16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program

The aerial firefighting program in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has grown over a couple of decades into a highly respected, professionally managed organization. After spending some time at their aviation headquarters at McClellan Air Field on Thursday in Sacramento, I developed as list of 16 facts that you may not know about the program:

1. CAL FIRE has 22 S-2T fixed wing air tankers that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. They are presently converting an aircraft to replace the one destroyed in the October 7, 2014 crash that killed Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. That process should be complete in 18 to 24 months.

S-2T air tanker
S-2T air tankers at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
2. They have 15 OV-10 Air Attack fixed wing aircraft.

OV-10
A lineup of OV10 air attack ships at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
3. And 12 Super Huey helicopters.

super huey
Super Huey at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
4. All of the above aircraft were discarded by the military.

5. The S-2T air tankers were designed to be based on aircraft carriers, and therefore have wings that fold. They still retain this feature, which makes it possible to cram more aircraft into a hangar.

S-2T folded wings
An S-2T with the wings folded. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
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CAL FIRE expects to buy up to 12 new helicopters

Above: One of the few CAL FIRE helicopters that still has “CDF” painted on the tail. The photo was taken March 24, 2016 at the CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento, California by Bill Gabbert.

It’s not often that we see a federal or state agency with wildland fire responsibilities purchase a fleet of brand new aircraft. More typically they are forced to dig through the boneyard of discarded war birds in the Arizona desert hoping to cobble something together that won’t kill their pilots and firefighters.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE, hopes to create a new paradigm with a fleet of helicopters right off the assembly line. The agency issued a solicitation to buy nine helicopters — about three a year for three years, with an option to spring for an even dozen.

CAL FIRE helicopter
A DynCorp employee works on a CAL FIRE helicopter at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

For decades CAL FIRE has been using Huey helicopters they salvaged from the military scrap heap. The 12 they have today have been meticulously cared for by skilled professionals and upgraded in many ways, morphing into “Super Hueys”. We heard one pilot say he loves flying them. Many people will tell you that just because an aircraft has a couple of wars and a handful of decades on its Hobbs meter, that does not necessarily disqualify it from being a very useful and safe piece of equipment. But after rebuilding, replacing, and rehabbing a large percentage of the machine, and finding that you sometimes have to make your own parts because they have not been manufactured for 20 to 50 years you can reach a point of diminishing returns.

When CAL FIRE received the bids on their helicopter solicitation, they found significant differences in how the potential vendors interpreted the contract language. One company was bidding on what they assumed were apples, while another was picturing oranges. So the solicitation and bids were all thrown out. It’s back to the drawing board where they hope to develop clear instructions and will be sure they are understood.

But they don’t have the luxury of time. The state’s Administration has set aside the money pending the Legislature’s approval but there is concern within CAL FIRE that if they don’t commit it very soon, it will disappear. Their plan is to rewrite the solicitation, advertise it, receive bids, and award a contract all within a period of weeks. In other words, they do not plan to dither for 555 days like the U.S. Forest Service did in 2012 and 2013 when they went through the excruciating process of contracting to lease seven “next-generation air tankers” v. 1.0. And that was for LEASING — not buying a fleet of new aircraft. After watching that painful USFS process for more than a year, we placed a timer in the side bar of our website, counting the number of days that had elapsed since the solicitation had been issued, but no contract awarded.

CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Manager and Chief Pilot, Barry C. Lloyd, is working with the state’s contracting specialists, the Department of General Services, to get this procurement done. It’s unknown how this task compares to his being shot down twice over Vietnam, but he will undoubtably be relieved when it is brought to a peaceful resolution.

CAL FIRE’s aircraft lineup for 2016

The agency will have 51 firefighting aircraft working this year.

Above: CAL FIRE OV-10s at McClellan Airfield March 17, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

This month the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is finalizing their plans for the management and deployment of their firefighting aircraft, with the total numbers being similar to last year:

  • S2T air tankers: 21 plus 1 spare
  • OV-10 Air Tactical, fixed wing: 12
  • OV-10D Aerial Supervision Module, fixed wing: 1
  • King Air 200 Air Tactical training platform, fixed wing: 2
  • Super Huey helicopters: 10 plus 2 spares

Below is the anticipated lineup of air tankers, provided by Dennis Brown, CAL FIRE’s Chief of Flight Operations.

CAL FIRE air tankers 2016

The reporting dates for the air tankers have not yet been established, but CAL FIRE is required to provide the information to DynCorp, the contractor that provides the pilots and maintenance for the S2Ts, by April 1.

CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Before CAL FIRE’s Tanker 81 crashed near Yosemite National Park in 2014, killing pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, the agency had 23 S2T tankers. The project to replace the tanker is underway at McClellan and is expected to be complete in about 18 months. The aircraft are provided by the Federal Excess Personal Property program which supplies fire engines and other firefighting equipment, including aircraft, to state and local fire departments. Most of the hardware originates with the Department of Defense before being transferred through the Forest Service to other agencies. The FS retains ownership of the equipment.

CAL FIRE, for the second year in a row, will have a BAe-146 large air tanker on contract provided by Neptune Aviation.

The agency will have a number of air tankers on Call When Needed contracts that will be activated only if the fire situation in the state is more than the 22 tankers working every day can handle. They will have one DC-10 very large air tanker from 10 Tanker, three DC-7 large air tankers from Erickson Aero, Electra L-188s from Air Spray, and single engine air tankers from Air Spray and Aero Spray.

There has been speculation that CAL FIRE would put a very large air tanker such as a DC-10 on exclusive use contract, which is something they have not done for several years. When we asked Mr. Brown about that he said, “A decision has not been made yet on whether we will be doing an Exclusive Use contract for one this year or not.” A 747 very large air tanker is in the final stages of being built and is scheduled to make an appearance showing off its new paint job at the Aerial Firefighting conference at McClellan in Sacramento on March 22.

The Super Huey helicopters will be based at Kneeland, Bieber, Vina, Howard Forest, Boggs Mountain, Columbia, Alma, Bear Valley, Hemet, and Prado. All of them now have hoists installed that can be used for extracting injured personnel.

CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.