Video of 3,000-gallon drop from CH-47 Chinook

CH-47 Chinook 3,000-gallon water drop
CH-47 Chinook 3,000-gallon water drop November 17, 2020. Image from OCFA video.

A CH-47 Chinook Very Large Helitanker (VLHT) with night-flying capability 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 Chinook is 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 is 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.

To the best of our knowledge, here are the maximum capacities of firefighting helicopters, in gallons:

CH-47 Chinook   3,000
S-64 Air-Crane   2,650
S-70i Firehawk    1,000
CH-107   1,000
S-61    1,000
UH 60    900 or 1,000?
K-Max    700 or less
214-B    660
212    359
412EP    375

New generation of fire retardant introduced

PHOS-CHEK LCE20-Fx will be phased in during the 2021 fire season as stocks of existing retardant are used

Ontario Airport C-119 jettisoned fire retardant air Tanker 135
Air Tanker 135, a C-119, jettisoning 2,000 gallons of fire retardant west of the Ontario Airport, July 29, 1977. Photo by JD Davis.

FIRE-TROL and PHOS-CHEK fire retardants have been produced for almost 60 years by a company whose name and ownership have changed five times since 1997  — starting with Monsanto in 1963, then Solutia, Astaris, ICL, and finally in 2018, Perimeter Solutions.

Today a new generation of fire retardant in the PHOS-CHEK line was introduced by Perimeter Solutions — LCE20-Fx. It is the result of two years of work by the Perimeter Solutions R&D team in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Apparently very little time was spent choosing a name.

It was tested during the 2020 fire season, applying the required 200,000 gallons before it was approved by the Forest Service and added to the qualified products list on  November 5, 2020.

“We will begin deploying this commercially next fire season at probably eight or nine bases, which we will convert from LC-95A to this new LCE20-Fx product,” said Edward Goldberg, Chief Executive Officer of Perimeter Solutions.

The new formulation has shown improvements in three key areas: coverage, visibility, and toxicity.

Coverage

The retardant is produced as a liquid concentrate and delivered to application sites as a low-viscosity liquid. Before being loading onto an air tanker, it is diluted and mixed with water using an in-line proportioner as it is transferred to delivery systems. According to the company, the elastic nature of the gum thickener in LCE20-Fx reduces drift, dispersion, and evaporation, while increasing coverage, wrap around, and canopy penetration, making it more effective in targeting ground vegetation.

Visibility

The reason fire retardants are red is so aerial firefighters can see exactly what areas of a fire have been treated. This reduces repeated drops in the same area and makes it possible for additional drops to tag on to and extend the treated areas along the edge of a fire.

“We’re utilizing Fx, the ultra high visibility pigment in our products, which helps the pilots see where they need to tie in the next line so that the fire doesn’t get through the gap,” said Melissa Kim, Director of Research and Development for Perimeter. “It just continues on with our line of Fx products. We started with iron oxide, then we moved to a fugitive, and then we improved on that fuchsia color. This product will fade over time, but it does have a high, extremely high, visibility to the point where we’ve had comments come back saying that it’s even more visible than our iron oxide products. So that was a big big deal for us.”

The reports about the visibility came after the new formulation was used this year at two air tanker bases in Nevada — Battle Mountain for most of the season, and Stead/Reno at the end of the season.

They will also be producing an uncolored version without any red or fuchsia pigment which could be applied from the ground by utilities or homeowners for long term prevention and protection.

Toxicity

The millions of gallons of red fire retardant that air tankers drop every year are usually made from ammonium phosphate or its derivatives. It has  been called “long term fire retardant” because even after it dries, the chemical can interfere with the combustion process and may still retard the spread of  a vegetation fire. However research and experience in the field has shown some formulations can be toxic to fish. Federal interagency policy prohibits the aerial delivery of retardant within 300 feet of certain waterways. It also cannot be used in certain designated terrestrial areas, or in some National Parks without special permission. The restrictions still apply to the new formulation of retardant introduced today.

Maps are available which identify threatened, endangered, candidate, proposed, and sensitive species (TECPS) avoidance areas. There appears to be significant variability within the Forest Service on interpreting the guidelines and mapping the areas.

Retardant avoidance areas
Retardant avoidance areas, Forest Service lands in Northwest California.
Retardant avoidance areas
Retardant avoidance areas on the Descanso District, Cleveland National Forest, Southern California.

The retardant products used by the U.S. Forest Service are tested for fish toxicity to determine the concentration in milligrams per liter (mg/L) that result in the death of 50 percent of the aquatic test specimens, young rainbow trout, within 96 hours. The higher the number, the less toxic it is. The Forest Service specifications for retardant require that the aquatic toxicity be greater than 200 mg/L. The previous versions of PHOS-CHEK, LC-95A, had toxicity levels of 225 to 399 mg/L. The new LCE20-Fx is 983.

