CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 is sporting new livery

Tanker 119
Tanker 119 at McClellan, shortly after getting new paint. Photo by Mike McKeig November 20, 2020.

Mike McKeig sent us an excellent photo of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 taken after the aircraft received a new paint job.

This is at least the third of seven HC-130H aircraft the agency is getting from the Coast Guard that have been painted in CAL FIRE livery. The plan is for all seven to receive internal gravity-powered retardant tanks so they can be used as air tankers. In May we had photos of Tankers 116 and 118.

The rudder on T-118 was also one of the last components to be painted, like T-119 at the top of the article.

A new contract awarded to DynCorp specifies that in addition to maintaining and supplying pilots for CAL FIRE’s fleet of S-2T air tankers, they will do the same for the HC-130H tankers.

Here is a “before” photo of T-119:

T-119 McClellan 5-5-2020
T-119, an HC-130H, was seen at McClellan May 5, 2020. Photo by John Vogel.

Below are Tankers 118 and 116:

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.
CAL Fire air tanker 116 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 116 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.

Smokejumper hangs up in tree, falls during let down procedure

Suffered a serious back injury. Report is available.

Lily Fire smokejumper injury

On the Lily Lake Fire August 17, 2020 on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, a first-year smokejumper performing a letdown procedure from a tree fell and suffered a broken vertebrae. The patient was treated on scene by U.S. Forest Service EMTs then transported to a hospital via air ambulance. Surgery three days later was successful and a full recovery is expected after rehabilitation.

Below are excerpts from the facilitated learning analysis. It begins after exiting the airplane and before landing.


Once on final [approach] he recognized that he was a little downwind from where the other jumpers had set up.

When he realized he wasn’t going to make the jump spot and no alternates were available, he looked around for a healthy tree and selected a tall green western hemlock to land in. He aimed for it, snagging his parachute in limbs approximately 40 feet above the ground. As he came to rest he quickly shifted into the muscle memory he developed during rookie training that spring, calming the initial nerves he felt.

Initiating the letdown procedure, he called out to his jump partner, “JP, am I hung up well?”

Lily Fire smokejumper injuryBut his jump partner, still making his way to the tree having just landed himself, was not yet close enough to hear or respond. Now that he was treed up, the tree didn’t seem to be as good as he thought. Entangled about midway up the 100 foot tree on the edge of the branches, he was just out of arm’s reach from the bole. He seemed to be fairly level with most of the tension on his left riser. There weren’t many branches around him, and those that were nearby were short and sloped downward. Continuing the letdown procedure, he chose to drop the drogue release handle instead of placing it in his pocket, in order to avoid excess movement.

Three jumpers from the previous load heard over the radio someone was treed up as they continued hiking to the fire. The jump ship maintained orbit, waiting for the jumper to get on the ground before throwing cargo. One of his rookie trainers saw him hung up and ran over to help him through the letdown procedure.

Lily Fire smokejumper injuryHe wasn’t far along in the process when she reached his tree. “Am I treed up well?” he asked.

Looking up at the suspended jumper the rookie trainer didn’t think he was and told him so, encouraging him to continue and limiting her input to only what was needed to expedite the process. As the jumper continued through the steps small branches rained down. Throughout his training he had demonstrated great proficiency in the letdown process both on the units* and during a training jump where he treed up. He felt less stress now than he had during the training jump. His rookie trainer listened as he advanced through his five point check “perfectly correct.”

He slowly released his right side riser and felt little movement. As he suspected, his left riser was holding his weight. Suddenly he had “a bad feeling” and said as much to the jumper on the ground. He then began to release his tight left riser. He had to jerk slightly on the riser to initiate the 3 ring release. As it released and he began to weight the letdown tape he heard a crack and began to drop. He bounced back up slightly “like a spring” before feeling a snap and falling 30 feet.

Continue reading “Smokejumper hangs up in tree, falls during let down procedure”

Video of 3,000-gallon drop from CH-47 Chinook

CH-47 Chinook 3,000-gallon water drop
CH-47 Chinook 3,000-gallon water drop November 17, 2020. Image from OCFA video.

A CH-47 Chinook Very Large Helitanker (VLHT) with night-flying capability operated by Coulson Aviation is working under an 83-day contract in collaboration with Southern California Edison (SCE) and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).

Registered as N42CU, the Chinook is crewed 24/7 and available for responses day and night within the 15 counties served by SCE. The daily availability costs of $2.1 million for the contract period are being paid by SCE, while the hourly costs will be covered by the agencies responsible for the fire protection where the fires occur.

The Chinook is based at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County. It can fill it’s 3,000-gallon internal tank while on the ground, or while hovering over a water or retardant source using its retractable snorkel hose.

