Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

4 thoughts on “Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter”

  1. I was one of the first two pilots hired in 1994, flying Evergreen’s 205A.
    Please add my email to the contacts list and keep me informed.

    1. Welcome aboard, Bill. You can subscribe to receive email notifications of new articles on Fire Aviation. Look near the bottom of the sidebar, where it says, “SUBSCRIBE TO FIRE AVIATION VIA EMAIL”. Just enter your email address there. If you ever decide to unsubscribe, there will be a link at the bottom of every email that you can click on.

    2. Hi, Bill! I see you’re enjoying your retirement, too! Great seeing you here. I know your experience and expertise can be valuable here. Greg Bishop, FC (RET 2000), OCFD/OCFA.

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