Trade organization issues press release about the state of fire aviation

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has issued a press release about the current state of contracted aerial firefighting services for the federal government.

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2013  — On the eve of its 2014 Annual Meeting in Boise, Idaho, on November 20, the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has cited some progress over the past year toward airtanker fleet modernization, along with on-going opposition to any increased role for government in the aerial firefighting business.

“After years of discussions between AHSAFA, US Forest Service (USFS) officials, and Congress, multi-year, operating contracts—worth $261 million—were awarded last spring by the USFS to five companies for seven next-generation large airtankers, to be available for the 2013 fire season,” said AHSAFA Executive Director Tom Eversole. “The USFS has said there is a need for as many as 26 modern large airtankers within the next five years. We consider the contract awards to be a major step toward the replacement of the current large airtanker fleet, consisting of seven to eight Cold War Era military surplus aircraft. All indications are that the USFS will not contract for these legacy aircraft beyond the current contract period, which ends in 2018.”
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Yellowstone area helicopters make two short haul rescues

Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.
Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.

Helicopters in the Yellowstone area made at least two short haul rescues in August, both of them with ASTAR B3 ships.

The first occurred on August 17 in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The helicopter from Yellowstone National Park had been assigned to the general area for fire and rescue support working out of Wenatchee when a climber had a medical problem at the 12,000′ level on Mount Rainier at Disapointment Cleaver. The Mount Rainier rangers knew the Yellowstone helicopter was in the area and requested it to respond after they evaluated the condition of the climber and considered the rescue alternatives.
short haul rescue

The other happened on August 27 after a snag struck a Chena Hotshot crew member while assigned to the Kelley fire on the Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho. The rescue was performed by a Jackson, Wyoming Teton Interagency helicopter while the ship was assigned to the fire. The National Park Service describes this rescue:

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“…Immediately after the accident, the Chena superintendent requested a medical evacuation, prompting air attack to request an air ambulance and a hoist-capable helicopter. Hearing the radio traffic, a Teton Interagency Helitack crew member assigned to the helibase notified air attack that the crew and Helicopter N26HX, which was conducting water drops from a dip site near Helibase, were short-haul capable. Short-haul is a rescue technique where an individual is suspended below the helicopter on a 100 to 200 foot rope. This method allows a rescuer more direct access to an injured party, and it is often used in national parks like Grand Teton National Park in the Teton Range where conditions make it difficult to land a helicopter in the steep and rocky terrain. Patients are typically flown out via short-haul with a ranger attending to them below the helicopter.

Operations diverted the helicopter from a water bucket mission, and the crew began preparing for a short-haul. Pilot Chris Templeton and short-haul spotter Garth Wagner flew a reconnaissance mission. Tasks included locating a suitable insertion spot, conducting environmental and power checks, and determining that a short-haul mission was the appropriate tool. Based on the recon flight, the crew completed a short-haul and Green-Amber-Red (GAR) risk assessment, then readied for the mission. They configured the helicopter by removing the doors, attaching a “three-ring” backup to the cargo hook, and inspecting and attaching a 150-foot-long short haul rope to the cargo hook. They also checked the harnesses for the short-hauler and spotter, as well as the communication systems. A litter was prepared with a harness and attachment points.

While the helitack crew was preparing helicopter N26HX for short-haul, another helicopter delivered medical gear to the site of the injured firefighter. An EMT on the Chena Hotshots and other crew members prepared the patient for transport. The helicopter inserted short-hauler Ron Johnson, whose normal job is as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, with a litter and line gear into the extraction site. Rescuers transported the patient on a spine board the 150 feet to the extraction site. Because the patient was already packaged, the helicopter extracted him and the short-hauler about 15 minutes after inserting Johnson on site. They were flown back to helibase where a team of Teton Helitack members caught the patient and litter and transferred him to an awaiting life-flight helicopter.

Teton Interagency Helicopter
Teton Interagency Helicopter. NPS photo.

During the week before the successful rescue mission, the Teton Helitack crew flew nearly three hours of short-haul training in typical terrain for pilot proficiency. Such proficiency training is required every 28 days, and in this case, the training was also essential in preparing the helitack crew to receive the patient and litter at helibase.

Using the short-haul method is relatively new to wildland fire, but is one of the preferred methods of rescue in the rugged terrain of several national parks, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and Grand Canyon. The Yosemite Helitack crew performed a successful rescue earlier in August on the Green Ridge fire on the Deschutes National Forest.”

