CAL FIRE selects Blackhawk as replacement for Super Huey helicopters

Above: A CAL FIRE Super Huey undergoing winter maintenance at the agency’s aviation facility at McClellan Air Field March 24, 2016. This was one of the few CAL FIRE helicopters that still has “CDF” painted on the tail.

(Originally published at 8:40 a.m. MDT August 3, 2017)

The last time we wrote about the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (CAL FIRE) attempt to purchase a new fleet of firefighting helicopters they had just thrown out the submitted bids. The potential suppliers hoping to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Super Hueys interpreted the solicitation specs in different ways. One company, for example, was bidding on what they assumed were apples, while another was picturing oranges. Then it was back to the drawing board.

That process is nearing completion, with the announcement yesterday by CAL FIRE Chief Ken Pimlott that they “intend” to award the contract to Air Methods/United Rotorcraft of Englewood, Colorado, which offered the Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk, configured as a civilian version of the UH-60 Black Hawk.

Sikorsky S-70i Black_Hawk
Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk (reg. SP-YVC), built by PZL-Mielec in Poland, at ILA Berlin Air Show 2012. Photo by Julian Herzog.

Before the contract is signed other bidders have the opportunity to protest the award. If one is filed, the final decision will be made by a neutral administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings.

The original plan in 2016 was to buy nine helicopters — about three a year for three years, with an option to spring for an even dozen. But that commitment appears to have changed.

“Even after a contract is awarded”, Chief Pimlott said yesterday, “the number and timing of the State’s orders will be determined on a year-by-year basis. The contract does not commit the State to any specific number of purchases or delivery schedule.”

Since 2010 at least some, if not all, Sikorsky S-70i’s have been built by Poland-based PZL Mielec, a subsidiary of Sikorsky Aircraft. Sikorsky, now owned by Lockheed Martin, advertises the helicopter as being suitable for utility uses and complex search and rescue missions. It can be ordered with a window gun — or at least a mount for one.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jerome and Norman.
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CAL FIRE’s aircraft lineup for 2016

The agency will have 51 firefighting aircraft working this year.

Above: CAL FIRE OV-10s at McClellan Airfield March 17, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

This month the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is finalizing their plans for the management and deployment of their firefighting aircraft, with the total numbers being similar to last year:

  • S2T air tankers: 21 plus 1 spare
  • OV-10 Air Tactical, fixed wing: 12
  • OV-10D Aerial Supervision Module, fixed wing: 1
  • King Air 200 Air Tactical training platform, fixed wing: 2
  • Super Huey helicopters: 10 plus 2 spares

Below is the anticipated lineup of air tankers, provided by Dennis Brown, CAL FIRE’s Chief of Flight Operations.

CAL FIRE air tankers 2016

The reporting dates for the air tankers have not yet been established, but CAL FIRE is required to provide the information to DynCorp, the contractor that provides the pilots and maintenance for the S2Ts, by April 1.

CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Before CAL FIRE’s Tanker 81 crashed near Yosemite National Park in 2014, killing pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, the agency had 23 S2T tankers. The project to replace the tanker is underway at McClellan and is expected to be complete in about 18 months. The aircraft are provided by the Federal Excess Personal Property program which supplies fire engines and other firefighting equipment, including aircraft, to state and local fire departments. Most of the hardware originates with the Department of Defense before being transferred through the Forest Service to other agencies. The FS retains ownership of the equipment.

CAL FIRE, for the second year in a row, will have a BAe-146 large air tanker on contract provided by Neptune Aviation.

The agency will have a number of air tankers on Call When Needed contracts that will be activated only if the fire situation in the state is more than the 22 tankers working every day can handle. They will have one DC-10 very large air tanker from 10 Tanker, three DC-7 large air tankers from Erickson Aero, Electra L-188s from Air Spray, and single engine air tankers from Air Spray and Aero Spray.

There has been speculation that CAL FIRE would put a very large air tanker such as a DC-10 on exclusive use contract, which is something they have not done for several years. When we asked Mr. Brown about that he said, “A decision has not been made yet on whether we will be doing an Exclusive Use contract for one this year or not.” A 747 very large air tanker is in the final stages of being built and is scheduled to make an appearance showing off its new paint job at the Aerial Firefighting conference at McClellan in Sacramento on March 22.

The Super Huey helicopters will be based at Kneeland, Bieber, Vina, Howard Forest, Boggs Mountain, Columbia, Alma, Bear Valley, Hemet, and Prado. All of them now have hoists installed that can be used for extracting injured personnel.

CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.

Lawsuit accuses CAL FIRE of keeping pilots’ grieving families ignorant of death benefits

Families of firefighting pilots killed in the line of duty in California have filed a lawsuit charging that officials in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) intentionally misinformed them of their entitlement to death benefits.

According to the Sacramento Bee,

They “intentionally misrepresented to the survivors that the only available death benefit they might apply for was those available from” the federal government, the claim states. “Cal Fire executives made these representations knowing them to be false, and at the time they were well aware of the existence of benefits required to be paid under (state law).”

The lawsuit lists 14 pilots that were killed while fighting fires in California. Two of those were employees of DynCorp which has a contract to provide pilots and maintenance for the state’s S-2 air tankers. The other 12 worked for air tanker companies under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

If a federal firefighter is killed in the line of duty, their survivors receive over $300,000 from the federal government under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) program. The amount varies from year to year. However the PSOB denies benefits to firefighters that are not regular employees; contract or AD employees are not eligible.

