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Helicopter crashes while working on the Deep Creek Fire in Montana

Updated at 11:02 a.m. MDT June 16, 2021

Helicopter crash site montana

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said in a tweet that has been deleted the helicopter that crashed Tuesday had a “hard landing”. It was en route to the helibase on the Deep Creek Fire southeast of Helena.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said it happened right in front of a trooper from the Highway Patrol, Amanda Villa, who helped extricate the people on board.

Helicopter Crash

The most current reports indicate there were five people on board.


8:06 p.m. MDT June 15, 2021

Deep Creek and Robertson Draw Fires
Satellite photo showing the smoke from two wildfires in Montana at 4:11 p.m. MDT June 15, 2021; the Deep Creek and Robertson Draw Fires.

NBC Montana is reporting that a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopter crashed Tuesday while working on the Deep Creek Fire southeast of Helena.

There were injuries among the five people on board, reportedly minor, and were being treated.

Broadwater Reporter has video of what they say is the burning wreckage. They reported that the crew evacuated safely.

The Governor mentioned the crash in a tweet.

The incident occurred on North Fork Road at the intersection of Highway 12.

The Deep Creek Fire is 40 air miles southeast of Helena, burning vigorously east of Townsend on both sides of US 12.

We will update this article as more information becomes available.

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

The Montana DNRC operates a fleet of five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property program. Three are located in Helena, Missoula and Kalispell to provide direct protection initial attack. The other two are in Helena for state-wide deployment on an as needed basis. They also have access to two light Bell 206 B-III type 3 helicopters stationed in Helena. One is owned by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). DNRC maintains this aircraft and provides pilot services to DEQ. In return, DNRC reserves the right to use it for fire missions. The second light helicopter is used as a backup aircraft or for additional coverage.

Ventura County FireHawk tests new tanks at 69Bravo water facility

Ventura County FireHawk
Ventura County FireHawk testing new tanks at 69Bravo, June 9, 2021. Photo from 69Bravo camera.

Earlier this month the four old 6,000 gallon vinyl/rubber pumpkins at the 69Bravo helicopter water source in the Southern California Santa Monica Mountains were replaced with new 8,000 gallon metal tanks.

On June 9 the web camera at the facility captured one of Ventura County Fire Department’s “new” FireHawk helicopters testing the reconfigured tank system.

Ventura County has two helicopters that are former military HH-60L Blackhawks originally configured by United Rotorcraft as dedicated MEDEVAC helicopters with medical equipment and patient litter systems, some of which was repurposed in the new FireHawk configuration. The helicopters recently received new navigation and communication systems, cabin interiors, and a 1,000 gallon external fixed water tank with a retractable snorkel system. The landing gear was replaced with higher gear to allow clearance for the installation of the belly tank.

Called 69Bravo Helistop, the facility on one of the highest peaks in the Topanga area has been an excellent source for virtually unlimited water for helicopters fighting wildfires in the area. It 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” lower a hose with a pump into the water.

There are also two landing pads where helicopters that must land to refill can obtain water from fire hoses connected to the tanks by on-scene firefighters. Or, pilots can land and take a break if needed. The system keeps the tanks full automatically by using water from an on-site well.

The 69Bravo site 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.

Ventura County FireHawk
Ventura County FireHawk dropping water while testing new tanks at 69Bravo, June 9, 2021. Photo from 69Bravo camera.

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

Federal government has 201 fire aircraft on exclusive use contract this year

Federal fire aircraft on contract, 2021
Federal fire aircraft on contract, 2021. Where there is no CWN entry, there ARE some on contract, but the number that could be activated is not clear.

The five federal land management agencies have 201 aircraft on exclusive use contract this year for assisting wildland firefighters, according to the information we received from spokespersons for the agencies.

In 2016 the FS hired 34 Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts but starting in 2017 reduced the number to 28. The fleet remained at that level until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 when they added an additional 22 ships for a total of 50. The agency felt the “surge” helicopters were necessary to mitigate a possible decrease in the effectiveness or numbers of their ground forces — engines and hand crews. In addition, the federal land management agencies said last year they were going to limit the number of less-than-full-suppression fires and attack new ignitions aggressively.