Weight

The weight of the mixed LCE20-Fx retardant is slightly less than the previous generation, reducing the weight of a gallon from 9.01 pounds to 8.87 pounds, a savings of 0.14 pound per gallon. This reduces the weight of the 9,400 gallons on a DC-10 by 1,316 pounds, and of the 3,000 gallons on a BAe-146 by 420 pounds.

Transportable retardant plant

The Forest Service refers to them as “portable retardant bases”, but transportable is probably a more accurate term. Since these types of bases became an issue in discussions about the closure and dismantling of the tanker base at West Yellowstone, Montana, I asked Mr. Goldberg about their transportable equipment. He explained that the company has 12, each of which can be set up in as little as two hours once on site. They are not always in the same place and can be prepositioned depending on fire activity.

fire retardant plant portable
Equipment to set up a fire retardant plant arrives at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, June 25, 2012 during the Waldo Canyon Fire. U.S. Air Force photo by Don Branum.

DynCorp receives contract to continue work on CAL FIRE aircraft

DynCorp maintenance facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport
DynCorp maintenance facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

DynCorp International (DI) has been awarded a new contract to continue supporting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) aviation program. Work will be performed at McClellan Park in Sacramento, California and aircraft are deployed across 13 air tactical and 10 helitack bases throughout the State.

The competitively awarded contract has a three-year base period with two one-year options for a total potential value of $352 million, subject to legislative appropriation.

DI team members will continue to provide line to depot-level maintenance on CAL FIRE’s fleet of 57 aircraft including S-2T air tankers, OV-10A aircraft, UH-1H helicopters, S-70i helicopters, and A-200CT King Air training aircraft. DI also provides full flight operations, with pilots, for CAL FIRE’s fixed-wing fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft including the new-to-them HC-130H aircraft that are in the process of being converted from Coast Guard missions to firefighting air tankers with internal gravity-powered retardant tanks. Pilots for the helicopters are CAL FIRE employees.

Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.

OV-10
A lineup of CAL FIRE OV-10 air attack ships at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Former Carson Helicopters Vice President requests release from prison, fearing COVID-19

Steven Metheny’s falsification of records for a helicopter led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008

Carson Helicopters

This article was first published at Wildfire Today.

Steven Metheny, 50, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters has requested compassionate release from prison because he fears he will contract COVID-19 while serving time in the federal prison in Lompoc, California.

He filed the request in October and on November 2 Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter wrote in a response, “The mere existence of COVID, without more, is not sufficient to justify compassionate release.” Potter argued that Metheny’s weight is the only eligible health condition that increases his risk of COVID-19. “But, obesity alone should not result in defendant’s release,” Potter wrote.

Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records for a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter under contract to the U.S. Forest Service led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008.

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.

During the trial in 2014 defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Judge Aiken who presided over the trial dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Mr. Metheny.

In June, 2020 the same judge refused to reduce Mr. Metheny’s sentence when he argued he had ineffective counsel. He said he would not have pleaded guilty in 2014 if his attorney had told him that crash victims were going to be allowed to testify at his sentencing, or that he’d be ordered to repay tens of millions of dollars in restitution upon release from prison. Judge Aiken called Mr. Metheny’s claims that his defense lawyer made false promises “palpably incredible.”

The next hearing on Mr. Metheny’s motion for compassionate release is a phone conference scheduled for November 13 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.

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 Pat and Kelly.

Reports released about the helicopter that crashed on the Polles Fire in Arizona

The pilot was killed in the July 7, 2020 accident west of Payson

Polles Fire vicinity map
Polles Fire vicinity map

On July 7, 2020 a UH-1H helicopter crashed while transporting supplies to firefighters who were spiked out (camping) while working on the Polles Fire about 10 miles west of Payson, Arizona. The only person on board, pilot Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman, 37 of Litchfield Park, Arizona was killed. We send our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Boatman, and to the forestry technicians who were at the fire.

Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman
Bryan Jeffery “BJ” Boatman

BJ was born on June 8, 1983 in Provo, Utah. He was a third-generation pilot and worked alongside his parents to build their company, Airwest Helicopters of Glendale, Arizona.

3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020
3-D map of the Polles Fire from data at 10:36 p.m. July 7, 2020; looking north.

The helicopter, N623PB, serial number 64-13689, was manufactured in 1964. It is a UH-1H registered to Aero Leasing in Glendale, Arizona, the same city where Air West Helicopters is located.

