Helicopter pilot fired by Orange County Fire Authority files gender discrimination lawsuit

Desiree Horton was the state of California’s first permanently-hired female firefighting pilot

Desiree Horton OCFA
Desiree Horton at OCFA, January 25, 2020.

The first female permanently-hired firefighting pilot employed by the state of California has filed a gender discrimination lawsuit after being fired by the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).

Desiree Horton, a career pilot with 30 years of flying experience and 16 years of aerial firefighting experience, joined OCFA in 2019 as the agency’s first permanently employed female fire pilot. Prior to joining OCFA, she was a helicopter pilot with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), where she also was that agency’s first female fire pilot.

In the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court, Horton’s attorneys allege that despite her experience (more than any of her male colleagues at OCFA) and despite glowing reviews from former employers and colleagues, OCFA terminated Ms. Horton after her one-year probationary period – and without the required one-year evaluation flight. The suit alleges that during her time at the OCFA, she was unfairly and discriminatorily scrutinized by the male pilots, crew chiefs, and helicopter technicians, held to unfair and higher standards than her male counterparts, deprived of training opportunities offered to the male fire pilots, and forced to work in a hostile environment.

When Ms. Horton was hired by CAL FIRE in 2014 her first posting was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.

The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the OCFA became available she couldn’t turn it down.

“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.

Desiree Horton (second from right) at OCFA, January 25, 2020.

In addition to working for OCFA and CAL FIRE, she previously flew helicopters for a privately owned helicopter company that had a US Forest Service firefighting contract, a  heavy lift operator, a helicopter tour company in Hawaii, and TV stations in Los Angeles.

In January, 2020 we interviewed Ms. Horton while developing an article about the OCFA:

Medford tanker base receives new retardant tank

New transportable retardant tank at  Medford, OR
New transportable retardant base mixing tank at Medford, OR air tanker base. Photo by FORTRESS.

In February the U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract to design and build a 16,000-gallon, mobile, retardant mixing tank for the air tanker base at Medford, Oregon. The agency wanted the ability to relocate the tank during the off-season and needed one large enough to refill very large air tankers (VLAT).

The tank contract specified use of carbon steel, top and side access, an integrated axle, and a top walkway with folding railings. 

FORTRESS North America, the company that received the contract, delivered the tank/trailer in Medford on May 24 where it was inspected and accepted.

New transportable retardant tank at  Medford, OR
Justin Bohannan, Medford Airtanker Base Manager (left) receiving the VLAT Mobile Retardant Base mixing tank from Fortress Base Operations Manager Dennis Hulbert. Photo by FORTRESS.

Snorkel hitting rotor blades was likely cause of fatal helicopter crash

Four were killed in the May 25 crash of the FireHawk helicopter at Leesburg, Florida

FireHawk helicopter
File photo of FireHawk helicopter at Boise, April 21, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A three-page preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board said it appears that the violent swinging of a snorkel hose attached to a newly installed water tank caused the crash of a FireHawk helicopter on May 25 at Leesburg, Florida. All four on board were killed. To our knowledge the names of the deceased have not been released.

A snorkel is a large diameter hose attached to a fixed internal or external water tank that usually has a water pump at the lower end of the hose to fill the tank while the helicopter hovers over a water source.

The aircraft, N9FH, was a Sikorsky UH-60A, a Blackhawk registered to Brainerd Helicopters Inc. out of Leesburg, Florida. The police department described the owner as Brainerd Helicopters Inc./Firehawk Helicopters, located at Leesburg International Airport.

The initial information released by the FAA the day after the incident said there was “one flight crew member and three passengers” on the helicopter, but the NTSB report says there was a “pilot, copilot, and two passengers.” The FAA also said the aircraft “lost control of the bucket causing the rotor section to separate”. Obviously is it common for early information about an accident to be erroneous.

Below is the text from the NTSB Preliminary Report.

“According to the operator, a new water tank and snorkel were installed on the helicopter to facilitate firefighting operations in accordance with supplemental type certificate (STC) #SR00933DE on May 17, 2021. Several days of ground testing and calibration were performed before the accident flight, which was the first flight after the STC was installed.

“Witnesses reported that the helicopter made six uneventful passes in front of the operator’s hangar at LEE and dropped water that was picked up from a lake adjacent to the airport. On the seventh pass, an employee of the operator noticed the snorkel swinging. He called the LEE air traffic control tower on the phone and told the controller to ask the pilot of the helicopter to slow down and land immediately. Before the controller could contact the pilot, the helicopter transitioned to forward flight, gaining altitude and airspeed. The employee noticed the snorkel “violently” swinging and he then heard a loud bang, which he believed was the result of the snorkel contacting the main rotor blades or tailboom. He then saw pieces, and then the tail section separating from the helicopter. The helicopter started to spin and fell below the tree line. He heard a loud explosion and saw smoke rise above the tree line.

