Mike McKeig sent us an excellent photo of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 taken after the aircraft received a new paint job.
This is at least the third of seven HC-130H aircraft the agency is getting from the Coast Guard that have been painted in CAL FIRE livery. The plan is for all seven to receive internal gravity-powered retardant tanks so they can be used as air tankers. In May we had photos of Tankers 116 and 118.
The rudder on T-118 was also one of the last components to be painted, like T-119 at the top of the article.
A new contract awarded to DynCorp specifies that in addition to maintaining and supplying pilots for CAL FIRE’s fleet of S-2T air tankers, they will do the same for the HC-130H tankers.
FIRE-TROL and PHOS-CHEK fire retardants have been produced for almost 60 years by a company whose name and ownership have changed five times since 1997 — starting with Monsanto in 1963, then Solutia, Astaris, ICL, and finally in 2018, Perimeter Solutions.
Today a new generation of fire retardant in the PHOS-CHEK line was introduced by Perimeter Solutions — LCE20-Fx. It is the result of two years of work by the Perimeter Solutions R&D team in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Apparently very little time was spent choosing a name.
It was tested during the 2020 fire season, applying the required 200,000 gallons before it was approved by the Forest Service and added to the qualified products list on November 5, 2020.
“We will begin deploying this commercially next fire season at probably eight or nine bases, which we will convert from LC-95A to this new LCE20-Fx product,” said Edward Goldberg, Chief Executive Officer of Perimeter Solutions.
The new formulation has shown improvements in three key areas: coverage, visibility, and toxicity.
The retardant is produced as a liquid concentrate and delivered to application sites as a low-viscosity liquid. Before being loading onto an air tanker, it is diluted and mixed with water using an in-line proportioner as it is transferred to delivery systems. According to the company, the elastic nature of the gum thickener in LCE20-Fx reduces drift, dispersion, and evaporation, while increasing coverage, wrap around, and canopy penetration, making it more effective in targeting ground vegetation.
The reason fire retardants are red is so aerial firefighters can see exactly what areas of a fire have been treated. This reduces repeated drops in the same area and makes it possible for additional drops to tag on to and extend the treated areas along the edge of a fire.
“We’re utilizing Fx, the ultra high visibility pigment in our products, which helps the pilots see where they need to tie in the next line so that the fire doesn’t get through the gap,” said Melissa Kim, Director of Research and Development for Perimeter. “It just continues on with our line of Fx products. We started with iron oxide, then we moved to a fugitive, and then we improved on that fuchsia color. This product will fade over time, but it does have a high, extremely high, visibility to the point where we’ve had comments come back saying that it’s even more visible than our iron oxide products. So that was a big big deal for us.”
The reports about the visibility came after the new formulation was used this year at two air tanker bases in Nevada — Battle Mountain for most of the season, and Stead/Reno at the end of the season.
They will also be producing an uncolored version without any red or fuchsia pigment which could be applied from the ground by utilities or homeowners for long term prevention and protection.
The millions of gallons of red fire retardant that air tankers drop every year are usually made from ammonium phosphate or its derivatives. It has been called “long term fire retardant” because even after it dries, the chemical can interfere with the combustion process and may still retard the spread of a vegetation fire. However research and experience in the field has shown some formulations can be toxic to fish. Federal interagency policy prohibits the aerial delivery of retardant within 300 feet of certain waterways. It also cannot be used in certain designated terrestrial areas, or in some National Parks without special permission. The restrictions still apply to the new formulation of retardant introduced today.
Maps are available which identify threatened, endangered, candidate, proposed, and sensitive species (TECPS) avoidance areas. There appears to be significant variability within the Forest Service on interpreting the guidelines and mapping the areas.
The retardant products used by the U.S. Forest Service are tested for fish toxicity to determine the concentration in milligrams per liter (mg/L) that result in the death of 50 percent of the aquatic test specimens, young rainbow trout, within 96 hours. The higher the number, the less toxic it is. The Forest Service specifications for retardant require that the aquatic toxicity be greater than 200 mg/L. The previous versions of PHOS-CHEK, LC-95A, had toxicity levels of 225 to 399 mg/L. The new LCE20-Fx is 983.
The weight of the mixed LCE20-Fx retardant is slightly less than the previous generation, reducing the weight of a gallon from 9.01 pounds to 8.87 pounds, a savings of 0.14 pound per gallon. This reduces the weight of the 9,400 gallons on a DC-10 by 1,316 pounds, and of the 3,000 gallons on a BAe-146 by 420 pounds.