To the best of our knowledge, here are the maximum capacities of firefighting helicopters, in gallons:

CH-47 Chinook   3,000
S-64 Air-Crane   2,650
S-70i Firehawk    1,000
CH-107   1,000
S-61    1,000
UH 60    900 or 1,000?
K-Max    700 or less
214-B    660
212    359
412EP    375

New generation of fire retardant introduced

PHOS-CHEK LCE20-Fx will be phased in during the 2021 fire season as stocks of existing retardant are used

Ontario Airport C-119 jettisoned fire retardant air Tanker 135
Air Tanker 135, a C-119, jettisoning 2,000 gallons of fire retardant west of the Ontario Airport, July 29, 1977. Photo by JD Davis.

FIRE-TROL and PHOS-CHEK fire retardants have been produced for almost 60 years by a company whose name and ownership have changed five times since 1997  — starting with Monsanto in 1963, then Solutia, Astaris, ICL, and finally in 2018, Perimeter Solutions.

Today a new generation of fire retardant in the PHOS-CHEK line was introduced by Perimeter Solutions — LCE20-Fx. It is the result of two years of work by the Perimeter Solutions R&D team in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Apparently very little time was spent choosing a name.

It was tested during the 2020 fire season, applying the required 200,000 gallons before it was approved by the Forest Service and added to the qualified products list on  November 5, 2020.

“We will begin deploying this commercially next fire season at probably eight or nine bases, which we will convert from LC-95A to this new LCE20-Fx product,” said Edward Goldberg, Chief Executive Officer of Perimeter Solutions.

The new formulation has shown improvements in three key areas: coverage, visibility, and toxicity.

Coverage

The retardant is produced as a liquid concentrate and delivered to application sites as a low-viscosity liquid. Before being loading onto an air tanker, it is diluted and mixed with water using an in-line proportioner as it is transferred to delivery systems. According to the company, the elastic nature of the gum thickener in LCE20-Fx reduces drift, dispersion, and evaporation, while increasing coverage, wrap around, and canopy penetration, making it more effective in targeting ground vegetation.

Visibility

The reason fire retardants are red is so aerial firefighters can see exactly what areas of a fire have been treated. This reduces repeated drops in the same area and makes it possible for additional drops to tag on to and extend the treated areas along the edge of a fire.

“We’re utilizing Fx, the ultra high visibility pigment in our products, which helps the pilots see where they need to tie in the next line so that the fire doesn’t get through the gap,” said Melissa Kim, Director of Research and Development for Perimeter. “It just continues on with our line of Fx products. We started with iron oxide, then we moved to a fugitive, and then we improved on that fuchsia color. This product will fade over time, but it does have a high, extremely high, visibility to the point where we’ve had comments come back saying that it’s even more visible than our iron oxide products. So that was a big big deal for us.”

The reports about the visibility came after the new formulation was used this year at two air tanker bases in Nevada — Battle Mountain for most of the season, and Stead/Reno at the end of the season.

They will also be producing an uncolored version without any red or fuchsia pigment which could be applied from the ground by utilities or homeowners for long term prevention and protection.

Toxicity

The millions of gallons of red fire retardant that air tankers drop every year are usually made from ammonium phosphate or its derivatives. It has  been called “long term fire retardant” because even after it dries, the chemical can interfere with the combustion process and may still retard the spread of  a vegetation fire. However research and experience in the field has shown some formulations can be toxic to fish. Federal interagency policy prohibits the aerial delivery of retardant within 300 feet of certain waterways. It also cannot be used in certain designated terrestrial areas, or in some National Parks without special permission. The restrictions still apply to the new formulation of retardant introduced today.

Maps are available which identify threatened, endangered, candidate, proposed, and sensitive species (TECPS) avoidance areas. There appears to be significant variability within the Forest Service on interpreting the guidelines and mapping the areas.

Retardant avoidance areas
Retardant avoidance areas, Forest Service lands in Northwest California.
Retardant avoidance areas
Retardant avoidance areas on the Descanso District, Cleveland National Forest, Southern California.

The retardant products used by the U.S. Forest Service are tested for fish toxicity to determine the concentration in milligrams per liter (mg/L) that result in the death of 50 percent of the aquatic test specimens, young rainbow trout, within 96 hours. The higher the number, the less toxic it is. The Forest Service specifications for retardant require that the aquatic toxicity be greater than 200 mg/L. The previous versions of PHOS-CHEK, LC-95A, had toxicity levels of 225 to 399 mg/L. The new LCE20-Fx is 983.

Weight

The weight of the mixed LCE20-Fx retardant is slightly less than the previous generation, reducing the weight of a gallon from 9.01 pounds to 8.87 pounds, a savings of 0.14 pound per gallon. This reduces the weight of the 9,400 gallons on a DC-10 by 1,316 pounds, and of the 3,000 gallons on a BAe-146 by 420 pounds.

