The two-day Aerial Firefighting North America conference just wrapped up at Sacramento McClellan Airport in Sacramento. It began Tuesday with a series of keynote and welcoming addresses delivered by Chief Thom Porter, Director of CAL FIRE, Brian S. Marshal, State Fire and Rescue Chief and Director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, followed by Jeffrey Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Conair confirmed at the conference that they expect to open the world’s first Aerial Firefighting Training and Tactics Centre early this spring. It will have five fully Networked Flight Training Devices that are reconfigurable to simulate the cockpit and flight dynamics for eight aircraft platforms performing different roles during an aerial firefighting mission.
Viking Air Limited introduced the Canadair CL-515 First Responder, a new production multi-mission scooping amphibian and purpose-built aerial firefighting aircraft.
Coulson Aviation announced they have installed a large capacity internal helicopter tank in a CH47 Chinook. It will be able to carry up to 3,000 gallons.
Columbia Helicopters introduced a Type 1 multi-mission Standard Transport Category helicopter – the Columbia Model 234 LR Chinook. It can be configured to carry up to 19 passengers, a 2,800 gallon internal tank, a 2,600 gallon bucket, or internal and external cargo.
Trotter Controls recorded a video tour of some of the exhibits at the conference.
I interviewed one of the pilots that fly multi-mission helicopters for the Los Angeles Fire Department with the goal of obtaining enough information to write an article about the Department’s aviation program.
I recorded the interview, with Pilot Brandon Prince’s permission, so that I would not have to attempt to take detailed notes and in doing so miss some of what he was saying. But in playing the recording back it was obvious that Mr. Prince was very well-spoken and eloquent. He was describing the program better than an article I would have written.
So I put the interview in a video, and dressed up the audio with still photos taken at the Department’s base at Van Nuys Airport and 28 seconds of video showing two of their Augusta Westland 139 helicopters warming up before they departed on a mission to assist a hiker in distress.
In the interview Mr. Prince discusses the makeup of the seven-helicopter fleet, making decisions about where to drop water on a wildfire, hot refueling, how much fuel and water they begin a firefighting mission with, and the amount of training necessary to be qualified to serve on a helitack crew.
When Air Tanker 135 took off from Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m. July 29, 1977 the Mine Fire 16 miles to the south was threatening homes and burning thousands of acres of 60-year old brush in Tin Mine and Hagador Canyons on the southwest edge of Corona.
In a New York Times article about the fire, Corona was described as “a rural town”, and:
A force of 900 firefighters made a successful stand in front of the Village Grove development as flames from the 2,000‐acre blaze came within a football field of homes with price tags of up to $150,000.
Rose Bello was standing outside her house half a mile from the end of the runway at the northwest corner of Belmont Street and Mildred Avenue watching her three-year-old daughter Julie riding a bicycle with a friend. She saw the tanker flying very low, just clearing some power lines. When it passed over her home fire retardant was pouring from the plane.
“The noise was so loud it hurt my ears,” she told a reporter from the Daily Report. “I heard my little girl scream because [the retardant] was in her eyes and all over her clothes — she was just soaked.”
At the time the FAA required restricted air tankers like the C-119 to turn left off the Ontario runway to avoid the heavily populated center of the city. The aircraft had three engines. Two of them were props, Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones, a twin-row, supercharged, air-cooled, radial aircraft engine with 18 cylinders. After the C-119 retired from the military a third engine was added, a turbojet in a nacelle above the fuselage to supply additional power if needed on takeoff or while making a retardant drop.
The pilot, of course, didn’t plan to drop retardant from a very low level on four homes, six cars, children on bicycles, drying laundry, a corn field, and an assortment of trees and sheds. But shortly after take off one of the radial engines developed a runaway propeller, causing the engine to exceed the RPM limits. If not corrected immediately this can cause the propellers to fly off, possibly causing severe damage to the aircraft. When this occurs the pilot will usually reduce the power to the engine and shut off the fuel, a procedure that should prevent additional damage to the engine and the aircraft. But shutting down an engine, especially at low level while climbing and turning, may cause a stall. The pilot jettisoned the 2,000 gallons of retardant, about 9,000 pounds, to reduce the chances of a crash. The aircraft then gained enough altitude to turn and land safely back at the airport.
J.D. Davis, who took these two aircraft photos, was monitoring a scanner and heard the pilot ask to jettison the load on the runway, but the tower refused permission. The pilot headed toward a corn field near Ms. Bello’s home. That is where most of the retardant landed, plowing up several rows of corn, but part of the load was a little short.
