Bill Gabbert Farewell - Fire Aviation

Flying smarter to manage wildfires

2023 begins as a year of fire aviation innovations.

Wildfire-focused aviation innovations for the first few weeks of 2023 hold promise for a year of improved aviation tools and techniques. Some of the more recent examples range from financial innovation to foam delivery.

FINANCING: The special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) of Jack Creek Investment Corp. collaborated with the long-time aerial firefighting delivery company, Bridger Aerospace Group Holdings, LLC (BAER/BAERW), moving onto Wall Street via the Nasdaq Global Market. Shares began trading on January 25 and dropped by a third on day three, with the company’s market capitalization at a robust $760.64 million. More on process and goals of this business combination at

Eight scooping air tankers at Santa Fe airport
Eight scooping air tankers at Santa Fe airport, May 6, 2022, operated by Bridger Aerospace and Aero-Flite. The Calf Canyon and Hermit Peak Fires were nearby. Photo by Jerry Messinger.

Bridger provides a “fleet of firefighting aircraft, which includes ‘Super Scoopers’ (CL-415EAF), air attack and logistical support aircraft .. and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Bridger also offers FireTRAC (, an innovative, proprietary data gathering, aerial surveillance and reporting platform that complements its fleet of firefighting assets.”

AERIAL FOAM: Aerial X Equipment continues to develop and deploy a range of aerial foam engines. As described on their website, “Aerial X Equipment’s Striker Airborne Fire Engine™ is the first airborne platform that produces homogeneous high expansion class A foam. This enables it to become the first aerial wildland fire suppression force multiplier with unique capabilities and a range of capacities.” This foam engine floating in the sky beneath a range of helicopter platforms is claimed to have longer-residency foam due to the use of compressed air (CAFS) – with Aerial X stating residency of 30-90 minutes compared to 1-10 minutes for traditional low-expansion foam. More at

TELEOPERATED FLIGHT: Our prior coverage of Rotor Technologies will continue to be updated, and Fire Aviation articles on other innovations are in progress.

But not all the updates hold such promise or good news.

CRASH SETTLEMENT. A family of a helicopter pilot, Heath Coleman, who died while fighting wildfires in Alberta, Canada, in 2021 due to a faulty rotor pin, has received a $10 million settlement, per a report in AviationPros. At the time, the fatality inspection report led to temporary grounding and rotor-pin inspections of more than 500 Bell 212 helicopters.

K-MAX, GOODBYE. The venerable twin-rotored K-Max will cease production. Over 60 rolled off Kaman’s production lines over 30 years, but limited demand and low profitability led to Kaman’s decision.

K-MAX Comet Fire
A K-MAX helicopter (N314) drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016.

The company has committed to support those helicopters already in service.

PRODUCTION NOTE: Lest we take the pace and utility of tech innovation for granted — the research, writing and posting of today’s article was thanks to satellite connectivity on a cross-country flight which also featured some monitoring of prescribed burns in Louisiana and surveying the snowpack in New Mexico, Arizona and southern California.

Surveying the snowpack en route to LAX. Photo: Ron Steffens.


The story of Higgins Ridge

Smokejumpers who survived a 1961 wildfire on Higgins Ridge in Idaho will recount their harrowing experience in a film on Monday on Montana PBS. The Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell reported that “Higgins Ridge,” named for the location of the fire in Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, will air January 30 at 8 p.m. Mountain Time.

The U.S. Forest Service sent 20 smokejumpers to what looked like a routine fire from the air, but an afternoon cold front blew the blaze to an inferno on the Nez Perce National Forest. The jumpers, 8 from Grangeville and 12 out of Missoula — many of them rookies — shifted from fighting the fire to fighting for their lives. They instinctively wanted to run to safety, but they remembered the fate of 13 firefighters who had tried to outrun a fire in Montana’s Mann Gulch 12 years before.

With that tragedy in mind, they decided to hold up. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the black.

In the film, 12 of the 20 men who jumped the fire on August 4, 1961, share the story of how the fire surrounded them, showered them with embers, and forced them to shelter in place. After about three hours, helicopter pilot Rod Snider managed to land his Bell 47B-3 on Higgins Ridge, about 83 miles southwest of Missoula, despite heavy smoke and wind, and he shuttled the jumpers to safety. Snider, then a pilot with Johnson Flying Service who is now 92 years old, is featured in the documentary along with many of his original photos from 1961.

