Interview with a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter pilot

Firefighting, rescues, and medical aids using an Agusta Westland 139

Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters
Two Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters prepare to take off on a mission to rescue a hiker in distress.

I interviewed one of the pilots that fly multi-mission helicopters for the Los Angeles Fire Department with the goal of obtaining enough information to write an article about the Department’s aviation program. I recorded the interview, with Pilot Brandon Prince’s permission, so that I would not have to attempt to take detailed notes and in doing so miss some of what he was saying. But in playing the recording back it was obvious that Mr. Prince was very well-spoken and eloquent. He was describing the program better than an article I would have written.

So I put the interview in a video, and dressed up the audio with still photos taken at the Department’s base at Van Nuys Airport and 28 seconds of video showing two of their Augusta Westland 139 helicopters warming up before they departed on a mission to assist a hiker in distress.

(If you’re having trouble viewing the video you can see it on YouTube)

Ontario Air Tanker Base was closed after a jettisoned load of retardant landed on homes and children

Air tanker history from 1977

Ontario Airport C-119 jettisoned fire retardant air Tanker 135
Air Tanker 135, a C-119, jettisoning 2,000 gallons of fire retardant west of the Ontario Airport, July 29, 1977. Photo by J.D. Davis.

When Air Tanker 135 took off from Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m. July 29, 1977 the Mine Fire 16 miles to the south was threatening homes and burning thousands of acres of 60-year old brush in Tin Mine and Hagador Canyons on the southwest edge of Corona.

In a New York Times article about the fire, Corona was described as “a rural town”, and:

A force of 900 firefighters made a successful stand in front of the Village Grove development as flames from the 2,000‐acre blaze came within a football field of homes with price tags of up to $150,000.

Rose Bello was standing outside her house half a mile from the end of the runway at the northwest corner of Belmont Street and Mildred Avenue watching her three-year-old daughter Julie riding a bicycle with a friend. She saw the tanker flying very low, just clearing some power lines. When it passed over her home fire retardant was pouring from the plane.

Ontario Airport C-119 jettisoned fire retardant map
Ontario Airport in an aerial photo taken in 1994 showing the approximate location of the jettisoned retardant. Google Earth.

“The noise was so loud it hurt my ears,” she told a reporter from the Daily Report. “I heard my little girl scream because [the retardant] was in her eyes and all over her clothes — she was just soaked.”

At the time the FAA required restricted air tankers like the C-119 to turn left off the Ontario runway to avoid the heavily populated center of the city. The aircraft had three engines. Two of them were props, Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones, a twin-row, supercharged, air-cooled, radial aircraft engine with 18 cylinders. After the C-119 retired from the military a third engine was added, a turbojet in a nacelle above the fuselage to supply additional power if needed on takeoff or while making a retardant drop.

The pilot, of course, didn’t plan to drop retardant from a very low level on four homes, six cars, children on bicycles, drying laundry, a corn field, and an assortment of trees and sheds. But shortly after take off one of the radial engines developed a runaway propeller, causing the engine to exceed the RPM limits. If not corrected immediately this can cause the propellers to fly off, possibly causing severe damage to the aircraft. When this occurs the pilot will usually reduce the power to the engine and shut off the fuel, a procedure that should prevent additional damage to the engine and the aircraft. But shutting down an engine, especially at low level while climbing and turning, may cause a stall. The pilot jettisoned the 2,000 gallons of retardant, about 9,000 pounds, to reduce the chances of a crash. The aircraft then gained enough altitude to turn and land safely back at the airport.

Ontario Airport C-119 jettisoned fire retardant air Tanker 133
Air Tanker 133, a C-119, making the required left turn after takeoff at the Ontario Airport, July 28, 1977. Photo by J.D. Davis.

