Family figures out unique way to thank helicopter pilot

Earlier this week a family wanted to thank a helicopter pilot who was helping to suppress the Black Mountain Fire in Colorado by dropping water. There was apparently no way they could make a billboard-sized sign, so they arranged their bodies, spelling out “THANKS”.

The photo was taken by Joseph Mutchler of Billings Flying Service and posted on Twitter by Air Attack pilot Ron Hauck.

Here is an enlarged version of the family’s message:

family thanks helicopter pilot wildfire

The Black Mountain fire is 14 air miles southwest of Kremmling, Colorado in the southeast corner of Routt County. We can’t find it listed on any official government lists of wildfires, but it created a small heat signature on September 25 during a 3 a.m. satellite overflight.

And here is another great way to thank firefighters!

In-cockpit video of air tanker drop on Boone Draw Fire

Jim Watson shot this video from the cockpit of Air Tanker 850, a single engine air tanker, as it made a retardant drop on the Boone Draw Fire in the northwest corner of Colorado, September 14, 2018.

Thanks Jim!

Single engine air tanker modified for night firefighting

AT-802F single engine air tanker
Photo by Aviation Specialties Unlimited

Fighting fire at night can be more effective because the fire usually spreads more slowly when the temperatures are lower, winds calmer, and the relative humidity is higher. A small percentage of helicopters are used for night firefighting but no fixed wing air tankers have yet ventured into that realm.

A company in Colorado has modified one of their air tankers for night vision goggle (NVG) operations. CO Fire Aviation has worked with Aviation Specialties Unlimited, Inc. (ASU) to add night firefighting capability to one of their Air Tractor AT-802F single engine air tankers.

Since 1995 ASU has modified more than 1,300 aircraft for aerial application at night, including the Thrush S-2R, PZL-Mielec M18, and rotorcraft such as the Bell 206 and OH-58A, but the AT-802 is the first fixed-wing aircraft they have modified that is dedicated to firefighting.

CO Fire Aviation uses their eight AT-802F air tankers on a number of state and federal contracts.

“Having operated NVGs in a variety of operations, our pilots knew that implementing a comprehensive NVG program would be the most significant way we could improve the safety and effectiveness of our aerial firefighting operations,” said CO Fire Chief Pilot Chris Doyle. “ASU’s experienced team has a strong track record with aerial applicators and we trusted them to equip our aircraft and help us launch our NVG program.”

Half of the CO Fire’s 14 pilots are currently NVG certified including two FAA-approved NVG Instructor Pilots who will be establishing an in-house NVG training program.

“Our pilot cadre has a wealth of extensive NVG experience,” said Doyle.

He explained that several of the pilots have military experience providing close air support during combat with the A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthog” aircraft and were U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School Instructors. Doyle has more than 26 years of flight experience and more than 10,000 accident-free hours of flight. He is a factory certified Air Tractor 802 instructor, and was also a Maintenance test pilot for the military weaponized version of the AT-802 in the Middle East along with a number of his current pilot cadre who were the weapons and tactics instructors.

“There is currently no other company in the world with more AT-802 NVG experience than CO Fire Aviation,” said Doyle.

“Later this year CO Fire will be conducting studies to refine and develop NVG firefighting tactics,” said Doyle. The study will involve developing safe and effective drop heights across a variety of illumination levels in different terrain. For example, dealing with moonlit and starlit-nights and low-light scenarios, working toward setting requisite minimums for illumination levels for terrain and drop height.

“We are always looking for innovations to help us lead the way in safety,” Doyle said.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Air tankers at Jeffco, September 2, 2018

Above: Air Tanker 15, a BAe-146, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.

Andrew Morton took these photos at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) yesterday, September 2, 2018. Thanks Andrew! It is likely that some or all of these air tankers were working on the Britania Mountain Fire in southwest Wyoming.

BAe-146 JEFFCO
Air Tanker 01, a BAe-146, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.
Air Tanker 01, a C-130, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.

