Firefighting pilot honored in memorial service in Australia

Pilot Allan Tull, known as “Tully” to the Australian helicopter community was posthumously awarded the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner’s Commendation for Service during a memorial service held in New South Wales, Australia August 23.

Allan James Tull helicopter pilot
NSW RFS photo

(This article first appeared at Collective Magazine)

Allan James Tull, known as “Tully” to his friends and colleagues, lost his life doing what he loved on August 18th while fighting the Kingiman fire outside of Ulludulla in western New South Wales when his firefighting helicopter struck a tree.

The memorial service was held at Bankstown Airport near Sydney at the hangar of Sydney Helicopters, the owner of the BK-117 contracted to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The award given posthumously to Mr. Tull was presented to family members by New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

Allan James Tull helicopter pilot
NSW RFS photo

The award citation stated:

“Allan James Tull known as ‘Tully’ to his friends and colleagues, was born in New Zealand in April 1961. With a passion and love for flying Allan Tull was first introduced to the skies in 1988 when gaining a student pilot’s license. Further refining and learning Allan Tull was later awarded his Commercial Helicopter Pilots License in late 1998.

“Since gaining his pilot’s license, Allan Tull has logged over numerous decades thousands of flying hours across a broad range of industries including firefighting, mining, hunting and fishing in New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Inner Mongolia, China, United States, Canada and Guam.

“On Friday 17 August 2018, whilst flying a BK117 Helicopter for Sydney Helicopters, Allan Tull was tasked to water bomb the Kingiman Fire within the Shoalhaven Local Government Area. A task that Allan had done so many times for so many communities across New South Wales. Flight crews played a critical role in containing the Kingiman fire enabling ground crews to consolidate containment lines. During this water bombing operation an unfortunate event occurred that resulted in Allan tragically losing his life while protecting communities.

“The New South Wales Rural Fire Service offers to the family and friends of Allan Tull our deepest condolences. Allan Tull or “Tully” will always be remembered as an accomplished pilot and member of the firefighting fraternity for his professionalism and courage which will never be forgotten.”

Allan James Tull helicopter pilot
NSW RFS photo
Allan James Tull helicopter pilot
NSW RFS photo

Mr. Tull’s funeral service will be held in his native New Zealand Friday August 31 at 11 a.m. at the Tauranga Sport Fishing Club. All are welcome.

Helicopter crashes at helispot on Donnell Fire in California

The pilot walked away with minor injuries

A helicopter crashed at a helispot while working on the Donnell Fire in Northern California yesterday, August 25. Chris Fogle, the Incident Commander of the Incident Management Team running the fire said the pilot walked away with minor injuries which were treated on-site by paramedics.

The helicopter was described as a medium ship that was on a water dropping mission.  The pilot’s name has not been released but the family has been notified. The only location given was that it occurred “on the southwest fire perimeter within the containment zone”.

Since the Donnell Fire started on August 1 it has burned 35,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Stanislaus National Forest 34 air miles south of Lake Tahoe. Most of the fire that is still active is 7,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level.

The fire is a “less than full suppression fire” and Sunday morning had seven helicopters assigned. It has destroyed 135 structures.

helicopter water drop Donnell Fire
A screenshot captured from a video on InciWeb, showing a helicopter (unknown which one) on a water dropping mission on the Donnell Fire at Eagle Creek. It was posted to InciWeb August 16, 2018.

Pilot killed in crash of firefighting helicopter in Australia

The crash occurred on the New South Wales South Coast, August 17

The pilot was killed when the helicopter he was flying crashed while fighting a wildfire in New South Wales on the South Coast.  Reportedly the aircraft hit a tree while conducting water dropping operations on the Kingiman Fire west of Ulladulla. Video from local TV stations showed the wreckage near a structure.

The pilot, Allan Tull (Tully) died at the scene. His employer, Sydney Helicopters, wrote in a release:

Tully had a wealth of aerial firefighting experience and his aviation knowledge and skills were of the highest standard. He was regarded as one of the most experienced fire bombing pilots in the industry.