Transportable retardant plant
The Forest Service refers to them as “portable retardant bases”, but transportable is probably a more accurate term. Since these types of bases became an issue in discussions about the closure and dismantling of the tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, I asked Mr. Goldberg about their transportable equipment. He explained that the company has 12, each of which can be set up in as little as two hours once on site. They are not always in the same place and can be prepositioned depending on fire activity.
The Conair Group has installed a Level 5 Flight Training Device (FTD) for AT-802 air tankers at their Training & Tactics Center in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The FTD is convertible, designed to mimic the performance of both the amphibious Fire Boss and wheeled Air Tractor AT-802 single engine air tankers. It can provide pilots with a virtual training platform that offers true-to-life flight scenarios, including firefighting missions.
It has been certified approved by Transport Canada, which specifies that a Level 5 FTD represents a specific cockpit. In the United States an FTC certified by the FAA at Level 5 may represent a family of aircraft rather than only one specific model.
Equipped with real avionics, a KAWAK throttle quadrant, and Retardant Delivery System, the simulator has displays identical to the cockpit of the actual aircraft. Flight control feedback and all instrumentation react to changing environments, with wind speed, visibility, temperature, clouds, and turbulence being controlled on the master Instructor Operating Station. The training device allows the pilot to practice tactics within a variety of situations, while managing the added pressure of simulated radio communications from multiple aircraft on the same mission.
The FTD also features a 180-degree high-definition visual display, vibration system, and programable firefighting scenarios which enables pilots to practice a range of fire suppression techniques within immersive and dynamic circumstances. A key advantage of the FTD includes the pilot’s ability to practice drops and scoops in complex, and often unpredictable conditions. In addition, pilots have the opportunity to exercise emergency procedures within a safe setting that significantly reduces the risk to both the pilot and the aircraft. The FTC does not have three-axis motion but does have an Entrol limited motion base plus the ability to produce vibration.
The AT-802 FTD at Conair’s training facility is available to qualifying Air Tractor operators. Conair acquired an FTD for the Avro RJ85 in 2017.
In December, 2019 the company awarded a contract to install five fully networked FTDs with reconfigurable cockpits to simulate flight dynamics for eight aircraft platforms performing different roles during aerial firefighting missions. Each of these reconfigurable three-axis motion platforms will be able to perform individual or joint training encompassing different aircraft platforms and scenarios. The goal is to not only simulate the ground fire and effects of the aerial retardant being applied by the trainees but will also simulate the dynamic and dangerous environmental changes created by the fire that pilots may encounter. Shannon De Wit told Fire Aviation, “The project is underway but has been delayed due to COVID and the inability of development teams located around the world to travel to Canada to install the units.”
In addition to Air Tractor 802 SEATs, Conair operates other firefighting aircraft including, air attack aircraft, CL-215T, RJ85, Q400MR, and Convair CV580.
DynCorp International (DI) has been awarded a new contract to continue supporting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) aviation program. Work will be performed at McClellan Park in Sacramento, California and aircraft are deployed across 13 air tactical and 10 helitack bases throughout the State.
The competitively awarded contract has a three-year base period with two one-year options for a total potential value of $352 million, subject to legislative appropriation.
DI team members will continue to provide line to depot-level maintenance on CAL FIRE’s fleet of 57 aircraft including S-2T air tankers, OV-10A aircraft, UH-1H helicopters, S-70i helicopters, and A-200CT King Air training aircraft. DI also provides full flight operations, with pilots, for CAL FIRE’s fixed-wing fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft including the new-to-them HC-130H aircraft that are in the process of being converted from Coast Guard missions to firefighting air tankers with internal gravity-powered retardant tanks. Pilots for the helicopters are CAL FIRE employees.
Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.
Coulson Aviation and Linfox have agreed to work together in a consortium to help Australians suppress bushfires. Coulson will bring helicopters and air tankers to the table to work with the logistics company Linfox, with both presently operating on multiple continents.
The proposed fleet of large fixed wing air tankers, super heavy helicopters, and fire intelligence gathering aircraft will be based and operated throughout the State and Territories in Australia, with maintenance and support infrastructure supplied in New South Wales and Victoria.
The team intends to work with State Governments, Territories, emergency services agencies, and within any framework agreed by the Federal Government. Australia has one of the largest volunteer firefighting forces in the world. They intend to build a world class training facility and center of excellence for volunteers to create a strong, intelligence-led and informed approach to firefighting.