“According to another witness who worked for the operator, she missed the helicopter’s first pass but watched the remaining six passes. She noted that the water being dropped from the tank was “very dirty.” On the helicopter’s last pass, while it was coming in and slowing down, she noticed the snorkel swing in a large circle and at one point, the snorkel end came very close to the main rotor blades. She immediately started waving her arms at the pilot to try and get his attention, but he did not see her. As the pilot transitioned to forward flight, she ran beside the helicopter and continued to wave her arms. Shortly after the helicopter climbed and gained airspeed, she heard a loud bang and saw multiple main rotor blades separate and hit the tail section. She then saw the tail section fall to the ground and the helicopter enter a flat spin.

“The helicopter was located in heavily wooded, swampy terrain about 1322 ft east of runway 3. The helicopter came to rest slightly inverted on its left side on a heading of 040° magnetic. The tail rotor section was found about 78 ft north of the main wreckage. One half of a rotor blade was found about 600 ft south of the main wreckage and one half of another rotor blade was found about 200 ft west of runway 3. Parts of the newly installed water tank and snorkel assembly were found on the west side edge of runway 3. The water pump housing, which was installed near the snorkel inlet was heavily fragmented. The stainless-steel snorkel suction cage was located about 50 ft west of runway 3 and collocated with a section of main rotor blade. There were several pieces of fairings and lightweight material lodged in the top of trees along the flight path from the edge of the tree line to the main wreckage.

“The landing gear, main rotor system, main rotor drive system, engine, hydraulic system, and the forward portion of the tail rotor drive system were thermally damaged by the postcrash fire. The majority of the cockpit, cabin, and flight controls were consumed by the postcrash fire.”

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

Smokejumper injured in New Mexico passes away

He was injured during a hard landing

Tim Hart. USFS photo
Tim Hart. USFS photo.

(This article was first published at Wildfire Today)

Tim Hart, the smokejumper critically injured May 24 during a hard landing while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico has passed away. Tim had been flown via air ambulance to a hospital in El Paso, Texas where he has been treated for the last 11 days.

The U.S. Forest Service announced the fatality June 3 in an email sent by Laurel Beth McClean, Executive Assistant to FS Chief Vicki Christiansen, on behalf of the Chief.

“I am deeply saddened to share with you that Tim Hart, a smokejumper from the West Yellowstone Smokejumper Base in Montana, passed away last night as a result of injuries he sustained when jumping on the Eiks Fire in New Mexico on May 24.

“Tim grew up in Illinois and lived with his wife in Cody, Wyoming.  During his firefighting career Tim was an Engine Crew Member on the Coconino, Fremont-Winema, and Shoshone National Forests.  He was a Lead Firefighter on the Ashville and Ruby Mountain (with the BLM) Hotshot Crews.  He moved to Grangeville, Idaho as a Rookie Smokejumper in 2016.   In 2019, he transitioned to West Yellowstone and the Custer Gallatin National Forest first as a Squad Leader and then as a Spotter.   His life touched many people across the Forest Service and the wildland fire community.  He will be greatly missed.

“My heart goes out to Tim’s family, friends and colleagues, and I ask all of you to keep them in your thoughts and prayers.  And, please continue to look out for each other.  I draw my strength, every day, from the compassion and dedication each of your exhibits in service to our nation.  During times of great loss, as we and our partners have experienced over the past week, we pause to reflect on the lives we have lost and the void that can never be filled – and we hold on to, and sustain each other.”

Condolences Mailing Address:

c/o Shoshone National Forest
808 Meadow Lane Ave., Cody, WY 82414

Shoshone National Forest will ensure families receive all condolences.

Tim Hart. USFS photo
Tim Hart. USFS photo.

We send out our sincere condolences to Mr. Hart’s family, friends, and co-workers.

Remembering the two June 3, 2012 air tanker crashes

Tankers 11 and 55. Two fatalities.

T-55 after landing with malfunctioning landing gear
T-55 after landing with malfunctioning landing gear, June 3, 2012. Still image from video.

I can still hear it. I picked up the phone nine years ago and a voice said:

“Have you heard”?

It was Walt Darran June 3, 2012. Knowing that he had been a long-time air tanker pilot and advocate for aerial firefighting safety, my mind raced through any recent news I might have heard about firefighting aircraft.

I said, “What’s going on?”

“Two crashes.”

Walt went on to tell me that two P2V air tankers had crashed that day.

Tanker 11 operated by Neptune Aviation, was working on the White Rock fire which started in Nevada northeast of Caliente, but the fire burned across the state line into Iron County in Utah, which is where the aircraft went down. We learned later that the two pilots on board were killed, Capt. Todd Neal Topkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both from Boise.

