CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.


The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

Photos of firefighting helicopters from Chicago, Sacramento, Kern County, and Santa Barbara County

Updated December 29, 2020

Bell 412EP helicopter, Chicago Fire Department. N682FD
Bell 412EP helicopter, Chicago Fire Department. N682FD. Photo by Jon Goldin, July 31, 2018.

At Fire Aviation we always like to receive photos of fire service aircraft, but we look forward to receiving shots of helicopters that are not often seen over wildland fires. Here are a couple of examples of ships from the Chicago Fire Department and the Sacramento Fire District.

Bell Uh-1H helicopter, Sacramento Fire District
Bell Uh-1H helicopter, Sacramento Fire District. N114FD. Photo by Jon Goldin, Sept. 29, 2018.

Kern County and Santa Barbara UH-1H helicopters are often used on fires in Southern California. These are good shots taken by Jon Goldin, who also took the ones above. Thank Jon!

Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department
Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department. N408KC. Photo by Jon Goldin, Jan. 1, 2018
Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department
Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department. N407KC. Photo by Jon Goldin, Jan. 1, 2018
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 308
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 308. N205KS. Photo by John Goldin

Updated December 29, 2020 to add photo of Santa Barbara County helicopter.

U.S. Congress suggests Forest Service consider longer term aviation contracts

10-year contracts are being considered

US Capitol
US Capitol

The appropriations bill passed by Congress which may soon be signed by the President does not have any earthshaking changes to the wildland fire budgets of the land management agencies in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest Service. Wildfire Today has the details about the bill which allocates funding for this fiscal year that began October 1, 2020.

There is one interesting section that may affect contracts for firefighting aircraft.

The “explanatory statement” that accompanies the bill  has a surprisingly lengthy section (at the end of this article) that directs the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that considers awarding 10 year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities.

The Next Generation 3.0 contracts for five large air tankers announced in October are for only one year with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

The Next Gen 1.0 and Next Gen 2.0 contracts were for five guaranteed years with up to five more at the discretion of the FS. This trend of only issuing one year guaranteed contracts is disturbing. In an interview with Fire Aviation in October, Dan Snyder, Senior Vice-President of Neptune Aviation, was asked about the one-year contracts:

“If that becomes the new USFS contacting model, I believe it will create a barrier to entry for other vendors due to the risks involved,” Mr. Snyder said. “It will also make long-term planning for aircraft acquisition, maintenance, training and hiring of staff, difficult even for the established vendors in aerial firefighting.”

The explanatory statement also addresses aircraft on state or local contracts:

“The Committee is concerned that, in some cases, aerial firefighting companies put forward by states for inclusion in Cooperator Letters, and that are certified by states as meeting the equivalent of either Forest Service or Department of Interior standards, are not receiving timely approval or are receiving conditional approvals that limit states from fully utilizing their resources to fight wildfires. Given the patchwork of state and federal lands and the scale of wildfires, the Committee urges timely and transparent Cooperator Letter decisions to allow states to adequately respond to regional wildfires, including providing feedback to state wildfire agencies with detailed rationale for denials of requests. The Forest Service is directed to brief the Committee within 180 days of enactment of this Act on actions that can be taken to improve this process to include the feasibility of federal carding outside the federal contracting process.”

Our take-

In October I wrote about the need for longer aviation contracts:

“Congress needs to appropriate enough funding to have 40 large air tankers on exclusive use 10-year guaranteed contracts.

“Protecting our citizens and forests from wildfires is more important than sending our soldiers and trillions of dollars to fight wars in places that many people could not find on a map. Suppressing wildfires and managing federal forests to reduce the threat to our citizens is a Homeland Security issue and should be adequately funded. And, firefighters need to be paid a living wage. You can’t fight fires on the cheap.”

Below is the text from the “explanatory statement” regarding length of aviation contracts that accompanies the appropriations bill (HR-7612):

Continue reading “U.S. Congress suggests Forest Service consider longer term aviation contracts”

New South Wales company acquires 11 Seahawk helicopters

Some of them will be converted to assist wildland firefighters

70B-2 Seahawk helicopter Skyline Aviation Group
The last of the 11 S70B-2 Seahawk helicopters purchased by Skyline Aviation Group was delivered March 31, 2019. Skyline photo.

A company in New South Wales, Australia has purchased 11 military surplus helicopters and expects to convert some of them for aerial firefighting.

In December, 2017 when the Royal Australian Navy retired the last of their S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters Skyline Aviation Group saw it as an opportunity. Eleven months later the Lake Macquarie based company had sealed a deal to acquire almost a dozen of the Seahawks. The last one was delivered on March 31, 2019.