J.D. Davis, who took these two aircraft photos, was monitoring a scanner and heard the pilot ask to jettison the load on the runway, but the tower refused permission. The pilot headed toward a corn field near Ms. Bello’s home. That is where most of the retardant landed, plowing up several rows of corn, but part of the load was a little short.

Jim Stumpf was the Deputy Fire Management Officer and Aviation Officer for the nearby Angeles National Forest, the agency that ran the air tanker base at the airport. I asked him what he remembers about the incident:

When I arrived after about 40 minutes (traffic) everyone was really unhappy. CDF [California Department of Forestry] was on scene working clean up and I requested (Lower San Engine I think) to come to the incident to assist in the cleanup. A CDF Batt. Chief and I were directing the clean up and talking with a great deal of the affected residents assuring them that there were no long term effects from the retardant. It would wash off of adults, children, houses, etc. The clothes on the line could be rewashed without any problem.

If I remember, we spent several hours at the scene — CDF and I bought cokes and pizza for our respective crews. The local residents started consuming copious amounts of beer, wine and whiskey so it ended as a block party for all concerned. CDF and USFS turned down the offer to participate in the party. It started out bad and ended up a party. After our street and house cleaning all equipment was returned to their respective stations.

The following day I took Charity Burton to the scene (she was handling claims for the ANF). We talked to as many residents as possible and told them about the claims process. The best I can remember we didn’t get any claims. I drove through the neighborhood a few times on periodic visits to the tanker base, and even talked to some folks who thanked us for being responsive. All was well but they didn’t like tankers flying over their house.

Before the incident 70 individuals and two churches had filed two lawsuits totaling $11.70 million for damage due to noise from jets taking off from the airport, according to an article written in 1977 by Richard Brooks of the San Bernardino Sun.

Back then there were more air tankers than we have today, and they were not forced to move around the country as often following the latest hot, dry, and windy weather. The tanker crews that had been permanently stationed at Ontario perfected the tricky left turn while climbing off the runway, but tanker pilots from other areas were not always as diligent avoiding heavily populated areas. For the rest of the 1977 fire season only the permanent tanker was allowed to use Ontario. After that the base was permanently closed.

Ontario was the southernmost base that could support and refill large air tankers, so closing it reduced their ability to quickly and aggressively respond to fires in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego Counties.

Epilog

In 1987 a C-119 (N48076) with the same tanker number, 135,  crashed while working the Whalen Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Killed were Hawkins & Powers pilots Bill Berg and Charles Peterson, and mechanic Stephen Harrell. The crash was result of an inflight failure, with the right wing, the left wing tip, and the tail boom separating from the aircraft during a retardant run.

A big thank you goes out to J.D. Davis who supplied information about the incident and the C-119 photos.

How much does it cost to drop retardant on a fire?

We calculated the cost per delivered gallon

air tanker dropping Cave Fire Santa Barbara California
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, drops on the Cave Fire Nov. 26, 2019. Photo by Mike Eliason for Santa Barbara County FD.

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

Today I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

Statistics for the use of air tankers, 2000 through 2019

And, more details about the new Call When Needed contracts

firefighting air tanker use statistics unable to fill requests
From 2000 through 2019, the number of air tankers on exclusive use contracts, the number of requests for air tankers, and the percentage of requests that were unable to be filled. (not all data from 2019 is available) NIFC data compiled by FireAviation.

This chart shows data from 2000 through 2019 for the number of large air tankers (LAT) on U.S. Forest Service Exclusive Use (EU) Contracts, the number of times each year large air tankers were requested by firefighters on a wildfire, and the percentage of requests that were not filled (Unable to Fill, UTF). For 2019 the request and UTF data is not yet available, but we know 13 LATs were on EU contracts.

New Call When Needed contracts

More information is now available about the Large Air Tanker Call When Needed (CWN) contracts that were awarded in December, 2019. Six companies have a total of 36 aircraft on the list, a number of aircraft that is one more than first announced.

