Fire aviation briefing, September 10, 2013

Engine failure on S-2 

An S-2 air tanker working on the Clover fire southwest of Redding, California experienced a problem that caused the pilot to have to shut down one of the two engines. It occurred while the aircraft was returning to Chico to reload with retardant. The pilot landed the aircraft safely at Chico according to the Willits News.

Last month Tanker 910, a DC-10, lost their #2 engine just after making a drop on the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho. They also landed safely, but at Pocotello, Idaho, their reload base.

DC-10 photos on the Morgan Fire

Claycord has three excellent photos of one of the DC-10s (or both of them?) dropping on Mt. Diablo during the Morgan Fire 18 miles east of Berkeley, California. When you visit the site, click on the photos to see larger versions. Both of the DC-10s responded to the fire but soon thereafter were diverted to the Clover Fire near Redding, California which was threatening numerous structures.

Aircraft on the Rim Fire

MAFFS C-130 drops on Rim Fire
MAFFS C-130 drops on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013

Mike McMillan took these photos of aircraft working on the Rim Fire in California on August 29, 2013 for the U.S. Forest Service. Earlier we posted some photos of UH-60 Blackhawks and HH-60 Pave Hawks arriving at Columbia Airport to be used on the fire.

OV-10 on Rim Fire August 29, 2013
OV-10 on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013
CD-10 Rim Fire drops
DC-10- drops on the Rim Fire below Pilot Peak August 29, 2013

Below are two videos posted by J N Perlot showing the DC-10 dropping on the Rim Fire. In the first one, on August 24, the approach to the drop begins at about 1:50.

In the next video, shot on August 31, the approach to the drop begins at about 1:00.

California: Castle Airport is now an air tanker base

Castle Airport
Castle Airport. Google Earth.

For a decade or two CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service aviation managers been talking off and on with officials at the Castle Airport (MER), 8 miles northwest of Merced, California, about using it as an air tanker base. As a former Air Force base with an 11,802-foot runway, and its location in central California near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it could be a valuable resource for any fire aviation asset, but especially for Very Large Air Tankers like the DC-10 or 747.

Finally, prompted in part by the nearby Rim Fire, 40 miles from the airport, the U.S. Forest Service recently signed an agreement with Merced County to allow the airport to be used as an air tanker base. Tuesday of this week both DC-10 air tankers began using it to reload with retardant, making the round trip to and from the Rim Fire every 30 to 40 minutes, dropping 11,600 gallons with every trip.

According to the Modesto Bee:

Under the agreement, Merced County will charge the Forest Service through a series of fees: $225 per month for the 5,200-square-foot building lease, $450 per day for the 551,600-square-foot ramp and 50 cents per 1,000 pounds a plane weighs upon landing, according to county staff.

With a DC-10 air tanker weighing about 368,000 pounds, it will cost around $184 for each landing. The fee for landing a 6,505-pound single-engine Air Tractor AT-802 with an 820-gallon retardant capacity would be about $3.

For now, at least, the Tanker Base will be on call when needed status, staffed only if there is a specific need.

The video below has information about this new use for the Castle Airport.

Thanks go out to Johnny

Predator drone being used on Rim Fire

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft
MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle

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.

This is not the first time that a large Predator-type drone has been used to collect real-time imagery of wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.

Here is an excerpt from the StarTribune with more information about the current use of the National Guard’s Predator:

…While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.

The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.

The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.

Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.

Wildfire Today has more information about the Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park that is updated daily with maps and current information.

National Guard helicopters arrive at the Rim Fire

Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire

Robert Martinez was kind enough to send us some photos he took yesterday, August 27, at Columbia Airport (map) a few miles north of Sonora, California. Army UH-60 Blackhawks and Air Guard HH-60 Pave Hawks had arrived to be briefed and refueled before they were sent on to the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, about 10 miles southeast of the airport.Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire Blackhawk helicopters Rim Fire

MAFFS videos, Rim Fire

These videos were shot by crews on MAFFS 4 and MAFFS 6 while dropping on the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California August 18, 19, and 22. The first one has spectacular views of the fire from a vantage point seen by very few people. If you only watch one, watch the first one.

If you’re not familiar with the “Landing Gear” audio warning, it comes on automatically when the lady in the dashboard senses the terrain and thinks the crew is landing without lowering the gear. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a way to disable it while dropping retardant, but it will not be available until 2014 at the earliest.

 

Thanks go out to Michael

Video of MAFFS drop

This is a video of MAFFS 4 from the 146 Air Wing of the California Air National Guard making a drop on the American Fire, August 17, 2013 in northern California. The audible gear and altitude warnings are normal for MAFFS drops. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a fix so that they can disable them while dropping retardant.

USFS tiptoes back into the night flying business

(Originally published June 4, 2013; revised June 5 to add more details about the staffing of the helicopter and the status of the ownership of the air attack ship.)

The U.S. Forest Service has not had a helicopter with night flying capabilities since around 1980 — until recently. Now there is a night flying ship based on the Angeles National Forest in southern California, designated Helicopter 531.

Aero Commander 690A
File photo, Aero Commander 690A

Three to four night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City have been used for the last four nights on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. They were coordinated by personnel in another new addition to the USFS’s fleet, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. It is a Turbo Commander 690, much like the one in the photo. The air attack ship is not USFS owned as reported by the agency, but it is leased on a call when needed contract. It is equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.

The long term goal of the USFS is to retrofit an old agency-owned piston engine Shrike 500 Commander to take the place of the contractor supplied aircraft.

Bell 205A++
A “Helicopter Express” Bell 205A++

Helicopter 531 is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s web site says they operate 22 helicopters. During the day to fill its tank it will typically draft water from a water source while hovering. But at night, for safety purposes, it will only refill by landing and filling from a hose staffed by firefighters.

Yes, according to information we received from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea and someone else closely associated with the operation, the helicopter will be staffed 24 hours a day, using five personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There are 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 will be flown by one pilot during the day, but will add a co-pilot at night. It will respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more travel by ground vehicle.

The helicopter and the air attack ship will work out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. They can be used on initial attack during the day and night in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, and all of the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland National Forests.

In a news release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was quoted as saying:

The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.

Both the Turbo Commander and Helicopter 531 began their contract June 1. While the fixed wing has been in use since then, the helicopter and pilots have been going through training and obtaining certifications and the module is expected to be available at the end of the day on June 5.

The USFS was criticized for attacking the 2009 Station fire near Los Angeles on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive. The fire was three to four acres at 7 a.m. on the second day, but no air tankers or helicopters were used the first night or until later in the morning on the second day. The fire took off at mid-morning on day two and later burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters from Los Angeles County Fire Department. Nearby night-flying helicopters operated by Los Angeles County were not used the first night.

After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency later said they would study the concept, again, and three years after the disastrous fire they announced on August 16, 2012 that they would get back into night flying on a very limited basis with a single helicopter in 2013.

The southern California FIRESCOPE organization and the national forests in the area have established guidelines and procedures for the program. Here is a link to a FIRESCOPE document written in 2007. And below are more recent guidelines from the San Bernardino National Forest. Following the San Bernardino document, there are some excerpts from the FIRESCOPE procedures.
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