Montana still disappointed that the USFS will not approve their helicopters

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.

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

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.

Three Hueys dipping water

This video was posted on Facebook yesterday by Gastón Tomcat who wrote:

Hi from Dominican Republic, this was today in Santo Domingo. Independence Day.

Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

Representatives from three private helicopter companies in Montana have waded into the controversy about the U.S. Forest Service not approving modifications made to helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The lack of approval means the helicopters cannot be used for fires on national forest land.

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.

On August 21 Montana Governor Steve Bullock called the Forest Service’s position on the issue “nonsensical”, according to Newsmax, and in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote:

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.

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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.

Continue reading “Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies”

Helicopter pilot shortage at Washington DNR

A shortage of pilots is grounding some of the Washington DNR helicopters.

Washington DNR UH-1 Huey
A Washington DNR UH-1 Huey. Photo by Washington DNR.

The acting Chief Pilot for the Washington Department of Natural Resources said a shortage of pilots is grounding some of their helicopters. The DNR has eight UH-1 Hueys in their fleet and their goal is to have at least six operational at any given time during the fire season.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Seattle Times:

Just days before a series of deadly, record-setting wildfires began exploding across Washington, the acting chief pilot for the state’s wildfire-attack helicopters wrote a letter to his superiors.

Unfilled pilot positions were grounding some helicopters, John Adolphson wrote to senior staff at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Of the agency’s eight helicopters, “Right now we can only fly between 4-5 DNR helicopters because we don’t have the pilots,” Adolphson wrote in a letter sent Aug. 11 and obtained by The Seattle Times.

Adolphson argued low pay was making it hard to recruit pilots, and the state should spend some of the money it uses to contract for additional helicopters to beef up its own staff…

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

Logging helicopter crashes in Washington

(UPDATED at 2:26 p.m. MDT, May 9, 2015)

The Hungry Hill Fire. InciWeb photo, May 8, 2015.
The Hungry Hill Fire. InciWeb photo, May 8, 2015.

The Hungry Hill fire, started when a logging helicopter crashed, has burned about 70 acres in the northeast corner of Washington. The fire is burning in a logged area, and firefighters are challenged by rolling logs. Two additional Type 1 crews arriving today should enhance their progress.

A helicopter prepares to drop water on the Hungry Hill Fire. InciWeb photo, May 8, 2015.
A helicopter prepares to drop water on the Hungry Hill Fire. InciWeb photo, May 8, 2015.

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(Originally published at 12:20 p.m. MDT May 8, 2015)

On May 7 a helicopter working on a logging operation in the northeast corner of Washington crashed and started a fire. A spokesperson for the Forest Service said the 30-year old female pilot was rescued and is in stable condition at a hospital in Colville.

The crash of the UH-1 helicopter, at about 5:45 p.m., occurred on the Colville National Forest, 26 miles northwest of Colville, Washington and 7 miles south of the Canadian border.

A witness said the helicopter had just lifted off with a load of logs when there was a loud popping noise before it crashed.

The crash started what has become a 50-acre fire named Hungry Hill. It is being fought by 100 firefighters.