Another proposal for unmanned air tanker

In 2009 we first started hearing about concepts for unmanned air tankers when John A. Hoffman applied for a patent for UAVs that would be transported by a mother ship and released near the fire. They would fly to the fire and drop retardant, and then intentionally crash, or in another variant, fly to an airport and land.

In 2013 Nitrofirex developed the idea further by producing a video. Their UAVs would also be transported in a large mother ship and released through the rear cargo door. The folded wings would deploy and the aircraft would glide autonomously to the target then “automatically and with great precision” release the water or retardant. The small engine which had been idling would power the ship back to the tanker base where it would be reloaded and inserted back into a mother ship.

But we have not heard of anything real being built or flown.

Next up: Faradair. They have advanced the concept of an unmanned air tanker by producing a photoshopped image of a tri-wing UAV dropping water on a vegetation fire (at the top of this article). The website says it would carry up to 2,200 gallons and would have a hybrid propulsion system, electric and an internal combustion engine. This would be a variant of a model they are considering that is intended to carry six to 10 passengers in a quiet aircraft with short takeoff and landing capability.

Faradair UAV air tanker
Concept aircraft by Faradair.

Faradair’s main goal apparently is to produce an inexpensive small passenger aircraft for commuters or quick flights that could takeoff and land from short runways and be quiet enough to operate in areas with noise restrictions — hence, the electric motor option. It would takeoff with the electric motor then switch to the internal combustion engine. The air tanker variant is derived from the goal of the basic design to be multi-role.

Here is an excerpt from their website:


“To date, former WWII era bombers and converted civilian jets have been used to deliver large scale firefighting capability, but that scale increases costs and pilot risk. The 11 meter wingspan BEHA M1-AT with a 10 tonne payload capability offers the operator an opportunity to acquire a fleet of aircraft, for a fraction of the acquisition and operational costs of helicopters, flying in rotation to combat the smaller fires and to prevent them becoming larger fires.

“The aircraft’s unique ‘triple box-wing’ configuration allows extremely short take-off and landing capability whilst also allowing the aircraft to lift large payloads with hybrid flight capability if required. BEHA can operate from any surface, in confined spaces with protection of the propeller in the rear duct, lessening the risk of Foreign Object Damage (FOD) during payload delivery runs. The all carbon composite airframe is lightweight and extremely strong, allowing for larger payloads to be carried, making it perfect for anti-fire operations.

“ ‘We have always said that our new BEHA aircraft platform is focused more on multi-role functionality than specific focus in one class of flight (Urban Air Mobility) and this firefighting drone configuration really highlights that capability. Obviously the ability to carry retardant also opens the opportunity for refuelling in the military environment, possibly negating the need for resupply fuel tracks or even low cost air to air refuelling option for the F35B from carriers without ‘cats n traps’. It is a genuinely exciting aircraft and we are now tweaking the design of the airframe to ensure the most volume can be achieved from the payload capability’, Managing Director of Faradair® Neil Cloughley said.”

Germany looks at acquiring more firefighting aircraft

Above: German Army Sikorsky CH-53G Super Stallion (reg. 84+99, sn V65-97) at ILA Berlin Air Show 2016. By Julian Herzog.

There is discussion underway in Germany about the need for additional aircraft for battling vegetation fires. Their military presently has access to numerous CH-53G Sea Stallion helicopters after having purchased 110 in the early 1970s. The huge aircraft can carry water in an external bucket but not all of the military pilots are trained in dropping water on wildfires.

Below are excerpts from a very rough automatic computer translation of an article at the Cockpit website in Germany.


…According to the European Commission, in 2016 it burned 777 times in Greece, 608 times in Germany. Portugal had 13,261 fires in most European fires, with 8,717 fires behind Spain. According to the German Fire Brigade Association (DFV) was a situation, such as in Greece, but hardly possible. This is because of the different type of vegetation and the preventive measures such as fire cutting. In international comparison, Germany also has a very strong fire brigade with over one million firefighters. There are also more access roads and hydrants in the forest than in Greece, for example. That’s right. But Harald Ebner, Greens Bundestag spokesman for forest policy, nevertheless pleads for extinguishing aircraft, although they may not be needed as often as in other states. “For the possible case of large forest fires it needs sufficient specialists and good equipment, for example with airplanes,” he said.

