Ashli Blain, a 19-year old college student, recently went back to school after spending her summer fighting fires from helicopters as a command pilot in Blackhawks and copilot in Chinooks. She works for Billings Flying Service out of Montana.
Two recent attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to award contracts for firefighting aircraft have been protested.
On March 26 the agency awarded exclusive use (EU) contracts for five Next Generation 3.0 large air tankers. Erickson Aero Air and Aero Flite were each selected for two awards and Coulson Aviation received one. This would have added five tankers to the 13 that are currently on Next Gen 1.0 and 2.0 EU contracts, to bring the total up to 18.
However Neptune Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. Usually a protest prevents any contract awards from a solicitation. The due date for the GAO decision in this case is July 15, 2020. Neptune currently has four large air tankers on the existing contract while 10 Tanker has two.
The other protest was for 28 Type 1 helicopters, designed to tag on to the previous four-year contract that expired April 30, 2020. Both Billings Flying Service and Croman Corp. filed protests which are due to be decided by September 8, 2020.
In May, 2020 the Forest Service awarded guaranteed EU 90-day contracts for 24 Type 1 helicopters and 12 Type 2 helicopters. These aircraft, based on the national Call When Needed agreement, are considered national aviation resources to be used for initial attack and large fire support. It will be possible to extend the contract period beyond 90 days depending on the national situation. The plan was for the helicopters to begin their Mandatory Availability Periods on June 1 or June 15.
All of the contract awards for Next Generation EU air tankers since 2013 have been protested by companies that did not receive a contract. In each case the action delayed activation of the new contracts by months. If you are interested in a deep dive into these protests, check out our April, 2020 article, “Protests of air tanker contracts have been common.”
Above: The test rig for the new Kawak 2,500-gallon internal tank. Kawak photo.
Kawak Aviation has received FAA Supplemental Type Certification (STC) for its CH-47D Chinook aerial liquid delivery system (ALDS) and auxiliary hydraulic system. The 2,500-US gallon (9,463-liter) tank fills in under 40 seconds and can release a full load of water in 3 seconds. The system is built around a fully independent 50hp hydraulic system, a new refill pump, and unique design of the water tank door.
Using their existing refill pump technology as a starting point, they designed an all new pump to meet the fill time requirements of the new system.
“Unlike swinging door designs, our sliding doors provide an unbroken ribbon of water that exits the tank with less wind break up providing a better drop pattern. In short more water reaches the fire for a more effective drop,” said Andrew Sawyer, director of marketing.
The system includes a secondary 128-US gallon tank that can add foam concentrate if needed as the main tank is filled. A live telemetry functionality automatically records how much water is taken on, how much is dropped, and where. This information is then transmitted to the agency managing the fire to assist in analyzing utilization of resources.
Above: One of Billings Flying Service’s CH-47D Chinooks, at Custer Airport, April 3, 2016.
On Friday Billings Flying Service unveiled their new 24,000 square-foot hangar and maintenance facility near the airport in Billings, Montana (map). It has enough room for four to five of their Chinook helicopters, depending on if rotors are installed on the aircraft.
The company has at least six Chinooks and in 2014 became the first non-military owner of CH-47D’s when they purchased two from the U.S. government. Gary Blain, a co-owner of the company, and another pilot flew the two helicopters from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to the company’s facilities south of Billings, Montana near the Yellowstone River.
Anything you do with aircraft is expensive. Mr. Blain told us at the time that they spent $32,000 for fuel during their two-day trip, with an overnight stopover in Norfolk, Nebraska.
The Incident Commander ordered two large air tankers but only one was available.
Above: a Sky Aviation Bell 206L4 (N482TJ) lands at Custer Airport near a Central Copters K-MAX (N115).
On Saturday when the Cold Fire started 8 miles southeast of Custer, South Dakota, no firefighting aircraft were available. The Incident Commander requested an air attack platform, two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, two large air tankers, and one light helicopter. Sunday a P2V departed Chattanooga, Tennessee and most likely cruised at about 200 mph until it arrived in Rapid City at about 3 p.m.
