CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Research

The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

Preliminary report released for fatal helicopter accident near Coalinga

The UH-1H crashed August 19, 2020

Flight path of UH-1H from the NTSB preliminary report
Flight path and pilot statements from the NTSB preliminary report.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on the August 19, 2020 helicopter crash in which pilot Mike Fournier, 52, was killed. He was the only person on board.

The Bell UH-1H helicopter, N711GH, crashed while on a water dropping mission on the Hills Fire, approximately 9 miles south of the City of Coalinga. It was operated by Guardian Helicopters out of Van Nuys, California on a CAL FIRE contract.

The early evidence from the NTSB indicates there was a problem with the hydraulics, based on radio communications from the pilot moments before the accident.

The Associated Press reported that Mr. Fournier’s wife and two daughters filed suit against the helicopter’s manufacturer and the company that serviced it. Both were accused of negligence and wrongful death in the suit that seeks unspecified damages.

Below is the complete text from the narrative section of the NTSB preliminary report (Accident #WPR20LA280). It will be months before the agency completes and releases the final report which may come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident.


“On August 19, 2020 about 0945 Pacific daylight time, an Arrow-Falcon Exporters, Inc. UH-1H, N711GH, was destroyed when it was involved in an accident near Coalinga, California. The pilot, the sole occupant was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a public use firefighting flight.

“The accident flight was the pilot’s first day working the Hills Fire, which had started four days prior. The pilot departed at 0846 followed by another pilot that was flying a Bell 212 helicopter for another operator.

“Investigators reviewed flight track data covering the area of the accident during the time surrounding the accident. Additionally, the Bell 212 pilot had an app recording his track that he provided to investigators. After departure, both helicopters flew south until reaching a small lake/reservoir (the dip site) to fill up the external load buckets attached to their respective helicopters (bambi buckets). Thereafter, they flew to a predetermined areas and began to unload their water on the fire. After releasing the water, they would return back to the dip site. After the accident pilot delivered about two buckets of water to a division he moved to another division delivering about five buckets of water.

“The Bell 212 pilot recalled that after he departed the dip site with a bucket of water, he heard the accident pilot communicate over the air-to-air radio that he felt “abnormal noises and vibrations” and that he was going to make a precautionary landing. The Bell 212 pilot dumped his water and then caught up to the accident helicopter with the intention of assisting the pilot find a good area to land; he remained a few hundred feet behind and above the accident helicopter. The accident helicopter was about a 1,000 ft above ground level (agl) and maneuvering at an airspeed between 60 to 70 kts. The accident pilot then stated that the helicopter’s “temps and pressures are good.” A few seconds later the accident pilot stated “it’s my hydraulics.” (See Picture 1 below). The Bell 212 pilot relayed that that he should make a right turn and fly down the ravine to less mountainous terrain (the flats).

“The helicopter started to make a right turn and then banked back to the left while losing airspeed. The Bell 212 pilot noticed the helicopter still had its 100 ft longline and bambi bucket attached and told the accident pilot to “release your long line and get forward airspeed,” The accident pilot then stated “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” The left turn steepened remaining in a level pitch attitude, and the helicopter began to make three or four 360° rotations (rapidly swapping the front and back), while drifting north-east. The helicopter then pitched in a nose-low, near vertical attitude and collided into terrain. (See Picture 2 below). A fire immediately erupted and the Bell 212 pilot made multiple trips to the dip site to fill his bucket and drop water on the accident site.

“The helicopter came to rest on a 35° slope with the main wreckage about 25 yards downslope from the initial impact. A majority of the wreckage was consumed by fire; the tail rotor assembly was intact. The tail rotor blades were intact, with no evidence of rotational scoring. The wreckage was recovered to a secure location for further investigation.”

(end of NTSB report)


N711GH Guardian Helicopters
File photo of N711GH. Guardian Helicopters photo.

During a 49-day period that began July 7, 2020 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In addition, three members of the crew of a C-130 from the U.S. died when their air tanker crashed January 23, 2020 while fighting a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Orange County developing heli-hydrants for refilling helicopters in Southern California

Heli-hydrant at Yorba Linda
Heli-hydrant. ABC7 image.

Two innovative facilities have been installed in Orange County that provide permanent water sources for firefighting helicopters. Called “heli-hydrants”, the one most recently built in Yorba Linda, California is an automatically refilling tank that holds 2,700 gallons. During the Blue Ridge Fire in October it was used by helicopters battling the blaze.

Located at a municipal reservoir, as the water level drops a sensor triggers a valve to refill the tank which takes about 30 seconds. There is another similar heli-hydrant in Southern Orange County in the city of Laguna Beach. A third, larger one, is scheduled to be built next year about 10 miles east of the one in Yorba Linda.

Heli-hydrant at Yorba Linda
Heli-hydrant at Yorba Linda

Portable, or transportable, water tanks have been used for decades for refilling helicopters — collapsable with flexible sides, or hard-sided tanks that are transported on flatbed trucks. They can be filled with retardant or plain water.