Harald Ebner is pushing for a speedy deployment of a squadron with multiple surface aircraft, not only to protect German forests and agricultural areas, but also to provide other countries with the necessary support if needed. Experts even assume that countries like Sweden and Poland could share the costs of a permanent task force with Germany. A service water airport in Brandenburg or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern seems to be the most suitable. The only current handicap: amphibious aircraft may only take off and land in a few German waters. Here, the legislature would first be obliged to make special arrangements, even if it is a matter for the Länder.

Soon CL-515 in use?

But simply not buying, unfortunately, is not, because the production of amphibious aircraft was discontinued at Bombardier 2015.

An airfield in British Columbia is home to eleven used but under-used CL-215 aircraft, which will now receive new Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines and new avionics. The first so-called CL-415 Enhanced Aerial Firefighter (EAF) is to be delivered in good time before the forest fire season 2020 to Bridger Aerospace from the US state of Montana. The aviation service provider Viking Air, which specializes in fighting forest fires, has ordered five aircraft. But since most of the CL-415, which has been in operation for a long time, are also in use in the Mediterranean countries, Viking Air now wants to decide on a new edition of the Canadair firefighting aircraft at the end of this year.

In-cockpit video of air tanker drop on Boone Draw Fire

Jim Watson shot this video from the cockpit of Air Tanker 850, a single engine air tanker, as it made a retardant drop on the Boone Draw Fire in the northwest corner of Colorado, September 14, 2018.

Thanks Jim!

Green Sheet report released on fatality following retardant drop

The report concluded that a low drop by the 747 Supertanker uprooted and broke off trees and limbs

Diagram fatality air tanker drop Green Sheet
Diagram from the Green Sheet.

(Originally published at 4:15 MDT September 14, 2018, and updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by falling tree debris resulting from an air tanker’s retardant drop. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California. The report was uploaded to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center on September 13, 2018 exactly one month after the August 13 accident.

A firefighter from Utah, Draper City Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, was killed when a low drop uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him. Three other firefighters had different assortments of injuries from sheered-off trees and limbs, including broken ribs, deep muscle contusions, ligament damage to extremities, scratches, and abrasions.

747 supertanker palmer fire
File photo: The 747 SuperTanker drops on the Palmer Fire south of Calimesa and Yucaipa in southern California, September 2, 2017. Photo by Cy Phenice, used with permission.

Standard procedure is for firefighters to leave an area before an air tanker drops. The report said the personnel on that Division were told twice that day to not be under drops — once in a morning Division break-out briefing, and again on the radio before the fatal drop and three others from large air tankers were made in the area. It was not confirmed that all supervisors heard the order on the radio to evacuate the drop area.

One of the “Incidental Issues / Lessons Learned” in the report mentioned that some firefighters like to record video of air tanker drops:

Fireline personnel have used their cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops. The focus on recording the retardant drops on video may distract firefighters. This activity may impair their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate evasive action possibly reducing or eliminating injuries.

The air tanker that made the drop was T-944, a 747-400 that can carry up to 19,200 gallons. Instead of a more conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, the aircraft has pressurized equipment that forces the retardant out of the tanks using compressed air. This is similar to the MAFFS air tankers. When a drop is made from the recommended height the retardant hits the ground as a mist, falling vertically, rather than the larger droplets you see with a gravity tank.

In this case, according to the report, the drop was made from approximately 100 feet above the tree tops. The report stated:

The Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) identified the drop path to the VLAT by use of a smoke trail. The VLAT initiated the retardant drop as identified by the smoke trail. Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path. This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.

