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Ventura County Copter 5 returns to SoCal after FireHawk conversion

Ventura County Copter 5
Ventura County Copter 5 returns home to Southern California after being converted to a FireHawk. Photo by Ventura County Stringer May 9, 2021.

From Ventura County Stringer:

“Ventura County Fire (VC Air Unit) Copter 5 (N60VC) arrived at Camarillo Airport late Sunday Morning. Copter 5 started its trip from United Rotorcraft in Colorado early Saturday Morning.

“Copter 5 was formally a Military Blackhawk that has been converted into a Firehawk. The Firehawk is expected to be put into service soon.
Additionally, Copter 4, which is another Firehawk that was a Military Blackhawk, is anticipated to arrive in the county soon.”

Three SoCal counties contract for additional large helicopters

Two Chinooks and an S-61 — it’s being called a Quick Reaction Force Program.

Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties helicopters
Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties will be contracting for large helicopters this year.

Three counties in Southern California will be boosting their aerial firefighting capability this year with each adding one large contractor-owned helicopter.

Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties each have their own fleets of helicopters that can be used for firefighting and search and rescue. But in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the 3,000-gallon Boeing CH-47D Chinooks they will add this year can carry three to eight times the loads of their FireHawks, UH-1H’s, and Bell 412EP’s.

Coulson Chinooks being unloaded at Houston
Coulson Chinooks being unloaded at Houston after completing their firefighting contracts in South America. Coulson photo, May, 2021.

Ventura County has arranged to add a Sikorsky S-61 with a 1,000-gallon tank. It will supplement their UH-1’s and the new-to-them Firehawk that just returned from Colorado after  being upgraded to Firehawk status with a new 1,000-gallon belly tank.

Orange County will also have a Sikorsky S-76 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness of drops, and identify targets with a laser designator.

Coulson S-76 and S-61 helicopter
Coulson S-76 and S-61, L to R. Coulson photo.

The three counties will be calling this a “Quick Reaction Force Program.”

All four of these aircraft are being supplied by Coulson Aviation and will be staffed 24/7, capable of flying and dropping water on wildfires at night. They can also perform a maneuver that few helicopters have done in recent decades — refill their tanks while hovering over a water source at night. That is common, of course, during daylight, but rarely done in darkness using night-vision goggles.

The aircraft will be on contract starting June 15 ranging from 150 to 180 days.

Much of the funding for the helicopters is being supplied by Southern California Edison (SCE), expanding their program which supplied one or two helicopters based in Orange County in 2019 and 2020. In those years SCE paid the daily availability costs and when it was used on fires the hourly fees were covered by the jurisdiction in which the fire occurred.

In 2020 SCE and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) leased a CH-47D Chinook from Coulson. The night-flying helicopter was stationed at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County on a 24/7 schedule.

In 2019 the OCFA also had an arrangement with SCE for a 24/7 night flying helicopter. In that case Coulson supplied an S-61 capable of 1,000 gallons and a Sikorsky S-76. The S-76 was not leased in 2020 because it was going through an avionics upgrade getting ready for fighting fire in the upcoming Australian summer, but it will be part of the Quick Reaction Force Program in 2021.

It is likely that these and other helicopters will occasionally make use of the 69Bravo Helistop that is being upgraded with four metal 8,000-gallon automatically refilling water tanks. Designed to efficiently refill helicopters’ buckets or tanks, it is located on one of the highest peaks in the Topanga area of the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County.

The Chinook, Firehawk, and S-61 can get to and from water sources quickly cruising at 140 to 160 mph, while the S-76 with the pedal to the metal tops out at 178 mph.

N42CU Coulson CH-47 Chinook helicopter
Coulson’s CH-47 Chinook N42CU. Coulson photo, 2020.

Crash of firefighting helicopter in China kills four

It was attempting to refill its water bucket at a lake

Helicopter crash China May 10, 2021
Helicopter crash in China May 10, 2021. Still image from video.

Four were killed Monday May 10 after a helicopter crashed in Erhai Lake in Dali, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The Z-8X helicopter operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force had been assisting firefighters on the ground by dropping water with an external bucket. It crashed while attempting to refill at the lake.