Transportable retardant plant

The Forest Service refers to them as “portable retardant bases”, but transportable is probably a more accurate term. Since these types of bases became an issue in discussions about the closure and dismantling of the tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, I asked Mr. Goldberg about their transportable equipment. He explained that the company has 12, each of which can be set up in as little as two hours once on site. They are not always in the same place and can be prepositioned depending on fire activity.

fire retardant plant portable
Equipment to set up a fire retardant plant arrives at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, June 25, 2012 during the Waldo Canyon Fire. U.S. Air Force photo by Don Branum.

Conair acquires Level 5 flight training device for AT-802 air tankers

It has been installed at their Training & Tactics Center in Abbotsford, British Columbia

Conair AT-802 Flight Training Device. Conair photo.

The Conair Group has installed a Level 5 Flight Training Device (FTD) for AT-802 air tankers at their Training & Tactics Center in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The FTD is convertible, designed to mimic the performance of both the amphibious Fire Boss and wheeled Air Tractor AT-802 single engine air tankers. It can provide pilots with a virtual training platform that offers true-to-life flight scenarios, including firefighting missions.

It has been certified approved by Transport Canada, which specifies that a Level 5 FTD represents a specific cockpit. In the United States an FTC certified by the FAA at Level 5 may represent a family of aircraft rather than only one specific model.

Equipped with real avionics, a KAWAK throttle quadrant, and Retardant Delivery System, the simulator has displays identical to the cockpit of the actual aircraft. Flight control feedback and all instrumentation react to changing environments, with wind speed, visibility, temperature, clouds, and turbulence being controlled on the master Instructor Operating Station. The training device allows the pilot to practice tactics within a variety of situations, while managing the added pressure of simulated radio communications from multiple aircraft on the same mission.

Conair AT-802 Flight Training Device. Conair photo.

The FTD also features a 180-degree high-definition visual display, vibration system, and programable firefighting scenarios which enables pilots to practice a range of fire suppression techniques within immersive and dynamic circumstances. A key advantage of the FTD includes the pilot’s ability to practice drops and scoops in complex, and often unpredictable conditions. In addition, pilots have the opportunity to exercise emergency procedures within a safe setting that significantly reduces the risk to both the pilot and the aircraft. The FTC does not have three-axis motion but does have an Entrol limited motion base plus the ability to produce vibration.

The AT-802 FTD at Conair’s training facility is available to qualifying Air Tractor operators. Conair acquired an FTD for the Avro RJ85 in  2017.

Conair acquire five flight training devices
Conair to acquire five flight training devices from Quantu

In December, 2019 the company awarded a contract to install five fully networked FTDs with reconfigurable cockpits to simulate flight dynamics for eight aircraft platforms performing different roles during aerial firefighting missions. Each of these reconfigurable three-axis motion platforms will be able to perform individual or joint training encompassing different aircraft platforms and scenarios. The goal is to not only simulate the ground fire and effects of the aerial retardant being applied by the trainees but will also simulate the dynamic and dangerous environmental changes created by the fire that pilots may encounter. Shannon De Wit told Fire Aviation, “The project is underway but has been delayed due to COVID and the inability of development teams located around the world to travel to Canada to install the units.”

In addition to Air Tractor 802 SEATs, Conair operates other firefighting aircraft including, air attack aircraft, CL-215T, RJ85, Q400MR, and Convair CV580.

Conair AT-802 Flight Training Device. Conair photo.

DynCorp receives contract to continue work on CAL FIRE aircraft

DynCorp maintenance facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport
DynCorp maintenance facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

DynCorp International (DI) has been awarded a new contract to continue supporting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) aviation program. Work will be performed at McClellan Park in Sacramento, California and aircraft are deployed across 13 air tactical and 10 helitack bases throughout the State.

The competitively awarded contract has a three-year base period with two one-year options for a total potential value of $352 million, subject to legislative appropriation.

DI team members will continue to provide line to depot-level maintenance on CAL FIRE’s fleet of 57 aircraft including S-2T air tankers, OV-10A aircraft, UH-1H helicopters, S-70i helicopters, and A-200CT King Air training aircraft. DI also provides full flight operations, with pilots, for CAL FIRE’s fixed-wing fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft including the new-to-them HC-130H aircraft that are in the process of being converted from Coast Guard missions to firefighting air tankers with internal gravity-powered retardant tanks. Pilots for the helicopters are CAL FIRE employees.

Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.

OV-10
A lineup of CAL FIRE OV-10 air attack ships at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Former Carson Helicopters Vice President requests release from prison, fearing COVID-19

Steven Metheny’s falsification of records for a helicopter led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008

Carson Helicopters

This article was first published at Wildfire Today.

