CAL Fire’s first permanent female helicopter pilot featured on LA television

Desiree Horton was recently hired by CAL FIRE as their first permanent female helicopter pilot. She has been working for the last year or so in a temporary position as a pilot for the agency, and before that she flew for many years as a contract pilot on firefighting helicopters, and as a news helicopter pilot in the Los Angeles area.

A few days ago we had a short video that teased about the report above, which which ran yesterday on the CBS Los Angeles 11 p.m. news.

Congratulations to Desiree!

NTSB: S-2T that crashed may have struck a tree

S-2T air tanker crash
Site of the S-2T air tanker crash. Photo by Ken Yager.

In a preliminary report that was released Tuesday night, the National Transportation Safety Board said the S-2T air tanker that crashed near Yosemite National Park in California on October 7 may have struck a tree which broke off a part of the aircraft’s wing.

Two other firefighting aircraft were in the area at the time. A lead plane preceded the air tanker into the drop area but that pilot did not see the crash. However the crew of an air attack ship overhead did, and they told the NTSB that the S-2T may have struck a tree, causing part of a wing to break off.

Both aircrews reported that there was smoke in the area, but visibility was good.

The air tanker was stationed at the air tanker base at Hollister, California, and had been dispatched to the Dog Rock fire. The airplane arrived on scene, made one drop on the fire, then proceeded to the Columbia Airport to be reloaded with fire retardant before it returned and made its final flight. Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt died in the accident.

A resident in the area of the crash site told us that locals took quite a few photos and a video that will help the NTSB’s investigation. They are unwilling to release the imagery to the public until after the investigation is complete.

It will be many more months before the NTSB releases their final report.

CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott issued the following statement regarding the NTSB’s preliminary information on the crash.

“Aerial firefighting is not simply flying from one airport to another. The wildland firefighting environment is a challenging one, both on the ground and in the air,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, director of CAL FIRE. “We look forward to the final NTSB report to see if we can use the findings to help mitigate the inherent dangers of the job. We owe that to Craig, who traded his life in an effort to protect the lives of others.”

Video package from UAV was installed on Air Attack ship working on the Happy Camp Fire

live wildfire video
Live microwave linked 28 miles to SkyIMD’s IR/EO from the base station. Live control occurred in the field, and was transferred through the internet to Incident Command, where the Planning Section Chief could operate the superzoom gimbal.

A suite of video sensors normally used on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was installed on an Air Attack aircraft working on the 134,056-acre Happy Camp Fire in northern California. The instruments provide normal and infrared video, making it possible for the Air Tactical Group Supervisor and personnel at the Incident Command Post to see in real time through smoke to determine where the priorities should be and where aircraft should be assigned to drop water or retardant.

Below is information provided by SkyIMD, Inc.:

“Remote control of airborne stabilized camera EO/IR (Electro Optical/Infrared) gimbals designed for UAVs is available through SkyIMD SkyFusion Pak for fixed wing, rotorcraft, and UAVs. Systems support fully automated 3D geo-tracking of static locations or GIS (Geographic Information System) fire lines comprising of thousands of points. Advanced object recognition provides hands-off following of aircraft and vehicles. Satellite and 3G connectivity delivers streaming video or snapshots over the internet to any iPhone, Android, or computer.

“Infrared stops fire from hiding in its own smokescreen,” says Hart Drobish (President of Courtney Aviation, the Air Attack Operator). “SkyIMD makes an extremely sophisticated tool intuitive for first time users. Without training, Air Attacks see through smoke. Zoomed in, IR identifies fire creeping through retardant that is too late once visible to the naked eye.” Hart is developing IR solutions on multiple platforms to extend coverage.

The Planning Section Chief responsible for intelligence, strategy, and objectives at the Incident Command Post (ICP) operated the FLIR infrared sensor when the cockpit crew was busy managing airspace. The Chief of the Happy Camp Complex fire could click the fire map or touch the live video to “walk around” deep in the burn. The new spot fires discovered were then verified by the aircrew. Using the same remote control, SkyIMD in San Francisco interactively trained the Chief who had never before operated an EO/IR superzoom gimbal. The easy interface took only a few minutes to learn and become a valuable asset.

