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’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.”
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.
The report concluded that a low drop by the 747 Supertanker uprooted and broke off trees and limbs
(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.
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)
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.
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.
Coulson Aviation intends for the 737 to be able to haul 4,000 gallons of retardant, or passengers
Above: Air tanker 137, a 737-300, at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018. Coulson photo.
Coulson Aviation posted these photos September 3, 2018 of one of their recently converted 737-300’s, Tanker 137, as it was undergoing grid testing in Lancaster, California.
The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of thousands of cups intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires.
Some air tankers are required to make 20 to 25 drops over several days at the test. Firefighting hand crews are usually hired or borrowed to retrieve the cups after each drop. It is a very expensive process. The last time we checked the price of retardant was $2.50 to $3.00 a gallon, depending on which air tanker base it is delivered to.
The interior of Coulson’s 737 looks futuristic.
They intend for it to be able to haul 4,000 gallons of retardant, or passengers. Last year Britt Coulson said, “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”
The company purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines.
James Barnes wrote the article below for the Associated Aerial Firefighters’ Facebook page September 2, 2018. We asked and received permission to use it here. Mr. Barnes retired after flying S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE and DynCorp.
A reporter from the Sacramento Bee called me the other day and told me that she was advised, by unnamed persons, that I may be able to shed some light on the problems that are resulting from the pilot shortage CAL FIRE is now experiencing. As a retired, former airtanker pilot, I am not encumbered by any affiliation to any organization, employer or agency. That being said, I still follow my own protocol or personal code with regard to statements that I make that could be harmful to persons or organizations or programs that in my opinion are doing a great service for our Citizens and Taxpayers.
In my experience in dealing with the press I have found that there is always “the law of unintended consequences” looming in the background. It must always be considered before and during any interview where your opinion could potentially be used as a weapon in a salacious report. In speaking with this lady during the preliminary discussion before the interview it was my determination that her intent was to get the story right and get it out to the public. That left me with two choices; to refuse the interview and hope that someone else would get the facts straight or tell the facts as I understand them and accept the consequences. I chose the latter.
In the beginning of our discussion she demonstrated that she had already gained a substantial understanding of CAL FIRE’s Aviation Program and the current situation. She cited the worldwide pilot shortage and I agreed that, yes, it had finally come. She inquired about why CAL FIRE quite suddenly was unable to staff all of their airtankers and air attack ships. She even mentioned some names of management personal that she had heard might have contributed to the current situation. My reply was simply this; “I cannot confirm allegations concerning individuals and the fact is, it isn’t that simple”.
“For years The California Fire Pilots Association, the IAM, our Union, and the Associated Aerial Firefighters have advocated for the development of new and better aircraft and an air program that stabilizes both the pilot and maintenance workforce. Many times, dedicated agency officers worked with us to accomplish these goals. They realized that improvements in “quality of life” issues and job security are essential to retaining skilled employees. Sometimes, individuals in management did work against our efforts but for the most part we prevailed and together developed an air program that is light years ahead of anything that came before. The pilots and maintenance technicians in CAL FIRE’s air program are today now better than ever.
She was aware of the high dropout/attrition rate of airtanker pilots in training and she wanted to know what was causing it. I gave her a very lengthy response.
“First aerial firefighting is far more complex today than it was when I started thirty years ago. A fatal accident every other year in the S-2 airtankers convinced us we were doing something wrong. We needed better training. New training programs were developed and instituted and our casualty rate was greatly reduced. Greater demands and expectations were placed on our trainees. This resulted in an intensive training regimen that spans one to two fire seasons no matter what walk of aviation the trainee came from. During these grueling sessions some trainees decide that tanker flying isn’t for them. In other cases, trainees have trouble adapting to the environment. Multi-tasking in conditions of low visibility, at very low altitudes, at minimum safe airspeed can produce very high stress levels for even the most seasoned airtanker pilot. Still others find that the life style of an airtanker pilot is not compatible with their life style or the needs of their families.
All these situations point to the need for a better screening program of applicants before they are accepted in the training program. It would help to have them ride along or act as a co-pilot to introduce them to the environment and see if they are adaptable before being designated as a trainee. Impressing upon them that the demands placed upon them will be very great requiring a dedication to the mission that may be beyond what they are willing to deliver.