This year there will be 20 Type 1 helicopters on surge contracts, for a total of 48. These are the largest-capacity helicopters used for firefighting, capable of carrying 700 to 3,000 gallons of water.

Over the last 10 years the average number of large multi-engine air tankers (LAT) on exclusive use (EU) US Forest Service contracts was 14.0 for the United States. The average number on EU contracts from 2000 through 2009 was 28.3. This year there are 18, which is 5 more than last year.

Tanker 131 drops on the Cloud Fire
Tanker 131 drops on the Cloud Fire in Southern California June 12, 2021. USFS photo.

Due to the pandemic last year the FS gave about seven companies hybrid surge Call When Needed (CWN) LAT contracts that were basically EU, but for 90 days, rather than the typical 160-day EU Mandatory Availability Period. The rates they negotiated were generally less than the typically high CWN rates. For a while they also activated four additional LATs on a true CWN basis, with no guarantee of days worked.

This year there are 18 LATs on EU contracts and 8 more could come on later on surge contracts, with an additional 8 possible, the FS says, on CWN contracts.

Size of USFS Large Air Tanker Fleet
Number of USFS Large Air Tankers on Exclusive Use contracts.

As of June 9 there were 17 LATs actively working on EU contracts, one scheduled to begin its EU contract on June 20, and one CWN that was activated June 9.

All of the LATs and Very Large Air Tankers on EU contracts can hold up to 3,000 gallons of retardant, except for Coulson’s C-130 (4,000) and the 10 Tanker DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (9,400).

In addition to the LATs and Type 1 helicopters, this year the additional aircraft on EU contracts among all the Federal wildland firefighting agencies include:

  • 43 Type 2 helicopters (smaller than Type 1 helicopters)
  • 41 Single Engine Air Tankers
  • 0 Multi-engine scooping air tankers
  • 26 Air Tactical fixed wing
  • 27 Aerial Supervision fixed wing
  • 14 Smokejumper fixed wing
  • 2 Infrared mapping fixed wing
  • 1 Large passenger aircraft (typically a 737)

The Federal government also has the ability to activate up to eight military C-130 aircraft equipped with 3,000-gallon Modular FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) if additional LATs are needed. The Governors of the four states in which they are based may also activate the two within their state.

Helicopter pilot fired by Orange County Fire Authority files gender discrimination lawsuit

Desiree Horton was the state of California’s first permanently-hired female firefighting pilot

Desiree Horton OCFA
Desiree Horton at OCFA, January 25, 2020.

The first female permanently-hired firefighting pilot employed by the state of California has filed a gender discrimination lawsuit after being fired by the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).

Desiree Horton, a career pilot with 30 years of flying experience and 16 years of aerial firefighting experience, joined OCFA in 2019 as the agency’s first permanently employed female fire pilot. Prior to joining OCFA, she was a helicopter pilot with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), where she also was that agency’s first female fire pilot.

In the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court, Horton’s attorneys allege that despite her experience (more than any of her male colleagues at OCFA) and despite glowing reviews from former employers and colleagues, OCFA terminated Ms. Horton after her one-year probationary period – and without the required one-year evaluation flight. The suit alleges that during her time at the OCFA, she was unfairly and discriminatorily scrutinized by the male pilots, crew chiefs, and helicopter technicians, held to unfair and higher standards than her male counterparts, deprived of training opportunities offered to the male fire pilots, and forced to work in a hostile environment.

When Ms. Horton was hired by CAL FIRE in 2014 her first posting was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.

The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the OCFA became available she couldn’t turn it down.

“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.

Desiree Horton (second from right) at OCFA, January 25, 2020.

In addition to working for OCFA and CAL FIRE, she previously flew helicopters for a privately owned helicopter company that had a US Forest Service firefighting contract, a  heavy lift operator, a helicopter tour company in Hawaii, and TV stations in Los Angeles.

