Summary of air tanker use, 2014

There were more requests for large air tankers (LATs) in 2014 than in any of the last 18 years. That is one of the facts in the 2014 version of the Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics put together by the National Interagency Fire Center.

We used data from the report to update statistics that we have been collecting over the years, including the chart below.

Graph, request for large air tankers

One of the more interesting trends is the number of requests for LATs that cannot be filled, referred to as Unable to Fill, or UTF. After reaching a high of 48 percent in 2012, it declined to 21 and then 12 percent in the next two years even as the number of requests for LATs was increasing.

One thing we don’t know is how many Incident Commanders needed air tankers but didn’t bother to request them because they knew that none were available.

Acres burned in wildfires

Two stats for 2014 indicate there would be a reduced urgent need for air tankers. The number of acres burned in the 48 contiguous states in 2014, 3.4 million, was significantly below the 10 year average of 5.7 million. And the number of structures burned, 1,953 was less than the 10 year average of 3,098.

At the beginning of 2014 there were 10 LATs on exclusive use contracts. By the end of the year there were 17 — eight were added and Minden’s P2V had a landing gear problem (see below) which took it out of service indefinitely. The additional air tankers on exclusive use contracts included:

  • 2 RJ-85s from Aero Flite;
  • 2 MD-87s from Erickson Aero Tanker;
  • 1 DC-10 from 10 Tanker Air Carrier; and
  • 3 BAe-146s from Neptune

In the list of eight additional air tankers listed above, the DC-10 and the three BAe-146s were brought into service as “additional equipment” on a 1-year temporary basis under an exclusive use contract awarded in 2013. Due to a change in Department of the Interior procurement policies, this will not be done again in 2015.

Minden was awarded a Next-Gen contract for a BAe-146 in 2013, but never delivered the aircraft. Recently the USFS terminated the contract for default.

MAFFS 3 hard landing
The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

One air tanker was borrowed in 2014 from Canada for 10 days. Saskatchewan provided a Convair 580 and a TurboCommander 690 Bird Dog beginning on July 21. The air tanker group was in place until July 30, when it returned to Canada following a recall from Saskatchewan due to increased fire activity there.

Two Modular Airborne FireFighting System aircraft, C-130s from the military, were activated on July 20 and positioned at Boise. MAFFS 3 experienced a hard landing at Hill AFB when they had a problem with the nose landing gear. While no injuries occurred, the damage ended the service of MAFFS 3 for 2014, but MAFFS1 remained until August 24. MAFFS units provided retardant delivery to the Great Basin, Northwest and Northern Rocky Geographic Areas while employed from July 20 through August 24, delivering a total of 244,406 gallons while conducting 97 sorties. This is down from 2013 when 576 sorties were flown delivering 1,387,881 gallons of retardant.

Other notable aircraft mishaps or crashes in 2014:

  • Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed when his S-2T air tanker impacted the ground while he was attempting to make his second retardant drop on the Dog Rock Fire October 7 near Yosemite National Park in California.
  • An air attack fixed wing aircraft, an Aero Commander 500, overshot the runway while landing at Wilcox, AZ on July 2.
  • Tanker 73, one of CAL FIRE’s 23 S-2Ts, had a problem while landing at Hemet-Ryan Airport Friday, October 3 in southern California. The preliminary information indicated that it was a landing gear issue.
  • A Bell 206-L3 made a crash landing into a river May 29 while recertifying for water bucket operations near Missoula, Montana.
  • On June 15, Minden’s P2V, Tanker 48, was substantially damaged when the nose wheel landing gear collapsed during landing roll at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), Fresno, California.
  • On October 4 an air attack aircraft ran off the runway at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California.
  • An air attack plane under contract to the Department of the Interior crashed May 17 at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The Rockwell Aero Commander 500S impacted the ground shortly after takeoff. The aircraft was on an orientation flight for a new pilot on the air attack contract. Two company employees, but no agency personnel, were on board. There was an unconfirmed report that one person died several days later.

