Aircraft formerly known as the SuperTanker spotted in Hawaii

And, photos of a wildfire in Hawaii

N936CA, formerly Tanker 944
N936CA, formerly Air Tanker 944, now owned by National Airlines. Photographed in Hawaii by Hiroshi Ando Nov. 4, 2021.

These photos were taken by Hiroshi Ando who was one of the drop system operators on Global SuperTanker Services’ 747 SuperTanker, Tanker 944. Earlier this year the company shut down and sold the aircraft to National Airlines, who re-registered it as N936CA and is using it as a freighter. Hiroshi shot the photo above earlier this month when the aircraft was in Hawaii. He said he has spotted the plane a few times there while it was flying on military cargo flights.

Logistic Air purchased the retardant delivery system that was in the SuperTanker and has plans to install it in a nose-loading 747-200 when the aircraft completes maintenance after the first of the year. Their website for the aircraft says “Returning to Service in 2022.”

The day after Thanksgiving, November 26, a wildfire north of Honolulu, Hawaii threatened structures near Kalana Drive and Alu Street. After the report was received around noon 12 pieces of apparatus staffed with about 34 personnel responded.

Wildfire north of Honolulu, Nov. 26, 2021
Wildfire north of Honolulu, Nov. 26, 2021. Photo by Hiroshi Ando.

Two helicopters owned by the City and County of Honolulu assisted firefighters by dropping water that was dipped out of a swimming pool at Kalihi Valley District Park.

Hiroshi said the fire north of Honolulu started about four hours after Coulson’s C-130 Air Tanker 131, N131CG, departed Hilo after the crew stopped to spend the night on their ferry flight from the US West Coast on their way to begin a firefighting contract in Australia for the country’s 2021/2022 bushfire season.

Wildfire north of Honolulu, Nov. 26, 2021 helicopter drops water
MD 500N helicopter, owned by the City & County of Honolulu, working on a wildfire north of the city. Photo by Hiroshi Ando, Nov. 26, 2021.

In a news release the Honolulu Fire Department described the fire as “large scale, rapidly spreading” driven by wind. They said it burned about four acres.

Wildfire north of Honolulu, Nov. 26, 2021 helicopter drops water
MD 500N helicopter, owned by the City & County of Honolulu, dips water out of a swimming pool while working on a wildfire north of the city. Photo by Hiroshi Ando, Nov. 26, 2021.
Wildfire north of Honolulu, Nov. 26, 2021 helicopter drops water
MD 500N helicopter, owned by the City & County of Honolulu, working on a wildfire north of the city. Photo by Hiroshi Ando, Nov. 26, 2021.

In 2018 Hiroshi sent us photos he took of the Holy Fire while the SuperTanker was working on the fire which burned more than 22,000 acres northwest of Lake Elsinore, California.

It is dry in Hawaii. The Drought Monitor classifies conditions in the state as ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought.

Hawaii Drought Monitor, Nov. 23, 2021
Hawaii Drought Monitor, Nov. 23, 2021

Organizing for night-flying firefighting operations, U.S. and Australia

What guidelines are in place?

National Night Air Operations
Image from National Night Air Operations presentation, 2018, USFS.

The investigation into the fatal crash of the Single Engine Air Tanker, that occurred in Colorado 1 hour and 49 minutes after sunset on November 16, will include an evaluation of the guidelines that had been established for night-flying operations. Approximately 90 percent of the Kruger Rock Fire was on the Roosevelt National Forest; the rest was on land where the responsibility for suppression was with the Sheriff of Larimer County. The day after the crash the Sheriff’s office said that as of 7 a.m. that day the fire was being managed by a unified command with the US Forest Service and the Sheriff.

Judging from the fire perimeter and the very strong westerly winds it appears likely that the fire started just outside or very close to the National Forest boundary and then spread into the Forest — which is tinted green in the map below.

Map of the Krueger Rock Fire
Map of the Krueger Rock Fire, Nov. 17, 2021. Green indicates National Forest. Fire perimeter created by Colorado’s Multi-Mission aircraft and crew.

After suspending their use of night-flying helicopters at night for about 40 years after a mid-air collision, the US Forest Service restored the program in 2013, making one helicopter available at night. Several other agencies in Southern California have long-standing night-flying programs.

