Mike McKeig took photos of Coast Guard aircraft 1706 arriving at Sacramento McClellan Airport yesterday, one of seven HC-130Hs being transferred to CAL FIRE to become, one day, air tankers. Its next stop might be in Kingman, AZ, or another facility, to get new livery.
The 1706 aircraft had its center wing box replaced before the legislation was passed in December of 2013 to transfer seven Coast Guard HC-130Hs to the Forest Service, and later to CAL FIRE. All of them will need to have depot level maintenance completed and retardant systems installed before the final transfer is complete.
Another student competition for designing an air tanker has concluded. It was only last week when we had an article about the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Foundation’s Team Aircraft Design Competition.
A similar event concluded several months ago titled “Extending Aviation’s Public Benefit” sponsored by NASA. Their concept for the competition was based on the assumption that Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and Regional Air Mobility (RAM) aircraft offer the potential to create large production runs of small airframes for moving cargo and people, but derivatives or modifications of these aircraft could serve other public purposes. These vehicles are being designed to have very short or vertical takeoff and landings, low community noise, high utilization rates, and rapid deployment.
Teams are requested to design a suite of vehicles that can collectively deliver 3000 gallons of water to a fire location in a single pass. The number of vehicles and payload per vehicle is up to the team and should be part of the initial concept of operations.
The vehicles must be able to gather water from local water sources (lakes, rivers, oceans). Many water sources are small and require Very Short Takeoff and Landing (VSTOL) operations. Currently, helicopters are used to reach these small water sources and this vehicle should be able to access similarly small or tree-enclosed bodies of water. Vehicles will be scored such that the combined balanced takeoff and landing distance should be minimized. For reference, the water source and fire are located at an altitude of 3500 ft (MSL). Temperatures are hot, standard day +10 °C. Teams should consider how the vehicles collect the water, i.e. via scoop during a pass over the water; landing on the water to pump water into a collection tank; or some other method the teams devise.
Each vehicle must be able to be operated either remotely or by a single pilot. The vehicles must be able to takeoff, land, and refill at night and in low visibility operations. Accuracy is essential in dropping water; therefore, the vehicle must autocorrect for current wind conditions.
The aircraft would have an entry into service date in 2030.
Winners were announced for first, second, and third places, plus honorable mention.
First Place: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VA Tech), Blacksburg, VA
Their concept for delivering 3,000 gallons of water was to have a fleet of four water-scooping, singly-piloted, turbo-electric hybrid aircraft each carrying up to 750 gallons.
Two turboshaft engines drive electric generators mounted towards the top-rear of the fuselage, providing improved airflow during scoop maneuvers. This powertrain drives the ten distributed electric propulsion motors and two cruise motors. The generators charge a set of high-discharge batteries for use during VSTOL operations. When the ten smaller motors are inactive their props would fold.
The team estimates the selling price of one aircraft would be $5.8 million; the total number manufactured needed to get that price was not specified in the two page executive summary (above).
Instead of a 750-gallon tank, another version of the aircraft could carry up to eight passengers.
2nd Place: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VA Tech), Blacksburg, VA.
The Iris, getting second place, consists of one remotely piloted lead plane and eight air tankers. It presumably carries up to 375 gallons each to meet the design criteria of 3,000 gallons, but that was not clear in the two-page abstract. It has a turboelectric propulsion system while “allowing for future electrification as battery technology advances past the entry into service date in 2030.”
3rd Place: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VA Tech), Blacksburg, VA
The Fire Fighting Gobbler team designed the Flock, a system of six remotely piloted eVSTOL aircraft which could conduct several sorties before returning to base to swap batteries. It would be capable of taking off and landing on small lakes in 360 ft and 440 ft respectively.
By Andrew Avitt, US Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region
Drones – also called UAS or unmanned aerial systems – are playing an increasingly important role in fighting wildfires by supporting operations with aerial ignition and gathering intelligence for firefighters. The greatest benefit drones provide is they can take to the sky when manned aircraft are grounded for pilot safety.
Take, for example the FVR-90, a fixed-wing drone with a 14-foot wingspan capable of traveling at speeds up to 46 mph with a flight time of 8 hours. They are sent airborne just at dusk when other manned flights are grounded. The sky is theirs, and the overhead view they have of the fire is detailed and in real time.
“The way we use UAS now is very much a supplement,” said Justin Baxter, the Forest Service National UAS Operations Specialist. “There are certain times that it’s just not safe for us to utilize manned helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, like nighttime operations or in thick smoke or high winds.”
The drones that Baxter and his team fly are equipped with cameras that are not your normal cameras. They have multiple types of sensors, including infrared, that allow the team to see through smoke and, at night, see heat signatures, or thermal-based imaging. This allows the identification of areas where fire is still active and new areas where flames have advanced, such as spot fires.
Spot fires occur when embers from the main fire are thrown into the air and pushed by wind until they fall to the ground, starting a new fire. They are notoriously hard to identify because they are small at first and visibility is diminished by smoke. They may occur in hard-to-reach places difficult for firefighters to patrol, like on steep slopes or down in drainages.
