In a 5-year period two helicopter crashes during aerial ignition operations resulted in three fatalities

The risk of flying low and slow with a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 incident in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

(This article was first published on WildfireToday.com)

After seeing the wildland firefighter accident and injury stats for 2019 I checked to see if the National Transportation Safety Board had any additional information about the helicopter crash on a prescribed fire in Texas March 27, 2019 that resulted in one fatality and two people with injuries. Here is an excerpt from their preliminary report:

On March 27, 2019, about 1435 central daylight time, an Airbus AS350B3 helicopter, N818MC, was substantially damaged when it collided with trees and terrain following a loss of engine power near Montgomery, Texas. The commercial rated pilot was seriously injured, one Forest Service crew member was fatally injured, and another crew member sustained minor injuries. The helicopter was owned by Mountain Air Helicopters, Inc and operated by the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a public use helicopter. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight which operated without a flight plan.

The helicopter and crew were conducting plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) applications in support of controlled fire operations in an area of the Sam Houston National Forest. Initial information provided by the pilot and surviving crew member report that after completing the application, the helicopter began flying back to the helicopter’s staging area when the engine lost complete power. The helicopter descended into trees and subsequently impacted terrain, coming to rest on its right side. One crew member and the pilot were able to exit the helicopter, however one of the crew members was partially ejected from the helicopter and sustained fatal injuries.

One of the firefighters was deceased on scene. The pilot and a second firefighter were transported to a hospital after rescuers extricated them from the wreckage using jaws and air bags.

It could be another six months or so before the final report is released.

The prescribed fire was in the Sam Houston National Forest about 30 miles southeast of College Station, Texas south of Highway 149.

In 2015 two were killed in Mississippi under similar circumstances on a prescribed fire when engine failure brought down a helicopter conducting aerial ignition operations. A third person suffered serious injuries.

march 30, 2015 helicopter crash Mississippi aerial ignitions
The helicopter involved in the March 30, 2015 incident in Mississippi, N50KH, is shown with doors removed and Pilot and PSD operator positions visible.

Flying low and slow in a single-engine helicopter while igniting fire below the aircraft is obviously very, very dangerous. These three fatalities offer very compelling justification for using drones for aerial ignition instead of manned aircraft.

Below is an excerpt from the final NTSB report for the 2015 crash in Mississippi (Accident #ERA15FA173):


Analysis
The purpose of the flight was to assist in the scheduled burn of an 800-acre wooded area. The helicopter was under contract with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. A Forest Service employee reported that, as the helicopter neared the conclusion of a 61-minute controlled burn mission, he observed it complete a turn to a northerly heading at the southwestern end of the burn area. About 7 seconds later, he heard a sound that resembled an air hose being unplugged from a pressurized air tank. A crewmember, who was the sole survivor, reported that the helicopter was about 20 ft above the tree canopy when the pilot announced that the helicopter had lost power. The helicopter then descended into a group of 80-ft-tall trees in a nose-high attitude and impacted terrain. Witnesses participating in the controlled burn at the time of the accident did not observe any other anomalies with the helicopter before the accident.

The fuel system, fuel pump, and fuel control unit were destroyed by fire, which precluded a complete examination. During the engine examination, light rotational scoring was found in the turbine assembly, consistent with light rotation at impact; however, neither the turbine rotation speed nor the amount of engine power at the time of the accident could be determined. The rotor blade damage and drive shaft rotation signatures indicated that the rotor blades were not under power at the time of the accident. An examination of the helicopter’s air tubes revealed that they were impact-damaged; however, they appeared to be secure and properly seated at their fore and aft ends.

On the morning of the accident flight, the helicopter departed on a reconnaissance flight with 600 lbs of JP-5 fuel. The helicopter returned with sufficient fuel for about 133 minutes of flight, and the helicopter was subsequently serviced with an unknown quantity of uncontaminated fuel for the subsequent 60-minute accident flight. Based on the density altitude, temperature, and airplane total weight at the time of the accident, the helicopter was operating within the airplane flight manual’s performance limitations.

Most of the cockpit control assemblies were consumed by fire except for the throttle, which was found in the “idle” position. Given the crewmember’s report that, after the engine failure, the helicopter entered and maintained a nose-high attitude until it impacted trees and then the ground, it is likely that the pilot initiated an autorotation in accordance with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook engine failure and autorotation procedures. A review of the pilot’s records revealed that he passed the autorotation emergency procedure portion of his most recent Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 examination, which occurred 1 month before the accident, and this may have aided in his recognition of the engine failure and decision to initiate an emergency descent.