MAFFS crew receives award for actions during emergency landing

MAFFS 3 hard landing
The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A guard, reserve and active duty aircrew aboard a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130H3, recently received the Air Mobility Command Chief of Safety Aircrew of Distinction Award for its efforts following a landing gear malfunction while fighting fires in southern Utah on August 17, 2014..

The Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) #3 air tanker crew had finished two successful fire retardant drops when it was instructed to reload for a third drop at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah. As the crew prepared to land, Maj. Jack Berquist, aircraft commander, and his co-pilot, Maj. Derik George, noticed the nose gear wasn’t functioning properly. At that point, the crew, including the navigator Capt. Brett Goebel, flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Damian Hoffmann, and load masters, Master Sgts. Brandon York and Christian Reese, began troubleshooting the problem. Berquist also began communicating with Hill Air Force Base’s air traffic control about the issue.

MAFFS 3 nose gear problem
Greg Brubaker sent the photo below to Fire Aviation. He said he noticed the aircraft was flying in the area for over an hour and he observed that the nose gear was not visible. Photo by Greg Brubaker.

After two hours of circling and with only about 30 minutes of fuel remaining, the crew realized they had exhausted all of their options. That’s when Berquist directed his crew to prepare for an emergency crash landing. Preparations included having Hill officials spray foam on the runway and having crash fire rescue personnel in place.

After configuring the disabled aircraft, Berquist landed the plane and held the nose up off the ground as long as possible, before gently bringing it in contact with the runway. Berquist was able to bring the aircraft to a smooth stop on the center of the runway and the crew exited the plane without any injuries.

The efforts by the MAFFS 3 crew resulted in the safe return of six airmen and only minor damage to a $37 million aircraft.

“In-flight emergencies and emergency landings do happen,” said Goebel. “We train extensively year-round in the aircraft and simulator for unlikely events such as these.

“Without a doubt, we provide some of the best training and preparation of any professional flying organization from not only an individual, but also a crew standpoint. This was definitely a crew effort!”

****

Fire Aviation first reported on the incident August 17, 2014.

Air tanker vs. garbage truck

Tankers 105, 06, and 101
Tankers 105, 06, and 101 (L to R) at Redmond Oregon, June 8, 2014. Photo by Jeff Ingelse.

According to an FAA report, one of Erickson Aero Tanker’s aircraft was struck by a garbage truck while parked at San Antonio, Texas January 5, 2015. There were no injuries, and the amount of damage to Tanker 105 is unknown.

The aircraft is an MD-87, N295EA, first certified by the Interagency Airtanker Board in 2014. One of its sister air tankers, T-101, made the first drop on a fire by an MD-87 June 7 on the Two Bulls Fire west of Bend, Oregon.

The aircraft is off contract now and the start date for 2015 hasn’t been determined.

A phone call to Erickson Aero Tanker was not returned.

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

Helicopter vs. fire engine

An unusual accident occurred Sunday in San Miguel, Chile. A medical helicopter had landed at an accident scene where a drunk driver had struck a police car in an urban area. While the ship’s rotors were still turning, a fire engine received authorization to drive through the accident scene and unfortunately, drove into the main rotor. As the engine continued down the street, the helicopter hit something causing the tail boom to be bent sideways at about 90 degrees. With the rotors still turning the ship began spinning and eventually crashed into a police car, which stopped the spinning but caused an explosion.

The seriously injured pilot and three officers who had been in the police car previous to the arrival of the helicopter were transferred to the hospital.

In the first video the fire engine/helicopter accident occurs at about 2:08. The helicopter has the brightest light in the video, at the lower-center of the image.

Below is the description of the video, translated by Google from Spanish:

With the helicopter and landed on Grand Avenue the exact time the Fire truck goes and hits the blades of the main rotor of the helicopter is appreciated. The outcome is already known through other videos. Best wishes for recovery to the wounded especially the helicopter pilot . We hope this video will help clarify what happened.

This second video, only 15 seconds long, has a better view of the spinning helicopter impacting the police car.

The description of the video, again, translated by Google from Spanish:

The video is not recorded by me, is taken from instagram account of : sergio_robles

Accident happened at 4:42 am on November 30, 2014 at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Gran Avenida José Miguel Carrera. Helicopter Aeropolicial prefecture attends the help of another procedure where police were wounded , the helicopter landing engages the telescopic ladder of a fire engine causing it to split in two and the explosion.

