Firefighting helicopters at John Day, Oregon

July 13, 2019

AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon
Firefighters prepare to depart for a new fire in an Airbus AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon July 13, 2019. Photo by Todd McKinley.

Todd McKinley sent us these excellent photos of helicopters working out of John Day, Oregon yesterday. He said the airport is staying busy with a variety of aircraft available this year.

Thanks Todd!

UH-60a helicopter John Day Oregon
A UH-60A Firehawk helicopter at John Day, Oregon July 13, 2019. Photo by Todd McKinley.
AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon
Airbus AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon July 13, 2019. Photo by Todd McKinley.


Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

New aerial ignition device for helicopters tested in Colorado

Colorado Division of Fire Prevent and Control Cañon Helitack
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack conducts Hover Step training.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack crew recently conducted Hover Step training and also tested new aerial ignition equipment in partnership with the Forest Service’s Technology and Development program. The aerial ignition devices included the Sling Dragon, developed by SEI Industries, and a modified helitorch assembly.

This is the first time a Type 2 helicopter has tested this equipment. The Technology and Development program provides practical solutions to problems identified by U.S. Forest Service employees and cooperators.

(Photos and text from the DFPC’s Facebook page)

Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Cañon Helitack
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack tests an aerial ignition device.
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Cañon Helitack aerial ignition
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack tests an aerial ignition device.

Interview with Shem Hawkins, BC at Chico Air Attack Base

One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport

BC Shem Hawkins
Battalion Chief Shem Hawkins. Screengrab from video below.

Action News Now interviewed Shem Hawkins, the CAL FIRE Battalion Chief at the Chico Air Attack Base. One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport.

CAL FIRE is in the process of replacing their aging fleet of 12 Super Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks from United Rotorcraft.

The interviewer misquoted Chief Hawkins in one respect. CAL FIRE is getting seven HC-130H aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, but they are 31 to 35 years old — not “brand new”. The U.S. Coast Guard gave them to the U.S. Forest Service, but the FS quickly changed their mind before the conversions to air tankers were complete, and regifted them to CAL FIRE. Much work still needs to be done to perform heavy maintenance on the ships and install retardant delivery systems.

Chief Hawkins’ fire career began as a volunteer  firefighter at Magalia, CA in 1992. After being hired at CAL FIRE, he served as a Firefighter, Paramedic, Engineer, Fire Captain, and Field Battalion Chief. His father is John Hawkins who retired in December as the CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Chief.

IHOG is now SHO

Standards for Helicopter OperationsThe book of standards that has governed the use and management of helicopters used by federal land management agencies has changed its name. The 2019 revision of the Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide (IHOG) is now titled Standards for Helicopter Operations (SHO).

The document, “…establishes the standards by which helicopter operations are to be conducted under the exclusive direction and operational control of federal, state and local agencies in the accomplishment of interagency fire suppression and natural resource aviation management.”

The SHO has been adopted by the USFS, BIA, BLM, and NPS as policy for all helicopter operations.

The last edition of the IHOG was published in June of 2016. The new SHO is dated May, 2019 and is expected to be revised in 2022.

Apparently there are no plans to officially print and distribute paper copies of the 319-page book and the four associated documents, but they can be downloaded at the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s website.

The SHO was produced under the auspices of the NWCG and the National Interagency Aviation Committee, Interagency Helicopter Operations Guide Unit, and Interagency Helicopter Operations Subcommittee.

100 firefighters attend aircraft Safety Fly-In at Durango

Durango Helitack crew
The Durango Helitack crew demonstrates crew loading.

Rick Freimuth sent us these photos and description of a Safety Fly-In that occurred Friday, May 31 at the Durango Air Tanker Base in Colorado. Mr. Freimuth staffs the Benchmark Lookout west of Telluride, Colorado where he normally would have been, starting three weeks ago, but snow on the roads has made that impossible. The tower is at 9,262′ elevation.

