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.

Air tanker makes wheels-up landing in Ontario, Canada

There were no reported injuries

Water bomber air tanker 274 wheels-up landing
Water bomber 274 after a wheels-up landing at Sault Ste. Marie Airport in Ontario, Canada May 2, 2021. Photo by Dan Gray for Sault Online.

Dan Gray of Sault Online reports that an air tanker made a wheels-up landing at Sault Ste. Marie Airport in Ontario, Canada at about 12:30 p.m. on May 2.

Water bomber 274, a Canadair water scooper, is pictured on the ground with the wheels up, leaning over onto the right side float.

From Mr. Gray’s article:

After reviewing audio on someone on board the water bomber stated “There was a failure on the landing gear, we are going to need assistance to move the aircraft off the runway.”

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) called it a “hard landing” after a test flight. There were no reported injuries.

The aircraft, C-GOGH manufactured in 1998, is listed as a CL-215-6B11 (Series CL-415) registered to the Province Of Ontario, MNRF.

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

MAFFS training scheduled for Southern California next week

Military C-130 aircraft will practice dropping up to 3,000 gallons of water, getting ready for the wildfire season

MAFFS cockpit video, Calfornia, August 22, 2020 fire
Still image from MAFFS cockpit video showing another MAFFS making a retardant drop, California, August 22, 2020.

The California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing and the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing will join the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other firefighting agencies for aerial wildland firefighting training May 3-7 at the San Bernardino Air Tanker Base.

“The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) program provides an important supplement to our national airtanker capacity,” said Kim Christensen, deputy assistant director for operations for the USDA Forest Service. “Our partnership is successful year-after-year due to the commitment of both the federal wildland fire agencies as well as our military partners.”

The C-130s equipped with MAFFS are essentially converted into air tankers and provide a critical “surge” capability that can be used to augment wildfire suppression efforts. MAFFS are only activated when all commercial airtankers that are part of the national airtanker fleet are fully committed or not readily available.

The aircraft will be doing practice water drops in remote areas of the Angeles National Forest. Residents in the area may see low-flying C-130 aircraft and U.S. Forest Service lead planes throughout the week. MAFFS aircraft will load water at San Bernardino and travel to drop zones on the Angeles National Forest for the practice drops.

MAFFS air tanker
A C-130 Hercules, equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, drops fire retardant April 27, 2011, above West Texas. MAFFS is capable of dispensing 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris)

The 146th Airlift Wing and 152nd Airlift Wing C-130 Hercules aircraft are equipped with the U.S. Forest Service’s MAFFS, which can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in less than 10 seconds across a quarter-mile line. The system slides into the back of the military aircraft, and retardant is released through a nozzle through the troop door on the left side. MAFFS aircraft can be activated to supplement the USDA Forest Service and the civilian airtanker program to slow or stop the spread of wildland fires across the nation. The Department of Defense can provide up to eight MAFFS equipped aircraft, as required.

“Certification training allows these units to refine their processes and helps cement our working relationships with NIFC and other agencies. It is critical training that helps ensure the entire team is postured and prepared to deliver critical firefighting capability,” said Lt. Gen Kirk Pierce, commander, U.S. Air Forces Northern.

The 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne, Wyoming and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, are also part of the AEG MAFFS program and will be participating in certification training the following week in Colorado.

Colombian C-130 MAFFS
A Colombian Air Force MAFFS makes a demonstration water drop in Columbia, March 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Santa Barbara County’s first Firehawk helicopter nears the end of the conversion process

It should be ready to fight fire in Southern California later this fall

Santa Barbara County Helicopter 964
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 964 at Centennial Airport, April 29, 2021. By Paul Filmer of

Santa Barbara County Fire Department Helicopter 964 is in Colorado to have a 1,000-gallon belly tank and extended main landing gear installed. This is part of the process of converting the aircraft formerly operated by the National Guard into a firefighting Firehawk. It arrived at Centennial Airport near Denver last week after receiving system upgrades and maintenance in Enterprise, Alabama. The former Blackhawk helicopter was purchased in 2019 and underwent a retrofit with new state-of-the-art avionics, paint and a new rescue hoist.

The Fire Department said fundraising efforts by Direct Relief International resulted in a donation of $1,151,000 which was used to offset the cost of the retrofit.

The Firehawk will be able to carry 12 passengers, including two critically injured patients, as compared to five passengers and one critically injured patient on the Huey. It is also being outfitted with night-flying capability.

The Fire Department expects the aircraft to be operationally ready to respond to fire-related missions in Fall 2021, after focused training has been completed for the pilots, mechanics, and other County Air Support Unit staff.

Santa Barbara fire department helicopter
Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit’s Fire Copter 964 undergoing maintenance at Arista in Enterprise, Alabama. SBCFD photo.
Santa Barbara County FD Helicopter 964
Santa Barbara County FD Helicopter 964 in 2020. SBCFD photo.
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 308
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 308, a UH-1H Huey. N205KS. Photo by John Goldin in 2020.