Photography Prints

Colorado signs CWN contract for P-3 air tankers

Airstrike Firefighters has made Tanker 23 fire-ready and plans to do the same for six more P-3’s

Tanker 27, a P-3
Tanker 27, a P-3, on the Middle Fork Fire, Oregon, 2009. Todd McKinley.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has signed a call when needed (CWN) agreement with Airstrike Firefighters to provide large airtanker services for wildland fire suppression.  The agreement will allow the State of Colorado to access Airstrike’s P-3 airtankers to help combat wildfires in the State.

The RADSII constant flow tank design can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant. Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at Sacramento McClellan Airport concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program.

“This new agreement ensures that we could have the appropriate suppression resources available to protect the citizens of the State of Colorado for years to come,” said Vince Welbaum, DFPC Aviation Unit Chief. “The P-3 Orion is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions.”

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters said “We are excited about our new partnership with the State of Colorado. Our P-3’s are proven performers in Colorado’s challenging environment and we are committed to responding to the State’s needs quickly and efficiently.  In addition, as more P-3 firefighting airtankers come online we will make them available to the State of Colorado as they need them.”

retardant tank control panel
The retardant tank control panel on T-23.

Airstrike hopes to get carding inspections scheduled by the U.S. Forest Service in the near future for Tanker 23 which has undergone the inspections and maintenance to make it fire-ready. Since it is using the same retardant delivery system the P-3’s utilized for years, they do not have to do the grid test, but they did complete a conformity test that included 60+ ground-based static drops to verify the tank was working as it did in the past.

In April of 2011, Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

P-3 air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From Zion Helitack.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.  Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners. The cancellation of the contract left only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all P2V’s, down from the 44 on contract in 2002.

The P-3’s changed hands when UAC/Blue Aerospace acquired seven of them after the bankruptcy proceedings. Buffalo Airways then purchased T-22 in 2014 which for much of this year has been parked at McClellan. Airstrike is leasing it and bringing it back into compliance. They just finished the Nondestructive Testing and are moving forward with the Structural Integrity Program, Programmed Depot Maintenance, and the Annual.

In addition to buying and updating T-23, Mr. Schorzman said Airstrike is planning on acquiring the remaining five P-3’s. Their schedule calls for Buffalo’s T-22 and T-17 to be done in the Spring of 2019, then T-27 and another P-3 to be named later will roll out at the end of 2019.  Mr. Schorzman expects all seven to be “working for a living” by mid-2020, he said.

Helitack crew is extracted as fire approaches, leaving water bucket attached to the helicopter

report crew extracted fire water bucket attached helicopter
Photo of the heel of the fire as seen from the helispot. Photo from the preliminary report.

(Originally published at 9:28 a.m. MDT August 20, 2018)

While researching another topic I ran across a preliminary report about a helitack crew that on July 1, 2018 was extracted by their helicopter after the wind changed on the fire, driving it toward their helispot. This occurred on the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado. Because of the timing of the events and since they had to quickly move 150 yards to another location as dense smoke made it unsafe for the helicopter to land at the helispot, it might be described as a close call. But it appears that the reason the report was written was that the crew decided to leave the water bucket and long line attached as they evacuated in the aircraft. Having passengers in a helicopter with a bucket attached is not consistent with policy.

Below are excerpts from the preliminary report. The photos are also from that document. Our opinion is at the end, following the excerpt.


NARRATIVE

…The HMGB [Helicopter Manager, Single Resource] called pilot and requested him to land and pick up the crew, thinking there was still plenty of time to load bucket, gear and crew members. At the time of radio call the pilot had just dropped water in view of the crew, and was less than thirty seconds from the helispot. Winds continued to increase from 10 to at least 30-35 mph. At this time fire behavior increased dramatically, causing all the vehicles parked near helispot (approximately six or eight) to mobilize as quickly as possible and drive down the road below.

The IC asked the crew face to face if we were all good before he left. The HMGB considered jumping in the vehicles for a ride but quickly decided not to. The Decision was based on the time it would take to physically get into vehicles, the time it was taking for the vehicles to actually get headed down the road, the location of the fire at the time, and not being familiar with the fire experience of the vehicles occupants. HMGB deemed it best for the helitack crew to stick together.