FIRESCOPE is an organization of local fire departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and federal fire agencies. In 2018 they published “FIRESCOPE Fire Suppression Night Flying Guidelines”, ICS 800. The 28-page document “provides guidelines for the use of interagency aircraft for both night initial and extended attack operations on emergency incidents to enhance safety, operational effectiveness, and fiscal prudence.”

After operational trials, the state of Victoria in Australia first placed a crew on shift for helicopter night firefighting operations on December 7, 2018. Within two weeks they had two night-flying firebombing helicopters on active contracts (Sikorsky S61N and a Bell 412), each with a supervising  helicopter (Sikorsky S76B and AS355 F2, respectively). An update on their program at the time described some of the procedures and guidelines, including their “crawl, walk, run philosophy” as the project was unfolding.

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

Aerial firefighting program on PBS

Shahn Sederberg, Behind the Wings

A program that aired on the Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting System looked at fire aviation in the Western US. It featured the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Los Angeles County, Interra (which manages fire data and intelligence), and United Rotorcraft which converts Blackhawks helicopters into water-dropping Firehawks. Most of the 27 minutes is spent talking about helicopters, and they mention that the state of Colorado is going to purchase a Firehawk.

This episode of Wings Over the Rockies  is dedicated to Marc “Thor” Olson, the pilot with CO Fire Aviation who was killed November 17 while on a night-flying mission over the Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park, Colorado. We see him explaining the use of night vision goggles and fighting fire from the air at night.

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

Cockpit voice recording as helicopter drops water on wildfire during Vietnam War

Also, the story of what might have been the first water drop by a helicopter on a fire

12:12 p.m. PDT Nov. 2, 2021

Chinook Vietnam 1970 fire water bucket
Chinook from the 213th Assault Support Helicopter Company dropping water while fighting a structure fire in Vietnam in 1970. Photo via 213th Assault Support Helicopter Company.

Mike Brown sent us an audio recording of helicopter cockpit radio traffic made during the Vietnam War when a helicopter was dropping water on a wildfire just outside Phu Loi Field north of Saigon in southern Vietnam. The facility was also known as Phu Loi Base Camp and Darkhorse Base.

Mike, the Unit Historian for the 213th Assault Support Helicopter Company (ASHC), said he believed the ship dropping the water was a CH-47 Chinook. In 2019 he sent us numerous photos of a Chinook battling a large structure fire in Saigon in 1970, found in a 213th ASHC Alumni Association photo album maintained by Don Skipper.

The Association’s website has a riveting article describing what may have been the first time a helicopter dropped water on an actual fire, after four helicopters crashed in a horrific nighttime chain reaction catastrophe in 1968 or 1969. It also describes in detail the water bucket assembly and how it was used.

In addition to the recording, Mike included the explanatory document, below, by Bob Patterson (BlackCat 3) who created the recording. I’m not sure, but I think the recording begins with “Tape 2”, the firefighting mission, which is followed at 14:09 by a recording from a 45 rpm record put out by the Boeing Vertol company.

The audio recording, here, will open in a new tab.


Here are some tapes of BLACKCAT missions. The first one is a recording of a couple of ash and trash mission I flew in ’72 in the unit’s fairly new OH-58A. I will mention a couple of items to listen for, since perhaps guys not there in ’71-’72 would not know who was talking or what we were talking about.

1 was flying in the 213th OH-58, nicknamed the “Pussycat” with a tail number 947. In the last days just before the 213th stood down, we actually got two OH-58’s. At the time, I was the only pilot checked out in a ’58 and even I had gotten an in-country check out. MAJ Berdux, the CO, had given me some stick time and then got me a check out so that when he hit his upcoming DEROS there would someone who could fly the little bird. As a result, I had to fly most of its missions end work on OPS stuff from the cockpit the last 3 months I was in country. I was using my call sign of Blackcat 3. I departed from the 213th Flight Line and the parking spot for our 58 which was known as “The Sandbox”. Call sign “40P” was the call sign for 213th OPS. The SP4 in OPS who worked the radios for me was named MAC. But I can’t remember his full name. Super guy though. The flight was from Phu-Loi to Plantation and then back again a couple of times as I recall. I did talk with one or two of the 47’s out working the area that day.

