Kaman Aerospace orders mandatory inspection of K-MAX helicopters

A K-MAX helicopter working the Myrtle Fire
A K-MAX helicopter working the Myrtle Fire in South Dakota, July 19, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert for Fire Aviation.

Kaman Aerospace has issued a mandatory action service bulletin requiring operators of K-1200 K-MAX aircraft within a specified range of serial numbers to conduct an inspection before their next flight. An issue with the planet carrier has appeared and must be checked with a borescope — and thereafter, every 100 hours.

It is unknown if this inspection is related to the August 24 K-MAX crash in which the pilot, Tom Duffy, 40, died.

Summarizing the aerial firefighter line of duty deaths during a recent 49-day period

May they rest in peace

Rest in peace

If you are like me it seems like there have been a lot of deaths of firefighting pilots recently (there have been) and maybe it is getting difficult to keep track. I feel bad if for a moment I can’t remember all six men. So to help me and anyone else that can benefit from having an (awful) list to refer to, here is a brief summary, with links to articles that have more details.

During the 49-day period that began July 7 there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. In chronological order, they are:

July 7
Bryan Jeffery Boatman, 37, was approaching a helispot delivering supplies by long line to firefighters in a remote area on the Polles Fire in central Arizona. The UH-1H was operated by Airwest Helicopters out of Glendale, Arizona. The aircraft was under an exclusive use contract with the USFS.

July 30
Two single engine air tankers (SEATs) crashed after a mid-air collision while working the Bishop Fire in southeast Nevada. The pilots were David Blake Haynes and Scott Thomas. Both Air Tractor AT-802A aircraft were operated by M&M Air Services out of Beaumont, Texas on a BLM contract.

August 8
A Portuguese water-scooping air tanker, a CL-215, crashed in Spain August 8 while battling a wildfire that started near Lindoso, Portugal and burned across the international border. The pilot, Jorge Jardim, 65, was killed and the Spanish co-pilot was seriously injured. The scooper was operated by the Portuguese branch of the international company Babcock.

August 19
Mike Fournier, 52, was killed in the crash of a Bell UH-1H helicopter 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.

August 24
Tom Duffy, 40, died in a helicopter crash during a water bucket mission on the White River Fire in Oregon. The K-MAX was operated by Central Copters of Bozeman, Montana on a Call When Needed contract with the U.S. Forest Service.


As a former firefighter I don’t view all firefighters as heroes, of course, but we should honor these men for their service, and pray that their families can find some sort of peace knowing that they were on a good, honorable mission in life, helping others and doing things that few people can.

Pilot identified in Oregon helicopter accident

The helicopter was a Kaman Aerospace K1200, better known as a K-MAX

K-MAX Salmon Idaho
K-MAX helicopter (N314) at Salmon, ID July 28, 2016. It was working on the Comet fire north of the city. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The pilot killed in the August 24 helicopter crash has been identified as Tom Duffy, 40. The information was released by a publication of the Seventh-day Adventist church, which said he was a lay leader. A news release by the U.S. Forest Service said the accident occurred during a water bucket mission on the White River Fire in Oregon.

The FAA reported the helicopter was N314, SN A94-0032, a Kaman Aerospace K1200, better known as a K-MAX. It is registered to Central Copters out of Bozeman Montana. The company operates several K-MAX ships with the distinctive red and black livery.

The FAA confirmed the crash occurred during firefighting bucket operations.

The White River Fire has burned 1,350 acres 11 miles southeast of Mt. Hood since it started from a lightning strike August 17.

A K-MAX can carry up to about 700 gallons and is rated as a Type 1 helicopter by the Forest Service.

I took these photos of the helicopter while on a motorcycle trip in 2016.

A K-MAX helicopter (N314) drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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

Pilot killed in helicopter accident while battling Oregon fire

August 25, 2020 | 4:07 a.m. PDT

White River Fire August 24, 2020 Oregon helicopter accident
White River Fire August 24, 2020

The pilot of a helicopter was killed August 24 while assisting firefighters on the White River Fire in Oregon. According to the U.S. Forest Service the K-MAX helicopter was dropping water in rough terrain when the accident occurred.