Initially it was reported that the two pilots were killed and there were two missing crewmembers. After a search that involved 16 ships and more than 490 rescuers the crewmembers were found deceased about 16 hours later, very early Tuesday morning local time.

Videos show the aircraft start to slowly rotate or spin while it was a couple of hundred feet above the lake before the bucket was lowered into the water. The spin increased in speed and the helicopter descended, then there was an explosion that sent debris flying before the helicopter hit the water with the bucket still attached.

The video below has a different angle and includes footage after the crash.

The best video is at Yahoo News.

Our sincere condolences go out to the crew’s family, friends, and coworkers.

The Z-8 helicopter is a Chinese version of the French Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon helicopter.

The China Daily, owned by the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, reported that a huge number of people were assigned to the 118-acre wildfire the helicopter was working on:

“A total of 2,532 people were mobilized to extinguish the fire which scorched some 48 hectares of land, according to the forest and grassland fire prevention and control headquarters in Dali. No casualties as a result of the fire have been reported.”

A typical fire that size would have a perimeter of about 9,400 feet. If the 2,532 personnel on the fire were all standing on the perimeter they would be stationed every 3 feet, literally shoulder to shoulder.

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

Upgrades at the 69Bravo Helistop in SoCal

Installing four 8,000-gallon metal water tanks for refilling hovering firefighting helicopters

69Bravo Helistop
69Bravo Helistop. Still image from Los Angeles County video.

A very unique water source for firefighting helicopters in Southern California is being upgraded. Called 69Bravo Helistop, the facility on one of the highest peaks in the Topanga area of the Santa Monica Mountains has been an excellent source for virtually unlimited water for helicopters fighting wildfires in the area. It has four dip or snorkel tanks which enable helicopters with external buckets or fixed tanks to quickly refill with water. The buckets are lowered into the tanks, while helicopters with “snorkels” lower a hose with a pump into the water.

There are also two landing pads where helicopters that must land to refill can obtain water from fire hoses which will be connected to the tanks by on-scene firefighters. Or, pilots can land and take a break if needed.

The facility was built by the very generous land owner and has been used with his permission. Several years ago Los Angeles County arranged to purchase the 34-acre property at a price reportedly less than half the market value, making payments over a seven-year period ending in 2024.

69Bravo Helistop
69Bravo Helistop. Still image from Los Angeles County video.

The new owners are making even more improvements, such as replacing the four 6,000-gallon fabric “pumpkin” water tanks, with metal 8,000-gallon tanks. The water system keeps the tanks full automatically by using water from an on-site well.

Dust and debris which can cause problems while hovering is abated with underground pop-up sprinklers which can be triggered by air crews using a smart phone app. The app also provides real time access to on-site cameras, weather data from the base’s weather station, remote control of lighting for the helipads and wind sock, and real-time water usage statistics for each pumpkin.

69Bravo Helistop
69Bravo Helistop. Still image from Los Angeles County video.

If the present California drought is amplified this summer by hot, dry, windy weather, 69Bravo could be put to the test servicing large helicopters battling wildfires. The Topanga New Times is reporting that Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura Counties have each secured the use of a Chinook Helicopter for the coming fire season, beginning June 15. In addition, LA and Ventura Counties have FireHawk helicopters capable of holding up to 1,000 gallons in their external belly tanks.

The video below describes 69Bravo.

A video shot during the Topanga Fire September 8, 2020 shows helicopters, sometimes three at a time, refilling at the site hauling a total of 76,000 gallons to the fire. The still image below is from that video.

69Bravo Helistop
69Bravo Helistop during Topanga Fire Sept. 8, 2020.

A story about one drop from the 747 Supertanker

“Made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire”

The 747, T-944, drops near Santiago Peak
The 747, T-944, drops near Santiago Peak August 8, 2018 on the Holy Fire in Southern California. Credit: Evver G. Photography

The article below is written by Jim Barnes, a former pilot of CAL FIRE S-2T air tankers.