“Seeing through the smoke is indispensable,” says Air Attack Dick Stiliha (ATGS, Air Tactical Group Supervisor). “I hope to never be without infrared again. Sharing live video with ICP was very beneficial. Equally valuable, recorded video was used for daily post mission debrief to improve tanker pilots’ effectiveness and safety.”

“The only growing-pain with remote controlling the airborne infrared was that so many people wanted to use it,” says Henri Wolf (SkyIMD CTO and former wildfire tanker pilot). “Since drones are not currently approved for wildfires, some aerial firefighters would like to use the same cameras on a manned-drone parked out of the way, above the congested fire attack altitudes. A ground operated gimbal flown solo, a manned UAV, will provide all the benefits of a UAS, extending ICP’s vision while relieving workload, and has the potential to evolve into an unmanned aircraft in the future.“  “

“24-hour” briefing for off-runway excursion at Grass Valley, CA

On October 7, 2014 Laurence Crabtree, the Forest Supervisor for the Eldorado National Forest, issued a “Preliminary (24-hour) Briefing” about the air attack aircraft that ended up off the runway at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California three days earlier. The document has very little information:

Aero Commander 690B veered off the runway at approximately 1343 hours. The ship had been performing an aerial supervision mission on the King Fire, located on the Eldorado National Forest. There were three people onboard, the pilot, an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) and an ATGS trainee. The National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) classified this event as an accident on October 6, 2014 at 10:00 AM. The Forest Service has assigned an investigation team to work in collaboration with the NTSB.

It is obvious that the USFS can’t say a lot about the official cause of an accident three days after the incident, but in a document that took three days to prepare, many people would appreciate a little more information, including indisputable facts such as injuries, the weather, obvious mechanical malfunctions such as a blown tire or collapsed landing gear, or did it occur on takeoff, landing, or taxiing.

NTSB has tentatively ruled out mechanical issues as cause of T-81 crash

CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott
CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott addresses the media on October 10, 2014, concerning the status of the investigation into the crash of Tanker 81 on October 7. On the left in the white shirt is NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra. Over Director Pimlott’s right shoulder is CAL FIRE Chief Pilot Bill Payne.

In a press conference on Friday an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said they have tentatively ruled out mechanical issues as the primary cause of the October 7 crash of the air tanker on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California.

Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed when the S-2T air tanker impacted the ground while he was attempting to make his second retardant drop on the fire.

NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra said that while it is early in the investigation which will take six to eight months to complete, mechanical or fatigue issues do not appear to be factors in the crash. In addition, he said they have received no reports of turbulence in the drop area. They expect to have a preliminary report available on the NTSB website within about five days.

The investigators began by conducting an aerial recon over the crash site to become familiar with the very steep terrain and the extent of the debris field. After the fire activity had diminished, they documented it from the ground.

The team has completed the on-scene portion of the investigation but they still need to recover, reconstruct, and examine some portions of the wreckage which are scattered over an area about 1/4 mile long. There is still some active fire in the area, and they will be working with CAL FIRE and the National Park Service to remove the aircraft parts after the fire has cooled down.

The investigators will be looking at “man, machine, and the environment”, Mr. Cathra said, and:

This accident is extremely tragic. We have a community that was threatened by a wildland fire, there were evacuations being done. These pilots put their life on the line. They were out there in a very — it’s a controlled environment, but yet there is also an amount of risk. And it is something that affects everybody as a whole. We get to know these pilots as well throughout the year. Our primary mission with the NTSB is to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how we can prevent this from ever occurring again.

Director Ken Pimlott said beginning today, Friday, CAL FIRE will start transitioning their tanker pilots back into their aircraft, after having been grounded since immediately after the accident. Each of them will be evaluated, but some, he said, will require more time to deal with the tragedy than others.