Steven Metheny, 50, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters has requested compassionate release from prison because he fears he will contract COVID-19 while serving time in the federal prison in Lompoc, California.

He filed the request in October and on November 2 Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter wrote in a response, “The mere existence of COVID, without more, is not sufficient to justify compassionate release.” Potter argued that Metheny’s weight is the only eligible health condition that increases his risk of COVID-19. “But, obesity alone should not result in defendant’s release,” Potter wrote.

Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records for a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter under contract to the U.S. Forest Service led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008.

Mr. Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. He was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 for attempting to defraud the government out of more than $32 million and has been serving time in Lompoc, California.

Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

During the trial in 2014 defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Judge Aiken who presided over the trial dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Mr. Metheny.

In June, 2020 the same judge refused to reduce Mr. Metheny’s sentence when he argued he had ineffective counsel. He said he would not have pleaded guilty in 2014 if his attorney had told him that crash victims were going to be allowed to testify at his sentencing, or that he’d be ordered to repay tens of millions of dollars in restitution upon release from prison. Judge Aiken called Mr. Metheny’s claims that his defense lawyer made false promises “palpably incredible.”

The next hearing on Mr. Metheny’s motion for compassionate release is a phone conference scheduled for November 13 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Pat and Kelly.

Reports released about the helicopter that crashed on the Polles Fire in Arizona

The pilot was killed in the July 7, 2020 accident west of Payson

Polles Fire vicinity map
Polles Fire vicinity map

On July 7, 2020 a UH-1H helicopter crashed while transporting supplies to firefighters who were spiked out (camping) while working on the Polles Fire about 10 miles west of Payson, Arizona. The only person on board, pilot Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman, 37 of Litchfield Park, Arizona was killed. We send our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Boatman, and to the forestry technicians who were at the fire.

Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman
Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman

BJ was born on June 8, 1983 in Provo, Utah. He was a third-generation pilot and worked alongside his parents to build their company, Airwest Helicopters of Glendale, Arizona.

3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020
3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020; looking north.

The helicopter, N623PB, serial number 64-13689, was manufactured in 1964. It is a UH-1H registered to Aero Leasing in Glendale, Arizona, the same city where Air West Helicopters is located.

Polles Fire - Payson helicopter crash fatality
Airwest Helicopters photo, N623PB.

Two reports have been released, a brief preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, and a 23-page facilitated learning analysis (FLA) commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.

The FLA is solely devoted to analyzing the response to the accident — the Incident Within an Incident and the actions taken in the following days. It does not address what caused the helicopter to crash. The report found very little to criticize and praised most of the actions that were taken. It goes into quite a bit of detail about how the fire’s Incident Management Team handled the emergency response during the first few hours, as well as organizing over the next several days to care for BJ’s family and the forestry technicians that were involved.

Anyone who could in the future find themselves in a similar unfortunate situation would benefit from reading the FLA. Firefighting is dangerous, and others will have to walk the same path.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Below is the text from the narrative portion of the three-page NTSB report. The complete report which will analyze the cause, might be released within the next year.


“On July 7, 2020, about 1213 mountain standard time, a Bell/Garlick UH-1H helicopter, N623PB, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Payson, Arizona. The pilot was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 133 external load flight.

Illustration from the NTSB report
Figure 1: Depiction of helicopter flight path based on witness statements. From the NTSB preliminary report.

“The helicopter was owned by Airwest Helicopters LLC and operated by the United States Forest Service at the time of the accident. According to witnesses, the helicopter was transporting supplies using a long line for a hotshot firefighting crew that were repositioning on the ground. The pilot transported three loads to the new destination uneventfully prior to the accident and had been using an indirect route to the north to avoid a fire area (Figure 1). While transporting the fourth load, witnesses observed the helicopter begin to fly erratically while en route to its destination. During this time, a witness stated that he observed the helicopter enter a high nose-up pitch attitude and the external payload began to swing. The helicopter then displayed irregular movements for several seconds before the external payload settled and the helicopter appeared to stabilize. However, after about 3 seconds, multiple witnesses observed the helicopter wobble and bank erratically before it entered a steep nose up attitude and then descended rapidly. The witnesses did not observe the helicopter on fire during the accident flight, nor did the pilot report any anomalies over the helicopter crew’s common air-to-ground radio frequency or any other assigned frequencies for the fire.

“The helicopter wreckage came to rest about 0.5 nm north of its drop off destination, oriented on a heading of 074° magnetic and was mostly consumed by postcrash fire. All major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site. The helicopter’s external payload was found 123 ft southeast of the main wreckage.

“The wreckage was retained for further examination.”