Polles Fire - Payson helicopter crash fatality
Airwest Helicopters photo, N623PB.

Two reports have been released, a brief preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, and a 23-page facilitated learning analysis (FLA) commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.

The FLA is solely devoted to analyzing the response to the accident — the Incident Within an Incident and the actions taken in the following days. It does not address what caused the helicopter to crash. The report found very little to criticize and praised most of the actions that were taken. It goes into quite a bit of detail about how the fire’s Incident Management Team handled the emergency response during the first few hours, as well as organizing over the next several days to care for BJ’s family and the forestry technicians that were involved.

Anyone who could in the future find themselves in a similar unfortunate situation would benefit from reading the FLA. Firefighting is dangerous, and others will have to walk the same path.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Below is the text from the narrative portion of the three-page NTSB report. The complete report which will analyze the cause, might be released within the next year.


“On July 7, 2020, about 1213 mountain standard time, a Bell/Garlick UH-1H helicopter, N623PB, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Payson, Arizona. The pilot was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 133 external load flight.

Illustration from the NTSB report
Figure 1: Depiction of helicopter flight path based on witness statements. From the NTSB preliminary report.

“The helicopter was owned by Airwest Helicopters LLC and operated by the United States Forest Service at the time of the accident. According to witnesses, the helicopter was transporting supplies using a long line for a hotshot firefighting crew that were repositioning on the ground. The pilot transported three loads to the new destination uneventfully prior to the accident and had been using an indirect route to the north to avoid a fire area (Figure 1). While transporting the fourth load, witnesses observed the helicopter begin to fly erratically while en route to its destination. During this time, a witness stated that he observed the helicopter enter a high nose-up pitch attitude and the external payload began to swing. The helicopter then displayed irregular movements for several seconds before the external payload settled and the helicopter appeared to stabilize. However, after about 3 seconds, multiple witnesses observed the helicopter wobble and bank erratically before it entered a steep nose up attitude and then descended rapidly. The witnesses did not observe the helicopter on fire during the accident flight, nor did the pilot report any anomalies over the helicopter crew’s common air-to-ground radio frequency or any other assigned frequencies for the fire.

“The helicopter wreckage came to rest about 0.5 nm north of its drop off destination, oriented on a heading of 074° magnetic and was mostly consumed by postcrash fire. All major structural components of the helicopter were accounted for at the accident site. The helicopter’s external payload was found 123 ft southeast of the main wreckage.

“The wreckage was retained for further examination.”

Coulson partners with Linfox to form consortium for fighting bushfires

Coulson's Tanker 132
Coulson’s new Tanker 132, formerly operated by the Norwegian military. Coulson photo, November, 2020.

Coulson Aviation and Linfox have agreed to work together in a consortium to help Australians suppress bushfires. Coulson will bring helicopters and air tankers to the table to work with the logistics company Linfox, with both presently operating on multiple continents.

The proposed fleet of large fixed wing air tankers, super heavy helicopters, and fire intelligence gathering aircraft will be based and operated throughout the State and Territories in Australia, with maintenance and support infrastructure supplied in New South Wales and Victoria.

The team intends to work with State Governments, Territories, emergency services agencies, and within any framework agreed by the Federal Government. Australia has one of the largest volunteer firefighting forces in the world. They intend to build a world class training facility and center of excellence for volunteers to create a strong, intelligence-led and informed approach to firefighting.

The 365 day a year fleet is intended to offer firebombing, intelligence gathering, and aerial firefighting support services during the fire seasons, but also search and rescue, surveillance and medical evacuation services at other times.

The combining of the two company’s unique skill sets will allow the consortium to set up remote bases where aircraft can reload retardant close to a live fire zone, rather than having to fly, sometimes for hours, to the nearest airport – and then back again.

Chairman of Coulson Aviation Australia, Wayne Coulson said, ‘We’ve learned through many major fire campaigns globally the enormous effect of large capacity air tankers in managing bushfires, particularly when we bring the fight at night; this results in lives saved and houses standing and that’s why we do what we do.’

“There is always an opportunity to improve our nation’s approach to aerial firefighting,’’ added Lindsay Fox, founder of Linfox. “Each of the States and Territories are responsible for their own emergency response, so each response varies. As our fire seasons get longer – and become more dangerous and unpredictable, the most sensible – and safe – solution is a co-ordinated, national approach.”

Coulson's Tanker 132
Coulson’s new Tanker 132. Coulson photo, November, 2020.

Royal Commission recommends aerial firefighting fleet for Australia

helicopter drops water Australia
A helicopter drops water during the 2019-2020 bushfire season in Victoria, Australia.

The unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia resulted in the devastating loss of life, property, and wildlife across the nation. After the smoke cleared a Royal Commission was directed to work out not only how to prevent the severity of future bushfire seasons, but all natural disasters.

Wildfire Today has a lengthy article covering many of the issues identified in the Commission’s 594-page report, but below are excerpts from the section about aerial firefighting.


Capabilities of national aerial firefighting

  • The Victorian Inspector-General for Emergency Management observed that, “The effectiveness of aerial firefighting resources and the deployment system in Victorian environments has not been extensively evaluated. A greater understanding of how aerial assets can support suppression efforts including first attack would allow Victoria to make more informed requests for aerial firefighting assets and ensure any assets provided are used to their greatest effect.” The governments of ACT, SA and Victoria also told us that they consider further research is required to improve aerial firefighting tactics, products and their effectiveness.
  • Aerial firefighting capabilities vary between the states and territories, with some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, not owning any aircraft. Other jurisdictions own aircraft. For example, NSW owns a fleet consisting of three helicopters and the ‘Marie Bashir’ LAT, and has purchased a further four aircraft (two fixed-wing and two helicopters) which are expected to be available in 2020. [Note from Bill: The LAT is a 737 air tanker recently purchased from Coulson Aviation. The two fixed wing aircraft are Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence jets; the two helicopters are Bell 412s. More info.]
  • There is merit in considering what further benefits could be derived from even greater [interstate] collaboration in the use of available aerial firefighting resources.
  • We heard that the current terms of aircraft service contracts are a disincentive for some Australian-based service providers. The majority of the providers we heard from told us that short contracts and minimal work during the off season make it unviable to invest in expensive aviation equipment. Contracts traditionally engage providers for 84 service days (70 in Tasmania) within the fire season, but we heard that more contracted service days would allow providers to invest in more equipment and offer greater value for money to fire agencies.
  • The Aerial Application Association of Australia also told us that the length of contracts is insufficient to encourage industry to invest in aircraft and creates significant uncertainty in securing long-term finance. The Aerial Application Association of Australia also criticizes the short lead times for developing contract proposals with NAFC.
  • The limited availability of aviation support personnel in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season limited the sharing of personnel between jurisdictions and led to a greater reliance on personnel sourced from overseas.
  • The optimal use of aerial firefighting is in the early stages of a bushfire. For an aircraft to provide effective assistance in the suppression of a bushfire it needs to be rapidly dispatched with minimal travel time and with necessary logistical support systems in place. Victoria, SA and WA each employ ‘pre-determined dispatch’-the purpose of which is to reduce the time for the aircraft to reach the fire -described as a ‘game changing system that should be adopted nationally’.
  • On some occasions during the 2019-2020 bushfire season states and territories were unable to call upon additional aviation services when needed.
  • Aviation services funded, in whole or in part, by the Australian Government should be shared between jurisdictions according to the greatest need.
  • The availability of overseas-based aviation services during Australian fire seasons, particularly LATs, may be reduced by the increasing convergence of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • We also heard that Australian-licensed pilots were not licensed to operate foreign-registered aircraft used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. For example, with the exception of the NSW-owned LAT, none of the LATs used in Australia during the 2019-2020 bushfire season were Australian-registered, and therefore Australian-licensed pilots were precluded from operating them.
  • The Australian Federation of Air Pilots told us that it has approximately 5,000 Australia-based members employed as commercial pilots. This suggests Australia may have the potential to recruit and train the necessary expertise to operate firefighting aircraft currently sourced from overseas, including LATs, if such aircraft were owned and registered in Australia.
  • Australian, state, and territory governments should work together to continue to improve Australia’s collective, Australian-based and operated, aerial firefighting capabilities. Though we see merit in the continued use of overseas-based aviation services and air crew in some instances, Australia’s current reliance represents a vulnerability, as demonstrated during the 2019-2020 bushfire season.
  • The development of a modest Australian-based and registered national fleet of VLAT/LAT [Very large Airtanker/Large Air Tanker] aircraft and Type-1 helicopters, jointly funded by the Australian, state and territory governments, will enhance Australia’s bushfire resilience. A standing national fleet would ensure that the states and territories have the necessary resources to call upon during periods of high demand, without the need to reduce the operational capabilities of other jurisdictions. This standing fleet should also include situational awareness and support capabilities which may benefit from a nationally coordinated approach. Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability should be supported by ongoing research and evaluation to inform specific capability needs, and the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.
  • Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capability may be supplemented by overseas-based aviation services, where additional capacity is forecast to be required and available.

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