Forest Service terminates Firewatch Cobra helicopter program

The Cobra program lasted for 19 years

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra, N109Z. Still image from VICE video. September, 2021.

After 19 years, the U.S. Forest Service has shut down the Firewatch Cobra helicopter program.

The two Cobras, N109z and N107Z, were retired after their last flight Saturday October 16. They were retrofitted Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, two of the 25 that the U.S. Forest Service acquired from the military. Most of the other 23 had been stored at the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson. A couple used for spare parts have in the past been parked outside the hangar at the Redding, California airport. Word on the ramp is that it had become difficult to find spare parts for the Vietnam War-era aircraft which were manufactured 38 and 52 years ago.

Cobra helicopter
Cobras used for spare parts at Redding, Aug. 8, 2014. Bill Gabbert.

Officially, the agency is transitioning to a new era of aerial supervision utilizing modern helicopters and is implementing current technologies in fixed-wing aircraft to serve broader areas. The Department of the Interior and the Forest Service have also been developing Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) programs to reduce risk and hazards to firefighters both in the air and on the ground. The drones can fly at night and in visibility conditions that can ground piloted aircraft.

Firewatch Cobra, Redding
Firewatch Cobra undergoing maintenance, Redding, Aug. 8, 2014.

In announcing the sunset of the Firewatch Cobra program the Forest Service said, “There is no reduction in firefighting surveillance or operational capabilities with the transition. Local communities and wildland firefighters will be better served by the advancements in modern technology.  [The two Cobras] served the Forest Service for nineteen years and reached their maximum lifespan after flying approximately 7,600 flight hours with the Cobra program.”

“The Forest Service thanks all the pilots, mechanics, aerial supervisors, and program managers that made the Cobra program a success,” said Robert Baird, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the USFS California region. “The next generation of equipment will continue this critical mission of public safety and protection.”

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra, N109Z. Still image from VICE video, September, 2021.

Specifications of the Firewatch Cobras

    • Number of Engines: 1 (a newer version used by the Marines has two engines)
    • Engine: T53-L-703
    • Horsepower: 1,800
    • Range: 362 miles
    • Cruise Speed: 166 mph
    • Max Speed: 219 mph
    • Climb Rate: 1,680 feet per minute
    • Ceiling: 10,800 feet

N109Z was manufactured in 1969, and N107Z in 1983.

The VICE video below about the use of the Cobra Firewatch on the 2021 Caldor Fire was published September 22, 2021.

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra undergoing maintenance, Redding, Aug. 8, 2014.

Australia finalizing aerial firefighting assets as bushfire season approaches

The number of Air-Crane helicopters is being reduced from six to one

Australia Fires Air-Crane
An Air-Crane helicopter drops muddy water on one of the fires in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, December 30, 2019. Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

The Aussies are putting the finishing touches on their lineup of aerial firefighting aircraft as the country moves into the 2021-2022 summer bushfire season. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) expects to have contracts in place for five large privately owned large air tankers, one more than last year, in addition to the 737 owned by the government of New South Wales.

Fixed wing, large air tankers (LAT) for 2021-2022:

  • Two Avro 146-RJ85 LATs supplied by Field Air in partnership with Conair. These will be located in Avalon, Victoria (early-mid December for 84 days) and Dubbo, New South Wales (October 20 for 152 days).
  • One Q400 supplied by Field Air in partnership with Conair. This is a shared arrangement between Queensland and Victoria, with 84 days being served at Bundaberg, QLD from Sept. 1, after which it will move to Avalon, VIC for 84 days.
  • One LAT, either a 737 or a C-130 (still to be decided) supplied by Coulson Aviation (Australia), based at Richmond, VIC for 98 days. Commencement date uncertain, usually late November.
  • Arrangements are pending for an additional LAT on a national contract to start in mid- to late December, with a home base still to be decided.
  • One 737 owned by the NSW government.
Firefighters Victoria, Australia rappel training
Firefighters in Victoria, Australia conduct rappel training in 2021. Coulson photo.

Eleven large type 1 helicopters are on contract this year, which is two more than the previous bushfire season. The start dates listed below are approximate.

  • One Boeing CH47 at Bankstown, NSW from approximately November 1 for 120 days, supplied by Coulson Aviation (Australia).
  • One EH60 Blackhawk at Bankstown, NSW from approximately October 1 for 120 days, supplied by Touchdown Helicopters.
  • Two Blackhawks, an EH60 and a UH60, at Serpentine, Western Australia from early-mid December for 105 days – Aviation Utilities t/a United Aero Helicopters.
  • Two UH60 Blackhawks, at Claremont, South Australia from early-mid December for 84 days – Aerotech Helicopters.
  • One Bell 214 ST, Latrobe Valley, VIC — McDermott Aviation.
  • One Boeing CH-47D, Essendon, VIC — Coulson Aviation Australia.
  • One Sikorsky Air-Crane S64F, Moorabbin, VIC — Kestrel Aviation.
  • One Sikorsky S61N, Mansfield, VIC — Coulson Aviation Australia.
  • One Super Puma AS332, Ballarat, VIC — Kestrel Aviation.
Erickson Air-Cranes Melbourne
Six Erickson Air-Cranes in Melbourne in 2009.