I used a regular small tape recorder with a homebrew patch cord I made up in Avionics. It let me plug in my helmet to the recorder, then plug the recorder into the aircraft plug. The recorder ran all the time end recorded everything that came through the headset, so what you hear is real time. It might be interesting for you to hear the towers and radio traffic again. I have enjoyed listening to this on several occasions since that time. Seems like yesterday that I made it… Can it be over 30 years?

As I mentioned, I made this for a friend who was civilian commercial pilot and had asked and wondered what the traffic sounded like. As it turned out, I probably got more fun from this than he did!

In tape #2, we join Joker Swift talking to Blackcat 11 and Swift 55 on FM as 11 flies a Fire Bucket mission around a compound nearby at Phu-Loi just after midnight. AS I remember, the fire was outside the compound and near a minefield, which made for an interesting flight. Blackcat 11 was getting water from near the Phu Cong Bridge. He moved to a new location for water and finally took care of the problem. I was taping this from 213a OPS with an open Mic, and I am in the background talking to Warlord to get the Light Ship cancelled. You will note Blackcat 11 was talking about taking a few rounds from some shooter in the area. They get the mission done, change to tower frequency and then come home. Nothing exciting…but as you remember, pretty typical long day!

Following the Fire Bucket mission, you will hear a short tape I made from a 45 RPM record (remember those?) that the Boeing Vertol company put out [at 14:09]. After first tour in 68-69 with the 147th Hillclimbers, I returned to Rucker to become an 1P, Flight CDR, and then Assist Branch Chief of the Multi-Engine Branch at Hanchey AHP. During this time, Boeing was at the test board at Cairns AAF testing a lot of concepts on the CH47 to include a model called the Boeing Vertol 347. They took an A model CH-47 (as I recall) and cut the fuselage at a factory splice and made it about 4 feet longer. They cut the aft pylon off and raised it 30 inches and put back on. They then added two 4-blade rotor heads. The cockpit had really nice airliner seats with armrests (!), it had a retractable landing gear, and two new L-11C engines to top it off Lots of other ‘goodies’ on it too. Later they added a wing on each side to let it fly like a fixed wing at high speeds and to unload the rotor heads for straight and level flight. There was only one catch I was told… The beast could not autorotate. If it went down it went in like a F/W. Can you picture this thing? Well, anyway.., we use to meet with the Boeing engineers who would come and ask us what we wanted on a new bird, etc….. All we asked for was a second FM which hurt their feelings, as they wanted some fancy. (I think Chinooks have 2 FM radios today.) One interesting feature of the 347 was that with a 4-blade head, the rotor RPM was considerably lower than the A,B, and C models. As a result it was quieter, and it was pretty fast. However it just could not pick up anything with all this “stuff’ hung on it and the 347 was strictly a test vehicle.

This little record was one of only a few made that compared the sounds of the A, C and 347 models. You will surely find it interesting. I converted the record to tape years back and even used a stereo recorder to make the ‘fly by’ come out in stereo! Turn it up loud and you will get a kick from it flying by. The neighbors will surely call the airport too!! I contacted the Army Aviation Museum a few years ago, since they had the original 347 (only one built as I recall) and I offered them a copy of this tape, which they were delighted to get. (They did not know of the record.) The guy narrating the tape sounds like he just got out of bed after a bad hangover! Still, the sounds are interesting.

Mike, do what you want to do with these… Copy and give away or sell ’em to other Blackcats, problem to me. They belong to all of us! By the way, I cannot remember who was Blackcat 11 in 71-72. If 11 is out there, give him a copy of the tape, or tell him to contact me and I will send him one.

Enough for now, get a cup of coffee, sit back and take a trip back to Phu-Loi! ENJOY.

Bob Patterson
(BlackCat 3 from 8-71 to 72 )

(end of document)

The video below found on YouTube is a slide show of images taken at Phu Loi Field during the war.

Check out the new website that is under construction for the 213th Assault Support Helicopter Company Alumni Association.

Two photos of a Vietman-era Chinook with the dual water buckets.

Ten Erickson Air Cranes in one place, we’re told

The first time this has happened

Ten Erickson Air Cranes
At least nine Erickson Air Cranes photographed together for the first time. October, 2021 in Greece. Erickson photo by Dimitris Klagos.