He will be sadly missed and our thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues at this difficult time.

Sydney Helicopters is the longest running commercial helicopter operator in Sydney, with aircraft housed at Parramatta Heliport.

helicopter that crashed
This is the helicopter that crashed, operated by Sydney Helicopters.

The helicopter, a 1994 Kawasaki BK117, was under contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service to fight fires.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Isaac.
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Helitack crew is extracted as fire approaches, leaving water bucket attached to the helicopter

report crew extracted fire water bucket attached helicopter
Photo of the heel of the fire as seen from the helispot. Photo from the preliminary report.

(Originally published at 9:28 a.m. MDT August 20, 2018)

While researching another topic I ran across a preliminary report about a helitack crew that on July 1, 2018 was extracted by their helicopter after the wind changed on the fire, driving it toward their helispot. This occurred on the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado. Because of the timing of the events and since they had to quickly move 150 yards to another location as dense smoke made it unsafe for the helicopter to land at the helispot, it might be described as a close call. But it appears that the reason the report was written was that the crew decided to leave the water bucket and long line attached as they evacuated in the aircraft. Having passengers in a helicopter with a bucket attached is not consistent with policy.

Below are excerpts from the preliminary report. The photos are also from that document. Our opinion is at the end, following the excerpt.


NARRATIVE

…The HMGB [Helicopter Manager, Single Resource] called pilot and requested him to land and pick up the crew, thinking there was still plenty of time to load bucket, gear and crew members. At the time of radio call the pilot had just dropped water in view of the crew, and was less than thirty seconds from the helispot. Winds continued to increase from 10 to at least 30-35 mph. At this time fire behavior increased dramatically, causing all the vehicles parked near helispot (approximately six or eight) to mobilize as quickly as possible and drive down the road below.

The IC asked the crew face to face if we were all good before he left. The HMGB considered jumping in the vehicles for a ride but quickly decided not to. The Decision was based on the time it would take to physically get into vehicles, the time it was taking for the vehicles to actually get headed down the road, the location of the fire at the time, and not being familiar with the fire experience of the vehicles occupants. HMGB deemed it best for the helitack crew to stick together.

As aircraft approached helispot, the pilot informed crew that there was too much smoke to land, but had another landing zone in sight downslope. The crew grabbed gear and began hiking towards the aircraft’s hovering location approximately one hundred and fifty yards down down slope. Helitack crew arrived at the new landing zone as the helicopter was landing. HMGB and crew began loading gear on the pilots side, and had full intentions of loading bucket and longline, but HMGB noticed pilot signaling to plug in flight helmet. Crew members continued to load gear and HMGB went around nose of aircraft, opened managers door, stood on skid and plugged in flight helmet. Pilot advised that he recommended loading crew and picking up with the longline and bucket attached to get to a safe location. Pilot made decision based on the fires rapid progression from time crew left helispot and hiked down to the second LZ. HMGB took a quick scan of fire and agreed with pilot that we needed to lift ASAP.

report crew extracted fire water bucket attached helicopter
Two days later looking NNE. Red H is helispot. White circle is second LZ. Green arrow shows wind direction all afternoon. Yellow arrows show wind switch and fire spread direction.

HMGB went back to cargo area and told the two crew members to forget the bucket and load up we would lift with the bucket attached and relocate to a safe location. The crew members understood and agreed and loaded up. The HMGB made sure aircraft doors were secure, confirmed everyone was buckled and told pilot we were ready to lift. As aircraft lifted, the longline and bucket were on the managers side of aircraft. The HMGB relayed the status of longline to pilot until it was out of view and in view of the pilot out the bubble window.

As aircraft flew away, the pilot informed air attack exactly what we had done. The air attack understood and relayed that the fire experienced a microburst, and one hundred percent of the fire perimeter had active fire spread.The aircraft flew about one quarter of a mile well below the fires heel, over sage brush and grass fuel model, and found a safe place to land. Once on the ground the pilot informed crew we had plenty of fuel, and to take our time loading bucket. The aircraft departed landing zone and flew back to airport in Alamosa, CO to RON. The manager met with the rest of the crew and notified the crews superintendent. HMGB conducted an AAR, and notification was made up the chain of command in the region and the home base region.

report crew extracted fire water bucket attached helicopter
The photo shows the fuel at the helibase, vehicles, and the area where the helicopter was working.