Although a weather study indicated that smoke and particulates were present in the area before, during, and after the accident, witnesses reported an absence of smoke near the area where the helicopter lost power and impacted the ground.

Probable Cause and Findings
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
A loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined due to post-accident fire damage.

Aerial ignition from a fixed wing aircraft in Australia

A 1971 film documented the process

Aussie Aerial Ignition fire prescribed fire controlled wildfire
The incendiary devices were stored and transported to the aircraft in trays. Screenshot from CSIRO film.

Some fire managers in the United States may assume that aerial ignition of a prescribed fire by using plastic spheres began a few decades ago and has only been carried out with helicopters, and more recently with drones. But a film produced by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research, documented the routine practice of aerial ignition from a fixed wing aircraft in 1971.

The concept is similar to the plastic spheres used today which are manufactured containing a chemical. The injection of a second chemical just before the capsule is jettisoned begins a reaction that results in flaming combustion 30 to 45 seconds later. By then the sphere is on the ground.

Aussie Aerial Ignition fire prescribed fire controlled wildfire
The machinery inside the aircraft that processed and dropped the incendiary devices. Screenshot from the CSIRO film.
Aussie Aerial Ignition fire prescribed fire controlled wildfire
Inside the aircraft the aerial ignition capsules were loaded by hand into machinery that injected the second chemical before it was jettisoned. This screenshot from the video shows a test of the machinery using empty capsules.

The film below explains the rationale and history of large scale prescribed burning in Australia and how aerial ignition was planned, organized, and executed. Navigation and planning the flight lines was far more complex before GPS became available.

New drone attachment holds almost triple the number of aerial ignition spheres

Ignis 2 drone aerial ignition
The recently developed Ignis Version 2.0 aerial ignition system. Photo by Drone Amplified.

The company that developed an aerial ignition system that can be carried by a drone has introduced an improved model that can hold almost three times the number of plastic spheres.

The Ignis 2.0 made by Drone Amplified can be loaded with 400 to 450 spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being released from the drone. Their previous system, Ignis 1.0, carried 150 spheres. The new design is easier to maintain and can drop the spheres at up to four times the rate if desired, an increase from 30 to 120 spheres per minute. By using an Android app, the user can configure ignition spacing, number of ignition spheres, mission duration, and altitude.

Ignis Version 2.0
Android application to program ignition within geofence and monitor progress. Photo by Drone Amplified.

Firefighters have employed the concept of using machines for aerial ignition for 40 to 50 years starting with an aerial drip torch suspended below a helicopter and later advancing to equipment installed in the open door of a helicopter.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Dennis Kirkley of Kaibab Helitack loads the plastic sphere dispenser (ping pong ball machine) with plastic spheres. Grand Canyon Helitack’s A-Star was used to do aerial ignition on the Sitgreaves Complex in northern Arizona August 8, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

Just before they are released, the spheres, which contain a chemical, are injected with a second chemical that causes them to ignite 30 to 45 seconds later. Aerial ignition allows prescribed fires or firing operations on wildfires to be ignited in areas that can be difficult for firefighters on the ground to reach safely, reducing their exposure to hazards. It can also ignite controlled burns more quickly than it can be done by personnel on foot, and at less cost than a helicopter.

reload drone plastic spheres aerial ignition
Fire personnel on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest reload a drone with plastic spheres used for aerial ignition, June 1, 2019. USFS photo.

The Department of the Interior began experimenting with drones for aerial ignition in 2017 and in 2018 began using a much larger aircraft, the Matrisse 600 that can carry up to 13 pounds. In August it was used to ignite a firing operation at night on the Inyo National Forest on the Springs Fire 13 miles southeast of Lee Vining, California.

According to Drone Amplified, the DOI just finished testing the new Ignis 2.0 in Arizona and ordered 20 for immediate delivery.

The Chief Engineer for Drone Amplified, Jim Higgins, was a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln when he and others built the first drone to be used to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska. Drone Amplified is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Firefighters use drone to ignite nighttime firing operations

The use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones, by wildland firefighters has come a long way since one was first used in in 2016 to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska. That drone, developed by staff from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, could easily be held in one hand and could carry about a dozen plastic spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being dropped by the aircraft.

In 2018 the Bureau of Land Management began testing a much larger drone to serve as an aerial ignition platform, the Matrisse 600 that can carry up to 13 pounds. In case you’re curious, you can buy one yourself — prices start at around $5,000 before you begin adding a gimbal, camera, and other accessories.

