Seeing Walt Darran’s photo of him cranking a TBM at Hemet reminded me of some photos I took of some TBM’s dropping on fires in southern California in 1972. In those days there was not much of an effort to get firefighters out of the area when air tankers were dropping. Of course today, instead of carrying 300 gallons, air tankers are dropping 600 to 20,000 gallons.
Cleaning retardant off a 35mm camera while you’re fighting fire is not the easiest thing in the world.
Four students studying journalism at Washington State University have written an article that summarizes the state of the federal air tanker program. It is interesting in that it quotes several knowledgeable people who have close ties to management of the fleet, including Jim Hall, former Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Ron Hanks, head of aviation safety with the U.S. Forest Service. They also interviewed Dick Mangan, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire.
Mr. Hall, who chaired the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel following the crashes of two air tankers that killed five aviators that year, continues to lament the current state of the air tanker program, much as he did earlier this summer.
Mr. Hanks apparently told the student reporters:
Right now, we have 17 aircraft, and that includes the Canadian aircraft that we have borrowed.
That puts an extremely favorable spin on the fact that as the fire season ends there are nine large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus two BAe-146s that were put on temporarily as “additional equipment” on Neptune’s contract. The Canadian air tankers and lead planes that Mr. Hanks referred to were borrowed for a month or so last summer. In 2002 we had 44 large air tankers.
Here is a video that illustrates the student’s story;
The mandatory availability periods for the nine large air tankers on national contracts ended in August, September, and October, but two P2Vs are still working today due the warm, dry weather that some areas of the country are experiencing. Tanker 48, operated by Minden, and Neptune’s Tanker 43 are the two that are working on a day by day basis through “optional use” provisions in their contracts, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise.
Air tankers were requested early Saturday morning, December 1, for the rapidly spreading Fern Lake Fire that was moving toward structures west of Estes Park, Colorado. Fire managers were told that the only large air tankers sill working were in California but were unavailable due to weather in the Bay Area, according to David Eaker, a spokesperson for the Fern Lake Fire.
Today two large air tankers were supposed to be parked on the ramp at JEFFCO air tanker base northwest of Denver after being ferried in from California, but only one made it, Tanker 48. The other one, Tanker 43 had to stop in Durango, Colorado, unable to climb over the continental divide due to weather. We’re thinking the old P2V does not have de-icing equipment.
If the USFS is going to keep air tankers working into the winter, maybe a better choice of which ones to keep on would be a couple of the BAe-146s, which I assume have de-icing equipment.
The one tanker at JEFFCO, 48, has not been used on the Fern Lake Fire yet due to strong winds over the fire. Mr. Eaker told Wildfire Today that they may be used very soon to pretreat some areas where large burnouts are planned, thanks to improving weather forecasts indicating decreasing winds.
The radar image above, 5 minutes before MAFFS #7 impacted the ground at 1738 local time, recorded a very large thunderstorm cell southwest of the crash site. The middle of the concentric circles is the location of the crash. The circles indicate 5, 10, and 15 nautical miles from the impact site. The light green areas may have been virga, rain that was not reaching the ground. The red, light brown, dark green, and possibly the yellow areas were most likely rain, accompanied by strong winds. The longest east-west line is the South Dakota/Nebraska state line. The longest north-south line is the boundary between Wyoming and the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.
In addition to the C-130 working on the fire, there was also a Bureau of Land Management Air Supervision Module aircraft which was flown by a lead plane pilot and also carried an Air Tactical Group Supervisor. It was acting as the lead plane at the time of the accident.
The ASM/Lead experienced a severe downdraft while approaching the intended retardant drop zone with the C130 in trail. This is being investigated by the US Forest Service as a separate Incident With Potential.
The third fixed wing aircraft to arrive at the White Draw fire that was mentioned in the report served as Air Attack. It was piloted from the left seat by Air Attack 3 (AA3 in the report), and in the right seat was the Air Tactical Group Supervisor. Both were employed by the State of South Dakota.
Before the crash, the air attack aircraft encountered sudden updrafts and downdrafts with airspeed fluctuations between 20 to 40 knots, which forced the aircraft into bank angles of approximately 90 degrees.