May they rest in peace.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s probable cause report on Tanker 11 concluded that while preparing to drop retardant the flight crewmembers “did not properly compensate for the wind conditions while maneuvering”. The aircraft impacted the ground before it reached the location for the intended drop.

The second crash that day involved Minden’s Tanker 55 which had a problem with the landing gear. Only one main landing gear and the nose gear were able to be lowered and locked, leaving one main landing gear up or not locked. The pilots made a great landing at Minden, Nevada, considering the condition of the aircraft, on just two of the three landing gears as an Air-Crane orbited nearby ready to drop water if it caught fire. There were no reports of injuries to the flight crew. As far as I know Tanker 55 never flew again.

Two years later on June 15, 2014 Minden’s last remaining flyable air tanker, T-48, was involved in an incident at Fresno, California. While working on the Shirley Fire near Lake Isabella, the 53-year old P2V experienced a problem with the hydraulic system and diverted to the long runway at Fresno. According to Mike Ferris, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, the nose wheel collapsed upon landing. There were no injuries to the crew.

By the end of the day there were only nine large air tankers left on US Forest Service exclusive use contracts. They were all grounded temporarily in consideration of the crews flying and maintaining the remaining aircraft.

A few days later the Associated Press quoted Tom Harbour, the USFS National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, about the deteriorating fleet of air tankers:

They are aging, and we know we need to replace them,” said Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire and aviation operations director. “That’s why the chief (of the Forest Service) sent Congress an air tanker strategy a couple months ago that said we needed to modernize the fleet.”

Harbour said the agency has concluded that the nation needs up to 28 of the next generation of air tankers, those that can fly faster and carry more retardant.

This year there are 18 large air tankers on exclusive use USFS contracts, as each decade, the fires become larger.Average-size-of-US-wildfires-by-decade-A few weeks before the two June 3, 2012 crashes, Tanker 11 was featured on the cover of Wildfire magazine. Here is what we wrote June 6, 2012:

Wildfire cover, May-June, 2012The May/June issue of Wildfire magazine that arrived in mailboxes several weeks ago featured a cover photo of Tanker 11 dropping on a fire in Texas last year. This is the same air tanker that crashed on Sunday, killing the two-person crew.

I don’t believe in curses, fate, or jinxes, but this reminds me of the Sports Illustrated “cover jinx”, in which a person who appears on the cover of the magazine is supposed to be jinxed or will experience bad luck.

That issue of the magazine features an excellent article by Walt Darran, in which Mr. Darran, who has a great deal of experience in the aviation and air tanker industry, writes about the future of the air tanker program. You should read the article which is online at the IAWF website, but here are some of the points he makes.

  • In spite of what you may hear from the U.S. Forest Service and the still unreleased RAND Corporation report, we need a mix of various types of air tankers in our tool box, not just C-130Js.
  • Having enough air tankers for fast, effective initial attack while fires are small is important. Taking into account the increased fire activity, Mr. Darran says we should have “40 to 50 or more Type 1, 2, and 3 air tankers”.
  • The state of California’s air tanker program could be a model, with Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated air tankers working side by side with a fleet of helicopters that are Government-Owned, Government-Operated.
  • Since it is unrealistic to expect operators of expensive aircraft to maintain the availability of air tankers and crews on a Call When Needed contract, a retainer should be supplied to cover costs of maintaining the aircraft airworthiness and crew currency so it is available when we need it. “Imagine SEAL Team 6 on a CWN contract” Mr. Darran wrote.

(end of the 2012 article)

When you have time, read through the series of articles on Wildfire Today tagged Tanker 11. When we created in November, 2012, we picked it there under the tag T-11.

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

New long term fire retardant to be tested in Montana

The system is set up at the Missoula airport

Fortress retardant base in Missoula, June, 2021
Fortress equipment at the retardant base at the Missoula airport, June, 2021. Fortress photo.

A company formed to develop a new long term fire retardant will be conducting a real-world test of their product this year in Montana. When fully approved, it will be the first newly formulated long-term retardant product to make it onto the Forest Service’s Qualified Products List in over two decades.

Since Dennis Hulbert retired from the US Forest Service as the Aviation Officer for Region 5, California, he has been working on developing a new long term retardant that can be used by helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to help firefighters suppress wildfires.

FORTRESS was founded in 2016 by a team of industry experts, including Mr. Hulbert and former Federal and State firefighters with experience in natural resource protection, wildfire suppression, aviation management, and environmental engineering. Now Mr. Hulbert is the Director for Base Operations and Construction for the company. The website for FORTRESS North America went live today.

Fortress fire retardant
Fortress FR-100 long term fire retardant being dropped by an AirSpray air tanker. Fortress photo.