Yesterday I attended the San Juan National Forest Safety Fly-In event at the Durango Airtanker Base.  It’s an annual event (except last year because of our busy fire season) held for the local jurisdictions – USFS, BLM, NPS, Durango Fire & Rescue and other local towns and counties.  The Fly-In is designed to familiarize the firefighters with air-to-ground radio protocol, general aircraft safety, crew loading, hard landings (turning off fuel, electrical and rotor brakes).

Durango Helitack was represented with their Bell 205, pilot, crew manager and crew.  They demonstrated sling load loading and hookups, bucket hookups and crew loading.  To increase performance for their older ship the 205 is hopped up with wider composite rotor blades, fins along the tail boom and the tail rotor is repositioned on the right side instead of the traditional 205 left side.  Interesting.  Of course Durango Helitack’s primary mission is IA but they also perform bucket work and rescues with the ability to carry two patients.

Mesa Verde National Park Helitack crew
Mesa Verde National Park Helitack crew member describes National Park Service aviation protocol.

Mesa Verde NP Helitack was there with their Bell 407.  They gave us a great demonstration of capabilities from their crew manager and one of their IA firefighters.  Their primary mission is IA but are also equipped for bucket work and they are the only Short Haul capable crew in the Four Corners area.  They’re capable of in-cabin litter transport as well.

Flight For Life’s orange A-Star 350 based at Durango’s Mercy Regional Medical Center was there with pilot, flight nurse and paramedic.  They talked about their protocol as well as their A-Star’s excellent capabilities at high altitude rescue in the local San Juan mountain ranges.  They gave an excellent demonstration of patient loading with firefighters assisting.

An interesting addition to the Fly-In was a Bell 206 from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad excursion train.  Simply referred to as the train helicopter.  It’s mission is to follow the train up and down the route for fire suppression in case the coal burning engines ignite fuels in their right-of-way.  They carry a 75 gallon bucket filled 3/4 full for several hours a day looking for smoke.  The reason for the reduced fill is to increase fuel efficiency during the day at high altitudes.

Durango airport Oshkosh crash rescue truck
Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck.

The Durango-LaPlata County airport showcased one of their two, huge Oshkosh fire engines including a thorough discussion of the airport firefighters duties and responsibilities for the myriad aircraft that may land at the field in emergency situations.

The most interesting aircraft, for me, was the State of Colorado’s Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA).  The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control has two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes that have been outfitted with state-of-the-art fire detection infrared (IR) and color sensors (EO) operated by sensor operators from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildland Fire Management staff.  The pilot, Carl Gordon and sensor operator, Jesse, gave us a complete description of their real-time fire mapping capabilities.  Jesse said they were able to send their maps to the ICs and firefighters within twenty minutes of flying the fire.  The firefighters are then able to access the up-to-date fire maps on Avenza.

PC-12 multimission durango airport
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 multimission aircraft, and Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck.

The retardant base was an interesting station at the Fly-In.  We were given a thorough explanation of mixing Phos-Chek with water to create the loads appropriate to fuels and elevation.  Durango Airtanker Base is the highest elevation tanker base at 6,685′.  The retardant loads have to be altered to the summertime temperatures, high elevation of the airport and the, possibly, higher elevations of the fires.  Durango Airtanker Base’s retardant base is now able to fill two air tankers at a time.

sand table fire tactics wildfire
Jerran Flinders (center, wearing sandals) uses a sand “table” to explain air attack strategy, with Mike Bryson, on the right.

The last station at our Fly-In event was the sand table (sand box in our case).  Jerran Flinders, the San Juan National Forest’s Aviation Officer and Mike Bryson, the Durango Airtanker Base Manager gave the attending firefighters scenarios of making a resource order for air tankers or helicopters on an active fire.  The sand box had a fire climbing a slope through timber and approaching a ridge-top structure.  Jerran lead the scenarios through requesting aircraft, communicating with air attack and delivering the retardant load.  This was an excellent demonstration, for green firefighters, of what to do and what not to do during a wildfire event.

The Safety Fly-In was attended by roughly one hundred fire staff including firefighters, fire overhead, and one lookout.