For years there have been multiple Air-Crane helicopters on contract in Australia, often six each year, but this season there will be only one. Last year there were six, plus three S-61s.

Josephine Stirling, Deputy Director of NAFC told Fire Aviation the six Air-Cranes had been supplied by Kestrel Aviation, an Australian company which had a partnership with Erickson.

“The contract was for three guaranteed years and expired June 30, 2021, the fourth year option was not taken up – which is a matter for the states and territories, who decided to go to tender instead,” Ms. Stirling said. “However, Kestrel were successful in their tender to us for one aircrane in Essendon for the next three guaranteed years – alongside a Super Puma.”

NAFC is a business unit of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC). NAFC’s primary role is procurement of aircraft leases on behalf of the States and Territories and the administration of Australian Government (federal) funding to support the States and Territories.

In addition to the large air tankers and Type 1 helicopters, many other aircraft, more than 150, will also be on exclusive use or call when needed contracts. About 110 will be mostly used for firebombing, and others for air attack, winching, rappelling, reconnaissance, and specialist intelligence gathering. These numbers include 51 single engine air tankers (SEATs).

Photos of large air tankers working the Alisal Fire in SoCal

Tanker 101 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 101, an MD-87, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD

Since the Alisal Fire started west of Santa Barbara, California on October 11 there have not been many opportunities for firefighting aircraft to work the fire due to the very strong winds. Helicopters have been able to sneak in a few times, but until yesterday and today, October 12 and 13, they have rarely been seen at the fire.

Thanks to a decrease in wind speed, today on FlightRadar24 I saw six large air tankers and two very large air tankers (DC-10s) either over the fire, flying to or from, or taxiing at the Santa Maria airport which is 31 miles northwest of the fire.

Tanker 12 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD

These photos are courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Tanker 137 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD

Wednesday morning the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said the Alisal Fire has burned 14,500 acres, an increase of 1,100 acres over the figure released Tuesday evening. The growth over the last 24 hours has been on all sides, with the exception, of course, where the fire was stopped by the Pacific Ocean on the south. Wildfire Today has more information about the fire.

Tanker 910 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 910, a DC-10, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD
Alisal Fire map
Alisal Fire map 9:45 p.m. Oct. 12, 2021. The red line was the perimeter at 9:45 p.m. PDT Oct. 12, 2021. The white line was the perimeter at 4:12 a.m. Oct. 12. The red dots represent heat detected by satellites at 2:56 a.m. PDT Oct. 13.

Behind the scenes with crew chief of an Air-Crane

12:14 p.m. EDT Oct. 9, 2021

Still image from the Erickson video below.

Join Erickson Crew Chief, Bryan Dudas as he takes us behind the scenes of an aerial construction project in Pennsylvania with an Erickson S-64 Air-Crane, N159AC. The video was posted October 7, 2021.

Smokejumpers are climbing giant sequoia trees on the Windy Fire

The blaze has burned more than 92,000 acres in California

smokejumpers climb giant sequoia tree Windy Fire
Rick Rataj and Tyler Anderson, USFS California Smokejumpers, climb a giant sequoia to investigate an area on the tree that is burning. Windy Fire, Sept. 30, 2021. BIA photo by Laura Scott.

This article was first published on Wildfire Today.

Smokejumpers who usually arrive at a fire by parachute have climbed at least one of the giant sequoia trees on the Windy Fire in California to investigate areas on the tree that were burning. The initial reports were that they would climb an adjacent tree and use a fire hose to apply water onto the burning tree. Smokejumpers are trained to climb trees in order to retrieve hung up chutes, but this is not a common task for them, climbing a tree that is burning. Usually they simply cut it down.

But these huge trees that can live for more than 3,000 years have been suffering during the multi-year drought  and dry windy weather that has caused very low fuel moistures and intense fires that can penetrate the foot-thick bark. Last year the Castle Fire, just to the north (see map below), destroyed an estimated 7,500 to 10,600 large sequoias with trunk diameters of more than four feet, which was 10 to 14 percent of all large sequoias across the tree’s natural range in the Sierra Nevada.

Windy Fire map
The red line on the map was the perimeter of the Windy Fire at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2, 2021. The black line inside that, was the perimeter about 48 hours before. The green areas are groves of giant sequoias.

The 92,473-acre Windy Fire has not spread as much in the last two days as it did earlier. Most of the additional growth was on the west side in and south of the Tule River Indian Reservation. During the Saturday night mapping flight the only large area with intense heat (dark red area on the map) was on the reservation.