Jim Stumpf was the Deputy Fire Management Officer and Aviation Officer for the nearby Angeles National Forest, the agency that ran the air tanker base at the airport. I asked him what he remembers about the incident:
When I arrived after about 40 minutes (traffic) everyone was really unhappy. CDF [California Department of Forestry] was on scene working clean up and I requested (Lower San Engine I think) to come to the incident to assist in the cleanup. A CDF Batt. Chief and I were directing the clean up and talking with a great deal of the affected residents assuring them that there were no long term effects from the retardant. It would wash off of adults, children, houses, etc. The clothes on the line could be rewashed without any problem.
If I remember, we spent several hours at the scene — CDF and I bought cokes and pizza for our respective crews. The local residents started consuming copious amounts of beer, wine and whiskey so it ended as a block party for all concerned. CDF and USFS turned down the offer to participate in the party. It started out bad and ended up a party. After our street and house cleaning all equipment was returned to their respective stations.
The following day I took Charity Burton to the scene (she was handling claims for the ANF). We talked to as many residents as possible and told them about the claims process. The best I can remember we didn’t get any claims. I drove through the neighborhood a few times on periodic visits to the tanker base, and even talked to some folks who thanked us for being responsive. All was well but they didn’t like tankers flying over their house.
Before the incident 70 individuals and two churches had filed two lawsuits totaling $11.70 million for damage due to noise from jets taking off from the airport, according to an article written in 1977 by Richard Brooks of the San Bernardino Sun.
Back then there were more air tankers than we have today, and they were not forced to move around the country as often following the latest hot, dry, and windy weather. The tanker crews that had been permanently stationed at Ontario perfected the tricky left turn while climbing off the runway, but tanker pilots from other areas were not always as diligent avoiding heavily populated areas. For the rest of the 1977 fire season only the permanent tanker was allowed to use Ontario. After that the base was permanently closed.
Ontario was the southernmost base that could support and refill large air tankers, so closing it reduced their ability to quickly and aggressively respond to fires in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego Counties.
In 1987 a C-119 (N48076) with the same tanker number, 135, crashed while working the Whalen Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Killed were Hawkins & Powers pilots Bill Berg and Charles Peterson, and mechanic Stephen Harrell. The crash was result of an inflight failure, with the right wing, the left wing tip, and the tail boom separating from the aircraft during a retardant run.
A big thank you goes out to J.D. Davis who supplied information about the incident and the C-119 photos.
When Desiree Horton was hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2013 she became, as far as we know, the only female firefighting helicopter pilot working for a government agency. Her first posting with CAL FIRE was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.
The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in Southern California became available she couldn’t turn it down.
“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.
CAL FIRE has started replacing their UH-1H Super Hueys with Sikorsky Firehawks. One or two of them have been physically delivered from Sikorsky and the after-market conversion company United Rotorcraft, but none have been officially accepted from the contractors yet.
The OCFA has four helicopters, two military surplus UH-1Hs and two Bell 412EPs based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California. They both can carry up to about 360 gallons of water but are limited to around 200 gallons if the fuel tank is close to full.
In July of last year the OCFA received a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison for Coulson Aviation to supply two helicopters that were based at Fullerton Airport. One of the ships was an S-61 with a collapsable external tank capable of night flying and hover-refilling at night. The second helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76 that worked with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The two helicopters were staffed 24/7 and available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to perform rescues and fight fire. They spent $25 million to purchase two Bell 412 helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.
But fast-forward to 2015 and the agency had four helicopters equipped for night flying and began a six-month pilot program in which helicopters rotated 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.
Pilot Joey Heaslet said most of their flight training now is conducted at night, explaining that if you can perform a task well at night it’s even easier in daylight.
“All four of our aircraft need to be replaced,” said the Chief who has served as Air Operations Branch Director on Incident Management Teams.
As part of the process of evaluating what the agency’s next step is after retiring the Hueys, he talked with several vendors last week at the HAI HELI-EXPO a few miles from OCFA’s headquarters. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center and about 700 exhibitors.
That evaluation process also includes a Fleet Replacement Analysis by an aviation consultant, Conklin & de Decker Associates, an organization that completed a similar study for San Diego in 2017 when Chief Fennessy was the chief there. After that study and one for Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2000 both departments purchased Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks.