This month for the first time nine or ten Erickson S-64 Air Crane helicopters were in one place at the same time, according to @EricksonInc. Photographer Dimitris Klagos took advantage of the opportunity and shot this photo in Greece near the end of the country’s wildfire season.

In the video below we learn the names of the helicopters, (right to left): Olga, Mariah, Elsie, Incredible Hulk, Delilah, Jerry, Georgia Peach, Gypsy Lady, and Marty. Christine was at the very beginning but didn’t make it into the video, except perhaps for the tips of her rotor blades. She was also missed in the photo.

During the upcoming 2021/2022 bushfire season in Australia the plans include only one Erickson S-64 Air Crane instead of the six they have had in recent years. The huge helicopters have usually been transported from Greece to Australia by cargo ships, but last year at least one arrived by Antonov 124-100. One of the six went on contract November 1, 2020, while the other five began on various dates in December.

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. Chris Matei photo. October, 2020.

Training day at the 69Bravo water source

Chinook Dropping
Chinook dropping water during Coulson training day, Oct. 19, 2021, at 69Bravo Helistop. N43CU. @SoCalFirePhoto

Coulson Aviation conducted a day of training this week at the water source called 69Bravo Helistop, the facility on one of the highest peaks in the Topanga area of the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California. In the time-lapse video below shot by @SoCalFirePhoto you will see Chinooks and a Sikorsky S61 repeatedly filling their tanks and returning for more.

The site has four dip or snorkel tanks which enable helicopters with external buckets or fixed tanks to quickly refill with water. The buckets are lowered into the tanks, while helicopters with “snorkels” insert a hose with a pump into the water.

In June the four old 6,000 gallon vinyl/rubber pumpkins were replaced with new 8,000 gallon metal tanks.

The site also has two pads where helicopters that must land to refill can obtain water from fire hoses to be connected to the tanks by on-scene firefighters. Or, pilots can land and take a break if needed.

The facility was built by the very generous land owner and has been used with his permission. Several years ago Los Angeles County arranged to purchase the 34-acre property at a price reportedly less than half the market value, making payments over a seven-year period ending in 2024.

Forest Service terminates Firewatch Cobra helicopter program

The Cobra program lasted for 19 years

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra, N109Z. Still image from VICE video. September, 2021.

After 19 years, the U.S. Forest Service has shut down the Firewatch Cobra helicopter program.

The two Cobras, N109z and N107Z, were retired after their last flight Saturday October 16. They were retrofitted Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, two of the 25 that the U.S. Forest Service acquired from the military. Most of the other 23 had been stored at the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson. A couple used for spare parts have in the past been parked outside the hangar at the Redding, California airport. Word on the ramp is that it had become difficult to find spare parts for the Vietnam War-era aircraft which were manufactured 38 and 52 years ago.

Cobra helicopter
Cobras used for spare parts at Redding, Aug. 8, 2014. Bill Gabbert.

Officially, the agency is transitioning to a new era of aerial supervision utilizing modern helicopters and is implementing current technologies in fixed-wing aircraft to serve broader areas. The Department of the Interior and the Forest Service have also been developing Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) programs to reduce risk and hazards to firefighters both in the air and on the ground. The drones can fly at night and in visibility conditions that can ground piloted aircraft.

Firewatch Cobra, Redding
Firewatch Cobra undergoing maintenance, Redding, Aug. 8, 2014.

In announcing the sunset of the Firewatch Cobra program the Forest Service said, “There is no reduction in firefighting surveillance or operational capabilities with the transition. Local communities and wildland firefighters will be better served by the advancements in modern technology.  [The two Cobras] served the Forest Service for nineteen years and reached their maximum lifespan after flying approximately 7,600 flight hours with the Cobra program.”

“The Forest Service thanks all the pilots, mechanics, aerial supervisors, and program managers that made the Cobra program a success,” said Robert Baird, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the USFS California region. “The next generation of equipment will continue this critical mission of public safety and protection.”

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra, N109Z. Still image from VICE video, September, 2021.