CORRECTIVE ACTION

During the AAR, HMGB commended crew members for their vigilance on the scene of fire. Crew was constantly watching the fires behavior and spread, discussing the wind direction and different options to escape if needed. The black identified as a safety zone had a road going from the helispot up past it and was viable until the wind switched and increased pushing the fire up towards the road edge. The crew identified the helispot’s lack of burnable fuel and deemed it a safe spot. A later flight showed that the helispot did not burn, but when the IC decided to leave the spot, the crew did too. Plus one will never know how much heat was actually funneled over it. There was another open ridge downslope about 500-600 yards with a road leading to it that a helicopter could most likely land. The crew could have gotten a ride down to scout it out before the fire blew up, but that location didn’t have a vantage of the fire.

The crew actively talks with pilot about what to do in emergency situations. The crew had even talked earlier in the week about flying with a longline attached. It was comforting to know that those discussions took place and what to expect and the risk involved. The crew also practices proficiency bucket deployment, and packaging drills almost weekly. (Not with rotors turning) This gives managers and crew members a rough idea of how long it takes to perform these functions in the field. The HMGB on board has worked with the pilot for over eight seasons. The relationship, discussions, and trust built over the years was extremely valuable in the decision made that day.

Colorado DFPC Aviation Unit Chief comments:

Appropriate action taken during the extreme fire conditions and glad there was a positive outcome. Suggest a review of the additional risk decision to fly with the longline and bucket with personnel on board. The cost of a longline and bucket burning up is not worth the additional risk and exposure to employees. This is similar to teaching firefighters to drop their packs prior to deployment of a fire shelter from my perspective.

(end of excerpt from the preliminary report)


Our opinion

The report clearly outlines the fact that the crew felt they did not have time to package and load the bucket and long line, but there is no mention that they considered disconnecting it and taking off without it, leaving it on the helispot. Surely they did think about it, but the replacement cost if it was destroyed in the fire may have been a concern.

I support breaking the rules if there is an urgent, critical need to do so, and if all of the alternatives and possible outcomes are considered. Especially if a person’s life is threatened.

In 2012 a firefighter on the Pole Fire in Oregon was rescued from an advancing wildfire by climbing into a water bucket below a helicopter. The firefighter very reluctantly got into the bucket only after repeated warnings from the pilot that the fire was approaching and he was in immediate danger.

In 2014 on the King Fire east of Placerville, California when a hand crew was in danger of being overrun by flames a helicopter pilot considered using his bucket to extract the personnel. However, he continued to communicate with the crew and escorted them to safety as they walked and ran a considerable distance, orbiting over them and providing constant updates. The whole time he had water in his bucket saving it in case there was a need to protect the crew.

19-year old uses SkyCrane to fight wildfires

Ann Hansen co-pilots the huge helicopter that can drop about 2,600 gallons of water or retardant.

Above: Ann Hansen of Philipsburg, Montana is shown standing beside a Sikorsky helicopter at the Mariposa Yosemite Airport. “They’re big guys,” she deadpanned about Sikorskys. Photo by Matt Johnson.

(This article first appeared in the Mariposa Gazette in California. It and the photos are used here with permission.)

By MATT JOHNSON, Mariposa Gazette Assistant Editor

Ann Hansen is young, but she isn’t letting that stop her from living her dream, even if it is a dream fraught with danger.

Hansen, 19, was in Mariposa over the last few weeks battling the Ferguson Fire — just not as a firefighter on the ground.

She is a copilot of a Sikorsky CH-54A Sky-crane helicopter. Along with her captain, Gregg Deacon, she has been flying into dangerous areas near the fire and dropping water and retardant to douse the flames.