The seven AD crew members that died in the 2008 helicopter crash in northern California were not eligible. The four AD firefighters that were killed in the crash of their van on the way to a fire in Colorado in 2002 were not eligible. Contract air tanker pilots are not eligible.

Families of deceased ground and aerial firefighters have fought for these benefits for years, unsuccessfully.

The lawsuit claims that CAL FIRE encouraged the pilots’ survivors to apply for the PSOB program without telling them that the California Public Resources Code requires that the state provide to them an amount equal to the PSOB benefit plus funds equal to the annual salary of a mid-career CAL FIRE firefighter.

Another interesting section of that law states that the provisions…

…shall be applicable irrespective of whether the department contracts directly with the pilot or contracts with a third party that employs or contracts with pilots.

The attorney for the lawsuit, Paul Goyette, is hanging his hat on that provision, saying it applies even to pilots working for a company that has a contract with the USFS if the fatality occurred in California. The state has a written agreement with the USFS to share firefighting resources, including aircraft.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

…The complaint contends that [CAL FIRE Director Ken] Pimlott and his No. 2, Janet Barentson, knew that state law requires Cal Fire pay death benefits when a contracted fire pilot is killed in the line of duty. At some point, Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, an administrator at the department’s Ione Academy who also worked with deceased firefighters’ families, discovered the law and brought it up with both superiors, the lawsuit says.

“Defendants Pimlott and Barentson ordered Assistant Chief Ramirez not to disclose the existence of (the law) to any (of the families),” the court filing states, and threatened that “his career would be placed in jeopardy” if he disobeyed. Meanwhile, they ordered Ramirez to continue pressing federal officials to pay benefits, even though it was clear such efforts were “futile,” the lawsuit states.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton responded with a two-sentence email to The Sacramento Bee late Friday: “No. This allegation is not true.”

Mr. Ramirez was one of the CAL FIRE employees working at their Ione fire academy that was fired after an instructor there, Battalion Chief Orville Fleming, arrested after a 16-day manhunt, was charged with and later convicted of the murder of his mistress. That investigation uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate alcohol use at the Ione facility. Eventually 16 CAL FIRE employees either resigned, were fired, or were disciplined. All of the disciplined employees were replaced at the academy.

The graphic below is from the Sacramento Bee.

Deceased California air tanker pilots

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick and Kirk.

CAL FIRE extends contract with DynCorp

CAL FIRE OV-10A
CAL FIRE OV-10D (with the upgraded engines) at Redding, California, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

CAL FIRE has extended it’s contract with DynCorp for another year for maintaining and operating their S-2T air tankers and OV-10s, and for maintaining their UH-1H helicopters. The agreement has a total value of $27.8 million.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has extended its contract with DynCorp International (DI) to continue supporting its aviation program to help suppress and control wildfires.

“The partnership between CAL FIRE and DI allows us to meet our mission and keep the residents of California safe.”

“Our aviation fleet is a critical component to our ability to contain wildfires in California,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director. “The partnership between CAL FIRE and DI allows us to meet our mission and keep the residents of California safe.”

Through this contract, DI team members pilot and maintain CAL FIRE’s modified S-2T air tankers and OV-10A aircraft. Air tankers are used to drop fire retardant to help battle wildfires, while the OV-10A aircraft support aerial firefighting operations by directing the air tankers and monitoring critical areas. DI also provides maintenance support for CAL FIRE’s UH-1H helicopters that are used to transport fire fighters and equipment. Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.

“The true heroes are the firefighters that work on the ground to stop these wildfires, and we are honored to work alongside them. DI has supported CAL FIRE since 2001, and our team members take great pride in being able to augment the efforts that save lives, property, and natural resources throughout the state of California,” said James Myles, DynAviation senior vice president, DynCorp International. “Our partnership with the CAL FIRE team has helped DI become a true leader in aerial firefighting.”

Smokey Bear “flies air tanker” in Christmas parade

S-2 Redding parade float
A float in the Redding, California Christmas parade, December 7, 2014. CAL FIRE photo.

Sunday evening CAL FIRE / Shasta County Fire participated in the Redding (California) Lighted Christmas Parade with a special float featuring Tanker 94 flown by Smokey Bear dropping a special load of presents. The model airtanker is a replica of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 94 based at the Redding Air Base. It was created by CAL FIRE Engineer Patrick Westrip and many volunteers. Watch a video of how it was developed.

The Tanker that is on the float. (Screen shot from the video.)
The Tanker that is on the float. (Screen shot from the video.)

You can compare the float with the real Tanker 94 below.

Tanker 94, an S-2T, at Redding
Tanker 94, an S-2T, at Redding, August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Johnny.

CAL FIRE and DynCorp receive award from FAA

For a third year in a row the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) presented CAL FIRE and DynCorp International with the FAA’s Diamond Award of Excellence for Aviation Maintenance. The award recognizes CAL FIRE’s aviation maintenance unit after all maintenance technicians pass a rigorous and specialized aircraft safety training program.

CAL FIRE’s current support contractors are DynCorp and Logistics Specialties Incorporated (LSI). DynCorp provides airtanker and airtactical plane pilot services, and all aircraft maintenance services. All CAL FIRE helicopters are flown by CAL FIRE pilots. LSI provides procurement and parts management services.