As aircraft approached helispot, the pilot informed crew that there was too much smoke to land, but had another landing zone in sight downslope. The crew grabbed gear and began hiking towards the aircraft’s hovering location approximately one hundred and fifty yards down down slope. Helitack crew arrived at the new landing zone as the helicopter was landing. HMGB and crew began loading gear on the pilots side, and had full intentions of loading bucket and longline, but HMGB noticed pilot signaling to plug in flight helmet. Crew members continued to load gear and HMGB went around nose of aircraft, opened managers door, stood on skid and plugged in flight helmet. Pilot advised that he recommended loading crew and picking up with the longline and bucket attached to get to a safe location. Pilot made decision based on the fires rapid progression from time crew left helispot and hiked down to the second LZ. HMGB took a quick scan of fire and agreed with pilot that we needed to lift ASAP.

report crew extracted fire water bucket attached helicopter
Two days later looking NNE. Red H is helispot. White circle is second LZ. Green arrow shows wind direction all afternoon. Yellow arrows show wind switch and fire spread direction.

HMGB went back to cargo area and told the two crew members to forget the bucket and load up we would lift with the bucket attached and relocate to a safe location. The crew members understood and agreed and loaded up. The HMGB made sure aircraft doors were secure, confirmed everyone was buckled and told pilot we were ready to lift. As aircraft lifted, the longline and bucket were on the managers side of aircraft. The HMGB relayed the status of longline to pilot until it was out of view and in view of the pilot out the bubble window.

As aircraft flew away, the pilot informed air attack exactly what we had done. The air attack understood and relayed that the fire experienced a microburst, and one hundred percent of the fire perimeter had active fire spread.The aircraft flew about one quarter of a mile well below the fires heel, over sage brush and grass fuel model, and found a safe place to land. Once on the ground the pilot informed crew we had plenty of fuel, and to take our time loading bucket. The aircraft departed landing zone and flew back to airport in Alamosa, CO to RON. The manager met with the rest of the crew and notified the crews superintendent. HMGB conducted an AAR, and notification was made up the chain of command in the region and the home base region.

report crew extracted fire water bucket attached helicopter
The photo shows the fuel at the helibase, vehicles, and the area where the helicopter was working.

CORRECTIVE ACTION

During the AAR, HMGB commended crew members for their vigilance on the scene of fire. Crew was constantly watching the fires behavior and spread, discussing the wind direction and different options to escape if needed. The black identified as a safety zone had a road going from the helispot up past it and was viable until the wind switched and increased pushing the fire up towards the road edge. The crew identified the helispot’s lack of burnable fuel and deemed it a safe spot. A later flight showed that the helispot did not burn, but when the IC decided to leave the spot, the crew did too. Plus one will never know how much heat was actually funneled over it. There was another open ridge downslope about 500-600 yards with a road leading to it that a helicopter could most likely land. The crew could have gotten a ride down to scout it out before the fire blew up, but that location didn’t have a vantage of the fire.

The crew actively talks with pilot about what to do in emergency situations. The crew had even talked earlier in the week about flying with a longline attached. It was comforting to know that those discussions took place and what to expect and the risk involved. The crew also practices proficiency bucket deployment, and packaging drills almost weekly. (Not with rotors turning) This gives managers and crew members a rough idea of how long it takes to perform these functions in the field. The HMGB on board has worked with the pilot for over eight seasons. The relationship, discussions, and trust built over the years was extremely valuable in the decision made that day.

Colorado DFPC Aviation Unit Chief comments:

Appropriate action taken during the extreme fire conditions and glad there was a positive outcome. Suggest a review of the additional risk decision to fly with the longline and bucket with personnel on board. The cost of a longline and bucket burning up is not worth the additional risk and exposure to employees. This is similar to teaching firefighters to drop their packs prior to deployment of a fire shelter from my perspective.

