CAL FIRE’s helicopter program

Barry Lloyd describes the coming transition from Hueys

Wednesday morning at the Aerial Firefighting North America 2018 conference in Sacramento, Barry Lloyd, CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program manager spoke about some of their operational objectives and the possible transition to Sikorsky Firehawk ships.

California’s legislature has approved funding for replacing the 12 Vietnam War era Hueys with new helicopters. The contract has not yet been signed, but all indications are that the purchase will actually occur.

In Mr. Lloyd’s presentation he described the helicopter program and some of the specifications that led to the selection of the winning vendor.

One of his main points was that CAL FIRE’s goal is to respond to every fire in the state for which they have suppression responsibility, within 20 minutes, and contain 95 percent of all fires before they grow to 10 acres.

(UPDATE: we initially had approval to include about half a dozen slides from Mr. Lloyd’s presentation, but on March 16 higher level personnel in CAL FIRE rescinded that approval and asked that we delete them.)

CAL FIRE Firehawk
Model at Sikorsky’s booth at the Aerial Firefighting conference.
CAL FIRE helicopter program manager Barry Lloyd
Barry Lloyd, CAL FIRE Helicopter Program Manager. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

TBT: 16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program

For ThrowBack Thursday we’re revisiting a piece we wrote in March, 2016.


The aerial firefighting program in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has grown over a couple of decades into a highly respected, professionally managed organization. After spending some time at their aviation headquarters at McClellan Air Field on Thursday  [March 24, 2016] in Sacramento, I developed as list of 16 facts that you may not know about the program:

1. CAL FIRE has 22 S-2T fixed wing air tankers that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. They are presently converting an aircraft to replace the one destroyed in the October 7, 2014 crash that killed Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. That process should be complete in 18 to 24 months.

S-2T air tanker
S-2T air tankers at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

2. They have 15 OV-10 Air Attack fixed wing aircraft.

OV-10
A lineup of OV-10 air attack ships at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

3. And 12 Super Huey helicopters.

super huey
Super Huey at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

4. All of the above aircraft were discarded by the military.

5. The S-2T air tankers were designed to be based on aircraft carriers, and therefore have wings that fold. They still retain this feature, which makes it possible to cram more aircraft into a hangar.

S-2T folded wings
An S-2T with the wings folded. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Continue reading “TBT: 16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program”

16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program

The aerial firefighting program in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has grown over a couple of decades into a highly respected, professionally managed organization. After spending some time at their aviation headquarters at McClellan Air Field on Thursday in Sacramento, I developed as list of 16 facts that you may not know about the program:

1. CAL FIRE has 22 S-2T fixed wing air tankers that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. They are presently converting an aircraft to replace the one destroyed in the October 7, 2014 crash that killed Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. That process should be complete in 18 to 24 months.

S-2T air tanker
S-2T air tankers at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
2. They have 15 OV-10 Air Attack fixed wing aircraft.

OV-10
A lineup of OV10 air attack ships at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
3. And 12 Super Huey helicopters.

super huey
Super Huey at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
4. All of the above aircraft were discarded by the military.

5. The S-2T air tankers were designed to be based on aircraft carriers, and therefore have wings that fold. They still retain this feature, which makes it possible to cram more aircraft into a hangar.

S-2T folded wings
An S-2T with the wings folded. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Continue reading “16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program”

CAL FIRE expects to buy up to 12 new helicopters

CAL FIRE helicopter

Above: One of the few CAL FIRE helicopters that still has “CDF” painted on the tail. The photo was taken March 24, 2016 at the CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan Air Field near Sacramento, California by Bill Gabbert.

It’s not often that we see a federal or state agency with wildland fire responsibilities purchase a fleet of brand new aircraft. More typically they are forced to dig through the boneyard of discarded war birds in the Arizona desert hoping to cobble something together that won’t kill their pilots and firefighters.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE, hopes to create a new paradigm with a fleet of helicopters right off the assembly line. The agency issued a solicitation to buy nine helicopters — about three a year for three years, with an option to spring for an even dozen.

CAL FIRE helicopter
A DynCorp employee works on a CAL FIRE helicopter at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

For decades CAL FIRE has been using Huey helicopters they salvaged from the military scrap heap. The 12 they have today have been meticulously cared for by skilled professionals and upgraded in many ways, morphing into “Super Hueys”. We heard one pilot say he loves flying them. Many people will tell you that just because an aircraft has a couple of wars and a handful of decades on its Hobbs meter, that does not necessarily disqualify it from being a very useful and safe piece of equipment. But after rebuilding, replacing, and rehabbing a large percentage of the machine, and finding that you sometimes have to make your own parts because they have not been manufactured for 20 to 50 years you can reach a point of diminishing returns.

When CAL FIRE received the bids on their helicopter solicitation, they found significant differences in how the potential vendors interpreted the contract language. One company was bidding on what they assumed were apples, while another was picturing oranges. So the solicitation and bids were all thrown out. It’s back to the drawing board where they hope to develop clear instructions and will be sure they are understood.

But they don’t have the luxury of time. The state’s Administration has set aside the money pending the Legislature’s approval but there is concern within CAL FIRE that if they don’t commit it very soon, it will disappear. Their plan is to rewrite the solicitation, advertise it, receive bids, and award a contract all within a period of weeks. In other words, they do not plan to dither for 555 days like the U.S. Forest Service did in 2012 and 2013 when they went through the excruciating process of contracting to lease seven “next-generation air tankers” v. 1.0. And that was for LEASING — not buying a fleet of new aircraft. After watching that painful USFS process for more than a year, we placed a timer in the side bar of our website, counting the number of days that had elapsed since the solicitation had been issued, but no contract awarded.

CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Manager and Chief Pilot, Barry C. Lloyd, is working with the state’s contracting specialists, the Department of General Services, to get this procurement done. It’s unknown how this task compares to his being shot down twice over Vietnam, but he will undoubtably be relieved when it is brought to a peaceful resolution.