Coulson helicopters to participate in Australian night-flying trial

The project will begin February 23 with two Sikorsky helicopters, an S-61 and an S-76.

Above: Coulson night-flying helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61. Coulson photo.

(Originally published at 11:10 MT February 21, 2018)

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation will be participating in a night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. When we first reported on this project, Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre said, “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use night vision goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to extend firebombing into the night.”

One of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-61’s, Helicopter 347, that was already working on a firefighting contract in Australia will be dropping water during the trial. It will be working with another of the company’s helicopters, a Sikorsky S-76, which will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The S-76 was not in the country but was transported there from Canada in a 747 on February 14.

The video below includes a September trial of the two aircraft working with night vision goggles showcasing how the two aircraft interact with each other.

The trial will begin February 23 in the state of Victoria.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Australia to experiment with night-flying helicopters

This will be the first trial of helicopters dropping water on fires at night in the country.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass in Southern California, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Fire management authorities in Australia are planning a trial of night-flying helicopters later this year. Emergency Management Victoria is leading the effort which could begin toward the end of the current bushfire season in March or April.

“There is still a lot of planning and due diligence to complete, and regulatory approvals to work through”, Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre said.  “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use Night Vision Goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to  extend firebombing into the night.”

Mr. Alder said fixed wing air tankers will not be part of this trial, but they are examining the possibilities for future phases of the project.

The video below is an example of a night-flying helicopter dropping on a structure fire in Los Angeles (at 1:08).

Around half a dozen or so agencies in Southern California have been using night-flying helicopters for a number of years.

The Australians have 42 Single Engine Air Tankers working this bushfire season — 40 AT802’s and 2 Hubler Turbine M18’s. Two of the AT802’s are Firebosses on floats.

They have also had four large air tankers from North America working in the country during their summer.

  • DC-10 (-912 contracted from Agair who work with Ten Tanker) based at Richmond near Sydney;
  • L-100 (T-132, Coulson Aviation based at Richmond) – the Mandatory Availability Period is already completed for this one;
  • C-130Q (T-131, Coulson Aviation) based at Avalon near Melbourne;
  • RJ85 (FieldAir with AeroFlite) based at Avalon.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre is in the process of issuing contract solicitations for the 2018-2019 bushfire season. They expect to have about the same number of SEATS, large air tankers, and Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters.

“Overall we would expect generally similar total numbers, but these solicitations could potentially see some changes in providers or fleet mix”, Mr. Alder wrote in an email. “Our multi-agency evaluation groups are currently working through all the options (and budgets!) and we hope to have a better idea of how the future fleet will look in a few months.”

Colorado issues analysis of nighttime aerial firefighting

Above: A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopters drops water on the Fish Fire, June 21, 2016. LACoFD photo by Gene Blevins.

(Originally published at 5:344 p.m. MST January 24, 2018)

Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting has issued a 28-page report that analyzes nighttime aerial firefighting. Primarily it documents what several Southern California firefighting agencies are currently doing with helicopters at night.

The table below from the report presumably applies to the single helicopter that is double-crewed on the Angeles National Forest to operate both during the day and at night.

aerial firefighting at night
From the CoE report on aerial firefighting at night.

The report does not make any recommendations about flying at night, but does list seven “scenarios” that could be considered for Colorado:

  1. No night aerial firefighting operations in Colorado
  2. Night Operations statewide — wildfire only
  3. Night operations statewide — all hazards
  4. Location-specific night operations
  5. Expanded Multi-Mission fixed wing, for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at night (the state owns two Pilatus PC‐12 fixed‐wing  aircraft currently being used for missions such as these)
  6. Extended daytime flight hours
  7. Unmanned aerial systems night operations, short-term and long-term

You can download the entire report here (large 2.6 MB file)

Below are tweets showing mostly Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopters operating at night.

A Kern County FD night-flying helicopter assisted last month on the fires in Northern California

Above: Kern County Fire Department Helicopter 407, a UH-1H. Kern County photo.

Kern County Fire Department (map) has two helicopters, UH-1H’s, outfitted for flying at night to assist firefighters on the ground. One of them assisted on the Tubbs Fire last month, the blaze that eventually destroyed thousands of homes and killed numerous residents.

The Tehachapi News has an article about the Department’s night-flying program. Below is an excerpt.