In January, 2020 we interviewed Ms. Horton while developing an article about the OCFA:

Snorkel hitting rotor blades was likely cause of fatal helicopter crash

Four were killed in the May 25 crash of the FireHawk helicopter at Leesburg, Florida

FireHawk helicopter
File photo of FireHawk helicopter at Boise, April 21, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A three-page preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board said it appears that the violent swinging of a snorkel hose attached to a newly installed water tank caused the crash of a FireHawk helicopter on May 25 at Leesburg, Florida. All four on board were killed. To our knowledge the names of the deceased have not been released.

A snorkel is a large diameter hose attached to a fixed internal or external water tank that usually has a water pump at the lower end of the hose to fill the tank while the helicopter hovers over a water source.

The aircraft, N9FH, was a Sikorsky UH-60A, a Blackhawk registered to Brainerd Helicopters Inc. out of Leesburg, Florida. The police department described the owner as Brainerd Helicopters Inc./Firehawk Helicopters, located at Leesburg International Airport.

The initial information released by the FAA the day after the incident said there was “one flight crew member and three passengers” on the helicopter, but the NTSB report says there was a “pilot, copilot, and two passengers.” The FAA also said the aircraft “lost control of the bucket causing the rotor section to separate”. Obviously is it common for early information about an accident to be erroneous.

Below is the text from the NTSB Preliminary Report.


“According to the operator, a new water tank and snorkel were installed on the helicopter to facilitate firefighting operations in accordance with supplemental type certificate (STC) #SR00933DE on May 17, 2021. Several days of ground testing and calibration were performed before the accident flight, which was the first flight after the STC was installed.

“Witnesses reported that the helicopter made six uneventful passes in front of the operator’s hangar at LEE and dropped water that was picked up from a lake adjacent to the airport. On the seventh pass, an employee of the operator noticed the snorkel swinging. He called the LEE air traffic control tower on the phone and told the controller to ask the pilot of the helicopter to slow down and land immediately. Before the controller could contact the pilot, the helicopter transitioned to forward flight, gaining altitude and airspeed. The employee noticed the snorkel “violently” swinging and he then heard a loud bang, which he believed was the result of the snorkel contacting the main rotor blades or tailboom. He then saw pieces, and then the tail section separating from the helicopter. The helicopter started to spin and fell below the tree line. He heard a loud explosion and saw smoke rise above the tree line.

“According to another witness who worked for the operator, she missed the helicopter’s first pass but watched the remaining six passes. She noted that the water being dropped from the tank was “very dirty.” On the helicopter’s last pass, while it was coming in and slowing down, she noticed the snorkel swing in a large circle and at one point, the snorkel end came very close to the main rotor blades. She immediately started waving her arms at the pilot to try and get his attention, but he did not see her. As the pilot transitioned to forward flight, she ran beside the helicopter and continued to wave her arms. Shortly after the helicopter climbed and gained airspeed, she heard a loud bang and saw multiple main rotor blades separate and hit the tail section. She then saw the tail section fall to the ground and the helicopter enter a flat spin.

“The helicopter was located in heavily wooded, swampy terrain about 1322 ft east of runway 3. The helicopter came to rest slightly inverted on its left side on a heading of 040° magnetic. The tail rotor section was found about 78 ft north of the main wreckage. One half of a rotor blade was found about 600 ft south of the main wreckage and one half of another rotor blade was found about 200 ft west of runway 3. Parts of the newly installed water tank and snorkel assembly were found on the west side edge of runway 3. The water pump housing, which was installed near the snorkel inlet was heavily fragmented. The stainless-steel snorkel suction cage was located about 50 ft west of runway 3 and collocated with a section of main rotor blade. There were several pieces of fairings and lightweight material lodged in the top of trees along the flight path from the edge of the tree line to the main wreckage.

“The landing gear, main rotor system, main rotor drive system, engine, hydraulic system, and the forward portion of the tail rotor drive system were thermally damaged by the postcrash fire. The majority of the cockpit, cabin, and flight controls were consumed by the postcrash fire.”

