For a decade or two CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service aviation managers been talking off and on with officials at the Castle Airport (MER), 8 miles northwest of Merced, California, about using it as an air tanker base. As a former Air Force base with an 11,802-foot runway, and its location in central California near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it could be a valuable resource for any fire aviation asset, but especially for Very Large Air Tankers like the DC-10 or 747.
Finally, prompted in part by the nearby Rim Fire, 40 miles from the airport, the U.S. Forest Service recently signed an agreement with Merced County to allow the airport to be used as an air tanker base. Tuesday of this week both DC-10 air tankers began using it to reload with retardant, making the round trip to and from the Rim Fire every 30 to 40 minutes, dropping 11,600 gallons with every trip.
According to the Modesto Bee:
Under the agreement, Merced County will charge the Forest Service through a series of fees: $225 per month for the 5,200-square-foot building lease, $450 per day for the 551,600-square-foot ramp and 50 cents per 1,000 pounds a plane weighs upon landing, according to county staff.
With a DC-10 air tanker weighing about 368,000 pounds, it will cost around $184 for each landing. The fee for landing a 6,505-pound single-engine Air Tractor AT-802 with an 820-gallon retardant capacity would be about $3.
For now, at least, the Tanker Base will be on call when needed status, staffed only if there is a specific need.
The video below has information about this new use for the Castle Airport.
The California National Guard is operating a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle over the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. The MQ-1 Predator is streaming real-time video down to the Incident Command Post and reportedly alerted firefighters to a flare-up they otherwise would not have immediately seen.
This is not the first time that a large Predator-type drone has been used to collect real-time imagery of wildland fires. In 2008 and again in 2009 NASA made available their Ikhana Predator B UAV.
Here is an excerpt from the StarTribune with more information about the current use of the National Guard’s Predator:
…While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.
The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.
The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.
Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.
Robert Martinez was kind enough to send us some photos he took yesterday, August 27, at Columbia Airport (map) a few miles north of Sonora, California. Army UH-60 Blackhawks and Air Guard HH-60 Pave Hawks had arrived to be briefed and refueled before they were sent on to the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, about 10 miles southeast of the airport.
These videos were shot by crews on MAFFS 4 and MAFFS 6 while dropping on the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California August 18, 19, and 22. The first one has spectacular views of the fire from a vantage point seen by very few people. If you only watch one, watch the first one.
If you’re not familiar with the “Landing Gear” audio warning, it comes on automatically when the lady in the dashboard senses the terrain and thinks the crew is landing without lowering the gear. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a way to disable it while dropping retardant, but it will not be available until 2014 at the earliest.
This is a video of MAFFS 4 from the 146 Air Wing of the California Air National Guard making a drop on the American Fire, August 17, 2013 in northern California. The audible gear and altitude warnings are normal for MAFFS drops. The MAFFS folks are working with Lockheed on a fix so that they can disable them while dropping retardant.
(Originally published June 4, 2013; revised June 5 to add more details about the staffing of the helicopter and the status of the ownership of the air attack ship.)
The U.S. Forest Service has not had a helicopter with night flying capabilities since around 1980 — until recently. Now there is a night flying ship based on the Angeles National Forest in southern California, designated Helicopter 531.
Three to four night flying helicopters from Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City have been used for the last four nights on the Powerhouse Fire north of Los Angeles. They were coordinated by personnel in another new addition to the USFS’s fleet, a fixed wing air attack ship orbiting overhead in the darkness. It is a Turbo Commander 690, much like the one in the photo. The air attack ship is not USFS owned as reported by the agency, but it is leased on a call when needed contract. It is equipped with technology to support ground and air firefighting operations at night, including an infrared camera and command and control avionics equipment.
The long term goal of the USFS is to retrofit an old agency-owned piston engine Shrike 500 Commander to take the place of the contractor supplied aircraft.
Helicopter 531 is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia. The company’s web site says they operate 22 helicopters. During the day to fill its tank it will typically draft water from a water source while hovering. But at night, for safety purposes, it will only refill by landing and filling from a hose staffed by firefighters.
Yes, according to information we received from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Stanton Florea and someone else closely associated with the operation, the helicopter will be staffed 24 hours a day, using five personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There are four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.
The helicopter will be flown by one pilot during the day, but will add a co-pilot at night. It will respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more travel by ground vehicle.
The helicopter and the air attack ship will work out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. They can be used on initial attack during the day and night in the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest, and all of the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland National Forests.
In a news release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell was quoted as saying:
The re-introduction of Forest Service night helicopter firefighting operations in Southern California further establishes the agency’s commitment to protect lives and property in the region. Night flying operations will provide an aggressive agency initial attack while better ensuring public safety, minimizing overall fire costs and lessening impacts to communities.
Both the Turbo Commander and Helicopter 531 began their contract June 1. While the fixed wing has been in use since then, the helicopter and pilots have been going through training and obtaining certifications and the module is expected to be available at the end of the day on June 5.
After the Station fire several politicians became involved in the controversy and pressured the USFS to restore the capability to use helicopters at night to drop water. The agency later said they would study the concept, again, and three years after the disastrous fire they announced on August 16, 2012 that they would get back into night flying on a very limited basis with a single helicopter in 2013.
The day that Tanker 910, a DC-10, came on duty after being activated by CAL FIRE on a call-when-needed contract, it was used on at least one fire in California. These photos were taken May 4 on the Gorgonio Fire in Riverside County, California, by Rachel Luna, a photographer with The Sun.
The DC-10 carries 11,600 gallons, almost six times more retardant than a Korean War vintage P2V air tanker, which currently make up most of the large air tanker fleet contracted to the federal government. (Update: Trish said in a comment that the DC-10 dropped two loads on the fire, for a total of 23,200 gallons. That would have been 12 loads from a P2V, or 8 from a BAe-146.)
The Gorgonio Fire was reported at 11:43 a.m. on May 5 in an area that was difficult to access. The spread was stopped that afternoon after it burned 650 acres near Highway 243 south of Banning and north of Pine Cove. The initial attack included a fast, aggressive response by ground and aerial fire resources, a strategy that is not seen often enough outside of California. As of Sunday afternoon, the fire is 75 percent contained.
KMIR TV has a video report on the fire which has a few seconds of the DC-10 dropping.