Here are some interesting passages from the report that discuss the weather conditions:
At 17:38:18L, MP1 ordered an e-dump of the retardant, which was immediately conducted. At the same time, Firefighter 1 (FF1) a ground firefighter, was located approximately 1.5 miles west-southwest of the future mishap site. FF1 witnessed the MA [mishap aircraft] jettison their retardant load, at which time she experienced variable surface winds with estimated gusts up to 50 miles per hour. At the same time, in Air Attack, ATGS observed the smoke lying down and “sheeting” of the fire, indicating to him “hellacious” surface winds. ATGS and AA3 lost altitude, experienced updrafts and downdrafts with airspeed fluctuations of 20 to 40 KIAS and severe turbulence. Air Attack lost an estimated 1,000 ft due to the weather conditions. ATGS did not see the MA jettison the retardant load.
Between 1730L and 1745L, Incident Commander 1 (IC1), a member of the Army National Guard, was traveling on a motorcycle, southbound on Highway 18 approximately seven miles north of Edgemont attempting to get to an 1800L meeting at the White Draw Fire incident command center in Edgemont, South Dakota. While heading towards Edgemont, IC1 witnessed the MA flying to his right, approximately one mile away, making a bank as the MA prepared for their approach to the drop area. IC1 lost sight of the MA while going down the hill towards Edgemont, at that same instant, IC1 was “hit with this extreme, fierce wind”. IC1 described it as side wind because it “pushed me over to the other side of the highway”.
The MAFFS crew received a briefing on the weather for the Arapahoe fire they dropped on earlier in Wyoming, but they did not have any specific weather information on the weather for the White Draw fire in southwest South Dakota and no update was requested when they were diverted to that fire.
From the report:
On 1 July 2012 at 1650L, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for northeast Wyoming and western South Dakota encompassing the area surrounding Edgemont, South Dakota and the White Draw Fire. The severe thunderstorm watch, valid from 1650L to 2300L, was issued for potential hail up to two inches in diameter and wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour. However, there was no evidence the MC requested or received forecast weather information for South Dakota or the White Draw Fire area at any time on 1 July 2012.
After dropping on the Arapahoe fire in Wyoming, the MAFFS was dispatched to the Highlands fire west of Custer, South Dakota. But en route they were diverted to the White Draw Fire which was 24 miles southeast of the Highlands Fire.
At that time I was taking photos at the Highlands Fire and the Oil Creek Fire, the latter being farther west across the state line near Newcastle, Wyoming. Between 1730 and 1830 I remember seeing massive, very dark thunderstorm clouds to my southeast. The photo below taken at 1715 is looking south toward the Highlands Fire. In the background the dark clouds farther south can be seen.
From 1630 until 1645 a Canadian “Bird Dog” and a CV-540 were over the Highlands fire. They were asked to drop, but refused, saying there were too many people on the ground in the intended drop area. It would be interesting to know where they went after being released from that fire, or if the weather affected the decision about their destination.
The MAFFS has a capacity of 3,000 gallons, but each time MAFFS #7 reloaded that day they refilled with less retardant. At the White Draw fire it was only carrying 2,346 gallons which it split into two drops on the fire.
Crew rest or fatigue were not issues, according to the report.
Regarding the radio transmissions from the lead plane pilot saying “I got to go around” after encountering the downdraft and coming within 10 feet of the ground, and a few seconds later calmly advising the MAFFS to “drop your load when you can”, (meaning an emergency release of retardant to lighten the load, enabling the aircraft to more easily maneuver) the report said:
MAFFS aircrew members attested that a call for a go around is most commonly heard regarding misalignments for drops rather than urgent situations. It is possible that [the lead plane’s] call for a go around while meant to abort the mishap drop, was not interpreted by the [MAFFS Crew] as significantly urgent, based on their prior experience.
According to the report the overall flying experience of the MAFFS crew was high.
However [the pilot, the aircraft commander] had limited experience as a MAFFS aircraft commander and [the navigator] was participating in his first MAFFS mission. [The pilot] was a current and qualified Senior Pilot with over 1,900 total C-130 hours, however prior to the day of the mishap he had accomplished only seven drops as a MAFFS copilot and zero drops as a MAFFS aircraft commander.
