Austin Dave got some excellent video Tuesday of helicopters and an MD87 air tanker dropping on the Soledad Fire in Southern California between Santa Clarita and Palmdale. The MD87, Tanker 107, is under contract to the U.S. Forest Service and helicopters can be seen in the video from both LA County and LA City.
In February 1968, then 33-year old Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Carr—who served in the 213th Assault support helicopter company in Phu Loi (about 15 miles north of Saigon, Vietnam)—was approached by a Fire Brigade Commander to provide helicopter wildfire support in nearby Cho Lon.
Thinking on their feet, Glenn said his unit confiscated a grain bin that was 8′ diameter by 12′ tall and carried 800-900 gallons of water. The bin was then rigged with a valve using helicopter hydraulics, where they slung it down the Saigon River and made several successful water drops to help extinguish the fires. On a side note, Glenn did not fly the mission but helped build the bucket.
The Commander said the bin worked well but washed the neighbouring huts away. So, when Glenn called on an engineer who built their quarters, he suggested a 16″ square air condition grill they welded and fused on all the sides. The result was a water diffuser that allowed the bucket to effectively extinguished new fires without washing away the huts.
Today, retired 84-year old Glenn is aware that Bambi Bucket began its successful commercial production in the early 1980s, but he’s wondering if his team’s effort could have produced the first adhoc water bucket in the country of Vietnam? Only time will tell—but his efforts was certainly a great example of field engineering.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, Chairperson of the committee, said (at 1:39:30 in the video) that a year ago the committee was told by the Forest Service that results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study would be released “soon”. Launched in 2012, the study is supposed to quantify the effectiveness of the various types of fixed and rotor wing aircraft when they are used on wildfires, in order to better justify the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Forest Service on firefighting aircraft. In FY 2017 for example, the most recent year with exact numbers available, the agency spent over half a billion dollars on fire aviation; $507,000,000. If ever completed and the results implemented, the study could make it possible to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet — to use the best, most efficient tools for the job.
However, to date no detailed reports have been released from the AFUE.
The Senator asked about the results of the study, now entering its eighth year. The data is being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters and a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers evaluate the data. Christine Schuldheisz, a spokesperson for the USFS, has said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.
Chief Christiansen, referring to the lack of any detailed results being released, said, “I absolutely share your concern and your question….. I am low on patience as well, Senator. This is a complex and labor intensive endeavor.”
Senator Murkowski: “But should it really require seven years to get a report like this?”
Chief Christiansen: “To have enough, when you have to take these assessment teams and have to be on the fire scene and to get enough data to get what the trend line is, it does take some time.”
The Chief then referred to a very small amount of preliminary data that was released in a two-page document in March which in a vague manner referred to the probability of success of direct vs. indirect attack by aircraft. This was was reported by Fire Aviation April 8, 2019.
Senator Murkowski asked the Chief to have more details from the AFUE study when the Committee holds their annual fire outlook hearing in about a month.
Since after seven years the Forest Service has not released any significant data about the study, a person has to wonder what they have found that is so embarrassing, controversial, or perhaps critical of specific models of aircraft, retardant products, or vendors?
Some people think the Forest Service will never release the full results of the AFUE study.
The Committee might have to subpoena the data.
Later in the hearing (at 1:43:30) Colorado Senator Sen. Cory Gardner referred to the study, saying in his rapid-fire speaking style: “There is a technical term I want to use to describe the length of time it is taking to get that study done, and it is bunk! I’m sorry, it’s just a bunch of bunk that it has taken seven years to get this done. We fought a world war in four years, we built the Pentagon in 16 months, we can’t do a study in 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 4 years, maybe 5 years? It has taken seven years to do this? In the meantime we have western states that have had significant and catastrophic fires. I understand it’s important to get the information right. But doggonnit, someone needs to get a fire lit underneath them to get something done on this study.”
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell mentioned very briefly in the hearing (at 59:00 in the video) the availability of CL-415 water scooping air tankers but the issue was not discussed. The Forest Service, even though funds are available and a vendor offered the usually very expensive aircraft at a greatly reduced rate this year in a meeting with Chief Christiansen and Fire Director Shawna Legarza (according to our sources), the agency does not plan to have any scoopers on exclusive use contracts for the second year in a row. Historically the FS does not hold scoopers in high esteem even though they are used extensively in Canada and Europe. The 2012 Rand Study, which the agency attempted to keep secret (and did so successfully for two years), recommended a heavy emphasis on water-scooping air tankers and fewer conventional air tankers which would have been a monumental shift in the paradigm.
