A look at the Ventura County helicopters

Ventura County helicopter
The first time that Ventura County Copter 2 was used on a wildfire, June 10, 2020. Photo by John Carman.

Ventura County, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has an air unit which is a cooperative enterprise of the Fire District and the Sheriff’s Office. The unit has four Bell UH-1 helicopters and one Bell Long Ranger. In addition, they purchased three military HH-60L Blackhawk helicopters in order to convert them into FIREHAWKS to be used for fighting wildland fires, personnel transport, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medical evacuation.

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County Copter 5. Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VCSO photo, Capt. Romano Bassi January, 2019
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 8. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 8. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copters 6, 8, 9, and 2. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 3. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit

Helicopter lineup for Australia this fire season

The helicopters will be phased in over the next several weeks.

 Updated October 16, 2020   |    8:17 a.m. MDT

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. Chris Matei photo.

The first of six Erickson Air-Crane helicopters that will assist firefighters in Australia arrived at the Sydney airport October 12. “Gypsy Lady” was unloaded from an Antonov 124-100 after spending the summer fighting fires in Greece. It has since been reassembled and flown to Bankstown, New South Wales where it will begin its mandatory availability period on November 1.

The other five are also coming from Greece, but will be receiving less deluxe treatment lashed down inside the holds of ocean-going freighters like they were in April on the way from Australia to Greece.

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. NSW RFS photo.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said on October 15 the positioning of the Air-Cranes will be the same as last year:

  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT730, N189AC, Gypsy Lady, starts 11/1/2020
  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT739, N247AC , Jerry, 12/1/2020
  • Essendon, Victoria, HT341,  N154AC, Georgia Peach, 12/2/2020
  • Moorabbin, Victoria, HT342, N194AC, Delilah, 12/23/2020
  • Brukunga (Adelaide Hills), So. Australia, HT743, N218AC, Elsie, 12/17/2020
  • Serpentine (Perth), Western Australia, HT740, N243AC, Marty, 12/20/2020

There will also be three Sikorsky S-61N ships and a Sikorsky S-76B owned and operated by Coulson:

  • Colac, Victoria
  • Mansfield, Victoria
  • Ballarat, Victoria; night-flying capable, along with the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter for night supervision and intelligence gathering.
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady being reassembled  at Sydney. Kestrel-Erickson photo.

In addition to the lineup for the Type 1 helicopters, there is news about a couple of smaller Type 2 helicopters in Australia. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) has purchased two new Bell 412 helicopters. One of them, like Gypsy Lady, received deluxe transportation (compared to a cargo ship) when a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A hauled it from Vancouver International Airport, Canada, to Richmond, NSW on September 15.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.

Bell Helicopter Textron Canada, based in Mirabel, Quebec since 1986 has manufactured more than 5,000 aircraft.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
NSW Rural Fire Service’s new Bell 412 helicopter after arriving at Richmond, NSW. RAAF photo.

Night-flying Chinook begins fire contract in Orange County, California

October 2, 2020 | 3:12 p.m. PDT

N42CU Coulson CH-47 Chinook helicopter
Coulson’s CH-47 Chinook N42CU. Coulson photo.

A 3,000-gallon night-flying firefighting helicopter is available starting today October 1 in Southern California.

The CH-47 Chinook Very Large Helitanker (VLHT) operated by Coulson Aviation is working under an 83-day contract in collaboration with Southern California Edison (SCE) and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).

Registered as N42CU, the night-flying Chinook will be crewed 24/7 and available for responses day and night within the 15 counties served by SCE. The daily availability costs of $2.1 million for the contract period are being paid by SCE, while the hourly costs will be covered by the agencies responsible for the fire protection where the fires occur.

The Chinook will be based at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County. It can fill it’s 3,000-gallon internal tank while on the ground, or while hovering over a water or retardant source using its retractable snorkel hose.

As a comparison, the two Orange County Fire Authority Bell 412EP helicopters are capable of dropping up to 375-gallons. Water capacities of other helicopters: Bell 214B, 660 gallons;  K-MAX, 700 gallons; FireHawk S-70i, 1,000 gallons; and S-64 Skycrane, 2,650 gallons.

RADS tank N42CU Coulson CH-47 Chinook helicopter
The RADS internal 3,000-gallon tank in Coulson’s CH-47 Chinook, N42CU. Coulson photo.

In 2019 the OCFA also had an arrangement with SCE for a 24/7 night flying helicopter. In that case Coulson supplied an S-61 capable of 1,000 gallons and, a Sikorsky S-76 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. This year the contract is just for one helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook.

N42CU Coulson CH-47 Chinook helicopter
Coulson’s CH-47 Chinook N42CU. Coulson photo.

NWCG recommends standardization of call numbers for Air Attack platforms

Aero Commander
File photo of an Aero Commander 500.

The National Wildfire Coordination Group is pushing for a standard method of designating call signs of “Air Attack aircraft”. It is believed they are referring to aircraft used to coordinate aerial firefighting aircraft over wildland fires, rather than using a generic term for any aircraft that attacks fires.

