USFS looking for high-tech aerial supervision aircraft

The U.S. Forest Service intends to contract for 7 and later up to 15 aircraft outfitted with high-tech sensors to serve as platforms for aerial supervision on wildfires. Today the agency issued a Request for Information to find out what is available and which companies may be interested. The aircraft would not only be able to conduct aerial supervision of other firefighting assets, but would also provide a platform for training of aerial supervision personnel. This will require an aft crew station that provides the capability to manage aerial supervision operations in its entirety. The airplanes would be able to carry one pilot, an aerial supervisor, a trainee aerial supervisor, and an instructor.

Two of the seven aircraft would be able to support day and night operations and would be located at Lancaster, California, and McCall Idaho.

Some of the hardware the aircraft must have would include:

  • Infrared/Electro-Optical sensing systems with color camera and FLIR systems. The ability to manually “select” an area of interest upon which the system will autonomously (without user input) remain pointed at that area as the aircraft maneuvers.
  • The ability of the system to provide and display target location (latitude, longitude, altitude). If laser is used, it must be eye safe. The ability to provide a visible (within the visible light spectrum, with and without the aid of NVG’s) marking capability of a target that can be viewed by other aircraft within 1 mile and at off-axis viewing angles at night.
  • The ability to auto-detect non-participant aircraft.
  • Data link dissemination for near or near real-time video image viewing and analysis.
  • Track ground force and air force position location. Data entry to assign naming/labeling/text convention to ground and air forces engaged on the fire.

The Forest Service might be looking for aircraft similar to the Aero Commander 690A that is being used with their night flying helicopter.

The Request for Information has a response due date of September 13, 2013. They expect to publish the solicitation by October, 2013 for an anticipated contract award in February 2014.

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12 thoughts on “USFS looking for high-tech aerial supervision aircraft”

  1. Finally taking the training issues a liiiitle more seriously now , eh?

    Scratchline , 4 years ago mentioned a number of people did not like the ATGS environment in small aircraft.

    Now 7-15 aircraft under a RFI means there are some general training issues that is being required than the usual GOB network of training

    Like the rest of us in the professional aviation world…..we have PAID for our training to get to the magic 1500 hour to be employable…some by way of the military and others deep into our pocketbook….

    EXPENSIVE, REALISTIC training is MORE than the S and I courses that the LMA’s have purported in their training regimes the last 30 yrs

    The realism of the aviation environment has finally come to roost….and it will cost the government. Problem is the USFS will require all the list of equipment on board the aircraft before contract availability and that will probably cost the operator…..USFS …those folks may want 5-10 contracts also

    Looking for deal on the cheap? They might get some deals…but hopefully the operators CPA’s have their pencils sharpened on this one, for the operators return of investment, and how that cost is applied to contracts

    Which companies??? Doesn’t the USFS know?? Plenty of us out here probably already know the players…and who would be interested!!

  2. Agreed on that Leo. Now, is the contract specifically designed for the 690 or what? Not that the 690 isn’t ideal high wing, good viz, parts available..

    1. The visibility/maintenance availability issues with the AeroCommander seem to rule that platform out.

      My guess? PC-12 or Caravan. Interestingly, the Forest Service said they would consider a single-engine aircraft, which seems to open the door for one of these 2.

  3. This is an absolutely brilliant idea. Move much of surveillance, command, control, and communications for fire-fighting to an aircraft.

    Lots of general specs for an aircraft in the RFP but not much detail in the way of desired sensing, comm, and C2 requirements. Properly defined sensing, comm, and C2 requirements will go a long way toward getting the right kind of aircraft to do the job. If this is intended to be a C3 and surveillance aircraft for fire-fighting, I think the forest service will find that defining payload capability will end up defining the aircraft.

    Did some work like this for Uncle Sam and from experience, if you first get an aircraft and then “bolt on what fits”, you will not get what you want unless you are very lucky. I certainly hope the USFS has a good set of strategy driven requirements for this program because if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will take you there.

  4. Bean has some really good points. I don’t think the RFP indicates that the USFS intends to command or control anything other than aircraft from this platform, but with those extra two aft seats having access to all of the sensors, it could be a great place for, say, a deputy Operations Chief who would then have the big, real-time, picture of the entire incident — something that has rarely occurred before on a long-term, routine, continuing basis for someone who has operational responsibilities for ground personnel. And to my knowledge it has never been possible at night on a wildland fire, and certainly not with the sensors mentioned in the RFP.

    This would add a new level of situational awareness and safety. If this capability had been used during the Esperanza and Yarnell Hill Fires, there might be 24 firefighters still alive today. In both of those cases the fires basically sneaked up on the firefighters. Having a lookout on the ground is helpful. Having a lookout in the air is even better.

    The benefits of routinely having eyes in the air with the sole responsibility of looking out for the safety of ground personnel, while another person handles aircraft, cannot be underestimated.

    The RFP says the aft seats would be used for training aerial supervisors. I would make that the secondary priority of those positions. First, have the trainee and trainer make sure no firefighters on the ground are threatened by the movement of the fire. Then, do your training. Or if you don’t have a trainee, put a Deputy Ops in the seat.

    Like Bean said — brilliant!

  5. I commend Bean for his service and I have a friend laid off from the airlines doing ISR work in the Stans on a ISR ship and fully understand the mission

    I will say it is a good idea….maybe brilliant. ISR was borne out of necessity in the last 10-13 years and is hardly new technology due to our current missions in the Stans, Iraq, and I would certainly imagine the Arabian Peninsula.

    Sooooo……if the RFI and RFP go forward…how about those operators that ALREADY know something on how to set up aircraft work station and contract with ship already being relocated back to the States?