Bell 47 helicopter, USFS photo.
A Bell 47G helicopter, USFS photo.

“This is a story that, for 60 years, never was shared beyond a few smokejumper circles,” producer Breanna McCabe said. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard it. But when a dozen men who were there all corroborate the same series of unbelievable events, I knew it was time for the public to hear it.”

Many of the interviews were collected in 2019 as part of the National Museum of Forest Service History’s Higgins Ridge Oral History Project. The museum partnered with Montana PBS producer Breanna McCabe for technical assistance recording the interviews, and McCabe collected additional interviews and materials to weave the stories into one captivating hourlong film.

Details and a 1-minute trailer are posted at and viewers can stream the show at or from the Montana PBS Facebook page.

Bill Gabbert wrote a detailed story on this fire three years ago.

About the producer: Montana PBS producer Breanna McCabe draws from 16 years of video storytelling throughout the West and beyond. She is eager to bring “Higgins Ridge” to audiences in 2023, a historical story that’s grounded at the Missoula Smokejumper Base in McCabe’s hometown. She remembers watching smokejumpers practice landing on the hill behind her childhood home, and today she enjoys hearing “silk stories” from her brother-in-law, an Alaska smokejumper. As a producer at Montana PBS, McCabe contributes stories to the program “Backroads of Montana.” Her last documentary, “Ghost Forests,” took viewers into high elevations to examine the threats facing whitebark pine. McCabe graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2009, and returned to earn her master’s degree in environmental science and natural resource journalism in 2020. In between, she worked as a broadcast news reporter for CBS News affiliates KPAX-TV in Missoula and KREM 2 News in Spokane. When she’s not asking senior smokejumpers to see their slide collections, she enjoys exploring trails, rivers and shores with her husband and their two pint-sized, high-spirited rescue dogs.

An invitation to visit Bill Gabbert’s Tribute Wall

Bill Gabbert’s brother, Jim, has shared a link to a Tribute Wall that’s been established for Bill. We invite Bill’s friends and colleagues to visit:

Bill Gabbert at Canada Icefields Parkway
Bill Gabbert at Canada Icefields Parkway


Bill Gabbert’s death announced by his family

We are saddened to share that Bill Gabbert, founder of Wildfire Today/Fire Aviation and a friend and colleague to so many in our profession, passed away last night. His family shared that Bill  died peacefully in his sleep yesterday evening in Senatobia, Miss.

Our thoughts are with Bill’s family. We will share more on Bill’s life in the days ahead.

Writing on fire, from the air … top FireAviation articles of 2022

The voice we’re missing here – that of Bill Gabbert – is here in the archive of Bill’s articles. Join us as we begin the new year with a return to a few of the most-viewed posts from 2022.

Of those in the top 10 from last year’s archives, one stands out, demonstrating Bill’s key ability to listen, reflect and make context from the work of those in the field. This was published January 14, 2022, but recounted fire events from September 2021.

The headline: Air tanker pilot dropped retardant on his own neighborhood.”

DC-10 dropping Almeda Fire Oregon September 8 2020
DC-10 dropping on the Almeda Fire in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video by Helga Descloux September 8, 2020.

And it begins …

In lining up the DC-7 air tanker for his first retardant drop on the Almeda Drive Fire southeast of Medford, Oregon on September 8, 2020, Pilot Scot Douglas looked out of the window of Tanker 60 and saw his wife and daughter hosing down their yard. The fire was spreading north toward his neighborhood pushed by 40 to 45 mph winds out of the southeast. The wind aligned with the Interstate 5 corridor as it burned through communities like a blowtorch for 8 miles, starting north of Ashland and tearing through the cities of Talent and Phoenix.

For the rest of the article, visit

Needless to say, it became a tragic day — as we witness too often when fire burns into communities — but as you read (or re-read) this post we celebrate (again) some good news for the pilot’s family and home.

Bambi Buckets hit 40!

The very first Bambi Bucket was introduced back in 1982, and since then it’s become well-known in aerial firefighting operations around the world. Mark Tayler — general manager at manufacturer SEI Industries — says the bucket’s popularity is thanks to the company’s innovation. “It’s been a process of continuous evolution,” he told Vertical magazine.

