In the video you’ll see a fire retardant base being set up for helicopters at Upper Willow Creek on the Lolo National Forest in Western Montana. Helicopters with internal or belly tanks will be able to hover over the two large retardant tanks and using their “snorkel” hose, refill their tanks.
(Originally published at 9:33 a.m. MDT July 31, 2017)
Jeff Wadekamper, the Airport Director at the Helena Regional Airport, sent us this picture, and said, “Last weekend we had 7 tankers here (2 Neptune BAE 146’s, 2 Neptune P2V’s, 2 SEATS, and the DC-10 #912)”.
In this photo taken July 23 we can see two BAe-146’s (Tankers 02 and 15), one P2V (T-44), a DC-10 (T-912), and a Single Engine Air Tanker.
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.
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.
Above: One of Billings Flying Service’s CH-47D Chinooks, at Custer Airport, April 3, 2016.
On Friday Billings Flying Service unveiled their new 24,000 square-foot hangar and maintenance facility near the airport in Billings, Montana (map). It has enough room for four to five of their Chinook helicopters, depending on if rotors are installed on the aircraft.
The company has at least six Chinooks and in 2014 became the first non-military owner of CH-47D’s when they purchased two from the U.S. government. Gary Blain, a co-owner of the company, and another pilot flew the two helicopters from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to the company’s facilities south of Billings, Montana near the Yellowstone River.
Anything you do with aircraft is expensive. Mr. Blain told us at the time that they spent $32,000 for fuel during their two-day trip, with an overnight stopover in Norfolk, Nebraska.
Neptune Aviation’s P2V air tanker 10 has been retired for several years but will live on as a permanent static display at the Missoula Airport. The company is refurbishing the aircraft, removing the reusable avionics, giving it a new paint job, and making it animal and wind resistant before it is installed on a platform to be built at the entrance to the airport.
The number on the aircraft, Tanker 10, has a storied history, having been used on a B-17, the P2V, and is currently on the tail of a recently converted BAe-146.
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.