Alaska state troopers helicopter crash caused by flight into bad weather and department’s “punitive culture”

I would be interested in hearing from our readers about how any lessons learned from this accident (summarized by the NTSB below) might be applicable to fire aviation. Often, the weather that allows for large wildfires is not in the form of rain, snow, and icing, however it can involve strong winds, turbulence, thunderstorms, and high density altitude conditions. Add the hazards of flying into canyons low and slow at 150 AGL and it can be a challenging, unforgiving environment.

One fatal accident that comes to mind is the MAFFS 7 crash that occurred July 1, 2012 as the aircraft was attempting to drop retardant on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota, killing four on board. It was basically blown into the ground by a downburst out of a thunderstorm as it was attempting to drop on the fire.

Below is the NTSB’s very brief summary of a helicopter crash in Alaska that killed three people.

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“WASHINGTON –The National Transportation Safety Board today determined that the March 30, 2013 crash of an Alaska Department of Public Safety helicopter was caused by the pilot’s decision to continue flying into deteriorating weather conditions as well as the department’s “punitive culture and inadequate safety management.”

The crash occurred on a mission to rescue a stranded snowmobiler near Talkeetna, Alaska. The pilot, another state trooper and the snowmobiler were all fatally injured. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s “exceptionally high motivation to complete search and rescue missions,” which increased his risk tolerance and adversely affected his decision-making, the Board found.

Among the recommendations the NTSB made today as a result of the investigation was for Alaska and other states to develop and implement a flight risk evaluation program.

“These brave few take great risks to save those in harm’s way,’’ said NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “There needs to be a safety net for them as well.”

Among the Board’s findings was that the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS) lacked policies and procedures to ensure that risk was managed, such as formal weather minimums, formal training in night vision goggle operations and having a second person familiar with helicopter rescue operations involved in the go/no-go decision.

During the investigation of this accident, the Board found that the pilot had been involved in a previous accident. The Board found that the DPS’s internal investigation of the earlier accident was too narrowly focused on the pilot and not enough on underlying risks that could have been better managed by the organization.

The Board concluded that DPS had a “punitive culture that impeded the free flow of safety-related information and impaired the organization’s ability to address underlying safety deficiencies relevant to this accident.”

Since 2004, the NTSB has investigated the crashes of 71 public helicopters responsible for 27 deaths and 22 serious injuries.

“Public agencies are not learning the lessons from each other’s accidents,” Hart said. “And the tragic result is that we have seen far too many accidents in public helicopter operations.”

As a result of the investigation, the Board made recommendations to Alaska, 44 additional states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the Federal Aviation Administration.”

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The complete NTSB reports on the Alaska accident.

Some fire aviation companies have been busier this year than in 2013

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association provides an update about how this fire season affected five of the companies that belong to the organization.

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“WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2014  — Members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) have generally reported greater utilization of fixed wing and helicopter assets, as highly destructive wildland fires raged across much of the Western US this year.

“The amount of flying we have done during this year’s fire season has already exceeded what we did during the comparable 2013 period,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services.  Using figures compiled through October 7, the operator of large, fixed wing tankers had flown almost 2,100 hours, compared with 1,982 by the same date in 2013.  In terms of aerial assets, Neptune had 10 airtankers—six P2V Neptunes, and four of its modified BAe 146s—actively engaged on fires this year, compared to six P2Vs and two BAe 146s deployed during the 2013 season.

At the time those figures were released, two of the company’s P2V Neptunes, and one modified BAe 146 were racking up additional hours, fighting the Dog Rock fire at El Portal, outside Yosemite National Park in California.  Including that fire, Snyder reported that Neptune Aviation Services has deployed aircraft on over 350 fires so far this year.

“The fire seasons in Washington, Oregon and California all were above normal, and started earlier,” Snyder remarked.  “The standout was California, where the fire season began earlier and stayed intense for the entire season, with the King Fire the most complex.”