The costs below are estimates provided by the Forest Service for one aircraft  based on the contracts awarded. Kaari Carpenter, a Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service who sent us the information, told us that the estimates assume 36 days a year, for 4 years, and 100 flight hours a year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold approximately 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

Update February 13, 2020. With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above, it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and not including the costs of retardant, are: 
$7.00:  MD-87
$8.50:  BAe-146, C-130, & 737
$10.00: RJ85
$4.50:  DC-10
$3.00:  747

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. 

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2007 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

The CWN contract was awarded 555 days after the process began May 30, 2018 —  the exact amount of time it took to award the first Next-Generation EU air tanker contracts,  Version 1.0, in 2013.

Exclusive Use Next Generation 3.0 contracts

And speaking of long time frames, it has been 502 days since the Forest Service published the solicitation for the third round of EU Next Gen air tankers, Ver. 3.0, on November 19, 2018. Bids were required 12 months ago. Ms. Carpenter told us today that the FS expects it to be awarded in “early March, 2020.”

Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study

The Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study began approximately 2,812 days ago in 2012 and to date no substantive results have been released, other than a two-page “fact sheet”.  Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the study during a Congressional hearing April 9, 2019 and FS Chief Vicki Christiansen told her a report would be released “soon”. Ms. Carpenter told us today it would be released in the Spring of this year, 2020.

In the hearing 10 months ago Colorado Senator Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”

When asked if firefighting aircraft were worth the cost and if they were effective, the answers from land management agencies have often been, “Yes”.

How do you know?

“We just do”. (I’m paraphrasing here).

The study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires. Theoretically this would better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.

Last year one person familiar with the issue told me that they thought the actual, accurate data from the AFUE would never be released — like the situation with the RAND air tanker study that the Forest Service never released even after our Freedom of Information Act request. Two years after it was completed RAND released the document.

A fourth Q400MR delivered to Sécurité Civile

Q400 MR air tanker Sécurité Civile
The fourth Q400 MR arrived at the Sécurité Civile base at Nimes-Garons in France on February 2, 2020. Sécurité Civile photo.

Another Dash 8-Q400 MR air tanker has been delivered to Sécurité Civile in France.

This is the fourth Q400 in the agency’s fleet and the second of six Q400 MR aircraft that the agency is in the process of acquiring from Conair, which purchased the planes from the manufacturer, Bombardier. Conair converted them into multi-role aircraft capable of transporting passengers and dropping fire retardant, water, or foam.

Tanker 76 departed from Abbotsford, British Columbia on January 31. Before reaching its final destination at Nimes-Garons in France on February 2 it made stops at Thunder Bay, Goose Bay, and Iceland.

Tanker 76's transcontinental flight
The last leg of Tanker 76’s transcontinental flight on February 2, 2020. FlightAware.

The Q400 MR can carry up to 10,000 liters (2,600 gallons) of water or retardant. The “MR” stands for multirole, meaning the aircraft can be converted in a few hours to carry passengers or cargo. It can cruise at 372 mph and has a range of 1,118 miles. The aircraft is equipped with the AN Enhanced Flight Vision System, providing an image in the visible or infrared spectrum.

In a medevac configuration it can accommodate six stretchers along with the necessary nurses stations and life support equipment, or it can transport 9 tons of cargo.

For several years Sécurité Civile had been pondering what to do about replacing their nine S-2s that are approaching their structural life limit of 25,000 hours, according to the agency. Their plans announced in 2016 were to retire the S-2s between 2018 and 2022 which would require a two-year extension of the type certificate. The goal was to acquire aircraft that could carry more water or retardant, would reduce operating costs, and would be multi-role.

In addition to the nine S-2s and two Q-400s, France also has twelve CL-415s and 40 helicopters.

The article was edited on Feb. 19, 2020 to show that this newest aircraft is not the fourth Q400 delivered on the current agreement with Conair, it is the fourth Q400 in the agency’s fleet, and the second of six being purchased from Conair.