On another subject, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich expressed concern that the Administration intends for both the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (part of the Forest Service) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (under the Department of the Interior) to be unfunded beginning in October. Again, the Chief mentioned that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.
Referring to the fact that the “fire fix” has reduced the necessity for the Forest Service to borrow funds from unrelated accounts to pay for fire suppression, Senator Heinrich said, “We’re giving you the tools, you’re not using the tools we are giving you.”
At 56:30 in the video Senator Cantwell asked Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about the $545 million that was appropriated for fuel management in the recent omnibus legislation but was not mentioned in the administration’s proposed budget for FY 2020 which begins October 1. The Senator asked for assurances that the funds would still be available and would be used for that purpose. The Chief would not commit to the funds still being available, saying, “We will use whatever resources are given to the agency”.
The Chief reminded the Senator that the White House directed the Forest Service to cut its overall budget by five percent.
According to the Administration’s FY 2020 budget summary, over half a billion dollars was spent on fire aviation in FY 2017; $507,000,000.
The U.S. Forest Service started the AFUE in an effort to answer the question: “What are the best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job?” Data collected from this study and other sources would be used to inform decisions about the composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet.
After seven years of the study, which costs about $1.3 million annually, very little information has been released about the status of the effort or any detailed findings that have been developed. It is almost as if the Forest Service is less than enthusiastic about what they have discovered so far. In fact, a reliable source told us that one or more high-ranking folks in the agency want it to “go away” and that detailed findings would never be released. The USFS refused to release the $840,092 RAND air tanker study completed in 2012 even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act Request. Finally RAND released it two years after it was completed, but as far as we know the USFS never did. That study recommended a heavy emphasis on water-scooping air tankers and fewer conventional air tankers, which would have been a monumental shift in the paradigm.
When we asked Christine Schuldheisz, a Forest Service spokesperson, when a report from the AFUE study would be released, she said, “The USDA Forest Service has not released a report and currently the agency does not have a timeframe to release a report. The Forest Service is collecting data to provide adequate information for a report that will be released in the future.”
We asked if the Forest Service wanted the study to “go away”, and she said, “USDA Forest Service has no plans to discontinue the AFUE program at this time.”
In stories like this, we often include the disclaimer that air tankers do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions aircraft can slow a fire enough to allow ground based firefighters an opportunity to contain sections of the fire’s edge by constructing a fireline. Strong winds or dense smoke can make it impossible for aircraft to operate safely or effectively.
The data is being collected by four “observation modules,” each comprised of three qualified firefighters, as well as a dedicated aircraft, to collect ground and aerial data at wildfires throughout the nation during fire season. In addition to the 12 firefighters, 3 analysts/managers evaluate the data. Ms. Schuldheisz said the annual cost of the project is approximately $1,300,000.
After the first three years the AFUE, the Forest Service found that the data collected from 2012 through 2014 could not be used to provide statistically defensible analysis and results. After making the necessary adjustments to their procedures, they made a commitment to begin releasing detailed annual aircraft use summaries several months after each collection season. The annual reports were scheduled to begin in the early months of 2017 for 2015-2016. By now three reports should have been issued.
Ms. Schuldheisz told us that annual reports have not been released but she sent us a copy of a two-page “Fact Sheet” about the program that she said was sent to Congress in March, 2019. (Another one-page “Fact Sheet” was released in 2017.) The recent document includes information about data collection and the preliminary information shown below about probability of success.
The two-page Fact Sheet has some preliminary information from 2015 to 2017 with enough data to report with high confidence, Ms. Schuldheisz said.
Rotor-wing aircraft data indicates an 87% probability of success in direct attack drops, and 62% in indirect attack drops.
Fixed-wing aircraft data indicates a 74% probability of success in direct attack drops, and 56% in indirect attack drops.
Rotor-wing and fixed-wing have different mission profiles with a varying degrees of complexity. Both aircraft types fly direct attack missions the majority of the time.
When we asked how the researchers defined “success”, Ms. Schuldheisz replied:
Data is collected in multiple, nested scales which account for requestor objectives and then compare those to outcomes achieved at each scale and across various resource configurations. The AFUE developed hierarchical data groupings of: Resource Actions, capturing information about individual drops; Tasks, to aggregate multiple, coordinated individual resource actions, over the course of one shift or less, in support of the task work assignment; and Campaigns, to group multiple aerial and ground tasks, working in concert, for a measurable amount of time, in a defined geographic area, supporting incident objectives. By documenting outcomes independently of objectives, effectiveness can be accurately determined. To translate effectiveness into the observed probability of success, we divide the effective outcomes by the sum of effective and ineffective. Observed probability of success shows how often drops tested by fire meet or exceed their intended objective.