He recognized and thanked the U.S. Forest Service for providing air tankers to cover the state of California while the 22 remaining S-2Ts were not available. Providing that coverage was made less complicated by the lack of wildfire activity in the rest of the United States.

In the video of the press conference below, the people you will see, in the order of  appearance, are:

  1. Daniel Berlant, CAL FIRE Information Officer
  2. Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE Director
  3. Josh Cawthra, NTSB Investigator
  4. Bill Payne, CAL FIRE Chief Pilot, and
  5. Daniel Berlant, CAL FIRE Information Officer

FAA releases preliminary cause of S-2T crash

Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt
Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. Image courtesy of Mr. Hunt’s family.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s web site lists the preliminary cause of the crash of Tanker 81, an S-2T, as a “wing striking a tree”. That is consistent with information we have from witnesses of the accident.

The Fresno Bee reported that Keith Halloway, a spokesman for NTSB which is the lead investigating agency, said Wednesday evening that the board may have a preliminary report next week, but determining a probable cause for the crash could take 12 to 18 months.

The pilot of the S-2T that died in the air tanker crash on October 7 was Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, age 62, of San Jose. He was a 13-year veteran pilot with DynCorp International which has the contract to maintain and operate the 23 S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE. Mr. Hunt was attempting to drop retardant on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California when the accident occurred.

More information:

Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt
Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. Photo courtesy of Mr. Hunt’s family.

Pilot in Yosemite crash identified

crash site
The crash site a few minutes after impact. Much of the wreckage fell down the rock face, with some of it landing on the highway below. Photo by Ken Yager.

The pilot of the S-2T that died in the air tanker crash on October 7 has been identified as Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, age 62, of San Jose. He was a 13 year veteran pilot with DynCorp International. DynCorp has the contract to maintain and operate the 23 S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE. Mr. Hunt was attempting to drop retardant on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California when the accident occurred.

Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt.
Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt.

“We continue to mourn the tragic loss of Craig,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director. “We know wildland firefighting is an inherently dangerous job, but Craig made the ultimate sacrifice.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Craig’s family during this difficult time,” said Jeff Cavarra, program director for DynCorp.

Mr. Hunt’s body was watched over Tuesday night by fire and rescue personnel and was recovered Wednesday morning. A National Park Service honor guard then transferred Mr. Hunt to CAL FIRE personnel.

Immediately after the crash, CAL FIRE grounded their remaining air tankers, which is standard procedure after a serious accident.

A graphic photo of the flaming wreckage falling down the steep slope has been posted at a rock climbing forum.

The S-2T air tanker, registration number N449DF, was designated Tanker 81, one of 23 S-2Ts that are maintained and flown by DynCorp for CAL FIRE. The agency also has one spare that is used to fill in as needed when an aircraft is undergoing maintenance. CAL FIRE hires their own pilots for their 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters, but they are also maintained by DynCorp.

The last time a CAL FIRE air tanker crashed was in 2001, when two tankers collided while fighting a fire in Mendocino County, killing both pilots, Daniel Berlant, spokesperson for CAL FIRE said.

The agency had another plane crash in 2006, when a battalion chief and a pilot were killed in the crash of an air attack plane in Tulare County.

The S-2 first flew in 1952 and the U.S. Navy discontinued the use of them in 1976. They were used for detecting enemy ships and submarines and for dropping torpedoes. The ones currently being used by CAL FIRE were converted from piston to turbine engines between 1999 and 2005. Some media outlets are incorrectly reporting that the Tanker that crashed on Tuesday was built in 2001. That may be the date that it was converted to turbine engines and was given the new model name S-2F3 Turbo Tracker. They are now commonly referred to as S-2T, with the “T” standing for turbine engine.

More information about the crash and the Dog Rock Fire is at Wildfire Today.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of Mr. Hunt.

S-2T crashes while fighting Yosemite fire

CAL FIRE has announced that an S-2T air tanker has crashed while fighting the Dog Rock Fire in Yosemite National Park in California. There is no word yet about the condition of the pilot. Emergency personnel are hiking to the crash site.

More information is at Wildfire Today.