“24-hour” briefing for off-runway excursion at Grass Valley, CA

On October 7, 2014 Laurence Crabtree, the Forest Supervisor for the Eldorado National Forest, issued a “Preliminary (24-hour) Briefing” about the air attack aircraft that ended up off the runway at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California three days earlier. The document has very little information:

Aero Commander 690B veered off the runway at approximately 1343 hours. The ship had been performing an aerial supervision mission on the King Fire, located on the Eldorado National Forest. There were three people onboard, the pilot, an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) and an ATGS trainee. The National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) classified this event as an accident on October 6, 2014 at 10:00 AM. The Forest Service has assigned an investigation team to work in collaboration with the NTSB.

It is obvious that the USFS can’t say a lot about the official cause of an accident three days after the incident, but in a document that took three days to prepare, many people would appreciate a little more information, including indisputable facts such as injuries, the weather, obvious mechanical malfunctions such as a blown tire or collapsed landing gear, or did it occur on takeoff, landing, or taxiing.

NTSB has tentatively ruled out mechanical issues as cause of T-81 crash

CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott
CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott addresses the media on October 10, 2014, concerning the status of the investigation into the crash of Tanker 81 on October 7. On the left in the white shirt is NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra. Over Director Pimlott’s right shoulder is CAL FIRE Chief Pilot Bill Payne.

In a press conference on Friday an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said they have tentatively ruled out mechanical issues as the primary cause of the October 7 crash of the air tanker on the Dog Rock Fire near Yosemite National Park in California.

Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed when the S-2T air tanker impacted the ground while he was attempting to make his second retardant drop on the fire.

NTSB investigator Josh Cawthra said that while it is early in the investigation which will take six to eight months to complete, mechanical or fatigue issues do not appear to be factors in the crash. In addition, he said they have received no reports of turbulence in the drop area. They expect to have a preliminary report available on the NTSB website within about five days.

The investigators began by conducting an aerial recon over the crash site to become familiar with the very steep terrain and the extent of the debris field. After the fire activity had diminished, they documented it from the ground.

The team has completed the on-scene portion of the investigation but they still need to recover, reconstruct, and examine some portions of the wreckage which are scattered over an area about 1/4 mile long. There is still some active fire in the area, and they will be working with CAL FIRE and the National Park Service to remove the aircraft parts after the fire has cooled down.

The investigators will be looking at “man, machine, and the environment”, Mr. Cathra said, and:

This accident is extremely tragic. We have a community that was threatened by a wildland fire, there were evacuations being done. These pilots put their life on the line. They were out there in a very — it’s a controlled environment, but yet there is also an amount of risk. And it is something that affects everybody as a whole. We get to know these pilots as well throughout the year. Our primary mission with the NTSB is to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how we can prevent this from ever occurring again.

Director Ken Pimlott said beginning today, Friday, CAL FIRE will start transitioning their tanker pilots back into their aircraft, after having been grounded since immediately after the accident. Each of them will be evaluated, but some, he said, will require more time to deal with the tragedy than others.

He recognized and thanked the U.S. Forest Service for providing air tankers to cover the state of California while the 22 remaining S-2Ts were not available. Providing that coverage was made less complicated by the lack of wildfire activity in the rest of the United States.

In the video of the press conference below, the people you will see, in the order of  appearance, are:

  1. Daniel Berlant, CAL FIRE Information Officer
  2. Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE Director
  3. Josh Cawthra, NTSB Investigator
  4. Bill Payne, CAL FIRE Chief Pilot, and
  5. Daniel Berlant, CAL FIRE Information Officer

Air attack plane goes off the runway at Grass Valley, CA

N700PQ Rockwell International 690B
File photo of N700PQ, a Rockwell International 690B. Flightaware photo.

The Union is reporting that an air attack plane went off the runway Saturday, October 4 at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California (map). There were no reports of injuries or serious damage.

Photos at The Union show that the aircraft is Air Attack 17, N700PQ, a Rockwell International 690B. It is registered to Rogers Helicopters out of Fresno, California.