The best mixes of aircraft to do any fire suppression job.
Composition of the interagency wildland firefighting aircraft fleet.
Track the performance of specific aircraft types.
Assess the influence of the operational missions that drops supported and environmental factors that influenced outcomes.
We assume, with few details having been released by the Forest Service, that the study will collect data about four to five types of fixed wing aircraft (single engine, scooper, large, and very large) and at least three types of helicopters, Types 1, 2 and 3. Breaking it down by aircraft model and vendor would also be helpful. The type of fluid that is dropped should be recorded: water, long term fire retardant, or water with some other enhancement product.
If the study can determine the effectiveness of each of these seven types of firefighting aircraft, it should not only lead to answers about which ones are most effective, but also under what conditions of wind, terrain, fire behavior and fuel types they should be used.
Hopefully it will lead to answers to the questions from the GAO, Inspector General, and Congressmen about justifying the half billion dollars of taxpayer funds spent each year.
If the study can actually quantify the on-the-ground effective production rates of each type of firefighting aircraft, an analyst should then be able to develop a recommendation for how many of each type are needed nationwide and where they should be based.
And beyond that, algorithms or artificial intelligence could eventually, based on scientific data, make on-the-fly recommendations for which aircraft should be dispatched after a report of a new fire, based on availability of aircraft, aircraft production rates, location of the fire, fuel type, fuel moisture, terrain, scooping sites, location of reload bases, congestion at reload bases, weather, and predicted fire behavior.
Gary (Bean) Barrett, a frequent contributor to the discussions on Fire Aviation, spent a career in U.S. Naval Aviation as a fighter pilot and served on the Navy Staff as a program sponsor responsible for planning, programming, and budgeting. Here are some of his thoughts about the information that has been released so far about the AFUE:
“This Australian air tanker effectiveness study defined results in terms of probability of success in meeting a common first [initial] attack objective of containment within 8 hours of detection. They didn’t try to differentiate between success and effectiveness in their report. They produced an excellent operationally useful study based on probability of suppression that begs for a follow-on study to compare different tanker types.
“Maybe the AFUE effort is suffering from excessive complexity by trying to address all the air tanker success, effectiveness, efficiency, and use questions on the first report. I would think it might be useful to get out an initial AFUE report with less complexity, get feedback, and then refine and expand it as more data becomes available each year. Here’s an example of an excellent report using partial data that produced an operationally useful document.
“AFUE might consider coming out with a partial report by focusing on IA objectives with basic variables. Simplify the process. If they are trying to get everything done in the first report, that just might be a bridge too far and the reason we haven’t seen any reports yet.”
The proposal would commit $101 million to boost aerial firefighting capability
The Labor Party in Australia is pushing for a large increase in the aerial firefighting capability of the country. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said if the party wins the federal election the government would infuse $101 million into the country’s aerial firefighting capacity.
Australia does not own any large or very large fixed wing air tankers and had little or no history of using them on bushfires until 2010 when they began a trial with a DC-10. After that first drop on a fire on January 31, 2010 the air tanker program, called “water bombers” down under, grew very slowly until a few years ago when they began contracting for multiple air tankers from North America, including the DC-10, RJ-85, C-130, and most recently, a 737. During the 2018-2019 bushfire season which just concluded, the country had six air tankers on contract — one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in helicopters including S-61s and Erickson Aircranes.
In December, 2018 the New South Wales government announced funding of $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft. Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), told us the intent of the NSW government was to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability. This would continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.
But the proposed new funding initiative recently disclosed by the Labor Party would allow the federal government to purchase up to six large or very large air tankers and up to twelve helicopters, such as retrofitted Blackhawks from the military or Erickson Aircranes.
The proposal also calls for creating the country’s first “Smokejumper” units. However, they describe “Smokejumper” as a firefighter who rappels from a helicopter. In Canada and the United States a smokejumper jumps out of a fixed wing aircraft with a parachute and then fights the fire from the ground. Rappellers in the U.S. are delivered to a fire via a rope below a helicopter.
Of the total of $101 million the party wants to use to boost aerial firefighting capability, $80 million would go toward acquiring air tankers and helicopters, with $21 million being committed to the National Aerial Firefighter Centre to restore recently reduced funding.
The firefighter that died in the Texas helicopter crash on March 27 has been identified by the U.S. Forest Service as Daniel Laird, a Captain on the Tahoe Helitack crew in California. He leaves behind a wife and young daughter.
One source tells us that the other passenger was also a USFS firefighter who was sitting in the front seat when the aircraft went down, but reportedly walked away and was treated and released from a hospital.