The Chief said the study for OCFA has been underway for about a year and a half and he believes it is nearing completion.
Below is a table from the Conklin & de Decker study for the San Diego FD, comparing five models of helicopters:
Real-time fire mapping
Another program Orange County was involved in last year was a 150-day pilot program that makes real time fire mapping available to firefighters on the ground. The Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling. Chief Fennessy began exploring this technology when he was in San Diego. It became real when implemented September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).
Using FIRIS, heat from the fire is detected by sensors on the plane where a technician interprets the imagery and manually draws a line around the perimeter. A map is then sent through WhatsApp to cell phones of firefighters on the ground. Within about three minutes a super computer in San Diego can add a projection of the anticipated spread of the fire.
This equipment could be a major step toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.
Conflicts between aviation units of OCFA and the Sheriff’s office
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has five helicopters, AS350s used for patrol and UH-1Hs with hoists for rescue.
According to the Orange County Register, in 2017 Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens decided to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas. Until then the Sheriff Department’s air fleet had taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority handled rescues. During parts of 2017 and 2018 helicopters from both agencies were appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion. At times the pilots of the Sheriff’s helicopters ignored orders from Incident Commanders to stand down. According to the Orange County Register conflicts occurred twice on April 29, 2017. In a recording of the radio traffic a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”
The interagency battle escalated to the point where the 2017-2018 Orange County grand jury launched an investigation. Their report listed a number of recommendations including having the Sheriff Department helicopters move from John Wayne Airport to co-locate with the Fire Authority at Fullerton Airport where there is unused hangar space owned by the county. The report stated, “Colocating allows public aviation units to leverage each other’s resources, gain economies of scale in maintenance and training, and encourages use of best practices.”
Carrie Braun, Director of Public Affairs and Community Engagement for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said they have discussed co-locating with the Fire Authority and those talks are ongoing.
The grand jury report includes a copy of a July, 2017 Memorandum of Agreement drafted to establish responsibilities, frequencies, and procedures for incidents where more than one helicopter is at the scene. There were several interagency meetings held to work out the details. OCFA was invited to participate, but attended only one meeting and was the only air support unit not to sign the MOU. The document has signatures for representatives of the Sheriff’s office, Highway Patrol, and two local cities, but the line for the Fire Authority’s signature is blank.
On January 27, 2020 I asked Chief Fennessy about the issue:
“That was a very ugly chapter I think in both ours and the Sheriff’s history. When I came here [in March, 2018] that was pretty embarrassing… When I was named to be the Chief the very first thing I did before I even showed up for my first day at work was I met with Sheriff Hutchens… She wanted this thing to be behind her too… Let’s tell everybody this is how we’re going to behave and this is how it’s going to work and be done with this. And literally within days if not weeks of my arrival here, not just because of me but because of the willingness on the Sheriff’s side, we made a few necessary changes within our organizations and it ended.”
“We send three helicopters generally in the summer on the report of a fire,” the Chief said, “two of ours and one of their’s. They’ve got aircraft that are capable of dropping water, why wouldn’t we? If we need to put a spotter up, a HLCO [Helicopter Coordinator], they make one of their helicopters available.”
The solution they came up with is to split the responsibility for rescues. The Sheriff’s ships respond on weekends, Friday through Sunday, and OCFA takes Monday through Thursday plus, using their night flying capability, OCFA handles all fires and rescues at night.
Ms. Braun of the Sheriff’s Department said talking points their agency prepared for an August, 2018 press conference in which Sheriff Hutchens and Chief Fennessy discussed the resolution of the helicopter response responsibilities indicate that that the Sheriff thanked the Chief for his leadership and collaboration, and felt that, “Back in January, I wasn’t sure we would be standing here today. We had tried to mediate the situation and had come to an impasse. From the moment Chief Fennessy entered the conversation, bridges were being built.”
As the Helicopter Association International HELI-EXPO in Anaheim, California closes today, I have assembled a couple of dozen images from the event. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California and about 700 exhibitors. Needless to say, it was massive. On opening day Tuesday I logged almost 14,000 steps on my iWatch.
To see photos of helicopters during the fly-in as they landed in a parking lot outside the Convention Center, click here.