Helicopter 743, an Erickson Air-Crane
Helicopter 743, an Erickson Air-Crane, drafting retardant on the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 is sporting new livery

Tanker 119
Tanker 119 at McClellan, shortly after getting new paint. Photo by Mike McKeig November 20, 2020.

Mike McKeig sent us an excellent photo of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 taken after the aircraft received a new paint job.

This is at least the third of seven HC-130H aircraft the agency is getting from the Coast Guard that have been painted in CAL FIRE livery. The plan is for all seven to receive internal gravity-powered retardant tanks so they can be used as air tankers. In May we had photos of Tankers 116 and 118.

The rudder on T-118 was also one of the last components to be painted, like T-119 at the top of the article.

A new contract awarded to DynCorp specifies that in addition to maintaining and supplying pilots for CAL FIRE’s fleet of S-2T air tankers, they will do the same for the HC-130H tankers.

Here is a “before” photo of T-119:

T-119 McClellan 5-5-2020
T-119, an HC-130H, was seen at McClellan May 5, 2020. Photo by John Vogel.

Below are Tankers 118 and 116:

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.
CAL Fire air tanker 116 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 116 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.

Video of 3,000-gallon drop from CH-47 Chinook

CH-47 Chinook 3,000-gallon water drop
CH-47 Chinook 3,000-gallon water drop November 17, 2020. Image from OCFA video.

A CH-47 Chinook Very Large Helitanker (VLHT) with night-flying capability operated by Coulson Aviation is working under an 83-day contract in collaboration with Southern California Edison (SCE) and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).

Registered as N42CU, the Chinook is crewed 24/7 and available for responses day and night within the 15 counties served by SCE. The daily availability costs of $2.1 million for the contract period are being paid by SCE, while the hourly costs will be covered by the agencies responsible for the fire protection where the fires occur.

The Chinook is based at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County. It can fill it’s 3,000-gallon internal tank while on the ground, or while hovering over a water or retardant source using its retractable snorkel hose.

To the best of our knowledge, here are the maximum capacities of firefighting helicopters, in gallons:

CH-47 Chinook   3,000
S-64 Air-Crane   2,650
S-70i Firehawk    1,000
CH-107   1,000
S-61    1,000
UH 60    900 or 1,000?
K-Max    700 or less
214-B    660
212    359
412EP    375

DynCorp receives contract to continue work on CAL FIRE aircraft

DynCorp maintenance facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport
DynCorp maintenance facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

OV-10
A lineup of CAL FIRE OV-10 air attack ships at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Former Carson Helicopters Vice President requests release from prison, fearing COVID-19

Steven Metheny’s falsification of records for a helicopter led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008

Carson Helicopters

This article was first published at Wildfire Today.

Steven Metheny, 50, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters has requested compassionate release from prison because he fears he will contract COVID-19 while serving time in the federal prison in Lompoc, California.

He filed the request in October and on November 2 Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter wrote in a response, “The mere existence of COVID, without more, is not sufficient to justify compassionate release.” Potter argued that Metheny’s weight is the only eligible health condition that increases his risk of COVID-19. “But, obesity alone should not result in defendant’s release,” Potter wrote.

Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records for a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter under contract to the U.S. Forest Service led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members in 2008.

Mr. 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 on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. He was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 for attempting to defraud the government out of more than $32 million and has been serving time in Lompoc, California.

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.

During the trial in 2014 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.

Judge Aiken who presided over the trial 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 Mr. Metheny.

In June, 2020 the same judge refused to reduce Mr. Metheny’s sentence when he argued he had ineffective counsel. He said he would not have pleaded guilty in 2014 if his attorney had told him that crash victims were going to be allowed to testify at his sentencing, or that he’d be ordered to repay tens of millions of dollars in restitution upon release from prison. Judge Aiken called Mr. Metheny’s claims that his defense lawyer made false promises “palpably incredible.”

The next hearing on Mr. Metheny’s motion for compassionate release is a phone conference scheduled for November 13 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Pat and Kelly.

A look at the Ventura County helicopters

Ventura County helicopter
The first time that Ventura County Copter 2 was used on a wildfire, June 10, 2020. Photo by John Carman.

Ventura County, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has an air unit which is a cooperative enterprise of the Fire District and the Sheriff’s Office. The unit has four Bell UH-1 helicopters and one Bell Long Ranger. In addition, they purchased three military HH-60L Blackhawk helicopters in order to convert them into FIREHAWKS to be used for fighting wildland fires, personnel transport, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medical evacuation.

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County Copter 5. Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VCSO photo, Capt. Romano Bassi January, 2019
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 8. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 8. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copters 6, 8, 9, and 2. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit
Ventura County helicopter
Ventura County Copter 3. Photo by Ventura County Air Unit