The 365 day a year fleet is intended to offer firebombing, intelligence gathering, and aerial firefighting support services during the fire seasons, but also search and rescue, surveillance and medical evacuation services at other times.
The combining of the two company’s unique skill sets will allow the consortium to set up remote bases where aircraft can reload retardant close to a live fire zone, rather than having to fly, sometimes for hours, to the nearest airport – and then back again.
Chairman of Coulson Aviation Australia, Wayne Coulson said, ‘We’ve learned through many major fire campaigns globally the enormous effect of large capacity air tankers in managing bushfires, particularly when we bring the fight at night; this results in lives saved and houses standing and that’s why we do what we do.’
“There is always an opportunity to improve our nation’s approach to aerial firefighting,’’ added Lindsay Fox, founder of Linfox. “Each of the States and Territories are responsible for their own emergency response, so each response varies. As our fire seasons get longer – and become more dangerous and unpredictable, the most sensible – and safe – solution is a co-ordinated, national approach.”
Two current or former firefighters were quoted in the Billings Gazette as asserting that the downgrading of the West Yellowstone Interagency Fire Center air tanker base in Montana to a Call When Needed base may have affected the amount of retardant applied on a recent fire near Bozeman, Montana.
Bridger Foothills Fire
The Bridger Foothills Fire that started September 4, 2020 northeast of Bozeman burned 8,224 acres and destroyed 28 homes. Three firefighters were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters September 5 when their safety became compromised by the spread of the fire. After the danger passed they moved to a safety zone and were later treated at Bozeman Health for “smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion” and then released.
West Yellowstone air tanker base
From the Billings Gazette, quoting a former smokejumper who had been based at West Yellowstone:
“The Bridger fire could have been staffed with more planes and twice the retardant dropped had West Yellowstone been used with the other bases,” said Tommy Roche, a retired wildland firefighter, in an email.
In addition to the former air tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, there are three other bases in that part of the country. Listed below are all four with their distances from the Bridger Foothills Fire.
West Yellowstone, 73 miles
Helena, 76 miles
Billings, 118 miles
Pocatello, 142 miles
Forest Service will not release the Conklin de Decker and Associates air tanker study
From the Billings Gazette:
A Freedom of Information Act request, filed more than a year ago by West Yellowstone airtanker base manager Billy Bennett, for the Forest Service’s airtanker study has not been fulfilled. “In my opinion, I do not believe the study exists!” Bennett wrote in an email. “No one admits to ever having seen it.”
According to documents provided to Fire Aviation by the Custer National Forest in Montana, in 2019 the Forest Service commissioned an independent analysis of next generation air tankers performance by Conklin de Decker and Associates (CdD).
We asked for a copy of the study today and were told by Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist Stanton Florea that it “…contains proprietary information. You would need to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act Request] with our national office.”
Forest Service did not release the RAND air tanker study
We were told the same thing after requesting and then filing a FOIA to obtain a copy of the $840,092 RAND air tanker study completed in 2012. The Forest Service refused to honor the FOIA, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4.” Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete” and that the USFS wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.”
The RAND study recommended that the U.S. Forest Service upgrade its airborne firefighting fleet to include more scooper air tankers. “Because scoopers cost less and can make multiple water drops per hour when water sources are nearby, we found that the most cost-effective firefighting fleet for the Forest Service will have more scoopers than air tankers for the prevention of large fires,” said Edward G. Keating, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, air tankers are important in an ancillary role in initial attack for the minority of wildfires where water sources are not nearby, and possibly for fighting large fires as well.”
Performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone
In a letter signed April 4, 2019 by Shawna Legarza, who at the time was the Director of Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service, she wrote, “Based on CdD information, the BAe-146 [air tanker] will not be able to operate from West Yellowstone unless temperatures are below 69°F”, and included the table below. She also wrote, “Retardant will not be downloaded”, meaning the BAe-146 must always carry 3,000 gallons.
The performance of the BAe-146 at West Yellowstone is due to the elevation at the base, 6,640 feet above sea level. On a warm day the thin air results in a density altitude that makes it difficult for the aircraft to take off with a full load of retardant on the 8,400-foot runway.
The table indicates that there would be no restrictions for the C-130, C-130Q, RJ 85, and the MD-87 air tankers, but the BAe-146 tankers operated by Neptune Aviation would not be able to carry a full 3,000-gallon load of retardant under certain conditions. The BAe-146 and the RJ 85 are very similar, but the RJ 85s operated by Aero Flite have more efficient engines than the BAe-146.
