Montana still disappointed that the USFS will not approve their helicopters

The disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Montana over helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation continues.

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. After the state made several significant modifications to the aircraft they no longer conform to the specifications the USFS requires to be approved, or “carded”, so that they can be used on federal wildfires. With the modifications, Montana now calls them “MT-205” helicopters. The change most often mentioned is the 324-gallon water bucket they use when the maximum allowed for that model under USFS regulations is 300 gallons.

In the latest development in the disagreement, MTN News reported that on Wednesday Montana’s Environmental Quality Council voted to send letters to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, asking that an exception be made that would allow the modified MT-205’s to be used on federal lands.

In an excerpt from an article by Jonathon Ambarian of MTN News, DNRC Director John Tubbs explains why they do not wish to use the USFS approved water bucket.

Tubbs said the MT-205 helicopters would have to be outfitted with a bucket smaller than 300 gallons in order to meet the federal standard. He said DNRC isn’t willing to make that change, because they want to maintain as much firefighting capacity as possible.

After we wrote about this controversy in 2015, representatives from three privately owned helicopter companies sent us a letter laying out a number of reasons why the MT-205’s should not be granted an exception to the federal standards. In addition to the issue of government competing with private enterprise, they said:

The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to.

And their letter continued:

[The helicopters acquired through the FEPP] are to be maintained in accordance with the original military standards or a combination of military or commercial (FAA) standards, whichever are more stringent. The DNRC has done neither.

Helicopter Express sends four helicopters to Chile on Antonov AN-124

Above: An Antonov AN-124 after it arrived in Santiago, Chile carrying four helicopters. Photo by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

An Antonov AN-124 arrived in Santiago, Chile Tuesday morning and unloaded three Bell 205 helicopters, one K-MAX 1200, and a flatbed truck with an attached goose-neck trailer. The Chilean government contracted with Helicopter Express out of Chamblee, Georgia to supply the equipment during the siege of wildfires that has been plaguing the country for the last several weeks.

Helicopter Express helicopters Antonov AN-124
Helicopter Express helicopters before loading onto the Antonov AN-124 at Atlanta, Georgia. Helicopter Express photo.

The helicopters and the truck were loaded onto the Ukrainian freighter at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport Monday for the flight to South America.

CNN Chile reported that one of the helicopters has night-flying capabilities.

Salmon helibase supports Comet Fire

Above: Heli-Rappellers at Salmon, Idaho just after they were transported back to the base by a helicopter after supporting the Comet Fire. L to R: Chris Lilley, Jacob Edluna, and Matt Knott.

Thursday we stopped by the U.S. Forest Service Helibase at the airport at Salmon, Idaho. Some of the 19 USFS personnel assigned to the base were supporting the 367-acre Comet Fire 12 miles north of the airport.

Salmon helibase
Eric Ellis, Helibase Manager at the Salmon Heli-Rappeller Base.
Eric Ellis, the Base Manager who was kind enough to show us around, said they saw the lighting strike that ignited the fire on July 26. Later four firefighters from the base rappelled into the steep terrain. The helibase crew also helped to facilitate helicopter water bucket work and sling loads of equipment.

Comet Fire
The Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho.
At the base on Thursday was one 205++ helicopter and one K-MAX helicopter. A second 205++ and a Sikorsky were away working on fires.

Salmon helibase
One of HeliMax’s 205++ helicopters lands at Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016 while supporting the Comet Fire north of Salmon.
Salmon is the home of the largest of the USFS rappel bases. They have two 205++ helicopters assigned that are each staffed seven days a week. The USFS is the only federal land management agency that has wildland firefighters who rappel into fires. The National Park Service has quite a few helitack personnel trained for short haul, the technique of transporting one or more people at the end of a rope attached to a helicopter, but without sliding down the rope.

Salmon helibase
A K-MAX helicopter at the Salmon Helibase July 28. An hour or so later it was dropping water on the Comet Fire
An hour or so after we photographed the K-MAX helicopter at the base, we saw the same ship dropping water on the Comet Fire.

K-MAX Comet Fire
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016.

Salmon helibase
After they were declared surplus by the military, the Salmon Heli-Rappellers obtained these pieces of helicopters and spent $10,000 each to have them configured exactly like the actual rappel ships in order to make their training as realistic as possible.
 

All photos are by Bill Gabbert

San Diego to add a third firefighting helicopter

san diego county helicopter
San Diego County’s Bell 205 A-1 ++. Photo credit: San Diego County Sheriff Department.

San Diego County is adding a third helicopter to its firefighting fleet.

The Bell 205 A-1 ++ will be based at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, California and flown by ASTREA, the Sheriff’s Department aviation unit. It will have a hoist that can rescue injured firefighters and includes a 375-gallon external belly tank for fire suppression. The Board of Supervisors called for the new helicopter in the wake of the May, 2014 wildfires.

ASTREA crew members work with CAL FIRE in the rescue role. While ASTREA deputy sheriffs pilot the helicopter, CAL FIRE personnel operate the hoist and deploy on the hoist cable to assist victims on the ground.

San Diego County already has two other Bell 205 A-1 ++, as well as other helicopters used for law enforcement, including an MD530F, an MD500D, and Two Bell 407s.

Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

Representatives from three private helicopter companies in Montana have waded into the controversy about the U.S. Forest Service not approving modifications made to helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The lack of approval means the helicopters cannot be used for fires on national forest land.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program.

On August 21 Montana Governor Steve Bullock called the Forest Service’s position on the issue “nonsensical”, according to Newsmax, and in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote:

I am doing my part to mobilize every available firefighting resource at my disposal, and make them available to all fire protection agencies. I encourage you to do your part by directing leadership within your respective agencies to rescind this unnecessary and artificial restriction on Montana aircraft as soon as possible.

The FEPP program requires helicopters to be in full compliance with FAA regulations, however the DNRC stated in 2010 that they do not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates.

The representatives from the Montana helicopter companies say there is much more to the story. We received the following letter written by Will Metz of Vigilante Helicopters, Gary Blain from Billings Flying Service, and Mike Mamuzich of Minuteman Aviation.

****

September 18, 2015

“To: Bill of Fire Aviation   

RE: Use of Montana UH-1H Firefighting Aircraft on Federal Lands is Suspect

From 2009-2012 Aviation Watch Inc., a non-profit organization that represented private aircraft operators and contractors, conducted a review of the MT DNRC Aviation Program. This in depth FOIA review discovered concerning and glaring operational and maintenance issues regarding Montana DNRC Aircraft. These technical and sometimes complicated issues are previous to this year’s fire season and are ongoing. 

Although in recent articles the DNRC has explained some of the issues away as good ideas in the name of performance, the facts remain.  The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to. For instance, letters written to the DNRC by Billings Flying Service and the response by the DNRC, along with the related engineering report, you will see items highlighted that are of continuing concern. 

The last page of their own engineering report, Fig 13 Weight Altitude and Temperature (WAT) Chart, which is required, clearly limits their lifting capability. This has been referred to in recent press articles as “the bucket issue”. It is not the size of the bucket but rather the weight you can lift with approved performance data. The DNRC has surreptitiously omitted this from their own flight manual supplement and apparently it is not applicable to them, even though they paid for the data.  Civilian helicopters are capable of lifting more than the performance charts allow as well, but they cannot self-approve themselves to do so, nor is it safe.

There were numerous other issues raised, some egregious, as part of the operator review that are available. Even the possibility of one such discrepancy in the civilian world would ground aircraft, some permanently.  These Documents, attachments and others are available on a website. 

As they should, the Forest Service requires all aircraft fighting fires on Federal lands to adhere to the same performance and standards for safety and standardization reasons. The MT DNRC requires private operators contracting with them to adhere to these standards as well, of which they themselves do not meet.

Continue reading “Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies”

Montana Governor complains that some state helicopters are barred from working on USFS fires

Below is an excerpt from an article at Newsmax:

Montana’s governor on Friday [August 21] called on federal officials to lift what he called nonsensical restrictions that bar the state from using some of its helicopters to fight nearly a dozen major wildfires burning largely out of control across the state. Governor Steve Bullock, who declared a state of emergency earlier this week authorizing use of National Guard troops and aircraft along with state firefighters and helicopters, said in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the federal rules were unnecessary obstacles to fighting the fires.

“I am doing my part to mobilize every available firefighting resource at my disposal, and make them available to all fire protection agencies,” Bullock said in the letter. “I encourage you to do your part by directing leadership within your respective agencies to rescind this unnecessary and artificial restriction on Montana aircraft as soon as possible.”

Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said U.S. fire managers barred the use of UH-1H helicopters over federal land because they have objected to modifications to the state’s fleet that made them faster and able to carry more water.

The Democratic governor added, “I continue to be frustrated by this unwarranted and artificial limitation on interagency use of our aircraft.”

On August 22 we asked the U.S. Forest Service for their reaction to the story. On August 24  we were given this statement issued by their Northern Region:

The Northern Region of the Forest Service values the professionalism and fire-fighting support it receives from its partnership with the State of Montana. The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department [sic] have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.

UPDATE September 23, 2015: Representatives from three Montana helicopter companies express their opinions on the issue.

Report of helicopter making emergency landing following a wire-strike

H-531 emergency landing

Reports from several sources indicate that a firefighting helicopter struck a wire while working on the Cabin Fire in southern California Friday afternoon. The tail number visible on news reports shows that it was N15HX, Helicopter 531, which is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied to the Angeles National Forest under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia.

All indications so far are that the helicopter made a successful landing near a reservoir.

(UPDATE April 25, 2016: The FAA “brief report”.)

Helicopter 531 wire strike fire
File photo of Helicopter 531 and the four crews that staff the aircraft. USFS photo.

The Cabin Fire started at about 1 p.m. PT on August 14 eight miles north of Azusa, California in the Angeles National Forest. It had burned 800 acres by 5:30 p.m., according to the Forest Service.

Helicopter 531 is the only night-flying helicopter used by the U.S. Forest Service. In 2014 when it began the night flying contract, it was staffed 24 hours a day, using five helitack personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There were four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.

The helicopter was flown in 2014 by one pilot during the day, but added a co-pilot at night. It was scheduled to respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more traveled by ground vehicle.

The helicopter and the air attack ship worked out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California in 2014.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
Night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.