The Chinook will be working for a private company, assisting wildland firefighters
On Christmas Eve Billings Flying Service unloaded one of their CH-47D Chinooks off a ship in Chile. Two days later after reinstalling the rotor blades they flew it to a base just east of Concepción where it will begin a firefighting contract for one of the largest pulp and paper companies in Latin America. Compañía Manufacturera de Papeles y Cartones (CMPC ), which translates to Manufacturing Company of Papers and Cartons, employs over 15,000 people in Chile and seven other countries in South Ameria.
The helicopter that Billings shipped to Chile is N303AJ, a Boeing CH-47D manufactured in 1989 that fights fire with an external water bucket. At least one of the company’s ships was testing a new 2,500-gallon internal tank last summer. Billings became the first non-military owner of CH-47D Chinook helicopters when they purchased their first two in 2014. Gary Blain, co-owner of the company, and another pilot flew those aircraft from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to the company’s facilities south of Billings, Montana near the Yellowstone River. Anything you do with aircraft is expensive. Mr. Blain said they spent $32,000 for fuel during their two-day trip, with an overnight stopover in Norfolk, Nebraska.
Billings has seven other Chinooks, one Sikorsky UH-60, five Bell 206s, five Airbus AS350 B3s, one MD 500, and one Hiller 12B.
All of these photos in Chile were provided by Brian Jensen of Billings Flying Service.
Above: The 747 Supertanker being reloaded at Santiago, Chile, January 28, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
In January and February two large air tankers traveled from the United States to South America to assist firefighters in Chile that were dealing with an unprecedented number of wildfires. Global SuperTanker’s 747 left Colorado Springs on January 24 and returned on February 13. A BAe-146 operated by Neptune Aviation was down there from about February 4 to March 5.
As far as I know this is the first time that any large air tankers from North America have assisted with wildfires in South America. One limiting factor is that up until recently most of the U.S. air tankers were former military aircraft which were not allowed to be used outside the country. With the industry converting to used civilian airliners and cargo aircraft that restriction does not apply to the newer privately owned aircraft.
In January, 2017 I had been following the increased wildfire activity in Chile and had written about it several times on Wildfire Today. Here is an excerpt from an article published on January 3, 2017:
Wildfire burns 100 homes in Chile
On Monday a wildfire burned approximately 100 homes in Valparaiso, Chile. There are reports that 19 people were injured and hundreds were forced to evacuate. The fire was fought by firefighters on the ground assisted by [single engine] air tankers and helicopters dropping water.
Pushed by strong winds it burned about 120 acres of vegetation 75 miles northwest of Santiago.
But the fires in Chile were receiving very little notice in the mainstream media in the U.S.
Eduardo Frugone, who is kind of a mysterious person in Chile with many connections, read the articles on Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation about the fires in his country and the fatal air tanker crash. I had never heard of him, but on January 18 he sent me an email message through the Contact Us page on Fire Aviation that read, in its entirety:
“We need fire figthing [sic] planes to fly to Chile, need to know if your company can establish contacts right away.
I, of course, do not have any air tankers, but I forwarded his message to air tanker companies that I thought might have some available. Selecting the companies was a pretty quick decision that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on. I figured the chances of the person that contacted me having any influence in deploying North American air tankers to South America was very, very slim. As far as I knew the paradigm of contracting for air tankers was limited to federal, state, or provincial governments, not a random person who only had links to private companies in his automatic email signature. So I didn’t want to waste the time of every air tanker company in the world.
I did not contact any company that I knew had 100 percent of their tankers committed to Australia. And I limited the short list to companies that had deployed air tankers on fires in 2016, or that I knew had recently received certification from the Interagency Air Tanker Board, and that I knew how to reliably contact. Not all air tanker companies will return my phone calls or respond consistently to my emails.
I forwarded the email to 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Neptune Aviation, and Global Supertanker. I wrote to them, “I don’t know if this is legit or not, but it might be an opportunity to use your aircraft in Chile.” Two of those companies, Global Supertanker and Neptune, followed up.
So, Eduardo got the ball rolling, through Wildfire Today.
What followed, in the case of Global Supertanker, were eight days of phone calls, email messages, and negotiations.
During the week of January 22 an heir to the Walmart fortune in Denver, Ben Walton with his wife Lucy Ana, got involved. She grew up in Chile and still maintains very strong ties to the people and the country. They have used their foundation in recent years to help the residents in her homeland. In 2016 the foundation helped arrange for $1.5 million worth of medical supplies to be sent to hospitals and rural clinics in Chile. And they also rebuilt a school after it was destroyed by the earthquake and resulting Tsunami in Chile a few years ago.
The Waltons had been following the escalating fire situation in Chile and were familiar with my web sites, Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, after I had written about wildfires in Colorado. They knew the 747 Supertanker was based in Colorado Springs just an hour south of their Denver home.
In discussions with Jim Wheeler, President and CEO of Global Supertanker, they offered to have their foundation, Foundación Viento Sur, provide the funds for the 747 to ferry to Chile and back, and for five days of firefighting in Chile. They hoped that after they saw the effectiveness of the aircraft, the government would retain the services of the air tanker for as long as it was needed .
Working out the details with the foundation, the Chilean government, and Global Supertanker was a complex procedure that took a while. Ben and Lucy Ana visited Global SuperTanker’s Colorado Springs facilities on June 23 and received a briefing on the use and capabilities of the aircraft. Ben has some pilot training and both of them, but especially Lucy Ana, were very enthusiastic about its 19,200-gallon capacity and its potential to assist the residents of Chile.
Attorneys in the U.S. and Chile got involved, and finally late Tuesday morning, January 24, the flight crew received the GO order and departed for South America at about 1:40 p.m. MST.