Closing West Yellowstone air tanker base
The letter from Director Legarza included this:
Based on safety and efficiencies, Region 1 should consider whether any future investment into the West Yellowstone Airtanker Base is warranted. The airtanker bases in Billings and Helena, Montana, and Pocatello, Idaho are within 30 minutes flight time for a next generation airtanker and can maintain the airtanker response and capability needed for that portion of your geographic area. Additionally, a temporary airtanker base could be setup at the Bozeman, Montana airport if the fire situation in that portion of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming warranted a quicker response.
Forest Service begins to appreciate scooping air tankers
Another reason cited by the Forest Service for downgrading the West Yellowstone tanker base was the “increased use of scooper aircraft”, such as the CL-415 which can skim across a lake while scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water without having to return to an airport to reload with water or retardant. Historically the agency has been extremely reluctant to use scooping air tankers but four are currently under contract. For years they completely disregarded the RAND report’s recommendations about the efficiency of scoopers.
“The timing for the new scooper contract is this winter for the 2021 season and it is expected that Bridger Aerospace (based in Bozeman, MT) will have four turbine CL-215’s ready to bid which will add to the four CL-415’s on the current contract for a total of 8 nationally,” said Marna Daley, a Public Affairs Officer for the Custer National Forest in an email. “Regionally, Canadian scoopers are available and used through the agreement the Montana DNRC has with Canada.”
Bridger Aerospace is in the process of acquiring six old piston engine CL-215s that have been overhauled and upgraded with new turbine engines; they are designated as CL-415EAFs.
West Yellowstone becomes a CWN base, dependent on portable retardant infrastructure
The West Yellowstone air tanker base is now classified by the Forest Service as a Call When Needed base. In the fall of 2019 the powder retardant was removed and the retardant mixing equipment was decommissioned according to documents supplied by the Forest Service. The base can now only be used to reload air tankers if a transportable retardant mixing plant is ordered and set up at the airport.
Forest Service’s evaluation of the use of air tankers at the Bridger Foothills Fire
In an email to Fire Aviation, Ms. Daley explained the agency’s opinion about the use of air tankers and the availability of the West Yellowstone tanker base during the Bridger Foothills Fire:
In terms of LATS (Large Air Tankers) and VLATs (Very Large Air Tankers) the Bridger Foothills Fire initial attack (day 1) and extended attack response (day 2 and day 3) was the most effective air resource response on the Custer Gallatin in 20 plus years. There wasn’t a moment where suppression efforts were lacking a retardant response. The ability of the Helena and Billings tanker bases to reload was unprecedented and fire managers were able to get full retardant loads on every tanker drop. The transition of the West Yellowstone Tanker base to a call when needed base did not affect the outcome of the Bridger Foothills fire. The base in West Yellowstone could have been opened under the Forest’s Call When Needed plan but that was not requested or needed because Helena and Billings bases were far more efficient.
The unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia resulted in the devastating loss of life, property, and wildlife across the nation. After the smoke cleared a Royal Commission was directed to work out not only how to prevent the severity of future bushfire seasons, but all natural disasters.
Wildfire Today has a lengthy article covering many of the issues identified in the Commission’s 594-page report, but below are excerpts from the section about aerial firefighting.
Capabilities of national aerial firefighting
The Victorian Inspector-General for Emergency Management observed that, “The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts including first attack would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect.” The governments of ACT, SA and Victoria also told us that they consider further research is required to improve aerial firefighting tactics, products and their effectiveness.
Aerial firefighting capabilities vary between the states and territories, with some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, not owning any aircraft. Other jurisdictions own aircraft. For example, NSW owns a fleet consisting of three helicopters and the ‘Marie Bashir’ LAT, and has purchased a further four aircraft (two fixed-wing and two helicopters) which are expected to be available in 2020. [Note from Bill: The LAT is a 737 air tanker recently purchased from Coulson Aviation. The two fixed wing aircraft are Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence jets; the two helicopters are Bell 412s. More info.]
There is merit in considering what further benefits could be derived from even greater [interstate] collaboration in the use of available aerial firefighting resources.
We heard that the current terms of aircraft service contracts are a disincentive for some Australian-based service providers. The majority of the providers we heard from told us that short contracts and minimal work during the off season make it unviable to invest in expensive aviation equipment. Contracts traditionally engage providers for 84 service days (70 in Tasmania) within the fire season, but we heard that more contracted service days would allow providers to invest in more equipment and offer greater value for money to fire agencies.