When a drop is made from a very low altitude with any air tanker, the retardant is still moving forward almost as fast as the aircraft, as seen in this drop. If it is still moving forward there will be “shadows” that are free of retardant on the back side of vegetation, reducing the effectiveness of the drop. From a proper height retardant will gradually slow from air resistance, move in an arc and ideally will be falling gently straight down before it hits the ground. Another example of a low drop was on the Liberty Fire in Southern California in 2017 that dislodged dozens of ceramic roofing tiles on a residence and blew out several windows allowing a great deal of retardant to enter the home.

We reached out with some questions to Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, and they gave us this statement:

We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Chief Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured during their recent work on the Mendocino Complex Fire. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.

On August 13, 2018, Global SuperTanker Services, LLC acted within procedural and operational parameters. The subject drop was initiated at the location requested by the Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) after Global SuperTanker Services, LLC was advised that the line was clear.

The former President and CEO of the company, Jim Wheeler, no longer works there as of September 1, 2018. The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.

(Updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018 to include the statement from Global Supertanker that we received at 7:35 p.m. MDT September 14, 2018)

San Diego Gas & Electric makes their Air-Crane available year-round

Previously it was on contract for four months each year

SGE&E's Erickson Air-Crane helicopter
SGE&E’s Erickson Air-Crane helicopter. Click to enlarge. SDG&E photo.

Since 2009 San Diego Gas and Electric has made an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter available to assist wildland firefighters in San Diego County for four months each year, July through October. The company just announced that they are modifying the contract they have with Erickson and will now have it stationed year-round at Gillespie Field near El Cajon, California. The 2,650-gallon helicopter is flown by Erickson pilots under the direction of Cal Fire.

This change, according to SGE&E officials, is in response to “what is now the year-round threat of wildfires”.

It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, has been picking up the $1.75 million annual tab for four months of availability each season as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. San Diego County pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.

Single engine air tanker modified for night firefighting

AT-802F single engine air tanker
Photo by Aviation Specialties Unlimited

Fighting fire at night can be more effective because the fire usually spreads more slowly when the temperatures are lower, winds calmer, and the relative humidity is higher. A small percentage of helicopters are used for night firefighting but no fixed wing air tankers have yet ventured into that realm.

A company in Colorado has modified one of their air tankers for night vision goggle (NVG) operations. CO Fire Aviation has worked with Aviation Specialties Unlimited, Inc. (ASU) to add night firefighting capability to one of their Air Tractor AT-802F single engine air tankers.

Since 1995 ASU has modified more than 1,300 aircraft for aerial application at night, including the Thrush S-2R, PZL-Mielec M18, and rotorcraft such as the Bell 206 and OH-58A, but the AT-802 is the first fixed-wing aircraft they have modified that is dedicated to firefighting.

CO Fire Aviation uses their eight AT-802F air tankers on a number of state and federal contracts.

“Having operated NVGs in a variety of operations, our pilots knew that implementing a comprehensive NVG program would be the most significant way we could improve the safety and effectiveness of our aerial firefighting operations,” said CO Fire Chief Pilot Chris Doyle. “ASU’s experienced team has a strong track record with aerial applicators and we trusted them to equip our aircraft and help us launch our NVG program.”

Half of the CO Fire’s 14 pilots are currently NVG certified including two FAA-approved NVG Instructor Pilots who will be establishing an in-house NVG training program.

“Our pilot cadre has a wealth of extensive NVG experience,” said Doyle.

He explained that several of the pilots have military experience providing close air support during combat with the A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthog” aircraft and were U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School Instructors. Doyle has more than 26 years of flight experience and more than 10,000 accident-free hours of flight. He is a factory certified Air Tractor 802 instructor, and was also a Maintenance test pilot for the military weaponized version of the AT-802 in the Middle East along with a number of his current pilot cadre who were the weapons and tactics instructors.

“There is currently no other company in the world with more AT-802 NVG experience than CO Fire Aviation,” said Doyle.

“Later this year CO Fire will be conducting studies to refine and develop NVG firefighting tactics,” said Doyle. The study will involve developing safe and effective drop heights across a variety of illumination levels in different terrain. For example, dealing with moonlit and starlit-nights and low-light scenarios, working toward setting requisite minimums for illumination levels for terrain and drop height.