Skyline hopes to have two of them ready to fight fire during this 2020-2021 bushfire season, but the company has not yet been awarded a contract.

One of the issues identified in the report from the Royal Commission about the devastating losses in the 2019-2020 fire season was the lack of a robust aerial firefighting fleet, both rotor and fixed wing. Below is an excerpt:

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.

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.

In the video below, Greg Piper, a member of parliament, and Deputy Premier of NSW, John Barilaro, toured the Skyline facility and inspected the Seahawks. Mr. Piper said he hopes that the state government will provide some “assistance”.


Posted by Skyline Aviation Group on Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Preliminary report released for fatal helicopter accident near Coalinga

The UH-1H crashed August 19, 2020

Flight path of UH-1H from the NTSB preliminary report
Flight path and pilot statements from the NTSB preliminary report.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on the August 19, 2020 helicopter crash in which pilot Mike Fournier, 52, was killed. He was the only person on board.

The Bell UH-1H helicopter, N711GH, crashed while on a water dropping mission on the Hills Fire, approximately 9 miles south of the City of Coalinga. It was operated by Guardian Helicopters out of Van Nuys, California on a CAL FIRE contract.

The early evidence from the NTSB indicates there was a problem with the hydraulics, based on radio communications from the pilot moments before the accident.

The Associated Press reported that Mr. Fournier’s wife and two daughters filed suit against the helicopter’s manufacturer and the company that serviced it. Both were accused of negligence and wrongful death in the suit that seeks unspecified damages.

Below is the complete text from the narrative section of the NTSB preliminary report (Accident #WPR20LA280). It will be months before the agency completes and releases the final report which may come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident.

“On August 19, 2020 about 0945 Pacific daylight time, an Arrow-Falcon Exporters, Inc. UH-1H, N711GH, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Coalinga, California. The pilot, the sole occupant was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a public use firefighting flight.

“The accident flight was the pilot’s first day working the Hills Fire, which had started four days prior. The pilot departed at 0846 followed by another pilot that was flying a Bell 212 helicopter for another operator.

“Investigators reviewed flight track data covering the area of the accident during the time surrounding the accident. Additionally, the Bell 212 pilot had an app recording his track that he provided to investigators. After departure, both helicopters flew south until reaching a small lake/reservoir (the dip site) to fill up the external load buckets attached to their respective helicopters (bambi buckets). Thereafter, they flew to a predetermined areas and began to unload their water on the fire. After releasing the water, they would return back to the dip site. After the accident pilot delivered about two buckets of water to a division he moved to another division delivering about five buckets of water.

“The Bell 212 pilot recalled that after he departed the dip site with a bucket of water, he heard the accident pilot communicate over the air-to-air radio that he felt “abnormal noises and vibrations” and that he was going to make a precautionary landing. The Bell 212 pilot dumped his water and then caught up to the accident helicopter with the intention of assisting the pilot find a good area to land; he remained a few hundred feet behind and above the accident helicopter. The accident helicopter was about a 1,000 ft above ground level (agl) and maneuvering at an airspeed between 60 to 70 kts. The accident pilot then stated that the helicopter’s “temps and pressures are good.” A few seconds later the accident pilot stated “it’s my hydraulics.” (See Picture 1 below). The Bell 212 pilot relayed that that he should make a right turn and fly down the ravine to less mountainous terrain (the flats).

“The helicopter started to make a right turn and then banked back to the left while losing airspeed. The Bell 212 pilot noticed the helicopter still had its 100 ft longline and bambi bucket attached and told the accident pilot to “release your long line and get forward airspeed,” The accident pilot then stated “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” The left turn steepened remaining in a level pitch attitude, and the helicopter began to make three or four 360° rotations (rapidly swapping the front and back), while drifting north-east. The helicopter then pitched in a nose-low, near vertical attitude and collided into terrain. (See Picture 2 below). A fire immediately erupted and the Bell 212 pilot made multiple trips to the dip site to fill his bucket and drop water on the accident site.

“The helicopter came to rest on a 35° slope with the main wreckage about 25 yards downslope from the initial impact. A majority of the wreckage was consumed by fire; the tail rotor assembly was intact. The tail rotor blades were intact, with no evidence of rotational scoring. The wreckage was recovered to a secure location for further investigation.”

(end of NTSB report)

N711GH Guardian Helicopters
File photo of N711GH. Guardian Helicopters photo.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Coulson air tankers and helicopters are following the fire season to the southern hemisphere

The aircraft and crews will be assisting firefighters in Chile and Australia

Coulson firefighting helicopters
Coulson CH-47 prepares for a voyage to Chile. Coulson photo.

Coulson Aviation is in the process of deploying firefighting aircraft to the Southern Hemisphere for the summer wildfire seasons in South America and Australia.

