(Originally published June 4, 2013; revised June 5 to add more details about the staffing of the helicopter and the status of the ownership of the air attack ship.)
The U.S. Forest Service has not had a helicopter with night flying capabilities since around 1980 — until recently. Now there is a night flying ship based on the Angeles National Forest in southern California, designated Helicopter 531.
Three to four night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City have been used for the last four nights on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. They were coordinated by personnel in another new addition to the USFS’s fleet, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. It is a Turbo Commander 690, much like the one in the photo. The air attack ship is not USFS owned as reported by the agency, but it is leased on a call when needed contract. It is equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.
The long term goal of the USFS is to retrofit an old agency-owned piston engine Shrike 500 Commander to take the place of the contractor supplied aircraft.
Helicopter 531 is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s web site says they operate 22 helicopters. During the day to fill its tank it will typically draft water from a water source while hovering. But at night, for safety purposes, it will only refill by landing and filling from a hose staffed by firefighters.
Yes, according to information we received from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea and someone else closely associated with the operation, the helicopter will be staffed 24 hours a day, using five personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There are four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.
The helicopter will be flown by one pilot during the day, but will add a co-pilot at night. It will respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more travel by ground vehicle.
The helicopter and the air attack ship will work out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. They can be used on initial attack during the day and night in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, and all of the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland National Forests.
In a news release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was quoted as saying:
The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.
Both the Turbo Commander and Helicopter 531 began their contract June 1. While the fixed wing has been in use since then, the helicopter and pilots have been going through training and obtaining certifications and the module is expected to be available at the end of the day on June 5.
The USFS was criticized for attacking the 2009 Station fire near Los Angeles on the first night and the morning of the second day with strategy and tactics that were less than aggressive. The fire was three to four acres at 7 a.m. on the second day, but no air tankers or helicopters were used the first night or until later in the morning on the second day. The fire took off at mid-morning on day two and later burned 160,000 acres and killed two firefighters from Los Angeles County Fire Department. Nearby night-flying helicopters operated by Los Angeles County were not used the first night.
After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency later said they would study the concept, again, and three years after the disastrous fire they announced on August 16, 2012 that they would get back into night flying on a very limited basis with a single helicopter in 2013.
The southern California FIRESCOPE organization and the national forests in the area have established guidelines and procedures for the program. Here is a link to a FIRESCOPE document written in 2007. And below are more recent guidelines from the San Bernardino National Forest. Following the San Bernardino document, there are some excerpts from the FIRESCOPE procedures.
“San Bernardino National Forest, Night Aerial Firefighting Guidelines
A night capable ATGS and a water dropping helicopter are or may be available for night operations on the BDF.
Operational Time Period is defined as Civil Twilight (30 minutes after sunset and 30 minutes before sunrise)
One of the following engagement criteria must be met before night helicopter water dropping missions can be performed.
- Lives are or will be threatened
- Structures are or will be threatened
- Resources of significant economic value are, or will be threatened
- Excessively high suppression cost will be prevented
Night Initial Attack Response
- ATGS and night flying helicopter will be on all BDF run cards for automatic nighttime response.
- When a night flying aircraft (fixed wing or helicopter) has been sent as an automatic response at night: FICC will notify the Forest Duty Officer.
- Forest Duty Officer will notify the Forest Supervisor, Deputy Forest Supervisor, appropriate District Ranger, Public Affairs Officer and Fire Aviation Officer.
- IC and/or the night aerial resources will discuss if one of the four engagement criteria is met for water dropping mission to commence.
- The pilot will conduct an aerial recon prior to water dropping mission.
Extended Attack Operations
- The Incident Commander, Forest Duty Chief and the Agency Administrator should start planning for night missions as early as possible.
- A night flying ATGS or water dropping helicopter may be available upon request.
- One of the four engagement criteria must be met prior to engagement.
- When ordering a helicopter for night flying operations, specifically state when placing the order.
- The pilot will conduct an aerial recon prior to water dropping mission.
Night Time Aerial Firefighting Operations Guidelines
- A delayed response may occur due to required weather/ crew briefings and risk assessment/analysis (go/no-go checklist) completion.
- Pilots evaluate the safety of all night time aerial firefighting missions and make appropriate recommendations.
- Pilots will not be expected to fly at night in terrain that they are not familiar with due to unseen hazards.
- All Known Hazards will be relayed to the ECC when requesting night time aerial firefighting operations.
- Only pre-designated and approved night helispots or airports will be utilized for initial attack water-fill operations.
- Production rates during night time operations can be estimated at 50% of comparable day time operations.
- IC and general staff should make contact with the responding aircraft to relay the incident objectives.
- An agency representative, BDF PAO will be dispatched to any incident outside of the BDF administrative boundary.”
Below is an excerpt from the FIRESCOPE document:
A. Initial attack planning should be accomplished prior to the incident so that night operations can focus on the mission, not extraneous issues.
B. Pilots should not be expected to fly at night in terrain that they are not intimately familiar with. Individual agencies need to define what they will consider as Pilot familiarity.
C. Agencies that cover smaller geographic areas (Cities & Counties) may want to consider local recent daytime flight experience as sufficient familiarity. Flight hazards must be considered.
D. Agencies that cover large geographic areas may want their Pilots to perform a detailed daylight recognizance of the operational area prior to night operations. This would by default preclude most initial attack due to travel times.
E. Another consideration is not to fly at night at all because values threatened do not justify the risk of night flying. The aviation risk assessment and risk management will cover this issue in detail with Section E.
2. Extended Attack. Extended attack night operations will require extensive flight crew, maintenance, and logistical support.
A. Aircraft availability will be more difficult to manage if day and night operations are required.
B. The logistical issues are compounded for agencies that are operating a considerable distance from their maintenance support base.
C. Experience has demonstrated that pilots will suffer severe fatigue after three active night operational periods. Agency policy and risk management should reflect this limitation.”