Australian aviation fleet prepares for bushfire season

Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire
Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire in New South Wales. Photo: Kerry Lawrence, NWS RFS

As the bushfire season begins in Australia the firefighting agencies in their States and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre are ramping up the fleet of aerial resources to be ready for the fires which got a much earlier start than normal in October when the “worst wildfire conditions in more than 40 years” destroyed more than 200 homes. During that siege two two fixed wing aircraft crashed killing both pilots.

The bushfire season has historically started in late November or early December and lasted through February, but now that we have warmer and more extreme weather across the globe fire managers in Australia and around the world are having to adapt.

Most of the firefighting aircraft in Australia are privately owned and work under contracts for the government. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) coordinates the procurement of the aircraft on behalf of the States and Territories.

 National Aerial Firefighting Centre Richard Alder, the General Manager of the NAFC, told Fire Aviation that about one third of the 75 contracted aircraft have started work already and the majority will be on by early to mid-December, depending how the fire season develops in the south part of the country. As the summer temperatures increase, the down under fire season moves from north to south. The 75 aircraft includes helicopters, Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), and fixed wing aircraft that are used for reconnaissance and other purposes.

During last year’s 2012-2013 fire season, NAFC had the following on contract:

  • 14 SEATs (Air Tractor AT 802 and AT 602)
  • 3 Bell 206-L
  • 2 Bell 205
  • 5 Bell 212
  • 2 Bell 214-B
  • 5 Erickson S 64 Air-Crane
  • 12 Eurocopter AS 350, 355, and 365
  • 2 Kawasaki BK 117-B2
  • 4 Sikorsky S 61-N

This season, 2013-2014, in addition to the smaller helicopters, Mr. Alder said they will have:

  • 23 SEATs, which includes one water-scooping FireBoss. (All are on exclusive use, three-year contracts with options to extend to five years.)
  • 6 Erickson S 64 Air-Cranes (from Kestral Aviation via Erickson)
  • 2 Sikorsky S 61-N (from Coulson Aircrane Australia, a subsidiary of Coulson Aircrane in Canada)
  • 10 Bell 214-B, which the NAFC considers a Type 1 helicopter (from McDermontt Aviation)
  • Other aircraft, including 30 SEATs, are available on call when needed contracts.

There are no air tankers larger than SEATs working in Australia, in spite of a request for proposals that NAFC issued in November, 2012. They advertised it at the time via Twitter:

That RFP indicated their intention to contract not only for various types of helicopters, but also for water-scooping, large, and very large air tankers. We asked Mr. Alder what became of the effort to procure the larger aircraft. He responded:

The RFP is a component of a major project we have running to closely examine the applicability of larger fixed wing airtankers in the Australian situation. The project is ongoing and we are continuing to (actively!) gather and analyse data and related information on these capabilities (and are particularly grateful to our colleagues in the US for sharing their experiences over the recent season).

 

MV-22 Osprey as a firefighting aircraft

V-22 OspreyEric, one of our loyal readers, sent us a link to an article that explores the use of the military MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft as a firefighting machine. The Osprey can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, and then tilts the rotors to fly horizontally at 277 mph.

The article dismisses the use of the Osprey as a direct attack, water-dropping aircraft, primarily for the reasons we outlined in an article we wrote in 2010 (scroll down to see a reprint of that post). But it suggests the Osprey could be useful in other ways to support a firefighting operation.

Here is an excerpt from the piece at medium.com, published October 27, 2013:

“It takes forever to get to a rural wildfire. Let’s use the Osprey to shrink distance and get critical equipment to the front,” he says. “Expensive command and control gear could be quickly transferred from central depots to forward fire bases, and from there other transport would carry them the ‘last half-mile’ to the fire line.”

“The Osprey can reduce the response time for elite wild-fire fighters — smokejumpers or hotshot teams — getting ‘boots on the ground’ faster, with more gear, reducing the time it takes to initially attack wildfires,” Hooper says. “And there’s also the possibility of reducing the cost of initial attacks: more firefighters can qualify for descending a rope-drop than for jump school, at less cost per person.”

Specialized critical assets — too expensive to distribute widely — are another potential cargo. “Air traffic control can get very tricky over a disaster area. Deploying an air traffic control team or a ‘control tower in a box’ would be a perfect example of how the range and speed of an Osprey could … make a big difference.”