It is a low-down dirty shame that the decision was made to cancel the 747 Super Tanker this fire season. Especially in the light of another potentially catastrophic fire season for our western states ahead of us. Some-how we never seem to heed the hard learned lessons of the past. The failure to be prepared is to prepare to fail. The 747 is not cheep for sure but the great work and many great saves it has made cannot be measured merely in dollars but potentially in the lives and property that might be lost by not having that capability.

In the week before I retired from tanker flying, I was relieving in Grass Valley. I woke up in a motel room just before daylight and flicked on the television on the way to the bathroom. I was shocked to learn that several fires were burning in the Grass Valley and Nevada City area. It was hot and it was windy so I got dressed, threw my s*** into my car and headed for the base with a short stop at Jack in the Box for of one of their delicious breakfasts.

When I got to the base it was still dark and I was the only one there.  Looking out toward the city you could see the orange glow. I started pre-flighting with my flashlight when the base pilot, Colin Rogers showed up. He was soon followed by the Chief and his Air Attack Pilot who ran out to the OV-10, kicked the tires and blasted off toward the fire. Within minutes he called for both tankers to respond. Colon took the lead and I taxied into position to do a section go. Colon started his roll and within seconds aborted takeoff because of a mechanical problem. That put me first in.

The Chief wanted me to start a protective line in front of a house at the top of a steep hillside. The wind was terrible so I used two wingspans for correction. That wasn’t enough and the entire load was blown down into the canyon. On the way back to base I heard tanker 88 checking in with Air Attack.  His mechanical problem was fixed and Colon was back in the hunt.  I briefed him on the effect of the wind as we crossed paths. On my way back out I heard Colon in tanker 88 calling the tanker base.

“We better get prepared to operate eight tankers out of Grass Valley all day long.”

But we never saw any more S-2s at our fire. They were already committed to project fires all over the state like the one that was devastating Santa Rosa. We did get one C-130 out of Chico and he did a great job but because he was in Chico his longer turn arounds gave us about two drops an hour.

So, we had two S-2Ts hot lapping making about 13-minute turnarounds, all the helicopters and ground forces that they could muster and the fire was still outproducing us badly. The fire now posed an imminent threat to several communities, including Grass Valley and Nevada City. One residential area was about to be over burned which would have resulted in catastrophic losses.

Somehow CAL FIRE got a hold of the 747 Very Large Air Tanker.  Air Attack assigned him the job of picking up an entire flank that was about to impinge on homes, a school and businesses. Without the aid of a lead plane the 747 lined up on the target, made a perfect drop and covered the entire flank with a massive load of retardant. We never saw him again for the rest of the day but that one drop made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire. We will never know what would have happened had he not been there. Unfortunately for our Citizens and Firefighters we may find out this year. My prediction is that when the s*** hits the fan the powers that are will be scrambling to get the 747 back on contract. I have seen this story play out many times in my thirty-five years of aerial firefighting.  Damn, I’m sure tired of being right.


To see all articles on Fire Aviation written by Jim Barnes, click here.

MAFFS training to begin in Colorado May 10

Modular Airborne Firefighting System

MAFFS training 2021
MAFFS (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System) ground crew members prepare a U.S. Air National Guard MAFFS equipped C-130J Hercules Aircraft from the 146th Airlift Wing for takeoff at San Bernardino Air Tanker Base, California, during MAFFS (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System) training, May 6, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Michelle Ulber)

In the video below, Lt. Col. Richard Pantusa, the 302nd Airlift Wing aerial firefighting chief, discusses upcoming training with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System. The wing will be flying out of Jeffco Air Tanker Base with C-130H model aircraft fitted with MAFFS May 10-16. Certification training, sponsored by the US Forest Service, includes classroom sessions, flying and ground operations for Air Force aircrews, civilian lead plane pilots, and support personnel from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other state and federal firefighting agencies. (U.S. Air Force video by Laura Fitzmorris)

On May 3-7 the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing and the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing conducted their MAFFS training and certification in Southern California, based at San Bernardino.

Report that CAL FIRE refused offer of two air tankers funded by local organization

SEAT Tanker 210 Fire Boss
Dauntless Air’s Tanker 210, an Air Tractor 802F, makes a demonstration drop in San Diego County in 2017.