Their first aerial fire retardant product, FR-100, began its final field evaluation by the U.S. Forest Service yesterday at the Missoula Air Tanker Base in Montana. In order to be considered for a federal contract, they will need to load 200,000 gallons of FR-100 onto air tankers as they depart to wildfires. The ease and effectiveness of mixing, loading onto air tankers, and slowing the spread of wildfires will be assessed as each of those gallons make their way through the logistics and tactical stages of use.

FR-100 is a magnesium chloride-based, gum-thickened dry powder concentrate with a high-visibility red fugitive color. The retardant has successfully completed all US Forest Service laboratory tests for fire retardancy, toxicity, corrosion, and viscosity. The company says the magnesium chloride is more friendly to the environment than conventional retardants based on ammonium phosphates.

Like other retardants, FR-100 can be applied in advance of a spreading wildfire to protect firefighters, infrastructure, watersheds, and critical emergency evacuation routes.

Due to its low critical relative humidity, magnesium chloride in the retardant pulls moisture from the air — self-rehydrating when the relative humidity is greater than 32 percent. Some dust suppressants used on on non-paved roads are based on magnesium chloride due to this hydrating principle.

FORTRESS products can be stored and applied using existing equipment and infrastructure.

“Our long-range vision, through the expansion and advancement of our portfolio of fire retardants, is to reduce the environmental impact of this essential public safety service on our communities, watersheds, and broader ecosystems,” said Robert Burnham, FORTRESS CEO.

Mr. Hulbert explained that the environmental assessment they are working under during the evaluation limits the use of the new retardant to within 200 miles of Missoula. When a national environmental assessment is complete for the entire country in August they hope to be able to drop it wherever retardant is being used today.

Fortress retardant base in Missoula, June, 2021
Fortress equipment at the retardant base at the Missoula airport, June, 2021. Fortress photo.

Smokejumper seriously injured while parachuting into a fire in New Mexico

He was evacuated to a hospital in El Paso, Texas

Updated 9:11 a.m. MDT May 29, 2021

Tim Hart

A Gofundme account has been set up for Tim Hart who was seriously injured while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in southeastern New Mexico. He works out of the jumper base at West Yellowstone, Montana.

Below is the text from Gofundme, May 29, 2021:

On May 24th, West Yellowstone Smokejumper Tim Hart suffered multiple injuries after a hard landing during a fire jump in southern New Mexico. Tim was flown via air ambulance to a hospital in El Paso, Texas where he remains in critical condition.

Tim has been a wildland firefighter since 2006.  He began his career working on an engine  for the Coconino National Forest, and continued in that capacity on the  Fremont-Winema NF and the Shoshone NF.  After his engine time, he became a Lead Firefighter and Squadleader on the Asheville Interagency hotshot crew.  He later held squadleader positions on  Augusta IHC  and  Ruby Mountain IHC.  Tim accepted a rookie smokejumper position in  2016 at Grangeville, Idaho.  He moved to the West Yellowstone Smokejumper Base as a squadleader in 2019. Tim’s talents and natural leadership have been a big part in the success of all the functional areas here in West.  He is willing to take things on very thoughtfully and methodically, and with a sense of humor.

Whatever the task is in front of him- whether it’s preparing for fire jumps or cargo drops, building furniture for his new home in Cody, WY or improvising a musical jam session with his wife Michelle, he rises to the challenge!  His “get- it- done” attitude will serve him well on his journey to recovery.

Thank you for supporting Tim and his family during this incredibly difficult time. They have a long road ahead of them, and any burden we may be able to lift would be greatly appreciated.

Keep Tim in your thoughts and prayers…. and keep the whiskey nearby to celebrate all of Tim’s victories down the road.

6:15 p.m. MDT May 26, 2021

Map of Eicks Fire
Map showing the location of the Eicks Fire.

A U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper was seriously injured Monday after a hard landing at a wildfire in New Mexico. Tim Hart of Cody, Wyoming was dispatched to help suppress the Eicks Fire in the Animas Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, nine miles north of the Mexico border. He works out of the jumper base at West Yellowstone, Montana.

Mr. Hart was flown by air ambulance to a hospital in El Paso. “The Forest Service’s first priority is to provide for him and his family right now,” said Marna Daley, Forest Service spokeswoman. “We are working with the smokejumper and firefighter community to make sure those needs are being met.”

The Eicks Fire has burned 850 acres of grass and brush since it was reported May 24, 2021 in very rugged terrain along the Continental Divide. No structures have burned and none are threatened.

Some media outlets initially reported that the injured person was a Hotshot firefighter, but in a Congressional hearing on Tuesday Chief of the Forest Service Vicki Christiansen said it was a smokejumper.

3D Map of Eicks Fire
3D map showing the approximate location of the Eicks Fire, May 25, 2021. Looking North.

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