Most of the north one-third of the fire has contained fireline, as do some of the areas around California Hot Springs, Pine Flat, and Sugarloaf Village but there is still work to do west of Fairview, on the Tule River Indian Reservation, and other locations near Sugarloaf Village.

Very dry daytime and nighttime conditions are expected to persist into early next week. On Sunday, the Kern River drainage will be very prone to strong winds, with gusts of 25–30 miles per hour; elsewhere, gusts will be up to 20 miles per hour. The result will be several hours of near-critical to critical fire weather conditions along the Kern River valley and adjacent slopes.

smokejumpers climb giant sequoia tree Windy Fire
Rick Rataj and Tyler Anderson, USFS California Smokejumpers, utilize a “bigshot” to launch ropes into the branches of a giant sequoia tree so they can climb up to investigate heat left by the Windy Fire on September 30, 2021. BIA photo by Laura Scott.
smokejumpers climb giant sequoia tree Windy Fire
Rick Rataj and Tyler Anderson, USFS California Smokejumpers, climb a giant sequoia to investigate an area on the tree that is burning. Windy Fire, Sept. 30, 2021. BIA photo by Laura Scott.
smokejumpers climb giant sequoia tree Windy Fire
Rick Rataj and Tyler Anderson, USFS California Smokejumpers, climb a giant sequoia to investigate an area on the tree that is burning. Windy Fire, Sept. 30, 2021. BIA photo by Laura Scott.

Mapping wildfires and relaying communications from 62,000 feet

Using stratospheric balloon systems

Raven Aerostar balloon
Raven Aerostar balloon just after launch. Still image from the video below.

When Bob, one of our readers, asked if I was aware that for several days a high altitude balloon had been seen on a flight tracking app maneuvering at 62,300 feet over the Dixie Fire in California I told him no, but I would check into it.

It was operated by Raven Aerostar, a company based near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which has been working with lighter than air technologies since 1956. We contacted the Communications Manager for the company, Lisa McElrath, who told us that in June, July, and August they launched one of their Thunderhead Balloons from South Dakota and flew it west to monitor wildfires. While traveling more than 16,000 miles during its 70-day flight it engaged in station-seeking  above four active fires — the Robertson Draw Fire (Mont.), the Dixie Fire (Calif.), the Dixie-Jumbo Fire (Idaho), and the Dry Gulch/Lick Creek fire (Wash.) — collecting visible and thermal imagery for extended periods of time.

Raven Aerostar Thunderhead Balloon image photo fire wildfire
A thermal camera image (left) taken at the same time as a visible camera image (right). Both images were captured by one of Raven Aerostar’s Thunderhead Balloon Systems while station-seeking above and monitoring a wildfire. While billowing smoke obscures the visual image, active flames are identified as bright white markings on the thermal image, offering actionable information for containment efforts. Raven image.

We asked Ms. McElrath if Raven been cooperating with the federal land management agencies in mapping fires. She said not yet, but that representatives from the National Interagency Fire Center had reached out to them and expressed interest in discussions after the fire season slows down.

“We can provide real-time imagery from the balloon today in the visible and infrared,” Ms. McElrath said. “In the future, the goal would be to automate the detection and download of critical imagery, fire perimeters, likely fire-starts, and other key information via onboard processing so that more actionable information would be available. We see stratospheric balloon technology being the key to cost-effective, scalable wildfire surveillance that reduces time between new fire detection and response. Effectively, balloons can alert firefighters to a new fire while it is still small, before the fire grows into something newsworthy and very expensive.”

She said the balloons can also serve as radio repeaters for personnel on the ground and could collect information from tracking devices on firefighting resources which could then be displayed on a map.

There are several paths that could lead to what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety: knowing the real time location of a fire and firefighters. This could be one of them.

There are at least half a dozen companies in the U.S. that are working with high altitude balloons. Google Loon was one of them until they shut down a few months ago. Their goal was to help provide internet connectivity to the last one billion residents on the Earth, beaming it down from balloons. The company announced that it could not become commercially viable, around the time that thousands of SpaceX’s internet satellites were appearing in orbit.

The high altitude balloons navigate to locations by changing altitude to find wind directions that serve their needs.

“For the past nine years, Raven partnered with Loon on the development of this unique technology,” said Jim Nelson, Division Manager of Raven Aerostar. “Loon launched and navigated thousands of balloon platforms to help serve its mission. In parallel, we leveraged the Loon partnership and our 60-year history of balloon expertise to design and build our Thunderhead stratospheric platform. Thunderhead systems navigate using altitude steering, moving up and down to find favorable winds, just as the Loon balloons did. Because no lift gas or ballast is consumed during maneuvering, Thunderhead balloons can remain aloft for weeks to months at a time.”