Specifications of the Firewatch Cobras

    • Number of Engines: 1 (a newer version used by the Marines has two engines)
    • Engine: T53-L-703
    • Horsepower: 1,800
    • Range: 362 miles
    • Cruise Speed: 166 mph
    • Max Speed: 219 mph
    • Climb Rate: 1,680 feet per minute
    • Ceiling: 10,800 feet

N109Z was manufactured in 1969, and N107Z in 1983.

The VICE video below about the use of the Cobra Firewatch on the 2021 Caldor Fire was published September 22, 2021.

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra undergoing maintenance, Redding, Aug. 8, 2014.

Australia finalizing aerial firefighting assets as bushfire season approaches

The number of Air-Crane helicopters is being reduced from six to one

Australia Fires Air-Crane
An Air-Crane helicopter drops muddy water on one of the fires in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, December 30, 2019. Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

The Aussies are putting the finishing touches on their lineup of aerial firefighting aircraft as the country moves into the 2021-2022 summer bushfire season. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) expects to have contracts in place for five large privately owned large air tankers, one more than last year, in addition to the 737 owned by the government of New South Wales.

Fixed wing, large air tankers (LAT) for 2021-2022:

  • Two Avro 146-RJ85 LATs supplied by Field Air in partnership with Conair. These will be located in Avalon, Victoria (early-mid December for 84 days) and Dubbo, New South Wales (October 20 for 152 days).
  • One Q400 supplied by Field Air in partnership with Conair. This is a shared arrangement between Queensland and Victoria, with 84 days being served at Bundaberg, QLD from Sept. 1, after which it will move to Avalon, VIC for 84 days.
  • One LAT, either a 737 or a C-130 (still to be decided) supplied by Coulson Aviation (Australia), based at Richmond, VIC for 98 days. Commencement date uncertain, usually late November.
  • Arrangements are pending for an additional LAT on a national contract to start in mid- to late December, with a home base still to be decided.
  • One 737 owned by the NSW government.
Firefighters Victoria, Australia rappel training
Firefighters in Victoria, Australia conduct rappel training in 2021. Coulson photo.

Eleven large type 1 helicopters are on contract this year, which is two more than the previous bushfire season. The start dates listed below are approximate.

  • One Boeing CH47 at Bankstown, NSW from approximately November 1 for 120 days, supplied by Coulson Aviation (Australia).
  • One EH60 Blackhawk at Bankstown, NSW from approximately October 1 for 120 days, supplied by Touchdown Helicopters.
  • Two Blackhawks, an EH60 and a UH60, at Serpentine, Western Australia from early-mid December for 105 days – Aviation Utilities t/a United Aero Helicopters.
  • Two UH60 Blackhawks, at Claremont, South Australia from early-mid December for 84 days – Aerotech Helicopters.
  • One Bell 214 ST, Latrobe Valley, VIC — McDermott Aviation.
  • One Boeing CH-47D, Essendon, VIC — Coulson Aviation Australia.
  • One Sikorsky Air-Crane S64F, Moorabbin, VIC — Kestrel Aviation.
  • One Sikorsky S61N, Mansfield, VIC — Coulson Aviation Australia.
  • One Super Puma AS332, Ballarat, VIC — Kestrel Aviation.
Erickson Air-Cranes Melbourne
Six Erickson Air-Cranes in Melbourne in 2009.

For years there have been multiple Air-Crane helicopters on contract in Australia, often six each year, but this season there will be only one. Last year there were six, plus three S-61s.

Josephine Stirling, Deputy Director of NAFC told Fire Aviation the six Air-Cranes had been supplied by Kestrel Aviation, an Australian company which had a partnership with Erickson.

“The contract was for three guaranteed years and expired June 30, 2021, the fourth year option was not taken up – which is a matter for the states and territories, who decided to go to tender instead,” Ms. Stirling said. “However, Kestrel were successful in their tender to us for one aircrane in Essendon for the next three guaranteed years – alongside a Super Puma.”

NAFC is a business unit of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC). NAFC’s primary role is procurement of aircraft leases on behalf of the States and Territories and the administration of Australian Government (federal) funding to support the States and Territories.

In addition to the large air tankers and Type 1 helicopters, many other aircraft, more than 150, will also be on exclusive use or call when needed contracts. About 110 will be mostly used for firebombing, and others for air attack, winching, rappelling, reconnaissance, and specialist intelligence gathering. These numbers include 51 single engine air tankers (SEATs).