Air Force reconnaissance aircraft is being used to detect and map wildfires in the Northwest

An RC-26 from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane is assisting with situational awareness in the firefighting effort.

Above: An example of an RC-26, in this case a Texas Air National Guard aircraft. ANG photo.

(Originally published at 1:52 p.m. MDT August 16, 2017)

A military plane frequently used for supporting Special Forces is assisting wildland firefighters in Washington and Oregon. The Fairchild C-26 “Metroliner” twin turboprop from the 141st Air Refueling Wing was activated by the National Interagency Coordination Center on August 12 to perform up to three different types of missions using its array of infrared and video sensors.

  • Detect new fires, especially following lightning events. One of the goals is to find small fires early so they can be attacked before growing large.
  • Map existing fires, usually at night, to determine the perimeter and intensity.
  • Downlink live video to inform fire managers about the current status, location, and behavior of the fire. The Air Force calls that process “DRTI”, Distributed Real-Time Infrared.

Lt. Col. Jeremy Higgens, one of the pilots on the aircraft that requires a three-person crew, told us today that so far on this assignment they have been mapping and detecting fires, but have not yet been asked to stream any live video like they did when on a similar assignment in 2016. On the ground two displays are available, the video from the sensors and another with a map showing the location of the aircraft or the sensors’ target.

The plane is expected to work the fires seven days a week, so they brought a total of five people to provide daily service.

Lt. Col. Higgens said the infrared sensors can detect a fire that is 50 to 80 miles away. They have been flying one to two sorties a day each lasting for three to five hours. Their mapping data is sent to Geographic Information System (GIS) operators in Portland or Boise who analyze it and produce maps.

Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft”
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at McClellan Air Field March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two State of Colorado Pilatus PC-12 Multi-Mission Aircraft with similar capabilities were also mobilized earlier this summer to assist with wildfire detection and mapping and are currently operating from Redding, California and Missoula, Montana.

A couple of decades ago the U.S. Forest Service had a variant of the RC-26, a Swearingen Merlin affectionately known as a Flying Culvert outfitted with infrared equipment for detecting and mapping fires. Now they operate a King Air turboprop and a Citation jet for that mission.

Yakima firefighters save helicopter from crash landing

Last week members of the Yakima Fire Department rushed to save a damaged helicopter from a crash landing at the Yakima Air Terminal.

The helicopter had been on a search and rescue mission for a lost hiker when its fuselage and one of its skids were heavily damaged, according to local media reports. 

In dramatic fashion, the helicopter was forced to hover over the tarmac while firefighters cobbled together a landing platform out of wooden palettes, The Yakima Herald reported. Some crew members and passengers jumped out of the helicopter while it hovered.

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

Snake on a helicopter

No, this is not a movie. It happened for real on the Kettle Complex of fires in Washington August 27, 2015.

Below is the Rapid Lesson Sharing report from the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. It is told from the perspective of the Helicopter Manager.


Snake on helicopterOperations had us go up and do some recon. One of the fires in the Complex was picking up and had spotted. We were going to check that out.

About five minutes after taking off, I look down and there’s a snake looking up at me. He’s by my right foot pedal, crawling out just inches from my foot. Right before the flight, I’d been talking to a local landowner about rattlesnakes—so that’s my first thought.

I pull my foot back from the snake and it crawls into the helicopter’s clear “chin bubble”. It looked to be about 12-18 inches long with diamonds on its back—like a rattlesnake. But I couldn’t see its tail.

I say to the pilot: “I don’t want to freak you out.”

Pilot: “What?”

“I got a snake by my feet.”

Pilot: “What?!!”

“Yeah, it’s for real.”

Can’t Do Mission Due to Snake in Helicopter

Searching for snake helicopter
Searching for the snake.

I radio Operations and Helibase to inform that I can’t do the mission due to a snake in my helicopter.

As we return to Helibase, there is a suggestion. Apparently, the fuel truck driver likes snakes, so maybe he could get it out and we could take off.

I decide, no. Let’s not try to do that with rotors running.

So we land and shut down.  The snake now slides into a hole in the cowling under my seat. While we are looking for it, he pokes his head out a few times—and retreats back inside the cowling.

Not a Rattlesnake

One of the guys gets a look at the snake’s face. He says it’s not a rattlesnake. He says it could be a bull snake; they also have diamonds on their backs. We’re informed that most of the rattlesnakes in this area are timber rattlers. So we figure this one is probably a bull snake.

Can’t Find Snake—Decide to Put Helicopter Back in Service

We pull the helicopter apart trying to find the darned snake—but we never do locate it. We make the decision to put the aircraft back in service—even though the snake could be anywhere.