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

Blackhawk helicopter crashes in Florida

No survivors found

Updated at 4:25 p.m. EDT May 26, 2021

Preliminary information is now available from the FAA about yesterday’s fatal helicopter crash in Central Florida:

Aircraft conducting fire water drop exercises, lost control of the bucket causing the rotor section to separate, crashed in a wooded area, and caught on fire. Leesburg, FL.

The FAA reports there were four fatalities, one flight crew member and three passengers.

Local media is reporting city officials said the bodies all four crew members were recovered from the crash site and are in the custody of the medical examiner’s office. Their names have not been released yet by the NTSB.

The aircraft, N9FH, was a Sikorsky UH-60A, a Blackhawk registered to Brainerd Helicopters Inc. out of Leesburg, Florida. The police department described the owner as Brainerd Helicopters Inc./Firehawk Helicopters, located at Leesburg International Airport.

Brainerd has firefighting contracts with the Federal government and other organizations.

We extend our sincere condolences to the families and coworkers of the four individuals.

In 2017 I took photos of some of Brainerd’s Firehawks at their facility in Boise.


10:57 a.m. EDT May 26, 2021

Leesburg Airport map
Leesburg Airport map

A Blackhawk helicopter crashed Tuesday afternoon near Leesburg International Airport in Central Florida. The incident was reported at 5:47 p.m. One fatality has been confirmed and the other three on board have not been found. A black column of smoke was seen at the crash site.

From the Leesburg Fire Rescue Facebook page Monday evening:

No survivors have been located. ONE confirmed death at this time. Most of the fire is under control now. US forestry is on scene plowing a line around the scene to prevent any vegetation fires. FAA has been notified of the crash and will start their investigation tomorrow.

The Miami Herald reported that the helicopter was on a firefighting training exercise.

Based on preliminary information, it appears that the helicopter went into a spin, and at some point its tail separated, Leesburg Police Capt. Joe Iozzi told WKMG, a TV station in the Orlando area.

“The tail actually went onto the airport runway area while the main body of the helicopter went into the wooded swampy area which is making it difficult for rescue crews to get back to,” Iozzi told the news station.

As this was written at 10:57 a.m. EDT May 26, the names of the personnel on board or the agency operating the helicopter have not been released.

Extreme water drop by LA FD helicopter

Small fire on a steep slope in Los Angeles above the Pacific Coast highway

LA City AW-139 makes a water drop
LA City FD AW-139 makes a water drop on a fire near the Pacific Coast Highway, May 24, 2020. Image from video by Blake Lawrence and Jacob Wilson.

An AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter operated by the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) made a couple of very interesting water drops Monday on a wildfire above the Pacific Coast Highway.

The fire was on a steep slope, so the pilot(s) may have been employing tactics to allow the water to be traveling horizontally when it struck the ground, or, out of the camera frame may have been crowds of people and structures that the pilots wanted to avoid. Or both.

Last year I interviewed Brandon Prince, one of the LAFD pilots who gave us a great deal of information about the city’s helicopter fleet. For firefighting they use their five AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters. They usually begin a mission with half a tank of fuel which allows them to have the 480-gallon belly tank about half full of water.

The aircraft also have a smaller tank for Class A foam which can be injected into the tank to improve the wetting capability of the water.

The LAFD AW139’s have retractable snorkel hoses which allow them to hover while refilling with water, but Mr. Prince said they nearly always land to reload.

Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters
Two Los Angeles Fire Department AW139 helicopters prepare to take off on a mission to rescue a hiker in distress, January 26, 2020. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Ventura County Copter 5 returns to SoCal after FireHawk conversion

Ventura County Copter 5
Ventura County Copter 5 returns home to Southern California after being converted to a FireHawk. Photo by Ventura County Stringer May 9, 2021.

From Ventura County Stringer:

“Ventura County Fire (VC Air Unit) Copter 5 (N60VC) arrived at Camarillo Airport late Sunday Morning. Copter 5 started its trip from United Rotorcraft in Colorado early Saturday Morning.

“Copter 5 was formally a Military Blackhawk that has been converted into a Firehawk. The Firehawk is expected to be put into service soon. Additionally, Copter 4, which is another Firehawk that was a military Blackhawk, is anticipated to arrive in the county soon.”