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

Deviation from policy may have saved firefighter’s life

Freezeout Ridge Fire
Freezeout Ridge Fire, September 21, 2014. InciWeb photo.

Managers on the Freezeout Ridge Fire in Idaho made a conscious decision on September 21 to deviate from aviation policy in order to potentially save the life of a very seriously injured firefighter. The individual was knocked unconscious by a falling snag and suffered from severe head injuries including a skull fracture, broken jaw, lacerations to the face and head, two broken arms, dislocated thumb, and minor burns.

The aircraft, (Aerospatiale AS350B3) and pilot designated as the medivac helicopter were carded for short-haul operations, however, due to the lack of Department of Interior crew members the ship was not officially short-haul capable at the time. With sunset approaching, the decision was made to long-line the patient to a helispot where he could be transferred to the interior of a helicopter and from there transported to the helibase, and then via air ambulance to the hospital.

Because of the deviation from policy, a Safecom was filed:

Narrative:
At 1845 while assisting a communications tech in setting up a remote command repeater I was the helicopter manager and overheard a call to Air Attack from Div Y to advise him that a firefighter had been struck by a snag. It was identified as a serious accident with life threatening injuries. We were assigned as the medevac aircraft for the incident. Our pilot and aircraft are carded for short-haul operations, however, due to the lack of DOI crew members we were not short-haul capable at the time.

The communication tech and I began moving towards the aircraft in case we were needed. Air Attack was unable to fill an order for an extraction helicopter locally in the time frame needed, therefore we were asked to assist with the medevac. At approximately 1855 we departed the repeater site and flew to the helibase. The patient update that was relayed from the accident site was that the patient was unconscious, but breathing, and needed immediate extraction.

At 1915 we landed at the helibase to reconfigure the aircraft for a medevac and to pick up the paramedic to take with us to the accident site. The Type 1 crew with the injured crewmember began to construct a helispot immediately after the accident and Div Y informed Air Attack that the helispot was close to being finished around 1930. After a recon and a thorough risk assessment by the pilot and helicopter manager it was determined that the spot was too dangerous for landing due to snags and logs in the LZ.

The pilot and manager agreed that the only way to get the patient to definitive care before nightfall was to long line the patient to H2 and then load the patient internally to be transported to the Helibase to meet an air ambulance. We landed at H2 at approximately 1950 and configured for a long line mission, the patient was packaged in a TRS {Traverse Rescue Stretcher} with the extraction four point harness.

Personnel at the accident site had been trained and were familiar with how to rig the TRS for helicopter extraction. The aircraft lifted with a 150 ft long line and remote hook to be received by Div Y to be hooked up to the TRS with the patient. The accident location and the helispot were located 1/4 mile apart with several hundred feet of elevation gain in steep rugged terrain. The pilot lifted the patient and flew back to H2 to be received by the helicopter manager and paramedic. Due to limited daylight {“Pumpkin time“ was 2013} the patient was loaded internally immediately and flown to Helibase. We landed at 2012 and the patient was attended to by numerous EMTs and Paramedics until the air ambulance arrived at 2028. The patient was transferred to the air ambulance crew and departed for the hospital at about 2100 hrs.

CORRECTIVE ACTION:
This event highlights the need to expedite the development of policy to ensure agency contracted helicopters and agency personnel have the capabilities and training to perform extraction missions for injured agency personnel.

LESSONS LEARNED: Due to the lack of policy support, agency personnel worked within the Forest Service Doctrine Framework to make decisions to do what was needed to preserve life. The decision was made by subject matter experts utilizing the risk management process to assess hazards and make timely decisions based on the capabilities of the crew involved. There was support from the Incident Management Team and local unit/agency to do what was necessary to save a life despite having to deviate from policy. Many things went well on this incident that contributed to the successful outcome for the patient and others involved including: having discussions prior to the accident as to how to evacuate a seriously injured firefighter, using the right crews for the tasks at hand, supporting doctrine operations in the event of life threats, and supporting the crews involved with CISM if needed.

Here is a photo of a Traverse Rescue Stretcher.

The official “72 Hour Report” is at Wildfire Today.