Tests of night-flying air tankers underway in Oregon

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Single Engine Air Tanker contract Wyoming
File photo of an Air Tractor AT-802 Single Engine Air Tanker under contract in Wyoming. N23WT. Photo via Wyoming State Forestry Division June 22, 2020.

Last week the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) began Phase Two of an evaluation of using Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) at night. This phase builds on the training and lessons learned during Phase One which occurred in Grant County in July 2019. ODF’s Aviation Unit has been working with the contractor to develop safety guidelines and procedures for target and firefighter identification for night operations on ODF protected lands. Firefighters from the John Day Unit will again coordinate in the training and evaluation of the operation. There will be increased night traffic at the airport during the week of July 20 as part of the SEAT evaluation activity.

During Phase One the SEAT dropped water on simulated fire targets directed by firefighters on the ground. The SEAT pilot uses night vision goggles to identify the target and all ground resources including fire engines and personnel. Firefighters use verbal cues and hand signals utilizing chem sticks to direct the pilot to target location. During Phase Two firefighters from the John Day Unit  received training focused on safety of the pilot, firefighters, observers and ensuring effective application of the SEAT drop as well as operation of the SEAT Base, located at the Grant County Airport. Single Engine Air Tankers are capable of dropping 700 gallons of water, fire retardant, or fire suppressing gel. These drops are intended to slow the spread of the fire and allow firefighters and equipment to build fireline to control and contain the fire. Water will be used during the initial evaluation activities.

Following initial training of ground personnel last week, evaluation of night SEAT proficiency began July 21. The operation is evaluated on safety procedures, effectiveness of the drops, and communication. ODF’s Partenavia aircraft, equipped with a camera and night vision systems, will record and supervise the operation. The aircraft is equipped with thermal imaging cameras for use in fire detection, along with coordinated mapping capabilities.

Upon completion of the night SEAT drop exercises and final evaluation by ODF’s Aviation Unit the plan is for staffing a SEAT at night in anticipation of a lightning event where night operations can be used in actual fire suppression on ODF protected lands.

ODF currently contracts five Single Engine Air Tankers as part of the suppression resources throughout Oregon.

9 thoughts on “Tests of night-flying air tankers underway in Oregon”

  1. I cannot understand why any agency would pursue the idea of dropping at night. Perhaps in a populated area where subdivisions are threatened but that has risks that cannot be mitigated effectively like power lines etc. Having flown fires for several years now I have always wondered why the BLM and USFS don’t utilize tankers at the early hours of the morning when winds are light, weather is better, its less turbulent and most importantly the fire has laid down over night. This would be the best time to put down retardant to prevent the rapid growth that occurs as the surface heats up and winds increase.

    1. While there are valid arguments against dropping at night, I can tell you that there are good arguments in favor of it as well. One big barrier to earlier aircraft start times is flight time and duty day limitations – from an ATGS’s or AOBD’s perspective, if pilots time out before crews on the ground might need support, you lose a valuable resource. With two crews per aircraft, you can pick up work at daybreak and keep it going through dusk. Bringing on two crews makes more economic sense if one of those crews can extend into the night to do a full duty day.

      The problem isn’t really whether or not aircraft work at any particular time of day. For fires that are getting away, aerial suppression actions aren’t generally less effective than they are against easy catches (the AFUE study data shows this, even though it still hasn’t been released). The more common problem is mobilizing resources fast enough to implement an effective plan while it’s still possible. Crewing aircraft at night increases the number of resources available, leading to a higher probability of success because a more effective plan can be implemented.

  2. Flying at night with smoke, smoke/haze inversion, mountains, other aircraft, Fire flame intensity drown-out of the NVG’s, seems safe…As everyone knows, they don’t launch aircraft until after noon anyways.

    1. If a crew starts flying at noon and continues with an hour total for refilling and refueling, they’re timed out at dusk. Start flying at 0600 and you’re timed out at lunch.

  3. I have done a considerable amount (1000 plus hours) of flying ag at night, beginning in 1975. Its a “snooky” environment. Instead of hauling 400 gallons per load you reduce the load to 300 gallons for improved performance. At night if star or moon light is obscured by clouds (smoke) the night work really becomes interesting. I would assume that flying low level in the mountains at night; black imagines (terrain) would start to blend together. There are advantages to the “concept” of aerial delivery of retardant in the dark. I would envision VLAT size tankers equipped with the latest in terrain identification and avoidance devices to accomplish the mission using an ASM to lead the tanker to its drop. With drop coordinates and terrain identification software plus the ASM delivery of retardant delivery from 500 feet would be effective.

  4. Shortly after Obama was elected, Lockheed Martin held a “think tank” round-table in College Station, Texas. Someone must have been sick, as I was invited to attend. They were thinking that Obama was going to dramatically scale down the military, and were asking participants in the group about their latest advanced equipment. At one point they said they had an 800 gallon drone ready to start dropping on fires. As room participants grumbled about “not mixing manned and unmanned aircraft”, and how it was not a good idea, Doug P. (one of the leaders of this “think tank”) said “How about if we flew them at night?” You could have heard a pin drop in that room.

    A fleet of 800 gallon UAS’s (drones), working all night, coordinated by an aerial target supervisor utilizing laser drop point identification… No pilot danger. No pilot flight/duty limitations to worry about, no crews on ground at night, well lighted airtanker base load and return all night…

  5. IF the night bombing idea is to advance itself, utilization of a multi-engine aircraft would certainly enhance the safety aspect.
    The 802 platform is not a stable platform, auto-pilots are useless in the aircraft.
    At the very least the industry should select a platform that conforms to the demands.
    The 802 is not a logical choice!

  6. Flying firefighting at night it could be done using NVG´s, but never do it at night in single engine, It´s better to use an aircraft with multiengine configuration, multicrew and with some automation (focus in autothrottle).
    NVG will help to identify the core of the fire better than day, but this flights require a high level of mission planning. Regards from Peru (c27j spartan pilot).

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