Continue reading “Some fire aviation companies have been busier this year than in 2013”

CAL FIRE’s aviation program at Hemet-Ryan

Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base
Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base. Google Earth.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise has an interesting article by Brian Rokos about CAL FIRE’s aviation program, and specifically the pilots and aircraft at the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base in southern California (map). Mr. Rokos goes into some depth, exploring how the aviation program is managed and the experience of the pilots at Hemet-Ryan.

Below are the first few paragraphs of the article:

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“Cliff Walters has a photo on the wall of his home in the San Bernardino Mountains showing him making a spectacular water drop on a brush fire from the Super Huey helicopter he pilots for Cal Fire. Framed with the photo is a handwritten note from schoolchildren thanking Walters for saving their homes.

Mike Venable also pilots a firefighting aircraft that brings out the shutterbugs: a Cal Fire airplane that can drop up to 1,200 gallons of orange-red fire retardant as it swoops through canyons and skims over treetops.

But the veteran pilots based at Cal Fire’s Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base say daredevils need not apply. Their jobs are shaped by calculated decisions – often made on their own – that weigh risk vs. reward in the race to put out flames that threaten lives and property.

“Maybe you have to make it look like (you are) a daredevil, but everything is controlled,” said Walters, 50.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more conservative,” said Venable, 55. “Everybody wants to come home to their families at night. Taking an unacceptable risk is going to jeopardize that.”…  “

More details about the fire aviation assets in Victoria, Australia this summer

RJ-85, tanker 161
One of two RJ-85s converted by Conair and operated by Aero Flite. There is a report that Conair produced three of these, keeping one for themselves. Calls to Conair to confirm the report and that one will be used in Victoria were not returned. Photo provided by NIFC.

On October 10 we wrote about the plans for the fire aviation program for the coming 2014/2015 summer fire season in Victoria, Australia. Now, thanks to Bryan Rees, who is in charge of fire aviation capability for the Department of Environment and Primary Industries in the state, we have more details.

As we reported before, the aircraft fleet will include:

  • 2 large fixed wing airtankers;
  • 1 firebombing helicopter to be based in the Latrobe Valley;
  • 2 Erickson Aircranes capable of dropping 7,500 litres (1,980 gallons) of water;
  • 2 large Sikorsky helicopters capable of dropping 3,500 litres (924 gallons) of water or transporting up to 17 firefighters;
  • 5 medium sized firebombing helicopters;
  • 15 light helicopters;
  • 12 single engine airtankers;
  • 2 infrared line-scanning fixed wing aircraft;
  • 4 fixed wing firespotting aircraft; and
  • 1 fixed wing aircraft to support the large air tankers.

Mr. Rees said the two large air tankers will be Coulson’s C-130Q and an RJ-85 from Conair. They can carry 4,000 and 3,000 gallons, respectively, and will work out of the Avalon airport beginning around December 10.

We asked Mr. Rees by email about the helicopters that would be on contract this summer:

Victoria has operated Erickson Aircranes since 1997. This season we will have 2 x S64 E models based in Melbourne and at Ballarat. In addition we have contracts for 2 x S61 from Coulson for firebombing, fire crew transport and rappel operations based at Mansfield and Ballarat. A number of companies provide Type 2 helicopters for firebombing and rappel operations in Victoria. Kestrel aviation operates 2 x B212’s and a B412, McDermott aviation a B214B, and Jayrow helicopters a B212 — we are currently tendering for an additional T2 for the Latrobe Valley area.

And, we asked about Victoria’s past use of large air tankers:

Victoria has operated large air tankers on a number of occasions over the years. We operated a RAAF Hercules fitted with a USFS MAFFS unit for the 1981/82 and 1982/83 fire season – this included operations during the disastrous Ash Wednesday fires. Victoria hosted the trial by CSIRO called Project Aquarios in 1983/84 using a Conair DC6. The DC10 was operated from Avalon here in Victoria during the 2009/10 fire season and 2 x Conair Convairs operated here in 2010/11.

CAL Fire’s first permanent female helicopter pilot featured on LA television

Desiree Horton was recently hired by CAL FIRE as their first permanent female helicopter pilot. She has been working for the last year or so in a temporary position as a pilot for the agency, and before that she flew for many years as a contract pilot on firefighting helicopters, and as a news helicopter pilot in the Los Angeles area.