Cool, moist air limited the visibility the morning of January 26 when I stopped by the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations Barton Heliport in Pacoima, California. When I arrived at 9 a.m. to report on the helicopter program there was one small hole in the low clouds, trying to let a little direct sunlight reach the ground. About 45 minutes later I was in the flight crews’ ready room with five or six people. One of them was eating scrambled eggs from a bowl when the alert tones immediately got everyone’s attention. “Copter 12, that’s us”, said the flight crew member I was talking with. “Well sir, it was nice meeting you. There are others here who can answer your questions”, he said as he walked over to the bank of radios.
Most of the Barton facility is devoted to parking and maintaining helicopters, but also located there are county shops for welding, woodworking, plumbing, and heavy equipment. I drove past a huge D-9 dozer on the way to the hangar.
The LACFD has 10 helicopters — five Bell 412s and five Sikorsky Firehawks. They are all multi-mission helicopters, equipped for fighting fire, hoisting victims, inserting personnel, and can transport individuals injured in accidents. The Bells are classified as Type 2 by the Incident Command System and can carry 360 gallons of water after most of the fuel has burned off. With a full load of fuel they usually can drop about 200 gallons of water on a vegetation fire.
The Firehawks, which are Blackhawks converted for firefighting, are Type 1 helicopters and can almost always haul about 1,000 gallons. The ships are flown by a single pilot. Steve Smith, a firefighter/paramedic, said the crew chiefs are fighter/paramedics and recently started attending a flight safety course that includes flight simulator training. One of the objectives of that training is that if the pilot becomes incapacitated they would be able to use the controls at the left seat to get the ship safely on the ground.
Back in the ready room, after the tones the dispatcher said, “West County, West County, potential plane crash”. Additional units were dispatched “since vegetation is involved”. A minute or two later the information was updated to a helicopter, not an airplane, crash.
A printer quickly spit out a small piece of paper that was given to the crew as they left the room.
The location of the incident was about 16 miles southwest of Barton Heliport in the Calabasas area east of the 2018 Woolsey Fire that burned 97,000 acres from Simi Valley south to the Pacific Ocean at Malibu.
Not knowing exactly what kind of terrain or vegetation they would find, the three-person crew, a pilot and two firefighter/paramedics, prepared for the possibility of having to lower personnel by a hoist down to the site from the hovering helicopter. Two of the men stood next to their ship and put on the harnesses. After each had conducted a safety check of the other to ensure the complex harnesses were correctly configured, they climbed on board as the pilot started the two engines and soon were airborne heading southwest.
The three remaining men listened closely to the radio in the ready room. They all pulled out their cell phones and attempted to keep up with their colleagues using flight following apps, but as Copter 12 got closer to the coast in more complex terrain the flight tracking became inconsistent. They monitored a local television station hoping to find out more about the crash.
Realizing that the remaining personnel were going to be busy for a while, I figured my best option was to get out of their hair. When I left they had not yet learned that the other crew was going to the scene of a helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, one of his daughters, the pilot, and six other passengers.
May they all rest in peace.
I found out a couple of days later that when the helicopter arrived at the scene of the accident one of the firefighter/paramedics was lowered by hoist to the ground while the other operated the hoist. The firefighter on the ground sized up the scene and gave a report by radio to the Incident Commander.
Fire engines arrived to put out the small fire. The terrain and distance from the nearest road made it a challenge to get fire hose to the site so the crewman on the ground was hoisted back up to the helicopter and then the ship landed near some of the engines and obtained hose to haul back to the fire. Then a bundle of hose and a firefighter/paramedic were lowered by hoist to the ground. Soon thereafter plenty of other emergency services personnel were on scene so Helicopter 12 was released to return to Barton Heliport.
It is an EC-130Q, one of only 12 that were manufactured. The model began as strategic communications links for the U.S. Navy 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. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Some of them still have the remains of a vent in front of the main landing gear for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.
Tanker 134 (N134CG, Serial #382-4904) was manufactured in 1981. Coulson began converting it into an air tanker in early 2017. At that time it looked like it was far from what it later became.
By August of 2018 it was essentially complete, but still had not been painted. During the 2018/2019 bushfire season it was in Australia on its first firefighting contract. Its first drop on a wildfire occurred around November 1, 2018 a few kilometers away from NASA’s Deep Space Network of satellite antennas near Canberra, Australia.
It continued to serve throughout the bushfire season and by April, 2019 it received new livery after migrating back to the U.S.
During the 2019 fire season in the United States T-134 was on a contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was seen across the state that summer, and for a while operated out of Ramona, an airport with a relatively short runway that presents a challenge for some large air tankers.
In August November or December, 2019 it began working in Australia again.