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).

Behind the scenes with crew chief of an Air-Crane

12:14 p.m. EDT Oct. 9, 2021

Still image from the Erickson video below.

Join Erickson Crew Chief, Bryan Dudas as he takes us behind the scenes of an aerial construction project in Pennsylvania with an Erickson S-64 Air-Crane, N159AC. The video was posted October 7, 2021.

Steven Metheny, responsible for helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters, released early from prison

The crash occurred on the Iron 44 Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008

Carson Helicopters
Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson.

Last week a judge granted an early release from prison for  Steven Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters. Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records and other illegal acts led to the overloading of a helicopter that crashed while attempting to take off from a remote helispot in Northern California in 2008, killing seven firefighters and two pilots.

In August, 2015 he began serving what was to have been 12 years and 7 months in prison, but was released after six years and one month.

He pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count each of filing a false statement and of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud while submitting documents to obtain $20 million in firefighting contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.

He had filed for compassionate release from prison at least twice, first in November, 2020 citing his fear of contracting COVID-19, which was refused by a judge. In March of 2021 he filed again, saying his health was deteriorating. Over the next six months information was submitted indicating that he had chest pain, an abnormal echocardiogram, vision problems, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken who was the judge in the trial, denied the first request but in September, 2021 approved the second one saying that his time in prison, especially with his health problems, have “been harsher than the sentence originally contemplated at the time of sentencing.”

Nina L. Charlson, mother of 25-year-old Scott Charlson of Phoenix, Oregon who died in the crash, said, “If it was a stupid mistake we would still have heartache but we all make mistakes. It was not a mistake. He plotted and planned to lie to the government.

“After the crash happened he plotted and planned to cover his plot up, Charson said. “It took the National Transportation board one and a half years to dig up the truth about what he did. It took 5 more years to get him sentenced to prison in September, 2015 for 12 years and 7 months. He served 6 years which is less than half of what he was sentenced for.”

Mr. Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. He was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 for attempting to defraud the government out of more than $32 million and has been serving time in Lompoc, California.

Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the U.S. Forest Service when bidding on their firefighting contract. The NTSB estimated that the actual empty weight of the helicopter was 13,845 pounds, while Carson Helicopters stated in their contract proposal that the weight was 12,013 pounds. For the purpose of load calculations on the day of the crash, the pilot assumed the weight to be 12,408 pounds, which was 1,437 pounds less than the actual weight estimated by the NTSB. According to the NTSB, for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.

In Mr. Metheny’s plea agreement there was an admission that the helicopters had not actually been weighed.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Nina and Kelly.

In case of fire break glass

The group of four helicopters known as the Quick Reaction Force will be covered on 60 Minutes

12:07 p.m. PDT Sept. 24, 2021

60 Minutes Chinook
60 Minutes reporter Bill Whitaker interviews Chief Brian Fennessy of Orange County Fire Authority. Still image from CBS video.

(Update Sept. 27, 2021: CBS has what looks like the entire transcript of the piece that aired Sunday night.)

Sunday September 26 at 7 p.m. EDT 60 minutes will broadcast a piece about the very large helicopters being used in Southern California this year. They interview Brian Fennessy, Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority about the Quick Reaction Force that has been partially financed with nearly $18 million from Southern California Edison since June 15 this year.

This group of helicopters includes two 3,000-gallon Boeing CH-47D Chinooks based in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, a Sikorsky S-61 with a 1,000-gallon tank in Ventura County, and a Sikorsky S-76 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness of drops, and identify targets with a laser designator. They are all crewed 24/7 and can hover refill with water or retardant at night assisting firefighters whenever they are needed. The helicopters are operated by Coulson Aviation and have either internal or belly tanks.

On August 18 they were dispatched to assist on the Caldor Fire, working out of Amador County Airport, also known as Westover Field.

Chief Fennessy believes in prompt, aggressive, initial attack of fires.

Reporter Bill Whitaker said to the Chief, “If somebody calls 911 you hit it with everything you’ve got. You knock it out.”

“In case of fire break glass!” the chief replied.

This is not the first time a privately owned Chinook has been used in California. In 2020 one operated by Coulson Aviation worked under an 83-day 24/7 contract in collaboration with Southern California Edison (SCE) and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA). Other Chinook operators used on fires that do not fly at night include the California National Guard, Billings Flying Service, Helimax, and Columbia.

The video below is a preview of the Sunday program.

Below is an excerpt from a CBS article about the helicopters:

“[Chief Fennessy said] the ability to lay retardant line, to continue to drop fire retardant after sundown, that’s a first,” he tells Whitaker. And there’s an added advantage: the fires usually die down at night because of decreased wind and increased humidity.

Wayne Coulson, the CEO of Coulson Aviation, is a pioneer in night firefighting. His company built the fleet with its specially designed tanks that carry either water or retardant. Computers control the tank’s doors, opening and closing at precise GPS locations.

“We can fly the aircraft to those GPS points and the doors will automatically open and close between those points,” Coulson says.

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

Forest Service makes major changes in helicopter contracts

One vendor said new requirements could reduce the number of helicopters on contract

White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June 29, 2012
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for awarding federal contracts for large air tankers and firefighting helicopters, is proposing a number of very significant changes to the helicopter contracts. The agency has posted a second draft of a new Request for Proposals (RFP) and will hold a virtual meeting about the contracts on September 29.

