CAL FIRE paints one of their HC-130H air tankers

The aircraft still needs a retardant delivery system

CAL FIRE T-118 HC-130H
CAL FIRE’s Tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport July 12, 2019.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has taken one visible step toward incorporating the seven HC-130H aircraft into their air tanker fleet. One of them, Tanker 118, showed up at Sacramento McClellan Airport today sporting new livery. And it’s clearly identifiable as a CAL FIRE aircraft, with CAL  FIRE in bold letters behind the cockpit, and below the wing is the state flag. The paint design is similar to that on their S-2T air tankers.

S2 air tankers CAL FIRE facilities McClellan
File photo of S2 air tankers at CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan, March 24, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2013 the U.S. Forest Service was given seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft and Congress appropriated up to $130 million for maintenance and to convert them into air tankers. But after millions were spent the FS lost interest and in August of 2018 they were transferred to the State of California to be used eventually as air tankers.

tanker 118
Tanker 118 at McClellan Air Field, May 3, 2017 when it was operated off and on by the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by John Vogel.

The aircraft was operated off an on for a couple of years by the FS using a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) retardant system. It was borrowed from the program of using military C-130s during busy portions of fire seasons when a surge capacity was needed. All seven HC-130H aircraft were supposed to receive retardant tanks, but the U.S. Air Force, responsible to see that it was done, dithered on that program for years and it never happened.

T-118 will be getting the rudder painted soon, and one day may receive a conventional internal gravity-powered retardant delivery system.

Chief of CAL FIRE Thom Porter said he expects it to be ready to fight fire in 2021.

If you ever need to kill some time, you can read through the 40 or so articles on Fire Aviation about the troubled U.S. Forest Service HC-130H program. The are all tagged HC-130H.

Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

Interview with Shem Hawkins, BC at Chico Air Attack Base

One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport

BC Shem Hawkins
Battalion Chief Shem Hawkins. Screengrab from video below.

Action News Now interviewed Shem Hawkins, the CAL FIRE Battalion Chief at the Chico Air Attack Base. One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport.

CAL FIRE is in the process of replacing their aging fleet of 12 Super Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks from United Rotorcraft.

The interviewer misquoted Chief Hawkins in one respect. CAL FIRE is getting seven HC-130H aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, but they are 31 to 35 years old — not “brand new”. The U.S. Coast Guard gave them to the U.S. Forest Service, but the FS quickly changed their mind before the conversions to air tankers were complete, and regifted them to CAL FIRE. Much work still needs to be done to perform heavy maintenance on the ships and install retardant delivery systems.

Chief Hawkins’ fire career began as a volunteer  firefighter at Magalia, CA in 1992. After being hired at CAL FIRE, he served as a Firefighter, Paramedic, Engineer, Fire Captain, and Field Battalion Chief. His father is John Hawkins who retired in December as the CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Chief.

Crews train at Sonoma Air Attack Base

Kent Porter shot some photos as crews were training with air tankers at Sonoma Air Attack Base in California.

Video found of another engine failure on an MD87 air tanker

Chico, California, November 8, 2018

engine failure md87 air tanker chico california
Screengrab from the video of smoke coming from Tanker 107 as it was beginning to take off at Chico, California, November 8, 2018. Video by Robert Barnes.

Last week we received a video of an engine failing on an MD87 air tanker as it was taking off July 30, 2018 at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire. The fact that the engine failed that day was well known, especially since hot debris falling from the aircraft started seven fires within a five-mile radius of the airport. One of the firefighters was injured while suppressing the fires.

This week another video has surfaced about an engine failure on an MD87 that received little or no publicity. Tanker 107 was just beginning its takeoff as Robert Barnes shot the video near his hangar at Chico Metropolitan Airport on the first day of the Camp Fire which burned into Paradise, California, November 8, 2018. The smoke in the background is from the Camp Fire.

Mr. Barnes said that after the incident a City of Chico truck hauled away large chunks of metal that looked to him like they came from a jet engine. He heard the Tower caution other air tankers to land long on Runway 31 due to F.O.D on the approach end.

This is the third engine failure on MD87 air tankers that we are aware of. On September 13, 2015 debris from an engine landed in a residential area of Fresno, California. One piece of metal crashed through the rear window of a car, while other shrapnel was found in city streets.

On July 30, 2018 an engine on an MD87 air tanker failed while taking off at Coeur D’Alene Airport in Idaho en route to drop retardant on a wildfire.

After the MD87 was first introduced as an air tanker, Erickson Aero Air made at least two modifications to the retardant delivery system in efforts to prevent retardant from entering the engines.

Former VP of Carson helicopters disputes restitution ordered for tragedy on Iron 44 Fire

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 helicopter crash

(This article was first published at Wildfire Today)

The former Vice President of Carson Helicopters is disputing a court order to pay $51 million in restitution related to his role in falsifying documents prior to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 but now he claims he was not aware of the requirement to pay restitution.

Carson helicopter
Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune:

[Metheny] says he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty had he known he’d have to pay a restitution of more than $51 million, according to documents filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Metheny claims that his defense lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t have to pay any damages because by June 2013, Carson’s contract “was canceled and never re-bid” and “the resultant cost and subsequent loss would equal zero dollars,” according to an affidavit Metheny typed from Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc and filed in court May 7.

Metheny claims he was “repeatedly promised” ahead of his sentencing that the loss amount would be “zero dollars.”

Metheny was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

More information about the fraud and the sentencing hearing of Metheny and Phillips.

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

Tanker 134 begins CAL FIRE contract with new livery

During the Australian summer it was south of the equator fighting fires.

Tanker 134
Tanker 134 has started a new contract with CAL FIRE. Coulson photo.

When Air Tanker 134, a C-130Q, flew across the Pacific in October, 2018 to begin a firefighting contract in Australia, it had just completed its conversion into an air tanker. There was no time to pretty it up with a fancy paint job, it had work to do.

It has only been back in North America for a couple of months but its been busy with maintenance and getting new livery. It looks like it was painted white and then partially covered with a fancy wrap.

And it has already started its second contract, this time with CAL FIRE. In the last couple of days it as been spotted at Redding and Porterville.

The military has used C-130Q aircraft as a strategic communications link  for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces.

A C-130Q is similar to a C-130H, but the “Q” model was outfitted with a six-mile long trailing wire antenna for communicating with submarines and bombers.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q which became Tanker 134. Coulson photo, April 2017.
air tanker 134 C-130Q
C-130Q that became T-134, on the way to a makeover May 2017. Coulson photo,
t-134 c-130Q
Air tanker 134. Coulson’s most recently converted C-130Q. This was the first live fire it dropped on, in Australia, around November 1 , 2018.
c-130q tanker 134
Tanker 134 and one of the company’s Chinooks. Coulson photo April 11, 2019.

Another Coulson aircraft, a 737, has departed Australia now that its contract has ended.

CAL FIRE’s Military Helicopter Managers training

It included underwater helicopter egress procedures

CAL FIRE's Military Helicopter Managers training

This weekend the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the California National Guard are conducting Military Helicopter Manager training in the Sutter Creek area southeast of Sacramento. This annual training is a cooperative effort between the agencies. It included underwater helicopter egress procedures. Photos by CAL FIRE.

CAL FIRE's Military Helicopter Managers training
CAL FIRE's Military Helicopter Managers training

CAL FIRE's Military Helicopter Managers training

CAL FIRE's Military Helicopter Managers training