For several weeks they have had three Sikorsky S-61N helicopters in Australia and in November flew air tanker 137, a Boeing 737 (N137CG), across the Pacific to join the helicopters. They will also have a Sikorsky S-76B in the country.

Two C-130 air tankers, T-131 (N130FF) and T-132 (N132CG), departed from San Bernardino, California December 12 for Australia. They both recently received new livery, featuring a new paint design for the Coulson aircraft.

Coulson Air Tankers 131 and 132
Tankers 131 and 132, before their flights to Australia. Coulson photo (heavily edited by Fire Aviation).

In the last week or so Coulson loaded two CH-47 Chinooks (N47CU and N40CU) and a Blackhawk onto a large ship to begin a voyage to Chile where they will assist firefighters.

Coulson firefighting helicopters
Coulson CH-47s and a Blackhawk prepare for a voyage to Chile. Coulson photo.
Coulson firefighting helicopters
Coulson CH-47 prepares for a voyage to Chile. Coulson photo.
Coulson firefighting helicopters
Coulson CH-47 prepares for a voyage to Chile. Coulson photo.
Coulson firefighting helicopters
Coulson CH-47s prepare for a voyage to Chile. Coulson photo.
Coulson firefighting helicopters
Coulson Blackhawk prepares for a voyage to Chile. Coulson photo.

Transportable dip tanks for helicopters

Grayback Forestry 11,000-gallon dip tank
Greyback Forestry 11,000-gallon dip tank. Grayback Forestry photo.

After publishing our article last week about the permanent “heli-hydrants” being built in Orange County, California, I thought I’d write about transportable tanks that can serve as water sources for helicopters. Portable, or transportable, water tanks have been used for decades for refilling helicopters or to serve as a temporary water storage facilities at structure or wildland fires. They may be collapsable with flexible sides, or hard-sided and transported on flatbed trucks. The tanks can be filled with retardant, other water enhancement products, or plain water. Helicopters can refill a water bucket by dipping it into the tank, or if equipped, use a large diameter hose on the helicopter with an attached hydraulic-powered or electric pump to refill an external or internal water tank on the aircraft.

For example — Greyback Forestry has various sizes of dip tanks that are transported on trailers or flatbed trucks. The company can also supply mobile mixing systems that use a proportioner to mix enhancement products into the water which improve its ability to slow the spread of a fire.

West Coast Water Tenders operates two tanks they call Heli Troffs that have wheels so they can be towed behind trucks. One holds 18,000 gallons and the other,  8,000 gallons.

Heli Troff, 18,000 gallons
Heli Troff, 18,000 gallons. West Coast Water Tenders photo.
Heli Troff, 8,000 gallons
Heli Troff, 8,000 gallons. West Coast Water Tenders photo.

The Heli Troffs, now operated by West Coast Water Tenders, were invented by Keril Keiser and later acquired by West Coast, according to Andrew Sarvis of West Coast. The white one has an automatic refill system and the company has plans to install one on the larger yellow tank, which they call “Goliath.”

When not assigned to wildfires, West Coast works for movie and television studios providing special effects such as “rain” and wet downs for shots. They can also support studios with fire protection as needed.

Heli Troff Air-Crane refilling
Air-Crane refills from the 18,000-gallon Heli Troff. West Coast Water Tenders photo.
Transportable mixing plant
Transportable mixing plant for BlazeTamer water enhancer used with the Heli Troffs. West Coast Water Tenders photo. In the background to the right is a yellow flexible-sided portable water tank, often called a Fol-Da-Tank.

Below is video of a helicopter dipping into a Greyback tank which contains a blue water enhancement product.

Erickson announces FAA certification for composite main rotor blades

Erickson announces composite main rotor blades
Erickson announces FAA certification for composite main rotor blades. Erickson image.

Erickson Incorporated has announced final FAA certification for the composite main rotor blades on the S-64F and CH-54B helicopters. Earlier this year, the company received approval for the S-64E model. This recent announcement finalizes the certification of the S-64F and CH-54B, solidifying FAA certification for the entire fleet of S-64 Air Crane® E & F models, as well as the CH-54 Skycrane A & B models.

The advanced design of the blades provides a significant performance advantage, especially with hot and high conditions.

This Certification brings considerable advantages, such as:

  • Performance gains
  • Fuel savings
  • Reduced vibration, meaning reduced wear and fatigue on the entire aircraft
  • Blade interchangeability with the E/A models
“It was quite difficult, but extremely satisfying to see this
project through to completion. There are a lot of blood
sweat and tears in those blades.”
– Billy Johnson, Chief Engineer at Erickson Incorporated