Mr. Wheeler offered me one of the 12 seats on the 747 for the trip south, and I accepted and became embedded with the crew. I returned on my own February 5 and the aircraft flew back to Colorado Springs nine days later.
Eduardo Frugone, who initially came up with the concept for the deployment of North American air tankers to Chile, helped to facilitate the missions before and during the assignment in exchange for a salary.
The Chilean government was very reluctant to bring in aircraft from outside the country, possibly because they had existing contracts with European companies for single engine air tankers. Questions have been raised about irregularities related to the activities of those companies in Europe and an investigation is underway now in Chile about procedures, before this year, about the acquisition of firefighting aircraft.
Chile is also considering the creation, for the first time, of a “Forest Service”-type agency that would assume the role of coordinating wildfire suppression, a task that presently is done by CONAF, a private, non-profit organization funded by the government and responsible for initiating air tanker contracts.
Above: The Russian IL-76 very large air tanker taxis at Santiago, Chile, January 30, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
The Russian IL-76 air tanker has completed its assignment in Chile, dropping water to assist the firefighters on the ground who were dealing with a fire season much busier than usual. The aircraft arrived in Santiago on January 30, 2017 and left today, February 27. It can hold up to 11,574 gallons of water that with the assistance of gravity pours through two huge flapper valves into two large tubes on the rear cargo ramp.
While in the country it conducted 41 sorties and made 80 drops for a total of 449,092 gallons, according to the Russian agency EMERCOM. That organization provided the video below which includes some interesting shots inside the aircraft while dropping and of the water delivery system.
Above: Neptune’s Tanker 03 parked near several portable water tanks at Concepción, Chile February 4, 2017. Neptune Aviation photo.
Air tankers in the United States and Canada usually spend four to seven months each year parked, not turning a wheel, prop, or turbine. While they sit idle, there can be wildfires raging in South America and Australia, where their fire seasons are opposite of the those in the northern hemisphere. Of course the air tanker operators know this and in some cases are pursuing those opportunities.
Three companies have a total of four air tankers on the second year of a two-year “trial” contract in Australia — Conair, 10 Tanker, and Coulson. Word on the street ramp is that Victoria and New South Wales will issue more contracts for large air tankers before the 2017-2018 summer fire season arrives in September or October.
The first time use of large and very large air tankers in Chile over the last 30 days may have opened another market, as the 747, BAe-146, and a Russian IL-76 all demonstrated that they can be effective even without a supporting air tanker infrastructure in the country.
When we saw an article on a Chilean website inferring that their government had reached an agreement with Global Supertanker to facilitate the use of the 747 Supertanker in the country, it got our attention. Wondering if it was fake news, we checked with Jim Wheeler the CEO and President of the company, who told us that while they have been in talks with government officials, nothing yet is final or signed, and used the term “pending contract”. One of the objectives of an agreement, if reached, would be to ensure a fairly fast arrival after being mobilized. Following wheels up at Colorado Springs, the home base of the aircraft, it can fly non-stop to Santiago in 10 hours.
Clouding the issue in Chile is the contracting and political climate. In recent weeks high-ranking government officials there have issued conflicting statements about the effectiveness of the air tankers, at times saying they are valuable and at other times the opposite. All of this has to be analyzed knowing some background information about aerial firefighting in Chile.
Most of the firefighting aircraft that have been used for years in Chile, the single engine air tankers (SEATs) and helicopters, have been made available through contracts with private companies based in Europe. Officials from two of the companies were accused in Spain of contract collusion and international bribery among other crimes, according to a report by Ahora Noticias, a Chilean publication. In light of those problems, there has been pressure in Chile to investigate their contracting procedures for aircraft.
The publication interviewed a consultant in disaster management, Rodrigo Reveco, who implied that a cozy relationship between the companies and the Chilean non-profit organization that has a hand in managing emergency operations, may help explain why there was a reluctance to bring in aerial firefighting assets from other companies evan as the disastrous wildfire conditions worsened in December.
With this issue fermenting in the background, it can be difficult to predict the future of large, expensive firefighting aircraft in the country.
Above: Tanker 03, a BAe-146, in Chile. Neptune photo.
(This article first appeared on WildfireToday.com)
The number of active wildfires in Chile has varied from week to week depending on the weather, but the drought-driven situation that has plagued Chile since December is still of great concern to the residents of the country — especially since more than 1,000 homes burned in Santa Olga on January 25.
The tweet below refers to a fire in the Maule Region.
The 747 Supertanker returned to Colorado Springs on February 13 after being in Chile for three weeks. The Russian IL-76 is still there but is expected to depart on February 25.
Neptune’s Tanker 03, a BAe-146, arrived in the country February 4. It has completed 20 missions dropping on fires, but a spokesperson for the company told us today it has not flown since February 14. It is committed to remain in Chile through the end of this month.
Above: A screen capture from a video shot from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker.
This video is a compilation of scenes recorded from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker as it dropped on fires in Chile between February 5 and 12, 2017. It was shot from a camera set up by Tom Parsons, one of the pilots on the air tanker.
If you enlarge the video to full screen you might be able to see the lead plane in the first two of the three shots.
On January 24, 2017 the 747 SuperTanker left its base in Colorado Springs, Colorado for an assignment in Chile. It returned on February 13 after dropping on many wildfires in the South American country, making as many as seven sorties in a day each with 19,200 gallons of water enhanced with an additive to help make the water more effective, since long-term retardant was not available.
After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie Tackman transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.
Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.
If you don’t have time to see the entire video, start at 15:30 where Jamie describes the benefits of having a lead plane work with an air tanker.