The report concluded that a low drop by the 747 Supertanker uprooted and broke off trees and limbs
(Originally published at 4:15 MDT September 14, 2018, and updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018)
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has released what they call a “Green Sheet” report about the fatality and injuries that were caused by falling tree debris resulting from an air tanker’s retardant drop. The accident occurred on the Ranch Fire which was part of the Mendocino Complex of Fires east of Ukiah, California. The report was uploaded to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center on September 13, 2018 exactly one month after the August 13 accident.
A firefighter from Utah, Draper City Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, was killed when a low drop uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him. Three other firefighters had different assortments of injuries from sheered-off trees and limbs, including broken ribs, deep muscle contusions, ligament damage to extremities, scratches, and abrasions.
Standard procedure is for firefighters to leave an area before an air tanker drops. The report said the personnel on that Division were told twice that day to not be under drops — once in a morning Division break-out briefing, and again on the radio before the fatal drop and three others from large air tankers were made in the area. It was not confirmed that all supervisors heard the order on the radio to evacuate the drop area.
One of the “Incidental Issues / Lessons Learned” in the report mentioned that some firefighters like to record video of air tanker drops:
Fireline personnel have used their cell phones to video the aerial retardant drops. The focus on recording the retardant drops on video may distract firefighters. This activity may impair their ability to recognize the hazards and take appropriate evasive action possibly reducing or eliminating injuries.
The air tanker that made the drop was T-944, a 747-400 that can carry up to 19,200 gallons. Instead of a more conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery system, the aircraft has pressurized equipment that forces the retardant out of the tanks using compressed air. This is similar to the MAFFS air tankers. When a drop is made from the recommended height the retardant hits the ground as a mist, falling vertically, rather than the larger droplets you see with a gravity tank.
In this case, according to the report, the drop was made from approximately 100 feet above the tree tops. The report stated:
The Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) identified the drop path to the VLAT by use of a smoke trail. The VLAT initiated the retardant drop as identified by the smoke trail. Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path. This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.
When a drop is made from a very low altitude with any air tanker, the retardant is still moving forward almost as fast as the aircraft, as seen in this drop. If it is still moving forward there will be “shadows” that are free of retardant on the back side of vegetation, reducing the effectiveness of the drop. From a proper height retardant will gradually slow from air resistance, move in an arc and ideally will be falling gently straight down before it hits the ground. Another example of a low drop was on the Liberty Fire in Southern California in 2017 that dislodged dozens of ceramic roofing tiles on a residence and blew out several windows allowing a great deal of retardant to enter the home.
We reached out with some questions to Global Supertanker, the company that operates the 747 Supertanker, and they gave us this statement:
We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Chief Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured during their recent work on the Mendocino Complex Fire. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.
On August 13, 2018, Global SuperTanker Services, LLC acted within procedural and operational parameters. The subject drop was initiated at the location requested by the Aerial Supervision Module (ASM) after Global SuperTanker Services, LLC was advised that the line was clear.
The former President and CEO of the company, Jim Wheeler, no longer works there as of September 1, 2018. The company is owned by Alterna Capital Partners LLC, of Wilton, Conn.
(Updated at 7:43 MDT September 14, 2018 to include the statement from Global Supertanker that we received at 7:35 p.m. MDT September 14, 2018)
Previously it was on contract for four months each year
Since 2009 San Diego Gas and Electric has made an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter available to assist wildland firefighters in San Diego County for four months each year, July through October. The company just announced that they are modifying the contract they have with Erickson and will now have it stationed year-round at Gillespie Field near El Cajon, California. The 2,650-gallon helicopter is flown by Erickson pilots under the direction of Cal Fire.
This change, according to SGE&E officials, is in response to “what is now the year-round threat of wildfires”.
It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, has been picking up the $1.75 million annual tab for four months of availability each season as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. San Diego County pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.
Coulson Aviation intends for the 737 to be able to haul 4,000 gallons of retardant, or passengers
Above: Air tanker 137, a 737-300, at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018. Coulson photo.
Coulson Aviation posted these photos September 3, 2018 of one of their recently converted 737-300’s, Tanker 137, as it was undergoing grid testing in Lancaster, California.
The process involves dropping retardant over a grid of thousands of cups intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground. The Interagency AirTanker Board requires passing this and other certifications before an aircraft can be “carded” as a federal air tanker, which makes it eligible for a contract to fight fires.
Some air tankers are required to make 20 to 25 drops over several days at the test. Firefighting hand crews are usually hired or borrowed to retrieve the cups after each drop. It is a very expensive process. The last time we checked the price of retardant was $2.50 to $3.00 a gallon, depending on which air tanker base it is delivered to.
The interior of Coulson’s 737 looks futuristic.