The giant flexible bucket made from SEI’s iconic orange material was the breakthrough product in early development of helicopter-slung water loads. “The early tanks were bulky and rigid,” said Tayler, “and had to be either moved to the site of the fire by road, or flown there under the helicopter, and they weren’t reliable.” He said what they needed was a way that the tank could be transported to the site inside the helicopter, and then used to drop water reliably.

SEI's Bambi Bucket hits 40-year mark. SEI photo.
SEI’s Bambi Bucket hits 40-year mark. SEI photo.

In 1978 Canadian inventor Don Arney and his partner Mark McCooey started a company named after their founding principles: science, engineering, and innovation. While testing underwater airbags by suspending them filled with water, Arney wondered if something similar might be used as a firefighting bucket. Arney built a prototype in his garage and repeatedly tested it — there’s even an archive photo of him testing the damage resistance of the original design by whacking a filled and suspended bucket with a woodcutting axe. While still rigorous, the SEI’s testing methods are now somewhat more sophisticated.

Firefighting customers can choose from numerous custom options when purchasing Bambi Buckets. They range in size from 72 to 9,800 gallons (2,70 to 9,800 liters), which at the top end is just under ten tons of water, about as much as some airport fire trucks. Then there are options to add pumps that allow the bucket to be filled without submerging it, fire suppressing foam injection systems, and even floatation devices in case the bucket must be jettisoned in the water.

Since its entry into production 40 years ago, the Bambi Bucket has been used in over 100 countries and slung under a wide variety of aircraft, from light helicopters to the heavy Chinooks. Congratulations to SEI for hitting its 40th anniversary!

First flight of teleoperated helicopter aims for agile and safer fire operations

Helitack and on-the-ground firefighters learn to keep eye contact with a helicopter pilot. So it’s unnerving to look into the cockpit of this Robinson R22 and not see a pilot’s helmet as it lifts into a hover. But this is the point – this is a video of the first test flight of an uncrewed, teleoperated helicopter focused on fire missions. And it takes just a moment to spot a focused face in the control van behind the hovering helicopter – the pilot, holding a cautious yet quite committed in-ground hover.

First teleoperated flight of Robinson helicopter with Rotor Technologies
First teleoperated flight of Robinson helicopter with Rotor Technologies. The pilot is in the control van on the right.

On December 2, 2022, Rotor Technologies’ teleoperation tools demonstrated the first and key technical challenge of moving the pilot out of the helicopter. The first three-minute flight of “Birdy McBirdface” (named in honor of  “Boaty McBoatface,” a pioneering British uncrewed submersible) demonstrated the initial flight operations with their CloudPilot system and began testing and refining the remote piloting process.

To get to this launch, company co-founders Dr. Hector Xu and Greg McMillan studied the opportunities for improving aviation with technology. Their research showed that “firefighting came across as a very urgent need,” Xu said after the first series of test flights. “It’s a growing need in terms of the climate crisis. And people don’t have the tools to fight fires.”

After a year and half of programming and prototypes, they’ve launched their CloudPilot teleoperations system that relies on low earth orbit satellites to integrate accurate, real-time location-sharing and communications between the pilot and the helicopter.

While others are developing larger payload aircraft with autonomous piloting, Rotor is focused on light helicopters with real-time but remote piloting. By removing the pilot from the light helicopter, the payload increases from 170 pounds to 400, with a three-hour flight time. Even with that gain, Xu acknowledges that “in suppression operations, we will always be a little payload limited when compared with the competition.”

The advantages of a remote pilot become more apparent in precise and interactive operations, both high risk and more routine, “when flying low and slow in the deadman’s curve, such as ignitions, and providing logistics, food, water, tools. The case that is exciting is working on the fringes of the day. To build technology that is able to fly beyond visual flight restrictions, that improves situational awareness of remote pilots beyond the physical cockpit. The technology we’re building will improve situational awareness in low-visibility situations,” both to avoid inadvertent entry into instrument meteorology conditions (IMC) and to ensure safe flying in IMC. With CloudPilot technologies, even night operations become possible – think of the potential of aerial night ignitions.

