Military RC-26 reconnaissance aircraft deployed to assist firefighters

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The aircraft can detect new fires, map them, and stream real time video


Above: An example of an RC-26, in this case with the Texas Air National Guard. ANG photo.

(Originally published at 9:13 a.m. PDT July 30, 2018)

For at least the third time in recent years a manned military fixed wing aircraft is helping the firefighting agencies collect real time intelligence about ongoing wildfires. An RC-26 aircraft with Distributed Real-Time Infrared capability and support personnel from the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing have been deployed to Spokane, Washington in support of wildland fire operations in the West.

In 2017 when one of the RC-26’s was activated, its objective was to perform up to three different types of missions using its array of infrared and video sensors.

  • Detect new fires, especially following lightning events. One of the goals is to find small fires early so they can be attacked before growing large.
  • Map existing fires, usually at night, to determine the perimeter and intensity.
  • Downlink live video to inform fire managers about the current status, location, and behavior of the fire. The Air Force calls that process “DRTI”, Distributed Real-Time Infrared.

Here is  a portion of what we wrote last year when one of the RC-26’s was deployed:

Lt. Col. Jeremy Higgens, one of the pilots on the aircraft that requires a three-person crew, told us today that so far on this assignment they have been mapping and detecting fires, but have not yet been asked to stream any live video like they did when on a similar assignment in 2016. On the ground two displays are available, the video from the sensors and another with a map showing the location of the aircraft or the sensors’ target.

The plane is expected to work the fires seven days a week, so they brought a total of five people to provide daily service.

Lt. Col. Higgens said the infrared sensors can detect a fire that is 50 to 80 miles away. They have been flying one to two sorties a day each lasting for three to five hours. Their mapping data is sent to Geographic Information System (GIS) operators in Portland or Boise who analyze it and produce maps.