The second pilot was more experienced with MAFFS and served as a MAFFS instructor pilot for this sortie.
The emergency locator transmitter (ELT) failed to activate when the C-130 crashed. One of the survivors called 911 on his cell phone and reported the crash but he said he didn’t know where he was.
The flight data recorder for the C-130 was found and shipped to the Air Force Safety Center for data retrieval and analysis. The report said the last 12.8 hours of data on the device were corrupt and unusable for investigation purposes.
There was no evidence that aircraft weight or the MAFFS unit in the cargo hold were factors in the crash. “Prior to the mishap, the MAFFS unit was operating at 100 percent capability and an emergency dump was successfully completed.”
About 34 minutes after the crash, firefighting helicopter crews assigned to the fire that were on the ground at the nearby Edgemont Municipal Airport were notified about the crash. But they were unable to fly at that time due to heavy rain, gusty winds, and a low ceiling. While waiting, an EMT loaded medical equipment on N935CH, call sign 5CH.
At the time of the crash the air attack ship was at 1,500 feet above the ground and following the MAFFS aircraft, observing the drop. On that pass the air attack ship had their hands full, experiencing extreme turbulence which resulted in bank angles of approximately 90 degrees. After the crash it had to leave the area due to the strong turbulence and the approaching thunderstorm. It loitered at a safe distance for about 30 minutes before it was able to access the area again, after which it led one of the fire’s helicopters, H-535, to the site.
During the last pass, the lead plane over-temped (or “smoked”) the aircraft engines while attempting to recover from being pushed down to within 10 feet of the ground and had to go to the Rapid City Airport.
When the weather improved, the two helicopters, N911FS, call sign H-535 (from the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California), and 5CH, departed and proceeded toward the mishap site. When they landed at the site at approximately 1850, the EMT on 5CH met the survivor who was still talking to the 911 operator on his cell phone. The EMT assessed and began treating him while the other helicopter crewmembers searched for other survivors, eventually finding the second survivor “wandering near the mishap site”. Helicopter 5CH transported both survivors to the Custer Airport, about 10 minutes away. One of them was then flown by an emergency medical helicopter to Rapid City while the other went by ground ambulance to a hospital.
As Wildfire Today reported on September 17, the pilot and at least two crewmembers of H-535 were given awards for their actions related to the crash. It is possible that others involved in the emergency response to the incident also received awards.
A Colorado Senator has issued a press release stating that he is in favor of the modernization of the firefighting air tanker fleet. Senator Michael Bennet is quoted as saying:
After a wildfire season that has wreaked havoc in Colorado, it is clear that we need adequate resources in order to fight these fires and prevent extensive damage to our forests and surrounding communities in our state and across the country. With the average Forest Service aircraft more than 50 years old, I am committed to modernizing our aerial firefighting capacity and working with my Senate colleagues to pursue every avenue available, including possible legislation, to ensure that the necessary resources are available to fight future wildfires.
Mr. Bennet wrote a letter to Senators Jack Reed and Lisa Murkowski who serve as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Forest Service’s appropriations. In the letter Bennet wrote, in part:
…the Secretary of Agriculture needs flexibility and options to renew a viable and effective fleet to protect the nation.”
Statements like that are very nice. Who is NOT in favor of more air tankers after learning the startling fact that the fleet has declined from 44 in 2002 to the 11 we have today. Most of us are also in favor of more apple pie and walks on the beach. But saying, like others have said over the last year, that he wants more air tankers and making a vague reference to legislation will not rebuild the fleet. Actions speak louder than words.
One of the primary reasons the number of air tankers is not scheduled to exceed 16 in the foreseeable future is that Congress and the President have cut the budget for fire suppression to the point that we can’t afford any more. When Congressmen and Senators whine about having too few air tankers, they need to look in the mirror.
Senators and Congressmen have the power to actually INTRODUCE and PASS legislation that would increase the U.S. Forest Service aviation budget that could provide funding for more air tankers. The agency only has the money now to add seven to the fleet over the next two years, and that will happen only if they can get their contracting house squared away so that they can award the contracts that have been advertised.