    Seems like this RFI is a complete reinvention of the wheel and if the USFS has the money for 7- 15 of these ships…then ….what is really happening with the funding of the LAT program…hmmmmmmmm??

    I am all for SA and I am ALLLLL for single engine or twin engine turbopropps… the PC 12, again, is hardly new technology (except for NG) being started around 1991 and the venerable Cessna C208 Caravan….hell I was refueling those as a ramp monkey in 1986…again HARDLY new tech.

    Both are some saweeet aircraft with the PT6-whatever series to include the -67 engines.

    Both aircraft have their limitations and with all the operators that USFS contracts with operators that have AC 500 and 690 series aircraft, it seems a little disingenuous (sp) to rule the Aero Commander series out when, like the C130 and P3 series….all of a sudden they are ships to “stay away from” on contracts.

    That is like saying….wait for it…we are not going to use single engine UH1H series aircraft…..”‘cuz of the proverbial safety issues” of single engine turbine aircraft and how some “safety gurus” view those aircraft…..if one starts thinkin that way …then it is time to get rid of the Bell 209 FIREWATCH Cobra…with THAT train of thought.

    I will reserve the “brilliant” idea Bean and Bill….just for the sheer virtue that this has been a DoD and contractor mission for a LONG time now and now it is a bandwagon that the LMA’s needed to get in along time ago instead of dreamin of UAV and drone technology and C130J’and C27J’s……


    GET on with the large airtanker program….First things first and get on with contracting for the candy later.

    Might be a brilliant idea…..but there are priorities hanging around for the last 60 years and “Next Gen” has really gotten fully off the ground yet…

    Sounds like I am a “Debbie Downer”….but let us get more realistic here…..there is a mission not fully funded (spell LAT’s) and now we are worried about RFI’s for ISR types ships…..

    Like my Army DI used to say…… FOCUS, people, FOCUS!!!!!

    IF you know what I mean

  6. Leo,

    I think the reason the “airborne C3 / ISR” thing appears to be prohibitively expensive is that folks are looking at DoD programs. This could be done by innovative commercial folks at a fraction of the cost of a comparable DoD effort because “an elephant is a mouse built to mil specs”.

    Absolutely agree that the LAT program has suffered tremendously but I think that is due to the lack of a strategic goal and a plan. You just can’t justify a budget in D.C. without a good program plan. A good plan would explain how many of what kind of assets were needed and why and explain the impact if those numbers weren’t available. I haven’t seen such a document and until congress sees one, I don’t think things will improve.

    I’d bet that the USFS could get the money they need if they developed a comprehensive requirements document for a networked capability to fight forest fires. It would include a concept that employed a network of command and surveillance, LATs and ground assets. No room here to elaborate, but if you network your assets, you find that you enable them to work much more efficiently and effectively.

    Not necessarily looking for candy … there was a LAT available very early on at PUB for the Lower North Fork fire when they first called for air. The LAT didn’t fly because there was no lead plane available. So it is a balance that must be struck.

  7. Thanks, Bean

    Good that some of you can help point some more of this out

    Problem is…strategic goal is needed for both LAT and ATGS type aircraft.

    Granted DoD specs are high….I would think that the USFS puts out the RFI and RFP process….but bet on one thing…there will be a price to pay monetarily and a 3 yr contract may not suffice for ROI for “cheap crew stations.”

    Cuz we all know what an FAA STC will cost when the FAA DER starts roaming around and when the -337’s start getting signed off by the A&P and A&P (IA)!!

    1. DATA PORT is a very good first step in integrating the firefighting effort.
      If GPS location data was available on all air and ground firefighting assets, the commander could have a realtime picture of asset position.

      It would also provide the means to designate targets for tankers and do the ATGS job much more efficiently.

      Hope the USFS is thinking about this.

  8. Some very interesting comments with good depth. Re “provide eyes for the folks on the ground, and then think about training” comment; I would offer from my experience flying Air Attack missions for the last 25 years, that the two are not mutually exclusive. The key is CRM, as the mission naturally is geared as “eyes in the sky” for ground fire fighter safety as a priority. Air Traffic Control is the specific requirement under the responsibility and control of the ATGS (Air Tactical Group Supervisor), however the Air Attacks role as “Guardian Angel” for ground crews is the constant mission and a continuous awareness maintained by the AA crew.
    A study re turbine engine reliability was conducted some years ago by Bob Coward, USFS Lead Plane pilot, and it revealed an interesting fact, that the failure rates of turbine engines is significantly greater than many would like to believe. Remember, there is no auxiliary fuel pump on a turbine engine. I suspect that a majority of the ATGSs are going to have the same problem with single engine turbines as they have with single engine piston powered platforms. When a person sits over hostile terrain for 6 to 8 hours a day for weeks on end, it tends to make one thinks about odds of exposure.
    The comment about the less expensive commercially available communications systems for C3 shared theater awareness is a fact. We have worked out several solutions through R and D with my company, however, until a standard is established by the government, it is impossible to implement a full disbursement of capability to all personal on the fire. It is certainly a big efficiency and safety improver to have everyone on the same sheet of music. Really significant improvements can be realized if a simple reliable system can be implemented. It is exciting to see this coming to reality after years of pushing for it. Yaaaa !!!!

  9. Back to my comment about the lack of an adequate set of requirements documents [that should include standards]. First the USFS needs a top level document that explains where they want to go with firefighting. Second they need objectives and standards for the various missions that support the strategy [explain how to get there], then they can draw up comprehensive requirements documents that the commercial world can work with.

    It seems that each part task of the firefighting effort is doing its own thing. This makes developing any kind of integrated operation a problem. The USFS must clearly explain where they want to go and how they plan to get there.

    As for training, in naval aviation there’s a saying, “You fight like you train.”

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