Matrisse Drone Springs Fire aerial ignition
Technicians attend to a Matrisse 600 drone which is being used for aerial ignition on the Springs Fire. Photo: incident management team.

In June, 2019 a Matrisse was used for aerial ignition on the Maroon Fire 18 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. Currently a similar aircraft has been used for the last two nights for firing operations on the Inyo National Forest on the Springs Fire 13 miles southeast of Lee Vining, California. So far the aircraft has been used to ignite approximately 20 to 40 acres in some of the northern units of the fire and the plan is to ignite more  as early as tonight, as conditions allow.

Kerry Greene, an Information Officer for the Springs Fire, said the advantages of using the UAS platform over hand firing in this case are, precision of application, protection of cultural sites, reduction of risk and exposure to firefighters, and minimizing firefighter fatigue.

drone aerial ignition wildfire
This type of drone was used for aerial ignition in Southwest Oregon in 2018, and on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest June 1, 2019. USFS photo.

New aerial ignition device for helicopters tested in Colorado

Colorado Division of Fire Prevent and Control Cañon Helitack
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack conducts Hover Step training.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack crew recently conducted Hover Step training and also tested new aerial ignition equipment in partnership with the Forest Service’s Technology and Development program. The aerial ignition devices included the Sling Dragon, developed by SEI Industries, and a modified helitorch assembly.

This is the first time a Type 2 helicopter has tested this equipment. The Technology and Development program provides practical solutions to problems identified by U.S. Forest Service employees and cooperators.

(Photos and text from the DFPC’s Facebook page)

Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Cañon Helitack
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack tests an aerial ignition device.
Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Cañon Helitack aerial ignition
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Cañon Helitack tests an aerial ignition device.

Drone used for aerial ignition in Arizona

reload drone plastic spheres aerial ignition
Fire personnel on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest reload a drone with plastic spheres used for aerial ignition, June 1, 2019. USFS photo.

Tom Kurth’s Type 1 Incident Management Team began using drones on fires in 2017. In 2018 they experimented with using one for aerial ignition, lighting burnouts by dropping spheres which burst into flame 30 to 45 seconds after being released.

Last weekend the same type of drone was used for aerial ignition on the Maroon Fire 18 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona.

In this video posted by Kurth’s IMT last August, team members describe how they used drones on the Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires in southwest Oregon for aerial surveying, detecting the location of heat, mapping, and aerial ignition.

The Maroon Fire has burned 5,000 acres on the Coconino National Forest in a cinder basin northeast of Flagstaff. Aerial ignitions are being conducted by helicopter and drones.

drone aerial ignition wildfire
This type of drone was used for aerial ignition in Southwest Oregon in 2018, and on the Maroon Fire on the Coconino National Forest June 1, 2019. USFS photo.
maroon fire coconino national forest
Burnout operation on the Maroon Fire, Coconino National Forest. USFS photo.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chip. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Drone used to ignite burnout operations on Klondike Fire in Oregon

drone ignite prescribed fire
File photo of drone being used for the first time to ignite a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument, April 22, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

April 22, 2016 was the first time that a drone, or Unmanned Aerial System, was used to intentionally ignite a managed fire. The University of Nebraska tested a system that had been under development, using it to ignite a portion of a prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska. As a proof of concept, it was considered a success. The drone dropped plastic spheres which burst into flame about half a minute after landing on the ground, similar to the ones dropped by helicopters for aerial ignition on large wildfires and prescribed fires.

Using the technology developed by the University of Nebraska, drones are being used to help firefighters conduct firing operations on the Klondike Fire about 25 miles southwest of Grants Pass, Oregon.

Daily updates released by the incident management team between August 8 and 13, 2018 documented the use of the drones for lighting strategic fires to even out and increase the depth of burned areas adjacent to fire lines in difficult terrain where firefighter safety could be compromised. Firefighters say drone technology  used on the Klondike Fire has enabled aerial observation and firing operations to continue during smoky conditions, which aids fire containment and completion of contingency lines.

The video below from the Mail Tribune has an interview with Steve Stroud, fleet manager with the Office of Aviation Services, explaining how the aircraft is used. An article at the site has more information.

The next video was filmed in 2016 at the first test of a drone to ignite a prescribed fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

drone nebraska ignite prescribed fire
File photo of the drone used at the 2016 test at Homestead National Monument. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Aerial ignition by laser?

Helicopter Laser

I wonder if one day wildland firefighters will be igniting prescribed fires, backfires, and burnouts with lasers. One thing to consider, of course, is the difference between accidently hitting a person on the ground with a plastic sphere vs. a laser.