(end of excerpt from the preliminary report)


Our opinion

The report clearly outlines the fact that the crew felt they did not have time to package and load the bucket and long line, but there is no mention that they considered disconnecting it and taking off without it, leaving it on the helispot. Surely they did think about it, but the replacement cost if it was destroyed in the fire may have been a concern.

I support breaking the rules if there is an urgent, critical need to do so, and if all of the alternatives and possible outcomes are considered. Especially if a person’s life is threatened.

In 2012 a firefighter on the Pole Fire in Oregon was rescued from an advancing wildfire by climbing into a water bucket below a helicopter. The firefighter very reluctantly got into the bucket only after repeated warnings from the pilot that the fire was approaching and he was in immediate danger.

In 2014 on the King Fire east of Placerville, California when a hand crew was in danger of being overrun by flames a helicopter pilot considered using his bucket to extract the personnel. However, he continued to communicate with the crew and escorted them to safety as they walked and ran a considerable distance, orbiting over them and providing constant updates. The whole time he had water in his bucket saving it in case there was a need to protect the crew.

Photos of Tanker 123 memorial

Air Tanker 123 memorial
The memorial to the crew of Air Tanker 123 at the Big Elk Meadows VFD at Lyons, Colorado. Google photo.

In the discussion among our readers about the memorial to the three-person crew of Air Tanker 130 that was killed in a crash in 2002 near Walker, California, the subject of another crash the same year came up. Tanker 123, a P4Y-2 Privateer, crashed while maneuvering over a fire near Estes Park, Colorado. Both pilots, Ricky Schwartz and Milt Stollak were killed. All five of the pilots are listed on a memorial at the Greybull, Wyoming airport, but in the article’s comments someone asked if there was a memorial related to the Estes Park crash somewhere in Colorado, and we asked for photos if anyone found the site. Helpful answers provided enough information for Eric to find it recently who took the photos below.  Thanks Eric.

We Googled Eric’s description which produced this Google Maps result, including the photo at the top of the page. It looks like the flagpole has been moved since the first photo, above, was taken. The site is about 8 air miles northwest of Lyons, Colorado — but much farther by roads.

Air Tanker 123 memorial
Air Tanker 123 memorial. Photo by Eric Ward.
Air Tanker 123 memorial
Air Tanker 123 memorial. Photo by Eric Ward.

Here is what Eric wrote about the memorial:

As requested, here are a couple pictures of the Tanker 123 Memorial, which also includes Gordon Knight, who was also killed on the Big Elk Meadows fire, 7/30/02, when his helo went down during firefighting operations. I’d forgotten that one…so 3 pilots lost on one fire in two separate incidents.

The memorial is located in the driveway of the Big Elk Meadows VFD, at 42 Willow Road, Lyons, CO. It’s off CR 47, off US 36 Hwy. Big Elk Meadows is a private subdivision, but no one seemed concerned that I was there looking at the memorial – I assume it’s there to be seen.  It’s about a 30 minute round trip off US 36 to drive up and see it.

Colorado beta testing drone system that would enhance firefighters’ situational awareness

(Originally published at Wildfire Today)

The state of Colorado is working on a system that would use drones to provide live video of wildfires to wildland firefighters’ cell phones. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is beta testing a DVI Mavic drone that would push the real time video to firefighters using software developed by the military, Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK).

The program has the capability of displaying data from tracking devices carried by soldiers, or firefighters, and identifying their location on a map, which in this case could also show the fire in real time.

If they are successful in developing and implementing a system that can provide to fire managers real time information about the location of a wildfire AND firefighting resources, it would achieve what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing those two elements of information.

The DJI Mavic can only stay in the air for 20 to 30 minutes before having to return to base to replace the battery. So this beta test is probably only a proof of concept attempt, perhaps leading to a more robust drone, rotor or fixed wing, that could stay in the air for a much longer period of time.

PIlatus PC12 Colorado
One of the two State of Colorado’s Pilatus PC12’s, was photographed in March of 2016 in Sacramento.

Colorado already has the ability to transmit near real time imagery of fires from their two MultiMission Aircraft, Pilatus PC12’s. They are integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a geospatial database that displays incident images and details to local fire managers through a web based application.