Here is an excerpt from a memo the group sent, dated September 21, 2020:


NWCG requests assistance with the adoption of the call sign standard for Exclusive Use (EU) Air Attack platforms. The initial year implementation of the standard would be considered a beta test, with permanent updates planned for sequential years. Updates would include all appropriate documents and applications at the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACC), and local dispatch centers. Implementation of the proposal will include updating Automated Flight Following (AFF) to display call signs. Additional points include:

  • Total Mobility (see National Interagency Mobilization Guide, Chapter 10) is supported through this proposal. The call sign standard provides information pertinent to resource movement and prioritization, and it distinguishes between EU and Call When Needed (CWN) platforms.
  • AFF will be updated with the new resource identifier call signs. For EU aircraft, the call sign stays with the platform while under contract.
  • CWN platforms will continue to use the last three characters of their registration number (N#).
  • Operationally, Air Attack platforms will continue to use incident call signs when assuming incident air attack (for example, AA-402 becomes Ranch Air Attack).

Below is description of the call sign standard for all interagency EU Air Attack call signs:

  • First Number: The Forest Service regional identification number where the platform is hosted (e.g., 1, 2, etc.).
  • Numbers Two and Three: Forest Service will use the two-digit number of the Forest that hosts the platform:
  • USFS: 0-29 Cooperating agencies will use the two-digit number assigned to the agency:
  • BLM: 30-39
  • BIA: 40-49
  • States, NPS, FWS: 50-99

Excellent graphical representations of aircraft working on fires

Aircraft profiles, LNU Lightning Complex of fires
Aircraft profiles, LNU Lightning Complex of fires, Aug. 22, 2020. Reuters graphic.

Reuters has an excellent series of graphics showing how aircraft of all types are used on wildfires. The authors of the piece, Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez, and Manas Sharma, must have spent days distilling a massive amount of data into easily digestible images, and in one case an animated graphic. Incredible work — check it out.

The image above is a time line showing the altitude of individual aircraft, from 1 p.m. on the left to 8 p.m. on the right. At about 7 p.m. there were 14 working, three OV-10s, seven S-2Ts, and four large air tankers. (In this graphic they transposed a couple of the characters in the model names of two tankers, but they get a pass for the overall great work.)

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

Photos of northern California firefighting aircraft, part 1

air tanker 23, N923AU
T-23, P-3, N923AU, Photo by Dylan Phelps

Dylan Phelps sent us these photos that he captured at various Northern California airports in the first part of September as our firefighters were going up against one of the most vicious wildfire seasons on record.

Thanks Dylan!

air tanker 944 747 supertanker
T-944, Boeing 747-466, N744ST, Photo by Dylan Phelps
air tanker 911, N17085
T-911, N17085, Photo by Dylan Phelps
air tanker 481, C-FLXT,
T-481, Lockheed L-188C Electra, C-FLXT, Photo by Dylan Phelps
CAL FIRE Helicopter 903
CAL FIRE H-903, Sikorsky S-70i FireHawk, N483DF, Photo by Dylan Phelps
air tanker 60
T-60, Douglas DC-7, N838D, Photo by Dylan Phelps
N316LH helicopter
Bell 212, N316LH, photo by Dylan Phelps

Teen firefighting pilot flies Blackhawks and Chinooks

Ashli Blain is 19 years old

Ashli Blain, firefighting helicopter pilot
Ashli Blain, screenshot from KECI video.

Ashli Blain, a 19-year old college student, recently went back to school after spending her summer fighting fires from helicopters as a command pilot in Blackhawks and copilot in Chinooks. She works for Billings Flying Service out of Montana.

It was “by far the toughest flying I have ever done”, said helicopter pilot about rescuing trapped people at the Creek Fire

Over 300 were rescued

rescued by California National Guard helicopter
Civilians in a Chinook that were rescued by a California National Guard helicopter and crew. CNG photo.

As of noon Tuesday, California National Guard and U.S. Navy helicopters had rescued 362 people and 16 dogs that had become trapped as roads were blocked by the fast moving Creek Fire northeast of Fresno, California. Civilians extracted from the Edison Lake and China Peak areas were flown to the Fresno airport in Blackhawks, Chinooks, and a Navy Seahawk.

Rescued people arrive at Fresno Creek Fire
People who were rescued from the Creek Fire arrive at Fresno airport September 8, 2020. California National Guard image.

Examples of their missions Tuesday at Lake Edison:

  • A Stockton-based Cal Guard Ch-47 chinook evacuated 46 people and four dogs.
  • A U.S. Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopter rescued 17 people and one dog.
  • Two Cal Guard UH-60 Black Hawks and one CH-47 Chinook rescued 65 people.

Not all of the attempts to rescue people were immediately successful. On some missions poor visibility caused by smoke forced pilots to abort and try again later. Some of the flights were at night and were accomplished with the assistance of night vision goggles.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Creek Fire click HERE.)

One of the helicopter pilots said in an interview posted at the Sacramento Bee (below) that he has been shot at while flying for the Army but, “[T]he stress and added workload of going in and out of that fire every time is by far the toughest flying I have ever done.”

Map of the Creek Fire
Map of the Creek Fire at 8:41 p.m. PDT September 7, 2020.