MIL-8 MTV helicopter filmed in Australia

MIL-8 helicopter
The MIL-8 helicopter operated by Hevilift. Screenshot from the video.

The video below published January 10, 2020 features a  helicopter operated by Hevilift that was becoming available to help firefighters in Australia.

The on scene reporter said the helicopter can carry 5,000 liters (1,300 gallons), which is half of the capacity of an Air-Crane helicopter. Large and very large air tankers can carry 3,000 to 19,000 gallons.

The MIL-8 MTV did not extract the UH-1H helicopter that earlier ditched into a lake, as stated in the video. The Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Army pulled it out of the water.

Why 2,500 liters of retardant was dropped in Australia’s capital city

It happened near the National Emergency Services Memorial

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Tamara Penniket.

Wednesday’s accidental drop of 2,500 liters (660 gallons) of fire retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia led to a hazardous material response from the Australian Capital Territory Fire & Rescue.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the inadvertent retardant drop came from a Single Engine Air Tanker, an Air Tractor AT802 with a Gen3 door. The SEAT encountered significant turbulence on climb-out from the retardant base at Canberra airport on the way to the Orroral Valley Fire.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Screenshot from ABC News video.

“In maneuvering the aircraft through the turbulence, the pilot accidentally activated the drop button,” Mr. Alder said. “The drop system was armed, in accordance with normal climb-out procedure, to enable a rapid emergency drop [should it become necessary].”

He said the aircraft operator is reviewing their procedures to see if the risk of an inadvertent drop can be reduced, while maintaining appropriate safety for the aircraft and pilot.

The retardant affected Parkes Way, a parking lot at Rond Terrace, a large roundabout with a pond, and the south end of Anzac Parade, the street that leads to the Australian War Memorial. The drop was a short distance northwest of the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ABC News Elise Fantin.

Mr. Alder said the SEAT was following a route to the fire that avoided overflight of residential areas.

Several decades ago in the United States large air tankers worked out of a retardant base at the Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles. The story goes that a lady who lived near the airport was known for complaining about the noise from the firefighting aircraft. Her criticism had little effect until the day one of the tankers had a problem on climb-out and had to jettison the load. And, as luck would have it, the retardant landed on that poor lady’s house. Not long after that the tanker base was permanently closed.

Air tanker drops retardant in downtown Canberra, Australia

About a mile from Parliament House at the capital

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
Retardant drop Feb. 4, 2020 in Canberra, ACT, Australia. Photo by ACT Emergency Services Agency.

An air tanker dropped retardant in the city of Canberra, the capital of Australia on February 4.

The aircraft was working on the Orroral Valley fire in Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The ACT Emergency Services Agency said the aircraft “encountered turbulence causing 2,500 litres of retardant to be released on Parkes Way.” A number of cars were coated with the retardant, and judging from the photo below, at least one person.

Retardant drop in Canberra, ACT
From this retardant shadow it appears that at least one person was affected by the retardant drop in downtown Canberra, ACT, Australia February 4, 2020. Photo by Lukas Coch, AAP.

The fact that 2,500 liters (600 gallons) were released leads one to guess the aircraft may have been a Single Engine Air Tanker, unless it was a partial load from a large air tanker.

The turbulence could have forced a low flying air tanker to suddenly and unexpectedly lose altitude, and the pilot might have jettisoned the load in order to help regain altitude and control. Or, the G-forces produced stress causing the tank doors or other hardware to fail. Regardless, we are happy that retardant was the only thing that fell out of the sky on Tuesday.

ACT Fire & Rescue worked with the Environmental Protection Authority to assess the situation at the impacted area which included the carpark at Rond Terrace and Anzac Parade at Rond Pond.

The retardant was close to the National Emergency Services Memorial and about a mile north of the Parliament House at the capital.

(UPDATE, Feb. 10, 2020: More information has become available about the cause of the retardant drop)