But an Osprey with its twin 22-foot rotors creates ferocious downwash, blowing debris around like shotgun blasts. “They need to go into a relatively clean landing zone and then get out—so they may be a better fit moving equipment [near] an impacted zone than, say, doing gritty work inside the disaster area,” Hooper proposes.

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(Below is the article we wrote January 3, 2010 at Wildfire Today)

Osprey. USAF photo
MV-22 Osprey. USAF photo

The MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor, vertical take-off and landing aircraft, is replacing some of the Vietnam era CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters used by the Marine Corps. Since the disastrous wildfires in southern California in 2007, the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps have had an agreement with Cal Fire making it possible to use their military helicopters on fires if Cal Fire is unable to handle the fires with their own aerial assets.

In July of 2008, CH-46E and CH-53E military helicopters made at least 574 drops on fires in California, delivering 217,000 gallons of water.

At first glance, the Osprey might seem like an excellent firefighting tool. It is fast (cruises at 277 mph), could haul 24-32 firefighters, and could carry 1,800 gallons of water externally. But it has never dropped a gallon of water on a fire and it is possible that it never will due to at least two potential problem areas.

Rotor Wash

As you can see in the photo above, the rotor wash or downdraft from an Osprey is extremely strong–far stronger than a conventional helicopter. Rotor wash from a helicopter can cause, and has caused, serious problems when the wind from the rotors spreads the fire in unexpected directions, sometimes doing more harm than good. Marines even worry that Osprey rotor wash may damage or destroy unrecorded archaeological sites in training areas.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the rotor wash creates enough force to knock sailors and aircraft off a flight deck on a ship.

May CAUSE fires

The Osprey’s engines run extremely hot, so hot that the Navy is taking special precautions to prevent the engine exhaust from melting or buckling the aluminum decks of warships. A report from DARPA states:

The deployment of the MV-22 Osprey has resulted in ship flight deck buckling that has been attributed to the excessive heat impact from engine exhaust plumes… Navy studies have indicated that repeated deck buckling will likely cause deck failure before planned ship life.

DARPA has designed a “flight deck thermal management system” which would liquid-cool the deck from below or above while the aircraft are idling or launching. The military has put out a request for proposals for other permanent deck-cooling systems that could be retro-fitted or designed into new ships still on the drawing board.

Wildfire Today reported on May 30, 2009, that an Osprey made an unscheduled precautionary landing in North Carolina and started a 5-acre fire in a wet marsh. We wrote then:

Marines refueled the Osprey but according to WECT.com, upon taking off it “smashed into swamp mud, nose first”. During that takeoff attempt, heat from the engine exhaust started a vegetation fire which did some damage to the exterior of the aircraft.

A news release from the Marine Corp claims:

The grass fire was quickly extinguished by the crew chief, but caused an undetermined amount of heat damage to the aircraft exterior.

But Emergency Management Director Eddie King said the local fire department had to work through the night to extinguish a 5-acre fire, in an area infested with snakes and alligators, that was caused by the incident.

Osprey hauling a Humvee. U.S. Navy photo.
Osprey hauling a Humvee. U.S. Navy photo.

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(UPDATE October 28, 2013)

On May 31, 2010 an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft being demonstrated by the U. S. Marine Corp at a Staten Island park near New York City injured 10 spectators when the rotor wash sent debris flying. More information.

K-MAX helicopter converted to unmanned aircraft system

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Of the 38 K-MAX helicopters that were built, eight are on exclusive use contract with the federal government for wildland firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service likes them because they feel like they can claim they are contracting with Type 1 helicopters even though they almost but not quite meet the minimum standards for Type 1 status, and for the fact that they are much less expensive than fully qualified Type 1 helicopters. The eight ships are operated by Central Copters, Heliqwest, Mountain West Helicopters, Rainier Heli International, Swanson, and Timberline.

Two other K-MAX helicopters have been converted for the military by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Kaman Aerospace Corporation into an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of autonomous or remote controlled cargo delivery. Its mission: battlefield cargo resupply for the U.S. military. The two ships have flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.

The helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in November, 2011 for an initial, limited deployment, but have been extended several times. Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using the aircraft there indefinitely.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, K-MAX helicopters follow a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and require human intervention only to get started.

It remains to be seen if UAS or UAV aircraft could feasibly be used on fires to drop water or deliver external loads.

K-MAX, front