The pilot was also transported to a hospital in stable condition, according to the information reported yesterday by Sergeant Erik Burse with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Below is a letter from the USFS Regional Forester in California:
“You may have already heard from Secretary Perdue and Chief Christiansen that we lost one of our own, Daniel Laird, yesterday, in a helicopter accident while conducting a prescribed burn with our Region 8 partners on the Sam Houston National Forest in Texas. Daniel was 41 years old and leaves behind his wife Heather and daughter Evain.
“Daniel started as a seasonal firefighter on the Tahoe [National Forest] and worked his way up to Helitack Captain. His passion was in aviation, but he was also known for his ability to lead a strike team of engines or a task force of hand crews and heavy equipment. He was a true leader in every sense. He was dedicated to being an instructor and a believer in the apprentice program, where he helped grow people just like himself. Daniel was originally from Graeagle, CA, and committed his working life to the Forest Service. He was extremely knowledgeable about his craft and loved his job. He had an infectious smile, natural physical talent, and his greatest love of all was his family.
“Our Forest Service family is hurting over this tremendous loss. It is an emotional time and Daniel’s loss can impact even the strongest among us. We grieve with Daniel’s immediate family, friends, and community. Please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers. The Region is providing support to the Tahoe and all who need it as they digest this sad news. I will pass more details on arrangements once they become available.
“Please continue to look out for one another and take care of one another.”
(UPDATED at 9:07 a.m. CDT March 28, 2019)
The deceased firefighter was a U.S. Forest Service employee who, along with the other firefighter and the pilot, were on an aerial ignition mission. Their equipment was dropping plastic spheres that burst into flame after hitting the ground, helping to ignite the prescribed fire. No names have been released.
(Originally published at 7:17 p.m. CDT March 27, 2019)
One firefighter was killed in the crash of a helicopter today while working on a prescribed fire in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.
Sergeant Erik Burse with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the Eurocopter AS350 went down at about 2 p.m. with three people on board, a pilot and two firefighters. One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital in stable condition after rescuers extracted them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.
Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and coworkers of the firefighter, and we hope for a speedy recovery of the injured personnel.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Perry. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
In a comment below our article about the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations program, Chris pointed us to this excellent video that introduces firefighting helicopters to young children, saying his two-year old is obsessed with it. It has commercials, but you can skip through most of them after a few seconds.
On Tuesday while at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, I met Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I found him at the large Sikorsky display talking with their representatives about technical issues. Thankfully he was able to carve out some time from his schedule to talk with me.
The agency does not have a Chief Pilot; instead they have three Senior Pilots. The most senior in terms of longevity is Tom Short, who has 14,000 hours of helicopter flight time.
Number of helicopters
The fire department has ten helicopters.
The ships are used for a wide variety of missions: wildfire suppression, hoisting victims, short-haul, medical transport, swift-water rescue, large animal rescue, transporting firefighters, high-rise rescue, ocean rescue, and command and control.
Five of the ten helicopters are Bell 412 ships. Three are the EP model and two are HP.
The other five are Firehawks. Two of those, S-70i models, were received in December, 2017 and are still in the process of being converted.
Converting Blackhawk to Firehawk
The primary tasks to convert a Blackhawk into a Los Angeles County FD Firehawk are to extend the main landing gear in order to install a 1,000-gallon belly tank. The helicopters also have a 30-gallon tank that carries Class A foam concentrate which can be mixed into the main water tank. They also receive hoists, Nite Sun searchlights, and an assortment of radios.
The department began using retractable snorkels in 2001. The collapsable large-diameter hose flattens when rolled onto a spool. There are two major advantages of the retractable snorkel: the aircraft can taxi (without dragging the hose and pump on the ground) and there is no artificial speed restriction (you don’t have to worry about the hose and pump banging against the helicopter in flight).
The snorkel hoses have an electric water pump at the lower end that pumps water up the hose and into the belly tank, filling it in about a minute.
Adding more Firehawks
The department has a plan to get five more Firehawks, but there is no funding for the acquisition.
Their first Firehawk
The department operated a Firehawk for the first time in 1998 when for four months they leased a Blackhawk with a belly tank from Sikorsky.
Single pilot certification
The Los Angeles County Fire Department is the only organization certified by Sikorsky to operate Blackhawks with a single pilot.
For years the department has contracted for two CL-215 or CL-415 scooper air tankers and one Air-Crane helicopter during the busiest part of the wildfire season.
All of the department’s Firehawks are equipped for night-flying after they are fully modified.
Los Angeles County has a population of over 10 million and encompasses 4,000 square miles. The County Fire Department has 163 fire stations.