Yet what adds the most value to a light helicopter with remote piloting? As Xu notes, “People have been building uncrewed rotorcraft for awhile … trying to build fully autonomous systems. We’re very clear this is teleoperations. A pilot is operating this remotely. Not a lot of people are building this technology, particularly in the civilian operations.”

And it is this clear relationship – between pilot and helicopter, and with fire operations on the ground and in the air – that Xu holds is unique in their approach, which will help build trust in new technologies that will in turn support safer mission operations overall.

Beyond wildland firefighting, use scenarios include disaster response, emergency management and eventually passenger certification.

With their success in the first flights, Rotor Technologies is planning for simulated firefighting scenarios in field tests this summer for their two prototype helicopters.

For more, see Rotor’s Medium post at

Got your six

Readers of FireAviation have probably noticed that we have lately featured fewer-than-usual posts here by Bill Gabbert.

“That’s because I have developed an incurable disease,” says Mr. Gabbert. “I have pancreatic cancer. The symptoms started about September, and the diagnosis came in October. Basically there will be no major changes to either of these websites, but there will be a bit of a transition period that may take us a little while.”

Bill Gabbert and the poster for ONLY THE BRAVE, photo by Wendee Pettis

The WildfireToday site was launched in January 2008 and FireAviation  followed four years later in 2012. “I have long had a passion for wildland fire,” says Mr. Gabbert, “and it requires continuous learning. I’ve always been a student of wildfire, and I wanted to create a venue for the fire community that encouraged students of wildfire. I am certain that I don’t want that venue squandered. I therefore have decided to give all rights to both websites to the International Association of Wildland Fire. The IAWF shares my values, and my commitment to preserving these two websites and 15 years of collected data, knowledge, and experience gathered from thousands of people who share our passion for wildland fire.”

REGARDING ADVERTISERS: Bill Gabbert wants you to know that we all appreciate your support for the last 15 years. “We couldn’t have done this without the advertisers,” he says. “We value your support over the years and someone with IAWF will be in touch in the near future about our upcoming plans. The intention is that both websites will continue on mostly without interruption. Our goal is that the knowledge accumulated over the years on these two sites will not be abandoned.

“Things progressed a lot faster medically here than what was projected, but we’re doing the best we can.”

Bill interviewed at the Washington Monument
Bill is interviewed about the Washington DC weather after he had interviewed retiring F&AM director Tom Harbour.

Since 2008, the voice of Bill Gabbert has powered the insights published on WildfireToday; his journalism and commentary expanded in 2012 to include the FireAviation site. In these publications we have learned of great changes in the wildland fire profession and have explored how wildland fires affected our lives and our communities.

Bill was often the first to inform us of fire tragedies and he helped us face the loss as he led our evolution to a safer, wiser profession. While these publications carry Bill’s voice and vision, it is the community gathered by Bill – the experts and sources who informed him, the readers who gathered around these insights, and the businesses who supported the sites – it’s all of us who define the world of WildfireToday and FireAviation.

Bill Gabbert photo by Kari Greer
Bill Gabbert enjoyed the photo exhibit at the Continuum Conference at Missoula in the spring of 2018 and Kari Greer made this portrait of Bill in the gallery.

Today, we in the International Association of Wildland Fire honor Bill as someone who is key to both the history and the future of the IAWF. In our early days we were shaped by Bill’s insights, while he was working as a fire manager and a leader in IAWF’s cadre of professionals. And we shared parallel values when Bill turned to wildfire and fire aviation journalism. Now, as Bill moves away from journalism, he has asked the IAWF to manage the future of these publications, and IAWF has accepted the honor and challenge to steward both of his websites.

We are committed to serve the audience that Bill’s work has gathered, the mission he serves, the values he helps define. As the IAWF develops a plan that grows from Bill’s work, Ron Steffens will serve as interim editor, with the support and insights from so many – the writers and editors Bill gathered to support the sites, the business sponsors, the IAWF executive director and staff, the IAWF’s Communications Committee and Board, and the many readers.

Just as Bill asked IAWF to accept this challenge, we ask each of you in our professional and fire communities to join with us in keeping Bill’s vision moving forward. Help us to deliver timely, focused news and commentary on wildland fire, prescribed fire, fire use, and fire aviation.

Send Bill a message!
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