SAM.govOne of our readers whose company has been providing helicopters on the previous contracts has some opinions about the changes the Forest Service is pushing. They requested to remain anonymous in order to avoid retribution from the agency. Here is what they wrote. It has been lightly edited.

The Call When Needed (CWN) “Parent Contract” is a 1 year with 9 option years contract, with Exclusive Use (EU) contracts being bid *through* the parent contract for 1 year with four option years. In each case, only the first year is guaranteed.  They claim that 2 times throughout the 1/9 year parent contract, they will allow onboarding of new vendors/equipment.  But only when they decide, of course!  Sounds like a great schedule to buy a “next gen” helicopter.

This draft RFP is such a massive and violent change from what has been requested in previous contracts that most operators aren’t going to be able to handle it.  We operate Type III helicopters and are now faced with 40lbs+ of equipment (costing over $60k per aircraft) to meet minimum requirements – things that we really don’t need like a Traffic Avoidance System (but the ADS-B they required last year isn’t good enough) and a loudspeaker (because yelling at the fire helps?).  Oh, and don’t glance over the cockpit camera, which they want even on restricted category bucket ships.  The cheapest camera we could find is $10,000.  How’s about an STC for personal electronic devices, only available from one company, nobody else in the industry even knows what the hell the STC is or is for!  But you better pay for it, USFS says!

Once we get all of that figured out, turns out that the increase in performance specifications at 7,000′ / 30°C combined with the added equipment pretty much eliminates legacy ships from meeting performance requirements.  They essentially want a Sky Crane to do a Jet Ranger’s job… and guess who they were calling last year when our state was in a firestorm?  A lot of the operators that will get pushed out because of this RFP do a lot of irrefutably safe work when fire season peaks, or when resource work is needed, with excellently maintained legacy platforms at great value to the taxpayers.

Add to this that they are wanting us to throw all of this money into our aircraft to get on the contract (which is now a 10 year contract!) while simultaneously saying that they fully intend on moving to “modern” helicopters that are built after the year 2000 and are all twin engine.  But they won’t tell us when they are doing that, just that as we bid on EU work within the CWN contract eventually they are going to want “modern helicopters”.  The only modern type III helicopter we can find that meets the requirement is $6.4m which is triple the value of our 5 type III helicopter fleet (and we own a Type III light twin, it’s just too old for the Forest Service’s liking).  Type II’s?  There are only 2 options and they are well in to the 10’s of millions of dollars.  Say goodbye to the 205 and 212, its brand new 412EPX’s or nothing.

The biggest issue overall is that this contract is a prerequisite for our other federal and state work such as state fire and wildlife survey, etc.  Without a federal contract, we can’t get carded – and without cards, we can’t work for the state.  So, because the Forest Service wants to push all but the “top tier” of their options out, they are essentially putting every government agency’s resources at risk.  We can only hope the upcoming DOI on-call helicopter RFP due out later this year isn’t so crazy.

We are all for the push for better equipment for our wildland fire efforts… but the USFS can’t do the change this suddenly and without any industry input.  There is obviously some back door dealing going on with this RFP as it very specifically pushes money to certain equipment providers and tips the hat to certain helicopter companies.  The question and answer document shows the USFS is unwilling to be understanding – its our way or the highway, thanks for nothing.  We have gone a few years in the past 10 where we had zero USFS work at all based on fire behavior… but they want their random equipment to be installed on our dime.  It’s driving us away from government work and I’m truly worried about the availability of rotor assets next year if they end up going through with this wish list RFP.

I know we aren’t alone in how upset we are with the Forest Service right now.  A quick peruse through that Q&A shows that dozens of operators really gasped when this RFP came out.  The arrogance and dismissal by the FS with most questions being answered “Noted, Language will remain as written” just adds frustration to irritation.  Thanks for giving us a voice

Video of two Type 1 helicopters reloading with retardant

Mobile retardant base at the Monument Fire in California

Chinooks reloading with retardant
Helicopters reloading with retardant at the Monument Fire, 2021. Image from Philip Blagg’s video, below.

Philip Blagg recorded this video of two Type 1 helicopters operated by Columbia Helicopters as they refilled their buckets with retardant at a mobile fire retardant base on the Monument Fire in Northwest California. The exact date is uncertain, but probably early in September, 2021.

Edited to remove the word “Chinook.”

Video of five Air-Cranes skimming water in Greece

Air-Crane skimming water
Air-Crane skimming water in Loutropyrgos, August 19, 2021. Still image from video by GVLACOM.

The video below has footage of five different Erickson Air-Cranes flying low over a lake in Greece, skimming water to fill their 2,650-gallon tanks while on a firefighting mission in Loutropyrgos, a city in Attica. You’ll see 748, 747, 740, 734, and 737.

The still images are screen grabs from the video by GVLACOM.

Air-Crane skimming water
Air-Crane skimming water in Loutropyrgos, August 19, 2021. Still image from video by GVLACOM
Air-Crane skimming water
Air-Crane skimming water in Loutropyrgos, August 19, 2021. Still image from video by GVLACOM.