A few days ago we had a short video that teased about the report above, which which ran yesterday on the CBS Los Angeles 11 p.m. news.

Congratulations to Desiree!

A Fire Dragon in Tasmania

fire dragon Tasmania
Forestry operations officer Bob Knox takes the controls of the fire dragon from Forestry officer Doug Johnson. Picture: NEIL RICHARDSON (click to enlarge)

I ran across this photo that accompanied an article in The Examiner about a prescribed fire in Tasmania, Australia. The caption is as it appeared in the article. Can anyone explain what a “fire dragon” is? I’m thinking it must be an aerial ignition device, but I’m wondering why the helicopter is hovering instead of landing in order to apparently transfer a hand-held device between the two people in the photo.

CAL FIRE hires their first permanent female helicopter pilot

Desiree Horton was recently hired into a permanent position by CAL FIRE, becoming their first female helicopter pilot. She has been working for the last year or so in a temporary position as a pilot for the agency, and before that she flew for many years as a contract pilot on firefighting helicopters, and as a news helicopter pilot in the Los Angeles area.

The video above announces that she will be featured in a report Wednesday night October 15 on the CBS station in Los Angeles.

Congratulations to Desiree!

UPDATE October 16, 2014: We have the full video of the TV station’s report here, that was broadcast on October 15.

Victoria to contract for two large airtankers

Tanker 131 C-130Q
Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q, at McClellan, March 31, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

For the first time, two 3,000-gallon Type 1 air tankers will be put to regular use in Australia during their upcoming 2014/2015 summer bushfire season. Other than a brief trial of a DC-10 several years ago, Australia has rarely used large air tankers but instead has relied on single engine air tankers and helicopters for aerial support of firefighters on the ground. In 2010 they had the use of two 2,000-gallon Convair 580s, a Type 2 air tanker.

Britt Coulson said that their company, Coulson, will be be providing one of the large air tankers, their 4,000-gallon C-130Q known as Tanker 131. The other will be a 3,000-gallon RJ-85. The only company that currently operates RJ-85 air tankers is Aero Flite. Their two RJ-85s, Tankers 160 and 161, were first certified this summer. However, Judy Ziomek, the Vice President of the company, said Thursday that she was unaware that of one of their aircraft was destined to be used in Australia. Calls to Convair, the company that converted the RJ-85s into air tankers, were not returned. (Check out this unusual photo of Tanker 160.)

Kim Payne of Emergency Management Victoria, said the air tankers will be based at Avalon Airport in the south part of the state beginning in mid-December.

Victoria is also contracting for two Erickson Aircrane helicopters from the United States, and Coulson will, as usual, send two of their Sikorski S61s down under.

The state has appropriated $7.15 million in additional funding this year to bolster the state’s aerial firefighting fleet and increase the number of aircraft for the upcoming fire season.

Minister for Bushfire Response Kim Wells said this fire season, 46 specialist aircraft will help to support firefighters, which is four more aircraft than the previous fire season.

“Targeted aviation resources based in the Latrobe Valley will ensure rapid response to incidents across the whole Gippsland region and increase community safety,” Mr Wells said.

“In addition, Victoria will be the first Australian state to use the two large air tankers, which are some of the biggest firefighting aircraft available, and were most recently used to support firefighters in California.

The aircraft fleet will include:

  • 2 large fixed wing airtankers;
  • 1 firebombing helicopter to be based in the Latrobe Valley;
  • 2 Erickson Aircranes capable of dropping 7,500 litres (1,980 gallons) of water;
  • 2 large Sikorsky helicopters capable of dropping 3,500 litres (924 gallons) of water or transporting up to 17 firefighters;
  • 5 medium sized firebombing helicopters;
  • 15 light helicopters;
  • 12 single engine airtankers;
  • 2 infrared line-scanning fixed wing aircraft;
  • 4 fixed wing firespotting aircraft; and
  • 1 fixed wing aircraft to support the large air tankers.

The Aircrane helicopters and the large air tankers will be available for use in December, with the remaining fleet available later in October.

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