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.
For the first time, an automatic steerable parachute has been used to deliver cargo on a wildfire. Below is a description from the Bear Lake Fire in Montana:
The Bear Lake Fire was honored to be the first wildfire incident to use the microflight technology from the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center. The auto guided microflight technology is part of the Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS) and was developed by the military 5 years ago. This new technology allows for cargo drops from altitudes of 5,000 ft above the drop zone (the altitude for a standard cargo drop is approx. 250 ft above the drop zone). The parachute is guided by a GPS unit that adjusts for winds, turning the cargo as needed and dropping it within 50-100 meters of the drop site.
US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) was the primary developer for JPADS, which meets several requirements: increased ground accuracy, standoff delivery, increased air carrier survivability, and improved effectiveness/assessment feedback regarding airdrop mission operations. The United States Army and Air Force began jointly developing this system in 1993. The Air Force made its first operational/combat use of the system in Afghanistan in 2006.
The steerable parachute or parafoil is called a “decelerator,” and gives the JPADS system directional control throughout its descent by means of decelerator steering lines attached to the Airborne Guidance Unit (AGU). They create drag on either side of the decelerator, which turns the parachute, thus achieving directional control.
The Airborne Guidance Unit (AGU) contains a GPS, a battery pack, and the guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) software package. It also houses the hardware required to operate the steering lines. The AGU obtains its position prior to exiting the aircraft, and continues to calculate its position via the GPS throughout descent.
The Mission Planner software gives the aircrew the ability to plan the mission, in flight if necessary, as well as steer the aircraft to its Computed Air Release Point (CARP), where the load is released.”
The Bear Lake Fire has burned about 6,400 acres 12 miles southeast of Wisdom, Montana. The Incident Commander is calling it 75 percent contained.
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.
Tuesday night, August 4, a helicopter with a water bucket crashed into a lake while helping to suppress a fire in Montana. It happened at about 10:30 p.m. when one of the helicopters owned by Two Bear Air, flown by Jordan White the executive director and flight officer of the company, was dipping water out of Beaver Lake north of Whitefish. Mr. White was able to extricate himself from the helicopter and swim to shore just before the aircraft sank.
We checked, and the sun will set at 9:06 p.m. in Whitefish, MT tonight.
After several hours of searching the lake with sonar, Flathead County Sheriff personnel and their dive team were able to attach floats to the helicopter, bring it to the surface, and take it to the shore.
Mr. White, the former Flathead County undersheriff, said the helicopter is not part of the Two Bear Air rescue fleet.
The company was founded by Mike Goguen, a managing partner of Sequoia Capital, the California firm that was the original financial backer of Apple, Google and YouTube, among others. He provides a Bell 429 and an MD 500E to any agency that needs a helicopter for a rescue mission — at no charge. He has spent $11 million purchasing, equipping, and operating the two rescue helicopters based in Whitefish, Montana.
In 2014 they flew 125 missions, an average of one every three days. In March, 2015 the Bell 429 used its night flying capabilities, hoist, and infrared sensor at 1 a.m. to locate a teenage girl who became lost and was pinned when a tree fell on her.
A venture capitalist has spent $11 million purchasing, equipping, and operating two rescue helicopters based in Whitefish, Montana. Mike Goguen is a managing partner of Sequoia Capital, the California firm that was the original financial backer of Apple, Google and YouTube, among others. He provides a Bell 429 and an MD 500E to any agency that needs a helicopter for a rescue mission — at no charge.
We have written about Two Bear Air, the company formed to managed the helicopter company, twice before, in articles tagged Two Bear Air (naturally).
In 2014 they flew 125 missions, an average of one every three days.
In March the Bell 429 used its night flying capabilities, hoist, and infrared sensor at 1 a.m. to locate a teenage girl who became lost and was pinned when a tree fell on her.
Below is an excerpt from an excellent and detailed article in the Missoulian that brings us up to date on how the rescue operation came into being, and how it has been used in the last couple of years.
…A private citizen has spent millions of dollars of his own money to buy Two Bear Air’s helicopters, and pays every dime spent operating them on search and rescue missions.
“The resource provided to us, tax-free, is priceless,” Curry says. “The county could never afford a program that provides these resources.”
They include a $6 million twin-engine Bell 429 helicopter with $2 million worth of extras, including thermal imaging, night vision and infrared camera systems that allow searching to continue when it’s dark.
“It’s one of the best, if not the best, equipped aircraft in the western United States,” Curry says. Two Bear Air makes it available for search and rescue missions across western and central Montana, and in Idaho, 24 hours a day, at no cost to anyone except the part-time Whitefish resident who foots the bill for it all.
His name is Mike Goguen. He’s spent more than $11 million of his own fortune putting Two Bear in the air.