Wasco County Sheriff’s Office and Forest Service air and ground resources responded immediately to the site. There will be an investigation into the accident, and the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration have been notified. The firefighter has not yet been identified.

The White River Fire has burned 1,102 acres of timber and light logging slash 11 miles southeast of Mt. Hood since it started from a lightning strike August 17. It is being suppressed by 304 personnel and a Type 2 incident management team led by Incident Commander Brian Goff.

We send out our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and co-workers of the pilot.

White River Fire August pilot helicopter killed crash accident
White River Fire August 18, 2020. InciWeb.

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

Kaman developing next-generation of K-MAX unmanned aircraft system

The unmanned K-MAX supported U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and has demonstrated remotely-piloted wildland fire missions

K-MAX helicopter unmanned
Part of the Kaman and K-MAX display at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.

Today the Kaman Aerospace Group, a division of the Kaman Corporation, announced at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta that they are developing completely new hardware and software systems that control the unmanned K-MAX helicopter.

When the company first built the system 20 years ago they used off the shelf equipment, but since then the technology has leapt far beyond what was available in the 1990s. The redesigned kit will completely replace what was used when K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 1.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots. Typically operating at night, these unmanned missions replaced the equivalent of 900 convoy vehicles and eliminated 46,000 hours of exposure time to IED’s, direct fire, and other threats to our troops on dangerous roads.

In 2015 a remotely-piloted K-MAX demonstrated for wildland fire officials how an optionally piloted helicopter could drop water on a simulated fire and haul cargo in an external load.

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during a demonstration October 14, 2015 east of Boise, ID. K-MAX photo.

The system being developed will have the capability to fly either manned or unmanned missions. Kaman expects to offer the redesigned kits for old and new K-MAXs in 2020.

In 2016 Kaman restarted production of the K-MAX after a 13-year hiatus.

“Whether the need is night-time aerial firefighting, resupplying troops in austere environments or delivering critical supplies in support of humanitarian missions, the next generation of the unmanned K-MAX will continue to demonstrate its unmatched readiness and efficiency no matter the requirement,” stated Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director Business Development, Air Vehicles & MRO Division.

After a 13-year hiatus the K-MAX is back in production

KAMAN Aerosystems has delivered 8 of the helicopters since restarting in 2016

K-MAX production

Above: A K-MAX helicopter under production at KAMAN Aerospace’s facility in Bloomfield, Conn. KAMAN photo.

After producing 38 K-MAX helicopters between 1991 and 2003 KAMAN Aerosystems fired up the manufacturing shops again in 2016 and delivered the 46th a few days ago. The company has committed to making a total of 15 during this production phase with the possibility of adding another 10 later. The airframes are made in Florida and the final assembly is done in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Like the Erickson Air-Crane, the K-MAX is a purpose built aircraft designed without compromises to do one thing well. Lift external loads. They don’t carry passengers or much internal cargo. In fact there is only room for one person in the K-MAX — the pilot.

K-MAX external instrument panel
K-MAX external instrument panel. KAMAN photo.

From the front it is very narrow, allowing the pilot to easily look straight down at the ground from both windows. While hovering over a target the pilot can see the external instrument panel; critical gauges and annunciators that are always visible during vertical reference flying.

The K-MAX’s on U.S. Forest Service Type 1 helicopter contracts have allowable payloads of 4,847 to 5,065 pounds. That translates to about 605 to 633 gallons of water, before the weight of the bucket is accounted for, which would reduce it by one or two dozen gallons. The Incident Command System requirement for a Type 1 helicopter is a minimum of 700 gallons, yet they continue to receive contracts as a Type 1. In 2016 10 of the 36 helicopters on the contract were K-MAX’s. After the reduction to 28 helicopters in 2017 there were 8.

