Dennis Brown, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Senior Chief of Aviation, has worked in wildland fire longer than most people in the agency have been alive. But he is about to move on.
“We’re going to be advertising for a new Senior Chief of Aviation because I will be retiring April 30,” the Chief told Fire Aviation.
“Last fire season was my 50th fire season, so I’m ready to retire and spend some time with my wife,” the Chief said. “It’s a tough decision, you know, I love what I do and I’m proud of our program. We have a great team that’s going to keep it going.”
Chief Brown began his career in wildland fire with the U.S. Forest Service in 1971 and served as Firefighter, working his way up to Regional Aviation Safety Officer for the agency’s California Region (Region 5). In 2009 he started working with CAL FIRE as a pilot and will retire as the Senior Chief of Aviation.
CAL FIRE is nearing completion on converting another OV-10 Bronco
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is nearing completion on the conversion of another OV-10 Bronco. This will bring their OV-10 fleet up to 16; they are all OV-10A’s except for one OV-10D. The difference is the D’s have much more powerful engines and have a maximum speed of 280 mph, 22 mph faster than the A’s.
CAL FIRE began acquiring the OV-10’s in 1993 to replace the Cessna O-2A Skymasters which had two engines, one pulling and the other pushing, with a maximum speed of 199 mph.
The OV-10’s are flown by contract pilots working for DynCorp with a CAL FIRE Air Tactical Group Supervisor in the other seat, responsible for managing the incident airspace and coordinating the air tankers and helicopter operations over the incident.
This year the agency will have 22 S-2T air tankers plus one spare, the same as last year.
The new Sikorsky S-70i helicopters that CAL FIRE has ordered have been arriving one or two at a time over the last year. There are now five of the “CAL FIRE Hawks”, as the agency calls them, in the state. Then it can take weeks or months before they finish their final inspections and outfitting and arrive at their new homes.
CAL FIRE expects to pick up two more at the end of May at Air Methods/United Rotorcraft in Englewood, Colorado where they are being converted into firefighting machines. Another is being painted now in Texas before it flies to Colorado for the conversion. The next one in the chain recently arrived on a barge in Texas after being shipped from Sikorsky’s production facilities in Poland where two others are still being built for CAL FIRE. Unfortunately COVID-19 is slowing work on the helicopters in Poland.
Private industry has shown they can do the work much faster
The conversion of the seven HC-130H aircraft into air tankers destined for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is racing along like a herd of turtles. Congress appropriated $130 million in December, 2013 and directed the U.S. Air Force to perform the needed maintenance on the aircraft and to arrange for all of the conversion work, including installation of the retardant tanks.
As we have written several times on Fire Aviation over the last few years, the seven Coast Guard aircraft were initially to be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service after being converted to air tankers, but after a few years the Forest Service lost interest, saying they did not need or want them. Another act of Congress in 2018 transferred them to CAL FIRE, to take effect after being fully converted by the Air Force. The bill also increased the appropriation for the work from $130 million to $150 million. A couple of them have been painted and parked at Sacramento McClellan Airport, but are still owned by the Coast Guard. CAL FIRE has been using the aircraft, which do not have retardant tanks, to train flight crews.
The Air Force is supposed to have been performing depot level maintenance on all seven aircraft, which includes on some of them the major project of replacing the center wing boxes. Military equipment that is not needed on an air tanker will be removed by the Air Force and they also need retardant tanks. The Air Force began the contracting process to install conventional gravity-powered internal tanks in 2014, awarded a contract to Coulson Aviation in 2016, then cancelled it in 2017. It was readvertised March 9, 2019 and awarded again to Coulson (working with Lockheed Martin) in December, 2019.
Coulson has fully converted several military C-130’s into air tankers and has completed the entire project for one aircraft, including depot level maintenance and tank installation, in around six months.
Is is expected that the earliest the HC-130H’s will be fully operational for CAL FIRE as air tankers will be in late 2022 or in 2023.
The Air Force conversion looks like it will take a total of nine or ten years for the first of seven to be complete. This is totally unacceptable. It is my opinion that the House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Armed Services should hold oversight hearings and ask Air Force personnel what they are going to do to put the program back on track.
The Department of Defense and the Biden administration need to fix this embarrassment of incompetence.
DynCorp International (DI) has been awarded a new contract to continue supporting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) aviation program. Work will be performed at McClellan Park in Sacramento, California and aircraft are deployed across 13 air tactical and 10 helitack bases throughout the State.
The competitively awarded contract has a three-year base period with two one-year options for a total potential value of $352 million, subject to legislative appropriation.
DI team members will continue to provide line to depot-level maintenance on CAL FIRE’s fleet of 57 aircraft including S-2T air tankers, OV-10A aircraft, UH-1H helicopters, S-70i helicopters, and A-200CT King Air training aircraft. DI also provides full flight operations, with pilots, for CAL FIRE’s fixed-wing fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft including the new-to-them HC-130H aircraft that are in the process of being converted from Coast Guard missions to firefighting air tankers with internal gravity-powered retardant tanks. Pilots for the helicopters are CAL FIRE employees.
Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.
The FAA in their very brief preliminary information about the incident said the landing gear on the S-2T air tanker collapsed as it was landing at the airport near Fortuna 15 miles south of Eureka. The FAA described the damage as “minor”.
A recording of radio traffic from the incident posted on the Redheaded Blackbelt website included this:
Tanker 96 hit the ground. Left tire is popped. Like to request Fortuna Fire Department. Additionally, Tanker 96 is off the end of the runway. Currently out of service.
Six minutes later when Rohnerville Fire Department was called out, the dispatcher said it was “non injury”.
We will update this article after CAL FIRE releases information.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
Another new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk has been delivered to CAL FIRE’s base at Sacramento McClellan Airport. John Vogel spotted it May 21, two weeks after Paul Filmer photographed it being flight tested at the Centennial, Colorado Airport. It is helicopter 205, N485DF, and “VINA” can be seen near the engines.