“At most times out here, people ask if I’m with my dad or grandpa,” said Hansen in an interview while stationed at the Mariposa Yosemite Airport. “I look young for my age, like I’m still in high school.”

Indeed, Hansen looks like she could still be in high school. But don’t let the youthful face fool you. She’s up to the task.

erickson skycrane
Ann Hansen, a helicopter copilot, is shown inside a Sikorsky used to battle flames in Mariposa County. The irony is that Hansen is afraid of heights. “I’m terrified of heights,” Hansen said. “It’s way different when you’re in an aircraft. You focus on what you’re doing.” Photo by Matt Johnson.

“I’ve been very impressed with her, especially considering her minimal amount of experience,” said Deacon, the pilot. “It’s a complex aircraft and our mission is complex. She’s monitoring a lot of instruments and dealing with most of the radio calls. She’s doing a lot of multitasking. And we go into some difficult types of places.”

Hansen is from Philipsburg, Mont. It was there that she developed an interest in flying. Her father worked as a ranch manager. Every year, Hansen would be inspired by watching crop dusters fly overhead.

Adding to her interest in flying was the fact that her father also wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Only he never took the opportunity.

“I always had that in my head growing up,” she says of wanting to fly a helicopter.

Ten days after she graduated high school, she started in flight school at Rocky Mountain Rotors, in Belgrade, Mont. Shortly thereafter, she transferred to Jerry Trimble Helicopters flight school in Oregon.

“I never had any previous aviation experience,” Hansen said. “It was overwhelming.”

She stuck with it, and in a short period of time, she became certified to become a helicopter co-pilot.

“My parents are thrilled with it,” Hansen said, acknowledging that in a way, she is fulfilling her father’s dream of flying.

She now works for Helicopter Transport Services and has the opportunity to work on fires as well as other special projects.

“It just depends where they need me to go,” said Hansen. “The challenge is fun.”

She admits there is danger in what she does. Engines could fail on the copter, or worse.

“Everything we do has a little risk,” Hansen said. “(But) it’s fun, for one, and you’re helping with something.”

Hansen’s end goal is to become a “PIC,” or a pilot in charge. Essentially, it’s the rank of captain.

“There is still a lot to explore,” she said.

There may be plenty to explore, but for someone who is only 19, Ann Hansen has already experienced quite a bit.

National Guard helicopters assist with firefighting in California

Above: screenshot from the first video below.

California Air National Guard helicopters are assisting with the suppression of wildfires in the state.

The Bambi Bucket shown in this first video holds 2,000 gallons. I’m thinking it is used under a Chinook

In the video below you’ll see a 650-gallon Bambi Bucket, probably used with a Blackhawk.

A power company and the county share cost of a Skycrane

Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter wildfire
File photo: A Sikorsky Skycrane drops about 2,600 gallons of water on the Red Canyon Fire 9 miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

San Diego Gas and Electric is in its ninth year of contracting for an Erickson Skycrane helicopter. It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, picks up the $1.75 million annual tab for availability each season, July through October, as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. The county pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.

The current contract for the Skycrane, which carries up to 2,650 gallons, is in effect through 2022.

Aircraft grounded on Grassy Ridge Fire after near miss with drone

KIFI reported that all air operations were shut down on the Grassy Ridge Fire north of Idaho Falls, Idaho after a near midair collision between a drone and a helicopter on August 1.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KIFI’s web site:

Officials say the[helicopter] pilot was fortunate enough to have spotted the other aircraft just in time to take evasive action and narrowly avoid a midair collision.

A photo of a white pickup truck speeding away from the area of the near miss was taken by a flight crew member.

The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office was notified and Law Enforcement officers were dispatched to the area.

All aircraft in use for fighting the Grassy Ridge Fire were immediately grounded and will remain so, hampering the fire suppression and repair efforts, until it can be verified that the airspace within the TFR over the fire is safe to fly in again.

The 99,502-acre Grassy Ridge Fire has a fireline completely around it for days, but Incident Commander Taiga Rohrer is calling it 97 percent contained.

On or about July 29 fire officials posted this message on InciWeb:

Grassy Ridge Fire contained

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