A private organization’s offer to pay $1.5 million to help lease two single engine air tankers for Napa County, California was refused by CAL FIRE, according to a report in the Napa Valley Register.

Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture intended to obtain the Air Tractor 802F Fire Boss water-scooping aircraft from Dauntless Air.

Napa County has suffered through numerous large devastating wildfires in recent years that have destroyed about 1,500 structures.

The county contracts with CAL FIRE to operate the Napa County Fire Department. This year they expect to have a FireHawk helicopter based in the county that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water, but it will be subject to being dispatched anywhere in the state. The AT-802F can hold up to 800 gallons.

From the Register:

“CAL FIRE officials said their own water-dropping helicopters hold more water than the single-engine Fire Boss scooper planes and can refill from smaller reservoirs. The two Fire Boss planes might slow and complicate the helicopter response, CAL FIRE said.

“[CAL FIRE Director Thomas] Porter in an April 16 letter to Napa County wrote that his agency doesn’t support the current concept and will not pursue adding the Fire Boss planes to the agency’s fire protection agreement with the county. He didn’t elaborate.

“A letter to [County Supervisor Belia] Ramos from CAL FIRE Local 2881 went further. Union President Tim Edwards wrote that CAL FIRE has a fleet of over 60 firefighting aircraft. The aviation program has the highest standards in personnel training and fleet maintenance.

“Flight costs and insurance and other expenses for the two Fire Boss planes would be beyond the $1.5 million offered by Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture to lease the planes and crews. Based on last year’s 90 wildfire dispatches, these extra costs could reach $2 million, county Fire Chief Geoff Belyea said.

“CAL FIRE officials said the agency wouldn’t pay for flight costs until after the Fire Boss planes had operated for four hours. Before then, the cost would be borne by the county.“Private, non-CAL FIRE aircraft are not part of these standards and would hamper the established deployment and operational procedures currently in place,” he wrote.”

Boeing and Columbia Helicopters working on system to enhance pilot’s situational awareness in smoky conditions

Canadian Bird Dog entering smoke aircraft fire
Canadian Bird Dog entering smoke over the Highland Fire in South Dakota, July 1, 2012.

Columbia Helicopters and Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing Company, this week entered into a memorandum of understanding to jointly explore the design, integration, testing, and demonstration of an enhanced pilot situational awareness (EPSA) degraded visual environment (DVE) flight capability on a Columbia helicopter to be used for aerial wildland fire suppression.

Since aerial firefighting began, fire suppression from aircraft has largely remained a clear air, daytime endeavor. Visibility hazards, such as wildfire smoke, limit aircraft operations on fires to approximately one-third of the available day. While night vision devices (NVDs) are enabling some expansion to night operations, nothing currently exists to enable pilots to fly safely in DVEs caused by thick and persistent smoke during the day.

Columbia and Aurora aim to overcome these limitations with a new flight system that integrates multiple aircraft-mounted sensor technologies that enhance situational awareness and deliver a real-time, clear, synthetically-adapted image to the pilot.

“This technology brings the true capability to operate safely in DVE conditions, day or night, vastly expanding Columbia’s capabilities,” said Santiago Crespo, Columbia’s vice president of growth and strategy. “When aircraft have the ability to fight fires in all conditions, they can significantly contribute to reducing acres burned and the overall ballooning cost of fires.”

A 2018 report written by the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated that safe employment of aerial fire suppression during DVE conditions could reduce acres burned by one million acres a year, and reduce annual suppression costs by $300 million.

The DVE flight system is expected to combine inputs from an on-board modular sensor suite with Aurora’s automated trajectory planning technology to identify safe flight paths. Data from these systems is visually represented in a transparent heads-up display mounted to the pilot’s helmet, providing navigation and critical flight data in a simple real-time display to support both daytime and night-time operations.

Under the terms of the understanding, the parties expect Aurora would be responsible for developing and testing the technology while Columbia would be responsible for providing the aircraft, integration of the system, support, and operator subject matter expertise.

Once a system is developed, tested, and integrated, Columbia and Aurora plan to hold demonstrations for the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Forest Service, and state fire agencies with the goal of encouraging legislation and contract language that allows for the new technology’s use on the country’s growing wildfires.