“Drones are changing that labor-intensive process to identify these spot fires, especially when an operational area can span hundreds of thousands of acres,” Baxter said. With drones, fire managers and incident management teams can scan large areas quickly and easily identify spot fires that may be a mile from the main fire. That enables firefighters to get in and suppress those new starts before they grow.
“To give you an idea, this drone can detect a 2-inch by 2-inch spot fire from a half-mile away,” said Baxter as he gestured to the imposing drone just to his left minutes before takeoff to fly around the perimeter of the Six Rivers Lightning Complex Fire near Willow Creek, California.
Baxter said that much has changed since 2015 when the agency began the UAS program. With each passing year, incident management teams have increasingly incorporated the capability into their strategies.
The communication between the UAS crew and firefighters on the ground flows in both directions. The drone may be flying over and see heat in an area and transmit the information to a hotshot crew. Conversely, the hotshot crew can ask the UAS crew for assistance in exploring an area that they suspect might be active, and then view a feed from the drone of the area in question.
John Crotty served as the air operations branch director with California Interagency Incident Management Team 15 that responded to the Lightning Complex Fire on the Six Rivers National Forest.
Aerial intelligence isn’t new in wildland firefighting, said Crotty referring to the recently retired Cobra helicopter and its Firewatch capabilities. But the implications of unmanned flight— that opens up new possibilities.
“With the Cobra aircraft, we needed a pilot and an interpreter up there to run the camera and talk to the folks on the ground. So, we expose two individuals plus a flight [to risk],” said Crotty, “But what we really needed was the visibility to fly.”
Thick smoke on the fires like the Lightning Complex can ground manned aircraft. That’s where drones come into play and the images it captures can inform firefighters working across a large area.
“The other day I heard from one of the hotshot crews out there. They were in heavy smoke conditions, at night. With the low visibility they couldn’t see if they had a spot fire across the line,” Crotty said. “This tool being up in the air, looking down at that exact area, the UAS crew was able to pinpoint the spot and provide precise coordinates to the firefighters who were able to check it out and put it out. That kind of information we would never have without these unmanned aircraft and that capability. Drones are the future of aviation for not only fire but for aviation in general. It’s a win-win for the agencies to operate under an umbrella of this type of aircraft that can provide precise and timely info to firefighters and incident management teams. And most importantly, we can do it safely.”
In September it burned 5,280 acres north of Los Angeles between Interstate 5 and Castaic Lake
A report produced by the managers of Southern California’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of four helicopters concludes that the aggressive aerial attack working with the units on the ground likely limited the final size and cost of the Route Fire. The fire started at about noon on August 31, 2022 and ultimately burned 5,280 acres north of Los Angeles between Interstate 5 and Castaic Lake. (Download the 3.2 Mb report)
This is a different incident from the Route Fire that burned 454 acres a few miles away along Interstate 5 September 11, 2021. You may remember that fire as the one where 13 firefighters who were becoming rapidly entrapped were crammed into two US Forest Service engines and rescued with only moments to spare. There were 23 bodies in the two engines, with seating designed for five each. Another 11 firefighters not quite as close to the flames were rescued by Los Angeles County engines.
The four QRF helicopters are all staffed for 24-hour coverage and equipped for night flying. With most of their base funding supplied by Southern California Edison they are located in Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura Counties. Two of the helicopters are CH-47 Chinooks, one is an S-61, and the fourth is an S-76 used for aerial supervision. The helicopters are dispatched as a unit along with a mobile fire retardant base and can drop water until the base is established. The fact that they can drop retardant 24 hours a day, when fixed wing aircraft can’t work the fire at night, can be a game changer. During the Route Fire the mobile retardant base did not have to travel, it was set up at its base about 10 miles from the fire.
The assignment given to the QRF by Los Angeles County Fire Department on the Route fire was for it to stop the spread to the north. The S-61 was tasked to hold a particular location on the fire, using water from the adjacent Castaic Lake. It averaged of 696 gallons per drop.
The two Chinooks dropped averages of 2,434 gallons of water per drop and 1,896 gallons of retardant per drop. The three suppression helicopters flew an average of 9 hours each that afternoon and into the night, dropping 223,000 gallons of water and 55,000 gallons of retardant. The S-76 was used for 17 hours. The total cost of the retardant and flight time for the four ships was $403,950.
The report compares the Route Fire to the 1996 Marple Fire which started in about the same location at the same time of the day and time of year in similar weather conditions. By midnight the Marple Fire had exceeded 10,000 acres and continued spreading for two or three days until it was stopped at 19,860 acres.
In contrast, the spread of the Route Fire was stopped at 8 a.m. on Day 2. The three helicopters dropped water and retardant much of the night to hold it at a ridge on the north side, allowing hand crews and dozers to complete fire line.