They intend for it to be able to haul 4,000 gallons of retardant, or passengers. Last year Britt Coulson said, “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”
The company purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines.
James Barnes wrote the article below for the Associated Aerial Firefighters’ Facebook page September 2, 2018. We asked and received permission to use it here. Mr. Barnes retired after flying S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE and DynCorp.
A reporter from the Sacramento Bee called me the other day and told me that she was advised, by unnamed persons, that I may be able to shed some light on the problems that are resulting from the pilot shortage CAL FIRE is now experiencing. As a retired, former airtanker pilot, I am not encumbered by any affiliation to any organization, employer or agency. That being said, I still follow my own protocol or personal code with regard to statements that I make that could be harmful to persons or organizations or programs that in my opinion are doing a great service for our Citizens and Taxpayers.
In my experience in dealing with the press I have found that there is always “the law of unintended consequences” looming in the background. It must always be considered before and during any interview where your opinion could potentially be used as a weapon in a salacious report. In speaking with this lady during the preliminary discussion before the interview it was my determination that her intent was to get the story right and get it out to the public. That left me with two choices; to refuse the interview and hope that someone else would get the facts straight or tell the facts as I understand them and accept the consequences. I chose the latter.
In the beginning of our discussion she demonstrated that she had already gained a substantial understanding of CAL FIRE’s Aviation Program and the current situation. She cited the worldwide pilot shortage and I agreed that, yes, it had finally come. She inquired about why CAL FIRE quite suddenly was unable to staff all of their airtankers and air attack ships. She even mentioned some names of management personal that she had heard might have contributed to the current situation. My reply was simply this; “I cannot confirm allegations concerning individuals and the fact is, it isn’t that simple”.
“For years The California Fire Pilots Association, the IAM, our Union, and the Associated Aerial Firefighters have advocated for the development of new and better aircraft and an air program that stabilizes both the pilot and maintenance workforce. Many times, dedicated agency officers worked with us to accomplish these goals. They realized that improvements in “quality of life” issues and job security are essential to retaining skilled employees. Sometimes, individuals in management did work against our efforts but for the most part we prevailed and together developed an air program that is light years ahead of anything that came before. The pilots and maintenance technicians in CAL FIRE’s air program are today now better than ever.
She was aware of the high dropout/attrition rate of airtanker pilots in training and she wanted to know what was causing it. I gave her a very lengthy response.
“First aerial firefighting is far more complex today than it was when I started thirty years ago. A fatal accident every other year in the S-2 airtankers convinced us we were doing something wrong. We needed better training. New training programs were developed and instituted and our casualty rate was greatly reduced. Greater demands and expectations were placed on our trainees. This resulted in an intensive training regimen that spans one to two fire seasons no matter what walk of aviation the trainee came from. During these grueling sessions some trainees decide that tanker flying isn’t for them. In other cases, trainees have trouble adapting to the environment. Multi-tasking in conditions of low visibility, at very low altitudes, at minimum safe airspeed can produce very high stress levels for even the most seasoned airtanker pilot. Still others find that the life style of an airtanker pilot is not compatible with their life style or the needs of their families.
All these situations point to the need for a better screening program of applicants before they are accepted in the training program. It would help to have them ride along or act as a co-pilot to introduce them to the environment and see if they are adaptable before being designated as a trainee. Impressing upon them that the demands placed upon them will be very great requiring a dedication to the mission that may be beyond what they are willing to deliver.
Secondly, the current situation is a result of circumstances. Three tanker pilots retired, one of our best tanker pilots died suddenly of natural causes, two pilots are temporarily out of service for illness and one of our young, skilled tanker pilots quit to fly a large airtanker for another industry company.
Until recently there were enough reserve and relief pilots that could fill the seats as needed. With such a high turnover in such a short time all the relief pilots were absorbed forcing them to fly the line. Now on any given day at least three S-2 airtankers are parked because there are no pilots to fly them”.
She asked me “if having three airtankers parked would make a significant difference in fighting a fire?”
“From the instant of ignition, the window of opportunity for stopping the fire is beginning to close. CAL FIRE’s primary strategy is Rapid Response Initial Attack. During the extreme burn conditions, we are now experiencing air support for our ground firefighters is crucial. in some cases, an air response will be the only response in the first critical twenty minutes. The loss of three airtankers puts big holes in our tactical spread that delivers that air response in the first 20 minutes. Any delays in our ground and air forces will cause some fires to escape the initial attack resulting in more large fires”.
She asked about the fatigue levels of pilots because off the intensity of this fire season and the lack of any relief pilots to give them a break.
“The stress and fatigue levels our pilots are experiencing are currently off the scale. The only comparison would likely be tactical military pilots in time of war.”
