large Air Tanker program. But perhaps the author was lumping all large and VLATs into one group. There are three DC-10’s under contract and the 747 has received approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board and may show up on the new CWN contract that should be awarded later this year.

Responses are due to the solicitation by March 30 and the contractor will have 150 days to produce the final report. Assuming it will take, generously, two months to make the award, the report will be due around October 27, 2017.

It will be interesting to see the results from this taxpayer-funded enterprise. A “more effective and efficient organization” is a laudable goal.

Historically the Forest Service has been very reluctant to release reports like this. When it becomes available we will add it to the list of 16 other air tanker-related studies that U.S. citizens have paid for since 1995.

Watch this space.

Inquest finds inadequate inspection contributed to fatal air tanker crash

A coroner’s inquest found that an inadequate inspection contributed to the crash of an air tanker in New South Wales, Australia.

Dromader M-18 air tanker
File photo of Dromader M-18. Photo by Ted Quackenbush.

David Black, 43, died when his M18 Dromader single engine air tanker crashed while fighting a fire at Wirritin in Budawang National Park, 40 kilometers west of Ulladulla, October 24, 2013 when a wing snapped off the aircraft as it was approaching the fire. The crash started another bushfire which, along with high winds, hampered efforts to reach the pilot.

Below is an excerpt from an article at 9news:

[The aircraft] was tested and inspected just over two months earlier by two companies, Aviation NDT and Beal Aircraft Maintenance, but [Deputy State Coroner Derek] Lee said the work was inadequately done.

He wrote in his findings that testing by Aviation NDT used an unauthorised method and did not comply with the mandatory requirements of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Further, the plane’s wings were not removed during a visual inspection by Beal Aircraft Maintenance, meaning that corrosion and cracking on one of the left wing’s attachment lugs was not detected.

By the time Mr Black crashed in October, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that cracking on the inner surface of the lug had reached a critical length of 10.4 millimetres and at least 32 secondary micro cracks were also identified.

The engineer behind the visual inspection, Donald Beal, told the inquest the manufacturer’s service bulletin did not mandate removal of the wings, so he didn’t see any need to remove them.

Mr Beal also said there was ambiguity about what visual inspections actually involved, Mr Lee recalled in his findings.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.
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Three Neptune air tankers activated

On March 9 and 10 the U.S. Forest Service activated three large air tankers, apparently in response to the wildfire situation in the central plains and Colorado.

A wildfire siege involving hundreds of thousands of acres began March 6 in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the northern part of the Texas panhandle. Shortly thereafter fires started popping up in northwest Colorado and the state’s very dry front range. On March 8 when a fire began in the Black Hills of South Dakota that threatened structures and eventually burned 249 acres of timber, the Incident Commander requested an air tanker but was told it would take 24 hours to get one to the fire.

Neptune Aviation announced that three of their BAe-146’s have been deployed. Tanker 12 went to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (Jeffco) at Broomfield, Colorado, and Tankers 03 and 02 will be working in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Of course they could be moved around from those locations as needed.

The video below is about the Santa Fe fire on Friday near Idaho Springs, Colorado and includes a good view of T-12 making a drop.

Neptune’s T-03 that had been working in Chile for a month began its return flight home on March 5.

Neptune's T-03 Chile
Neptune’s T-03 before departing from Chile. Neptune photo.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

20 large air tankers to be on exclusive use contracts this year

We also have updates on the MD-87’s, as well as the HC-130H aircraft the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard.

Above: Air Tanker 162 at Redmond, Oregon June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service will have 20 privately owned large and very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts this year, which is the same number as in 2016. This is somewhat surprising since the agency is reducing by 18 percent the number of large Type 1 helicopters that are on exclusive use (EU) wildland firefighting contracts.

The USFS will also be operating as an air tanker one of the HC-130H aircraft that they are in the process of receiving from the Coast Guard.

The air tanker mix is a little different this year, with Neptune Aviation trading out two of their old radial engine P2V’s for somewhat newer jet-powered BAe-146’s. Other than that there were no significant changes in the information provided by the USFS.

air tankers contract wildfire 2017
This does not include Call When Needed, Single Engine, or scooper air tankers.