It is very difficult to compare the suppression costs of two fires that occurred 26 years apart, but the authors of the QRF report estimated that the cost of the Marple Fire in today’s dollars would be somewhere between $70 million and $140 million. The cost of the Route Fire was $7 million to $8 million.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Foundation has announced the winners of a Team Aircraft Design Competition open to undergraduate AIAA branches or at-large Student Members. The task was to design from the ground up a purpose-built large air tanker.
Specifications for the aircraft included 4,000 to 8,000 gallon retardant capacity, 2,000 to 3,000 nm ferry range, it would use existing available engines, and have a dash speed of 300 to 400 knots. Other criteria included a drop speed of 125 to 150 knots and takeoff from a Balanced Field Length of 5,000 to 8,000 ft. with an assumption of +35°F standard atmosphere at an altitude of 5,000 ft. above mean sea-level.
The design teams awarded first, second, and third places all chose 8,000-gallon gravity-powered retardant tanks. The estimated prices of the aircraft are based on a manufacturing run of dozens of each aircraft. The teams’ complete proposals are at the links below.
The “Fireflighter” designed by a team from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore took first place. (See image above). It is powered by four turboprop engines and has a dash speed of 410 knots. The students estimate it would cost $75 million.
Team Njord, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed the “Valkyrie,” powered by two jet engines. Its dash speed is 300 knots and would use two removable RADS-XXL retardant tanks, enabling it to carry 20,000 pounds of cargo at the aircraft’s ferry range of 3,000 nm. It would sell for approximately $186 million.
The Albatross team, also from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, designed the “Firehawk” powered by two jet engines. It would have a dash speed of 380 knots and sell for about $91 million.
The CAL FIRE Air Attack Base in Grass Valley, California posted this video on September 26 showing the view from an S2T air tanker and an OV-10 Bronco Air Attack aircraft as firefighters in the sky assist personnel on the ground on the Still Fire.
Internal and external cameras on the S2T captured the action from the cockpit as well as looking from the aircraft’s belly to the rear as 1,200 gallons of retardant is dropped on the fire. The Air Attack ship also had cameras and you can listen to the radio traffic with the helicopters, air tankers, and the Incident Commander on the ground as they coordinate tactics to stop a fast-moving wildfire which was threatening multiple homes and other structures.
The fire was held to 44 acres after it was attacked by firefighters on the ground and a total of 7 air tankers and 2 helicopters.
The US Forest Service recently released new requirements for firefighting helicopters on their Multiple Award Task Order Contract (MATOC). It requires real-time communications, automatic flight following, and ATU bucket drop data, together with cockpit audio recording and Flight Data Monitoring (FDM).
Three companies have combined their expertise to build a system that meets the requirements without overburdening aircraft and budgets, according to a press release issued by GPMS, Blue Sky Network, and Flightcell.
Below are excerpts:
Today, GPMS International, Flightcell, and Blue Sky Network jointly announced a combined solution featuring their industry-leading technologies that creates a fully compliant, lightweight, cost-efficient option for operators looking to bid on the recently released U.S. Forest Service Multiple Award Task Order Contract (MATOC) firefighting contract.
Executives from the companies explained that many operators are having difficulty finding workable solutions to satisfy the new requirements in the USFS contract. By pairing Flightcell’s and Blue Sky Network’s enabled communications, flight following, Additional Telemetry Unit (ATU), and cockpit audio recording with GPMS’s advanced Health and Usage Monitoring System, the combined package meets new USFS requirements including the “modern aircraft” specification for HUMS.
“After many discussions during the HAI Firefighting and Aerial Firefighting shows, operators told us that they are looking for a solution to meet the new USFS requirements without overburdening their aircraft with additional weight or complexity or stacking single system costs onto their budgets,” said Todd Powers, GPMS VP of Sales. “What we have created here with Flightcell and Blue Sky Network is a lightweight, economically efficient solution to bring aircraft into compliance and allow operators to compete for this new contract.”
It puts Flightcell’s DZMx Plus and Smarthub cockpit audio visual recording onboard and, using Blue Sky Network’s connectivity service and SkyRouter™ fleet management platform, data is ported via a dual Satellite/LTE modem, where operators get comms, ATU data, and flight following in real-time together with downloadable audio/video recording.
Completing the solution, GPMS’s Foresight MX system provides the in-depth flight and machine monitoring that are part of the MATOC’s modern aircraft requirements for HUMS. Foresight provides engine and airframe vibration monitoring, engine performance monitoring and cycle counting, flight data monitoring with exceedance alerting, as well as rotor track and balance monitoring and adjustment solutions.
Today we are continuing an occasional weekend feature called Fire Traffic Area. This post serves as the beginning of an open thread where readers can leave comments about issues not yet covered — or maybe they have been covered. This is literally an off-topic thread. What do you think needs to be pointed out, asked, or discussed within the fire aviation community? You have the floor.
The usual rules about commenting apply. And remember, no personal attacks or politics, please.