The stratospheric balloon system works best in fleets or constellations of balloons that share wind information to improve navigation and share the sensor workload. This is explained in the video above.

All of the electrical power on the balloons comes from solar panels, which charge batteries for night operations.

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

Steven Metheny, responsible for helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters, released early from prison

The crash occurred on the Iron 44 Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008

Carson Helicopters
Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson.

Last week a judge granted an early release from prison for  Steven Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters. Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records and other illegal acts led to the overloading of a helicopter that crashed while attempting to take off from a remote helispot in Northern California in 2008, killing seven firefighters and two pilots.

In August, 2015 he began serving what was to have been 12 years and 7 months in prison, but was released after six years and one month.

He pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count each of filing a false statement and of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud while submitting documents to obtain $20 million in firefighting contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.

He had filed for compassionate release from prison at least twice, first in November, 2020 citing his fear of contracting COVID-19, which was refused by a judge. In March of 2021 he filed again, saying his health was deteriorating. Over the next six months information was submitted indicating that he had chest pain, an abnormal echocardiogram, vision problems, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken who was the judge in the trial, denied the first request but in September, 2021 approved the second one saying that his time in prison, especially with his health problems, have “been harsher than the sentence originally contemplated at the time of sentencing.”

Nina L. Charlson, mother of 25-year-old Scott Charlson of Phoenix, Oregon who died in the crash, said, “If it was a stupid mistake we would still have heartache but we all make mistakes. It was not a mistake. He plotted and planned to lie to the government.

“After the crash happened he plotted and planned to cover his plot up, Charson said. “It took the National Transportation board one and a half years to dig up the truth about what he did. It took 5 more years to get him sentenced to prison in September, 2015 for 12 years and 7 months. He served 6 years which is less than half of what he was sentenced for.”

Mr. Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. He was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 for attempting to defraud the government out of more than $32 million and has been serving time in Lompoc, California.

Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the U.S. Forest Service when bidding on their firefighting contract. The NTSB estimated that the actual empty weight of the helicopter was 13,845 pounds, while Carson Helicopters stated in their contract proposal that the weight was 12,013 pounds. For the purpose of load calculations on the day of the crash, the pilot assumed the weight to be 12,408 pounds, which was 1,437 pounds less than the actual weight estimated by the NTSB. According to the NTSB, for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.

In Mr. Metheny’s plea agreement there was an admission that the helicopters had not actually been weighed.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Nina and Kelly.

In case of fire break glass

The group of four helicopters known as the Quick Reaction Force will be covered on 60 Minutes

12:07 p.m. PDT Sept. 24, 2021

60 Minutes Chinook
60 Minutes reporter Bill Whitaker interviews Chief Brian Fennessy of Orange County Fire Authority. Still image from CBS video.

(Update Sept. 27, 2021: CBS has what looks like the entire transcript of the piece that aired Sunday night.)

Sunday September 26 at 7 p.m. EDT 60 minutes will broadcast a piece about the very large helicopters being used in Southern California this year. They interview Brian Fennessy, Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority about the Quick Reaction Force that has been partially financed with nearly $18 million from Southern California Edison since June 15 this year.

This group of helicopters includes two 3,000-gallon Boeing CH-47D Chinooks based in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, a Sikorsky S-61 with a 1,000-gallon tank in Ventura County, and a Sikorsky S-76 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness of drops, and identify targets with a laser designator. They are all crewed 24/7 and can hover refill with water or retardant at night assisting firefighters whenever they are needed. The helicopters are operated by Coulson Aviation and have either internal or belly tanks.

On August 18 they were dispatched to assist on the Caldor Fire, working out of Amador County Airport, also known as Westover Field.

Chief Fennessy believes in prompt, aggressive, initial attack of fires.

Reporter Bill Whitaker said to the Chief, “If somebody calls 911 you hit it with everything you’ve got. You knock it out.”

“In case of fire break glass!” the chief replied.

This is not the first time a privately owned Chinook has been used in California. In 2020 one operated by Coulson Aviation worked under an 83-day 24/7 contract in collaboration with Southern California Edison (SCE) and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA). Other Chinook operators used on fires that do not fly at night include the California National Guard, Billings Flying Service, Helimax, and Columbia.

The video below is a preview of the Sunday program.

Below is an excerpt from a CBS article about the helicopters:

“[Chief Fennessy said] the ability to lay retardant line, to continue to drop fire retardant after sundown, that’s a first,” he tells Whitaker. And there’s an added advantage: the fires usually die down at night because of decreased wind and increased humidity.

Wayne Coulson, the CEO of Coulson Aviation, is a pioneer in night firefighting. His company built the fleet with its specially designed tanks that carry either water or retardant. Computers control the tank’s doors, opening and closing at precise GPS locations.

“We can fly the aircraft to those GPS points and the doors will automatically open and close between those points,” Coulson says.

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