The USFS contract (on page 102) carves out an exception for the K-MAX when used on initial attack:

For initial attack only, Kmax operators are authorized to use any water bucket with a capacity of over 200 us gallons. This allowance is based on the limited storage compartment capacity of the aircraft and the capability of the pilot to unload the bucket when carried. Higher capacity, compact, lightweight buckets are no longer available or no longer supported. Vendors shall switch to a bucket meeting contract specifications as soon as practical, typically after the first fuel cycle.

Lockheed has worked with KAMAN to configure at least two K-MAX helicopters to be remotely piloted or to operate autonomously. They spent months delivering cargo in Afghanistan flying pre-programed missions.

In 2015 the two companies demonstrated an optionally-piloted K-MAX near Boise, Idaho dropping water and delivering cargo.

The hour and a half demonstration included the following missions:

  • Spot drop – 100 feet
  • Spot drop – 55 feet
  • Trailing drop – 55 feet both at the demo area and at the ridge
  • Carousel delivery – 55 feet, two each to the demo area and on the ridge
  • Backhaul Cargo from the ridge – 150 feet
K-MAX Custer SD
K-MAX helicopter at Custer, South Dakota, July 8, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director of Business Development for KAMAN, told us that since the demonstration and the missions in Afghanistan they have improved the technology and are expecting to see the helicopter being used in the future for suppressing wildfires and inspecting or constructing power lines without a pilot in the cockpit.

Mr. Wassmuth said the K-MAX can be purchased for a little over $7 million, which he pointed out, is less than a third of what CAL FIRE expects to pay for each of their 12 new FireHawks, which are running about $24 million in the latest configuration specified by CAL FIRE.

K-MAX under production
A K-MAX under production at KAMAN Aerospace’s facility in Bloomfield, Conn. KAMAN photo.
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
K-MAX Salmon Idaho
K-MAX helicopter at Salmon, ID July 28, 2016. The open doors allow access to various systems for maintenance. The compartment is large enough to store a Bambi Bucket while ferrying. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Revised April 7, 2018 to show that the K-MAX’s on USFS Type 1 helicopter contracts have allowable payloads that are below the ICS minimum requirement for Type 1’s.

K-MAX lifts vehicles out of Grand Canyon

The two vehicles drove off the edge in 2017

K-MAX lifts vehicle grand canyon

Above: A K-MAX helicopter lifts a vehicle out of the Grand Canyon, March 29, 2018. NPS photo.

On March 29 a K-MAX helicopter at Grand Canyon National Park lifted two vehicles out of the inner canyon that drove off the edge in 2017. The National Park Service didn’t provide any details about how or why the vehicles ended up there, or if anyone was in them at the time, Thelma and Louise style.

K-MAX lifts vehicle grand canyon
A K-MAX helicopter lifts a vehicle out of the Grand Canyon, March 29, 2018. NPS photo.

Apparently this is a recurring project, as you can see in the video from 2009:

And in other Grand Canyon aviation news, the park’s contract helicopter has a new paint job. The MD-900/207E recently returned to the park after having all the old paint sanded off by hand. The sanding and painting took about 6 weeks.

Grand Canyon NP contract helicopter
New paint on Grand Canyon NP contract helicopter. NPS photo.

Helicopter Express sends four helicopters to Chile on Antonov AN-124

Antonov AN-124

Above: An Antonov AN-124 after it arrived in Santiago, Chile carrying four helicopters. Photo by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

An Antonov AN-124 arrived in Santiago, Chile Tuesday morning and unloaded three Bell 205 helicopters, one K-MAX 1200, and a flatbed truck with an attached goose-neck trailer. The Chilean government contracted with Helicopter Express out of Chamblee, Georgia to supply the equipment during the siege of wildfires that has been plaguing the country for the last several weeks.

Helicopter Express helicopters Antonov AN-124
Helicopter Express helicopters before loading onto the Antonov AN-124 at Atlanta, Georgia. Helicopter Express photo.

The helicopters and the truck were loaded onto the Ukrainian freighter at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport Monday for the flight to South America.

CNN Chile reported that one of the helicopters has night-flying capabilities.