The U.S. Forest Service owns two twin-engine aircraft equipped with infrared (IR) sensing technology that can accurately map wildfires, even at night and through smoke. This information is critical for firefighters to have when the exact extent of a fire is not known due to darkness, smoke, size of the fire, rapid spread, or complex terrain. IR mapping aircraft can also be used to detect new fires started by lightning when they are very small.
One of the two USFS aircraft, a Beechcraft 200 Super King Air (N149Z), has been busy this year providing intelligence and situational awareness for firefighters. But the other, a jet-powered Cessna Citation Bravo (N144Z), has not successfully mapped a fire since November 16, 2018 when it flew the Camp and Woolsey Fires in California.
I asked Stanton Florea, a Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist, why the jet has not been used in more than a year.
“[It] has not operated since an avionics issue was detected during a test flight in June of 2019,” Mr. Florea said. “The issue made the aircraft unsafe to operate on wildland fire missions. Efforts to resolve the avionics issue have not been successful.”
One advantage the Citation has over the King Air is faster cruising speed, 464 mph vs. 356 mph. This enables it to more quickly move from fire to fire during the course of a nightly mission, producing more maps for firefighters. Depending on the size of fires and their locations, a fast IR mapping aircraft might cover five or even ten fires in one mission.
To fill in the gap created by an avionics problem, the Forest Service is going to the private sector.
Mr. Florea said the agency has Call When Needed Contracts with four companies for IR mapping. Their home bases are shown in parenthesis:
- Owyhee Air Research (Nampa, ID)
- Hood Tech Aero (Hood River, OR)
- Kolob Canyon (Cedar City, UT)
- Courtney Aviation (Columbia, CA)
They also have an Exclusive Use Contract with Tenax Aerospace, with corporate headquarters in Madison, Mississippi, for two IR planes, one of which is operational now, with the other to be available later in August.
These five companies, judging from their websites, range in size from Hood Tech Aero which features a small Cubcrafters plane, to Tenax which “focuses on special mission aviation programs critical to national security and the public interest including, but not limited to: aerial fire suppression, aerial intelligence gathering, and airborne data acquisition.” Tenax has also operated at least one CL-415 scooping air tanker, T-260.
In recent weeks I have seen fire maps created from Courtney Aviation data. I of course can’t judge the accuracy, but after being processed by agency Infrared Interpreters assigned to the fires, they look very similar to those generated from USFS aircraft data, with about the same amount of detail.