The Aerial Application Association of Australia also told us that the length of contracts is insufficient to encourage industry to invest in aircraft and creates significant uncertainty in securing long-term finance. The Aerial Application Association of Australia also criticizes the short lead times for developing contract proposals with NAFC.
The limited availability of aviation support personnel in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season limited the sharing of personnel between jurisdictions and led to a greater reliance on personnel sourced from overseas.
The optimal use of aerial firefighting is in the early stages of a bushfire. For an aircraft to provide effective assistance in the suppression of a bushfire it needs to be rapidly dispatched with minimal travel time and with necessary logistical support systems in place. Victoria, SA and WA each employ ‘pre-determined dispatch’-the purpose of which is to reduce the time for the aircraft to reach the fire -described as a ‘game changing system that should be adopted nationally’.
On some occasions during the 2019-2020 bushfire season states and territories were unable to call upon additional aviation services when needed.
Aviation services funded, in whole or in part, by the Australian Government should be shared between jurisdictions according to the greatest need.
The availability of overseas-based aviation services during Australian fire seasons, particularly LATs, may be reduced by the increasing convergence of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
We also heard that Australian-licensed pilots were not licensed to operate foreign-registered aircraft used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. For example, with the exception of the NSW-owned LAT, none of the LATs used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season were Australian-registered, and therefore Australian-licensed pilots were precluded from operating them.
The Australian Federation of Air Pilots told us that it has approximately 5,000 Australia-based members employed as commercial pilots. This suggests Australia may have the potential to recruit and train the necessary expertise to operate firefighting aircraft currently sourced from overseas, including LATs, if such aircraft were owned and registered in Australia.
Australian, state, and territory governments should work together to continue to improve Australia’s collective, Australian-based and operated, aerial firefighting capabilities. Though we see merit in the continued use of overseas-based aviation services and air crew in some instances, Australia’s current reliance represents a vulnerability, as demonstrated during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.
The development of a modest Australian-based and registered national fleet of VLAT/LAT [Very large Airtanker/Large Air Tanker] aircraft and Type-1 helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience. A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions. This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities which may benefit from a nationally coordinated approach. Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability should be supported by ongoing research and evaluation to inform specific capability needs, and the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.
Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability may be supplemented by overseas-based aviation services, where additional capacity is forecast to be required and available.
Marta Amelia Timmons passed away October 10, 2020. After starting an aircraft charter company and a Fixed Base Operation at the Missoula airport, she purchased Black Hills Aviation and moved it from New Mexico to Missoula, renaming it Neptune Aviation Services.
Funeral services will be live streamed October 31 at 10:30 a.m. MDT.
Ms. Timmons was passionate about many things, aviation was just one of them. Below is an excerpt from the very interesting obituary posted at the funeral home’s website.
Inspired by heroes such as Amelia Earhart, Marta was a proficient multi-engine private pilot. She began her Missoula based aviation business endeavors in 1989, opening the charter company Thunderbird Aviation. In 1990, she began construction of a Fixed Base Operation (FBO) in the Missoula airport. Northstar Air Express offered all FBO services as well as aerial EMS services. The FBO now operates as Northstar Jet and continues to grow offerings and employment opportunities.
In 1994, Marta became keenly interested in the aerial firefighting industry. She wanted to make a difference with a mission to provide safe, effective, and efficient aerial firefighting services to our Country. She discovered the airtanker company Black Hills Aviation, located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, which operated a fleet of Lockheed P2v Neptune aircraft retrofitted for aerial firefighting. She entered into purchasing negotiations and soon thereafter acquired the company that would be renamed and relocated to Missoula, Montana. Thus, began her legacy with Neptune Aviation Services. Always the visionary, Marta recognized the need for a Next Generation Airtanker. In 2010, leading the industry, Neptune started the Next Generation Airtanker trend, introducing the BAe-146 Airtanker. In 2017, Neptune retired the last of the venerable P2Vs.
Neptune has contracted with the US Forest Service and other agencies fighting fire for over 25 years. Marta has grown the company from 30 employees to over 200. Marta was an innovative leader who firmly believed in the values of Embracing Family (not only her personal family but also the Neptune/Northstar family), Firm Handshake (when Marta gave her word she stood by it), Resilient Spirit (through the good and bad she was here for us). She was committed to the mission of Neptune/Northstar, creating solid jobs for Missoula families and contributing to the Missoula community.