So, how did the snake get into the helicopter? We think it either crawled up the long line into the belly, or was hiding in someone’s line gear or in the bucket bag when we loaded it. (A SAFECOM was filed on this incident, #15-073).

Eight Days Later, Snake Crawls Out Again

Eight days later, while the relief pilot is in flight, the snake crawls out again.

The pilot lands and the fuel truck driver grabs it. It is confirmed to be a bull snake. It is released unharmed.

Bull snake


Submitted by: Brad Mayhew, Damen Therkildsen, and Patrick Romportl with support from the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group.

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.

Unmanned aircraft system goes on test flight over Paradise fire

The National Park Service announced on its Facebook page on Friday than an unmanned aircraft system, otherwise known as a drone, took a test flight over the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park to gather infrared data.

Here’s the park’s statement from the Facebook page: 


An operational test of UAS on the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park took place recently. Learn more about the purpose of the flights and check out the footage.

Unmanned Aircraft System was a Success on the Paradise Fire

For the past week an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was utilized on the Paradise Fire. The system was demonstrating possible applications in wildland fire management and suppression. UAS’s can supplement manned aircraft, especially at times of reduced visibility due to smoky conditions and at night when manned firefighting aircraft may be limited in flying.

The primary goal of the UAS on the Paradise Fire was to gather infrared information. This information assisted fire officials in pinpointing the fires perimeter and identifying areas of intense heat. The extremely large old growth trees in the area of the Paradise Fire create a thick canopy that makes mapping the perimeter and observing hotspots from the air very difficult without infrared capabilities.

This was an operational demonstration provided by Insitu, Inc. with no direct cost to the government. The demonstration was one of a series of ongoing missions to further UAS use on wildland fire in national parks and is part of an interagency strategy for UAS integration into wildland fire support. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed the use of their land for the aircraft launch and recovery site. The purpose of the demonstration was to show the capabilities and effectiveness of unmanned aircraft technology on wildland fires. The ultimate goal for UAS use on wildland fire is to supply incident management teams (IMT) with real-time data products, and information regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat concentration. Additional applications, such as search and rescue and animal surveys, may be explored.

As the fire season continues and more wildfires burn throughout the west, manned aviation resources are spread thin across the country and have become very difficult to acquire. In addition to supplementing aerial resources, UAS’s are quieter than manned aircraft, use less fuel, and present a much lower risk to employees.

This was not the first UAS to be flown in the Olympic National Park. The park partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 to monitor sediment transport in the Elwha River as part of the Elwha restoration project using a Raven UAS.

The ScanEagle UAS that was flown on the Paradise Fire weighed approximately 50 lbs with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. The UAS was only operated within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporary flight restriction (TFR) area. The TFR has been lifted.

In-flight mechanical failure on helicopter fighting Washington fire – pilot walks away

A helicopter working on the Blue Creek Fire 10 miles east of Walla Walla, Washington, had a mechanical failure while in flight Monday evening, according to the Union-Bulletin which quoted Heather Lee of Walla Walla County Emergency Management. The pilot autorotated the helicopter and walked away from the incident. He refused to be transported to an hospital, Ms. Lee said.

The type of helicopter was not identified, but the Union-Bulletin reported there were two helicopters and two air tankers working the fire Monday evening, and there are photos on the newspaper’s web site of a K-MAX dropping water on the fire. The Washington DNR has a fleet of 8 UH-1 Hueys.

Autorotation can be used when there is a loss of engine power in a helicopter. It is a state of flight where the main rotor system turns by the action of air moving UP through the rotor, rather than engine power driving the rotor, forcing air down. With the right pedal and the collective property configured, the main rotor will continue to rotate and the rate of descent and direction of flight can be controlled. When nearing the ground the pilot will flare the aircraft producing, hopefully, a fairly soft landing, that may include sliding on the skids for a bit.

Congratulations to the pilot for successfully executing the maneuver.

Aviation briefing, June 5, 2015

Washington adds to their helicopter fleet

Washington DNR helicopter
Washington DNR helicopter. Photo by WA DNR.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources is adding an eighth UH-1 Huey to their helicopter fleet. Their goal is to have six operational helicopters at any given time during the fire season. King5 has a video report.

Seattle SeahawksIt is interesting how the color scheme on the helicopters is similar to that of the Seattle Seahawks.

Reno-Stead air attack base prepares for fire season

KTVN has a story about how the  BLM air attack base at Reno-Stead is getting ready for the wildfire season.

Wired writes about smokejumpers

Wired has a lengthy article about how smokejumpers and hand crews in Redding, California are training and preparing for the fire season.


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.


(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.