Secondly, the current situation is a result of circumstances. Three tanker pilots retired, one of our best tanker pilots died suddenly of natural causes, two pilots are temporarily out of service for illness and one of our young, skilled tanker pilots quit to fly a large airtanker for another industry company.
Until recently there were enough reserve and relief pilots that could fill the seats as needed. With such a high turnover in such a short time all the relief pilots were absorbed forcing them to fly the line. Now on any given day at least three S-2 airtankers are parked because there are no pilots to fly them”.
She asked me “if having three airtankers parked would make a significant difference in fighting a fire?”
“From the instant of ignition, the window of opportunity for stopping the fire is beginning to close. CAL FIRE’s primary strategy is Rapid Response Initial Attack. During the extreme burn conditions, we are now experiencing air support for our ground firefighters is crucial. in some cases, an air response will be the only response in the first critical twenty minutes. The loss of three airtankers puts big holes in our tactical spread that delivers that air response in the first 20 minutes. Any delays in our ground and air forces will cause some fires to escape the initial attack resulting in more large fires”.
She asked about the fatigue levels of pilots because off the intensity of this fire season and the lack of any relief pilots to give them a break.
“The stress and fatigue levels our pilots are experiencing are currently off the scale. The only comparison would likely be tactical military pilots in time of war.”
She expressed concern for the safety of our pilots. “Is the fatigue the pilots are experiencing affecting their ability to fly?”
“I can only speak from my past experience. When I was assigned to fires that caused me to time out day after day and fatigue set in I began to make more and more little mistakes.”
“Like what kind of mistakes?”
“Things like omitting an item on a check list or having trouble changing a radio frequency but it is the little things that add up and ultimately result in a mishap or an accident.”
I expressed my opinion that it is imperative that everything possible be done to give those pilots a break. Current demands are keeping our southern bases open year-round. Under these conditions the six days on, one day off schedule is untenable.”
“Is anything being done to resolve this problem?”
“Both CAL FIRE and the CFPA have been working together to find a solution. Firefighting pilots make their entire annual income during the period of the contract. Flying a southern contract involves demands beyond what the standard four-month contract requires. They shouldn’t receive a penalty in pay to achieve the necessary adjustment in duty schedule but something must be done soon”.
She asked me if there were other factors affecting pilot recruitment and retention.
“It’s the little things that count. One example of a small thing that caused a large reaction from the pilots was a newly implemented state policy to have pilots who were working away from home base to find a motel room that cost no more than $90.00 per night and that if one couldn’t be found to price three motels and choose the cheapest one. After flying for seven hours on fires and finishing a ten-hour duty day it doesn’t seem reasonable that a pilot should have to shop around for the cheapest possible motel room. I guess the Comptroller didn’t know the difference between a computer operator and a tanker pilot. It wasn’t the money so much as it seemed to be a lack of respect. No one would ask every individual firefighter to go out on their own and find the cheapest room available in town after fighting a fire all day. Fortunately, that policy was discontinued this year”.
“Our highly skilled, young airtanker pilots are a coveted item for many other industry companies. Offers to fly a large, four engine jet airtanker for more money are very tempting. Too many little things or quality of life issues can sway a young Tanker Pilots judgement from staying in CAL FIRE’s air program or moving on to what looks like greener pastures”.
We talked about the terrible problem with vegetation management in California. She said that the Bee is doing a story on that issue too. She commented briefly on that story.
“The U.S. Forest Service told us that they only have a budget to address vegetation management on one percent of their responsibility area.”
Then I got on my soap box again; “Vegetation management is the single most important thing we can do to alleviate the threat of wildfire. They could mitigate the threat in some areas by allowing selected logging to both generate revenue and reduce the fuel load in areas that are trigger points. The USFS is also only one of thousands of firefighting agencies in the United States. To have any meaningful results action must be taken by all stakeholders beginning with property owners and on up through local fire departments, County, State and Federal agencies.”
I got a little off the track but I thought she had done a comprehensive study on the issues and I can only hope that her story has a positive effect.