After the Cedar Fire chewed up hundreds of thousands of acres in 2003, killing 15 people and costing well north of $1 billion, agencies recognized certain policies had to change, and that included implementing night-flying helicopters, said Pat Williams, the Kern County Fire Department’s chief pilot.

Under the FIRESCOPE program, a partnership representing local, rural and metropolitan fire departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and federal fire agencies, guidelines were created for night flying.

Night flying helicopter drops water on structure fire near World Series game

Two fires broke out Wednesday night near Dodgers Stadium, a brush fire and one in a condominium.

Above: A helicopter dropped water on a fire in a condominium near Dodgers Stadium Wednesday night. Screen grab from CBS LA video.

(Originally posted at 2:53 p.m. MDT October 26, 2017)

Two fires broke out Wednesday night during the World Series game on opposite sides of Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. First was a grass fire reported at 7:35 p.m. in the 1800 block of Academy Road. A night-flying helicopter assisted firefighters on the ground by dropping water on the blaze that burned about two acres.

The helicopter was then diverted to a fire on the third-floor balcony of a three-story condominium in the 1000 block of Everett Place where it made two water drops. Los Angeles City Department Assistant Chief Tim Ernst called it, “A quick knockdown”.

There was a report that the owner of the condo could see the fire from the baseball game.

Report on the use of night-flying helicopters on the Cedar Fire

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a report on the use of night-flying aircraft on the Cedar Fire west of Kernville, California that burned approximately 30,000 acres in August.

Two night-flying helicopters, from the Angeles National Forest and Kern County, were used along with a night-flying air attack. The video above shows the two helicopters flying to and dropping on a spot fire detected by the air attack ship.

Below are some quotes from the report:

“We were the first resources into the subdivision. We were having a difficult time figuring out where to go (fire front). Night ATGS located us with infrared and directed us to the right location.”
Engine Captain

“The Helicopter saved our bacon and let us keep working on digging line.”
Crew Member

“We were digging line next to the fire. I looked up and there were 25-foot flames. H-531 came in, cooled it down, and we continued digging line.”
Crew Member

NTSB issues report about crash of night-flying helicopter

You may remember that on August 4, 2015 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. He had minor injuries and it was discovered that there was substantial damage to the helicopter after it was recovered from the lake bottom by divers.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a report about the accident, saying, basically, it was pilot error. The pilot reported that he was hovering over a lake at night while engaged in water bucket operations. He was using the MD Helicopters 369E landing light and newly installed movable searchlight positioned to shine underneath and toward the left side of the helicopter for illumination. He reported that he was able to see the shoreline, horizon, and the texture on the water during these operations.

During the third load, he reported that he was transitioning his sight “forward and inside to the instrument panel,” and that while he was scanning the instrument panel, he “noticed the rotor disk dipping toward the water.” He stated that he saw the main rotor blades strike the water and then the helicopter impacted the water. The cockpit filled with water as the helicopter rolled upside-down and began to sink. The pilot reported that while he was egressing from the cockpit underwater, he felt his “helmet tug backwards and I realized the communications cord was still attached to the helicopter.” The pilot removed his helmet, surfaced, and swam to the shore without further incident.

The recovery of the helicopter from the lake revealed substantial damage to the fuselage, the main rotor blade system, and the tail boom. The pilot reported there were no preimpact mechanical failures or malfunctions with the airframe or engine that would have precluded normal operation.

The pilot reported that he had prior formal external load training, but no formal over-water external load training. He reported that he had never had formal underwater egress training and was not wearing a flotation device at the time of the accident.

Presentations from Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Summit

Presentations from the recent Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Summit are now available. The conference was organized by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting held January 27 and 28 at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, Colorado.

The topics of the presentations posted include night flying helicopter operations in three agencies in southern California, and companies representing the optionally-manned K-Max and the 747 “Supertanker” that is currently being renovated. The Powerpoint about dispatching indicates that most of the dispatch centers involved in night flying operations in southern California were not organized to handle the increased workload in 2015.

 USFS Night Aerial Firefighting Operations RAVCO-Kmax Unmanned Aerial Firefighting
 Dispatch During Night Operations  ASU Night Vision
Ventura County Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Global Super Tanker 
 LA County Night Operations Helicopter Express Night Operations. 
 UAS Fire Briefing

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