“We are always looking for innovations to help us lead the way in safety,” Doyle said.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Senators ask USFS to keep operating the HC-130H air tanker until end of year

The USFS plans to shut down their HC-130H air tanker program September 17, 2018

Above: Three of the four former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that have recently been at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Seen here: T-118 (in USFS livery), and two ships still with Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714.  Photo by Drew P. Hansen.

(Originally published at 3:07 p.m. PDT September 8, 2018)

Two Senators from California have written a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue imploring him to retain until the end of the year two former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft that the U.S. Forest Service decided they no longer want. Legislation passed a few weeks ago directed that seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft, originally intended to be used by the USFS, be transferred to the state of California after work is complete by the Air Force to convert them to air tankers with conventional gravity-powered retardant tanks.

Below is an excerpt from the Senators’ letter, dated August 30, 2018:

…The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (Public Law 115-232) authorizes the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the State of California for firefighting purposes. Two of these seven aircraft are currently in use in California by the Forest Service. While they will eventually be outfitted with a gravity retardant delivery system, there is no need to pull these two aircraft from California’s front lines for many months. Instead, these aircraft should remain actively engaged in California as we approach the historically most active months of the fire year.

Given the continuing threat of catastrophic wildfires in California, we ask that you continue operating the two HC-130H aircraft in California to ensure that every asset is available to protect lives and property. Thank you for considering our request.

To be clear, today there are four former Coast Guard HC-130Hs at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Two of these four have been painted in USFS livery, Tankers 116 and 118, and two ships still have Coast Guard livery, 1709 and 1714. A third ship has been painted, Tanker 119, and it is already in long term storage. None of them have conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery systems. The Air Force should have installed them by now but had contracting difficulties which they did not solve.

The USFS has “borrowed” one of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) that is assigned to the Air National Guard base in Reno, Nevada — one of eight distributed by the USFS to four military bases (two each) that operate C-130s. They can be installed in a matter of hours in a C-130. The MAFFS units are owned and maintained by the USFS for the purpose of having access to a surge capacity of eight additional air tankers operated by the military.

One of the aircraft, T-116, made 330 drops in 2017.

But the USFS is only using one MAFFS unit, the one from Reno, so they can only operate one of the former Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft at a time as an air tanker. The USFS has not used the aircraft on a routine basis for other duties, such as hauling fire equipment or firefighters, so right now the USFS can see no use for the additional HC-130H aircraft, except as possible spares if maintenance or other issues keep the primary ship on the ground.

The USFS plan is to return the borrowed MAFFS unit to the Reno Air National Guard base on September 17, effectively shutting down the program.

Contractors have been operating and maintaining the aircraft, similar to the CAL FIRE model for their 23 air tankers. But the USFS contract for the flight crew will be cancelled on September 20, 2018. The maintenance contract will remain in effect.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Markus.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Convection columns and cracked air tanker windshields

Here is an excerpt from an article published this morning at Wildfire Today about the Delta Fire north of Redding, California.


“…There was no overnight mapping by a fixed wing aircraft Thursday night. One of the two U.S. Forest Service infrared scanning planes was down with mechanical difficulties, which could be the reason for the “unable to fill”. It was smoky over the fire during the night but that usually does not prevent imaging the fire, unlike clouds which prevent the infrared light from reaching the sensor on the aircraft. The ability to “see” through smoke is one of the primary attributes of infrared sensing technology. However an intense convection column containing smoke, ash, and burning embers can be confused with heat on the ground.

“During the large vegetation fires in southern California in 2003 some of the convection columns were so powerful that the windshields on six air tankers were cracked by chunks of debris that were being hurled into the air (page D-6 in 2003 California Governor’s Blue Ribbon Report; huge 20 Mb file). One pilot saw a four by eight sheet of plywood sail past at 1,500 feet.”


Do any of our readers who are pilots have similar experiences?