She expressed concern for the safety of our pilots. “Is the fatigue the pilots are experiencing affecting their ability to fly?”
“I can only speak from my past experience. When I was assigned to fires that caused me to time out day after day and fatigue set in I began to make more and more little mistakes.”
“Like what kind of mistakes?”
“Things like omitting an item on a check list or having trouble changing a radio frequency but it is the little things that add up and ultimately result in a mishap or an accident.”
I expressed my opinion that it is imperative that everything possible be done to give those pilots a break. Current demands are keeping our southern bases open year-round. Under these conditions the six days on, one day off schedule is untenable.”
“Is anything being done to resolve this problem?”
“Both CAL FIRE and the CFPA have been working together to find a solution. Firefighting pilots make their entire annual income during the period of the contract. Flying a southern contract involves demands beyond what the standard four-month contract requires. They shouldn’t receive a penalty in pay to achieve the necessary adjustment in duty schedule but something must be done soon”.
She asked me if there were other factors affecting pilot recruitment and retention.
“It’s the little things that count. One example of a small thing that caused a large reaction from the pilots was a newly implemented state policy to have pilots who were working away from home base to find a motel room that cost no more than $90.00 per night and that if one couldn’t be found to price three motels and choose the cheapest one. After flying for seven hours on fires and finishing a ten-hour duty day it doesn’t seem reasonable that a pilot should have to shop around for the cheapest possible motel room. I guess the Comptroller didn’t know the difference between a computer operator and a tanker pilot. It wasn’t the money so much as it seemed to be a lack of respect. No one would ask every individual firefighter to go out on their own and find the cheapest room available in town after fighting a fire all day. Fortunately, that policy was discontinued this year”.
“Our highly skilled, young airtanker pilots are a coveted item for many other industry companies. Offers to fly a large, four engine jet airtanker for more money are very tempting. Too many little things or quality of life issues can sway a young Tanker Pilots judgement from staying in CAL FIRE’s air program or moving on to what looks like greener pastures”.
We talked about the terrible problem with vegetation management in California. She said that the Bee is doing a story on that issue too. She commented briefly on that story.
“The U.S. Forest Service told us that they only have a budget to address vegetation management on one percent of their responsibility area.”
Then I got on my soap box again; “Vegetation management is the single most important thing we can do to alleviate the threat of wildfire. They could mitigate the threat in some areas by allowing selected logging to both generate revenue and reduce the fuel load in areas that are trigger points. The USFS is also only one of thousands of firefighting agencies in the United States. To have any meaningful results action must be taken by all stakeholders beginning with property owners and on up through local fire departments, County, State and Federal agencies.”
I got a little off the track but I thought she had done a comprehensive study on the issues and I can only hope that her story has a positive effect.
A company representative described it as a forced landing
The pilot walked away from what is now being described as a forced landing of the helicopter that went down August 25 while on a water-dropping mission on the Donnell Fire on the Stanislaus National Forest in California. After walking some distance from the accident site and being treated on-scene by paramedics the pilot was admitted to a hospital for observation overnight. He is expected to make a full recovery.
Ian Gregor, communications manager with the Federal Aviation Administration, said on Monday that the helicopter “crashed and rolled” at the accident site.
According to an August 27 article in the Union Democrat, Kevin Shields, a representative of Roberts Aircraft, said their Bell 212 had a forced landing due to “some unknown event that was occurring with the aircraft.”
(Originally published at WildfireToday.com at 1:09 p.m. PDT August 27, 2018)
The Holy Fire has been relatively quiet for the last 12 days, with the reported size of 22,986 acres remaining the same since August 15.
But that changed today when a spot fire ignited across the fireline and once again threatened the numerous electronic sites at Santiago Peak. Those facilities supply many of the television, radio, and communications links for the greater Los Angeles area, along with other sites in the area.
The fire originally started August 6 near Holy Jim Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains southeast of Los Angeles.
The #HolyFire flareup has slopped outside of containment lines and has grown to 40 acres. 5 air tankers and 4 helicopters have been assigned. Ground resources will be utilized when it is safe to do so.
A helicopter crashed at a helispot while working on the Donnell Fire in Northern California yesterday, August 25. Chris Fogle, the Incident Commander of the Incident Management Team running the fire said the pilot walked away with minor injuries which were treated on-site by paramedics.
The helicopter was described as a medium ship that was on a water dropping mission. The pilot’s name has not been released but the family has been notified. The only location given was that it occurred “on the southwest fire perimeter within the containment zone”.
Since the Donnell Fire started on August 1 it has burned 35,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Stanislaus National Forest 34 air miles south of Lake Tahoe. Most of the fire that is still active is 7,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level.
The fire is a “less than full suppression fire” and Sunday morning had seven helicopters assigned. It has destroyed 135 structures.