In 2017 the list of large and very large air tankers on Call When Needed (CWN) contracts is the same as in 2016. (UPDATED 3-17-2017)

2016 call when needed wildfire air tankers

There is no guarantee that fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft on CWN contracts will ever be available, and if they are, the daily and hourly costs can be much higher than EU aircraft.

Future contracts

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told us that they expect to issue a new CWN airtanker solicitation in the near future intended for use in 2017.

The EU contract issued in 2013 for what the USFS called “Legacy” air tankers, six P2V’s and one BAe-146, expires December 31, 2017. The Next-Gen V1.0 contract that was initiated in 2013 is valid until December 31, 2022 if all options are exercised.

Some of the large air tanker vendors have been led to believe that the USFS will issue a solicitation for Next-Gen air tankers in the fairly near future, but Ms. Jones did not confirm this.

MD-87’s

Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87
An Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. Photo by Paul Carter.

Kevin McLoughlin, the Director of Air Tanker Operations for Erickson Aero Air, told us that they have fixed the problem with their recently converted MD-87 air tankers and expect to have five of them available this summer. Two are on EU contracts and they hope to have the others on CWN contracts. The issue involved retardant dispersing over the wing which left open the possibility of it being ingested into the engines. They had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, which lowers the release point by 46 inches, mitigating the problem, Mr. McLoughlin said. In November the aircraft took and passed the grid test again, certifying it for coverage levels one through eight.

Coast Guard HC-130H’s

One of the seven HC-130H aircraft that the USFS is receiving from the Coast Guard will be available as an air tanker this year. Ms. Jones said aircraft 1708 (Tanker 116) will be the primary air tanker and aircraft 1721 (Tanker 118) will be used for training missions and as a back-up airtanker this year.

The two aircraft will be based at McClellan Air Field in Sacramento at what the Forest Service calls Air Station McClellan (FSAS MCC). Initially they will operate only within a 500 nautical mile radius (almost half of which is over the Pacific Ocean), but by the end of the season the USFS expects to remove that limitation.

500 nautical mile radius
500 nautical mile radius from Sacramento, California. Fire Aviation graphic.

None of the HC-130H’s have received the conversion to a removable internal gravity Retardant Delivery System (RDS). The one operating as an air tanker this year will again use a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank. The U.S. Air Force, which is arranging for all of the work on the aircraft, plans to deliver the first fully completed air tanker in 2019, and the other six by 2020, dates that keep slipping.

Tanker 116 Mather California
Tanker 116, an HC-130H, landing at Mather Airport east of Sacramento, February 28, 2017. Photo by Jon Wright.

None of the current contracted HC-130H pilots are initial attack qualified, but the USFS goal is to have them qualified after the RDS are installed.

The USFS still has not made a decision about the long term basing of the seven HC-130H tankers.

Tanker 131 at Avalon Air Show

Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, known as Bomber 390 in Australia, was present last weekend at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Victoria. Britt Coulson sent us these photos.

Their company has had two of their C-130 type air tankers working in Australia during their down under summer. I asked Mr. Coulson when they were going to return and he said both of them need maintenance before being carded by the U.S. Forest Service.

Tanker 131 air show demonstration drop
Tanker 131 making a demonstration drop at the Avalon air show.

T-132 will be departing March 11th; at that time it will have been on contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service for a total of 186 Days.

T-131 will leave Australia on March 14th and will have been on contract with Victoria’s Country Fire Authority for a total of 91 Days. It will be on exclusive use contract with the USFS.

Continue reading “Tanker 131 at Avalon Air Show”

Update on single engine air tankers, fire season 2017

Above: SEATs 802 and 824 at Boise, July 19, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

When we discovered that the number of Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use (EU) contracts has been reduced this year by 18 percent, from 34 to 28, we started looking into the numbers of fixed wing air tankers.

The solicitation for EU Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) has closed and the award decision is in progress. According to Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land management, the agency that handles contracting for SEATs, the number of these aircraft on EU contracts is expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft. Firm numbers will be available after the contracts are issued.

The Call When Needed (CWN) contracts for SEATs have already been awarded for 80 aircraft from 16 vendors, which is up from 67 aircraft in 2016. Mr. Eardley explained, “The increase in CWN aircraft available is due to increased capacity through new and existing vendors.”

We expect to have in the next few days information about large and very large air tankers on contract this year.