The P2V was not used Sunday, in part because the winds were too strong and turbulent. Two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters dropped water Sunday morning. Three privately owned contracted helicopters became available at the Custer Airport: one K-MAX (Central Copters), one CH-47D Chinook (Billings Flying Service), and a Bell 206L4 (Sky Aviation), but only the 206L4 was used. It dropped numerous loads of water Sunday afternoon while we were there.
A company in Central Point Oregon is developing an internal tank for the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Jordan Aircraft Services is constructing a tank engineered by Eric Foy of Perideo LLC in Rogue Valley Oregon that will hold up to 2,800 gallons.
It will employ an innovative method to help produce a constant flow of water or retardant, according to Ed Jordan, owner of Jordan Aircraft Services. Since the tank system is primarily horizontal in the aircraft, it could be difficult to maintain adequate head pressure at the bottom of the tank as it empties using gravity rather than a pressurized system. As the water is dispensed through a valve in the belly of the Chinook, horizontally mounted 54-inch pistons will push the liquid toward the center of the tank over the valve. This is intended to maintain an adequate head pressure ensuring that the desired flow rate is obtained.
Mr. Jordan told us that the tank itself is completed, but they are still working on the valve system. The tank has been installed in a Chinook in Medford, Oregon operated by CHI Aviation, formerly known as Construction Helicopters. They expect to be able to begin testing by early Spring.
The personnel at Jordan Aircraft Services have been involved in constructing tanks for a number of aircraft, including S-61 Sea King helicopter, 10 Tanker’s DC-10, Erickson’s Air-Cranes and their MD-87s.
On a related note, Billings Flying Service now has six Chinooks. The company began acquiring them from the military in 2014 when they purchased two which they flew back to Billings from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The ships were busy in 2015, Gary Blain, a co-owner of the company, told Fire Aviation. He said they expect to have five of them available in 2016.
Mr. Blain said they are following the development of the internal tank closely, but so far they are having success with external buckets. Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tim.
Billings Flying Service just became the first non-military owner of CH-47D Chinook helicopters. Gary Blain, a co-owner of the company, told Fire Aviation that the process was much like purchasing a used government-owned vehicle. He submitted a $6.5 million bid for two of them and it was accepted.
Columbia Helicopters has BV-234 Chinooks, but this is the first time the higher performance CH-47D models have migrated into the civilian world.
On Wednesday and Thursday Mr. Blain and another pilot flew the two Chinooks from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to the company’s facilities south of Billings, Montana near the Yellowstone River.
Anything you do with aircraft is expensive. Mr. Blain said they spent $32,000 for fuel during their two-day trip, with an overnight stopover in Norfolk, Nebraska.
In about four months they expect to have one of them outfitted for wildland firefighting, with the other coming on line next year. He said with an external bucket the ships could deliver 2,500 gallons of water. They have been consulting with the manufacturer, Boeing, and are considering installing an internal water tank with a snorkel and water pump for refilling the tank. The Chinook has an unusually high capacity for electrical accessories, so they are looking at either an electrical or a hydraulic pump. The water would exit the tank either from the rear ramp or through a hole cut in the belly. We asked if the tank would be similar to the RADS tank pioneered by Aero Union, and Mr. Blain said that if they choose the internal tank option they would probably work with Boeing to engineer something new.
When operated by the military the Chinooks have a three-person crew, two pilots and an engineer-type who monitors gauges and interfaces with passengers. Billings Flying Service will not haul passengers, so they will reconfigure the cockpit making it possible for two pilots to handle everything. They will also install a bubble window to improve the visibility when flying external loads.
The company expects to hire at least 15 new employees to complete the work on the two helicopters. They will also construct a hanger for the ships, either at their headquarters or at the Billings airport.
Billings Flying Service is a second generation helicopter company and currently has one Bell 212 on an exclusive use firefighting contract and three Sikorsky S-61s and two Bell UH-1Hs on call when needed contracts. In addition to aerial firefighting, they are experienced in aerial construction, power transmission line construction, equipment transportation, geo-seismic exploration and passenger air charter.