Forest Service buys its first lead plane in almost 40 years

Forest Service lead plane new
New U.S. Forest Service lead plane, a King Air 250 Twin Engine turboprop, N147Z. USFS photo.

After nearly eight years of writing and reviewing business cases, traveling to meetings, advocating, and developing contract specifications, the U.S. Forest Service’s Intermountain Region Fire and Aviation Staff accepted delivery of their brand new King Air 250 Twin Engine turboprop aircraft, N147Z, on December 26, 2018. This aircraft was the first new lead plane purchased since the early 1980’s when the Forest Service acquired over 20 Beechcraft Baron Aircraft for lead planes.

These aviation services are acquired in a variety of ways, some agency owned, some leased, many contracted, and some through agreements with states and other branches of Government. While this new aircraft will predominantly be used as a lead plane, it is also used to provide pilot training, natural resource activities and personnel transport. They may be also used for other natural resource management activities, such as conducting aerial surveys of wildlife populations and forest health. 

In 2014 we wrote about the 40+ twin engine aircraft the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had under contract from private vendors that were used as lead planes, Air Supervision Modules (ASM) , and Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) aircraft.

Lead plane pilot honored for working despite losing his home in fire

David Spliethof award lead plane
Lead Plane Pilot David Spliethof (2nd from left) receives award. Left to right: Deputy Regional Forester Barnie Gyant, Spliethof,  Acting DRF Edward Hunter,  Region 5 Aviation Officer Yolanda Saldana,  Acting DRF Larry Sutton,  Region 5 Fire Director Bob Baird,  Regional Forester Randy Moore. USFS photo by Paul Wade.

A U.S. Forest Service lead plane pilot whose home was destroyed in the Carr Fire near Redding, California earlier this year continued to work each day guiding large air tankers as they made their retardant drops on the fire. On December 12 David Spliethof received a 2018 Regional Forester’s Honor Award for the work he did on the fire. The award is given to those who went above and beyond their scope of duty to perform an act of service of rare or exceptional character that reflects an uncommon degree of concern for the well-being of others.

Mr. Spliethof continued to fly as a lead plane pilot for days after he knew he lost his home and all of his family’s belongings. The Spliefthof’s had nothing but the clothes on their backs. He said in an interview that there is no place he would rather be than flying and helping others instead of feeling sorry for himself. He had his family, so he continued to fly to minimize the loss of more homes. Several air tanker pilots stated that for a while they had no idea Mr. Spliefthof lost his home because he was professional and never missed a beat.

There is a critical shortage of lead plane pilots and he had every reason to forgo his duties and focus on his personal situation. However, he chose to serve the agency and the public.

Interview with lead plane pilot Jamie Tackman about the 747 air tanker

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.

Paint design approved for USFS C-130H air tankers

C-130H paint design
C-130H paint design, by Scheme Designers

The Chief of the U.S. Forest Service has approved the paint design for the seven C-130H aircraft the agency is receiving from the Coast Guard. The National Defense Authorization Act required the transfer of the C-130Hs plus 15 Shorts C-23B Sherpas from the military. The C-130Hs are being converted by the Air Force into air tankers, while the Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. The C-130Hs will be owned by the USFS but will be operated and maintained by contractors. Some of the Sherpas will be flown by agency personnel and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will all be maintained by private companies.

The paint for the C-130Hs was designed by a company in New Jersey, Scheme Designers. Craig Darnett, their founder and CEO, told Fire Aviation that they have also designed the paint for other USFS aircraft, including the DC-3 and some smokejumper planes. Other examples of their work can be found at Airliners.net. Scheme Designers will not actually paint the C-130Hs; most of their work is done on computers, however sometimes the aircraft owner will pay them to be on site and monitor the painting as it is done.

If someone is restoring an automobile that is at least 27 years old, as these C-130Hs are according to our research, paint is the very last step in the process. Five of the seven have to go through a 10-month wing box replacement, and then the rest of the conversion process can begin, including cutting a hole in the belly and installing a retardant tank system.

Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.

Below are some other paint designs on USFS aircraft:

McCall DC-3 retirement
J-42, a US Forest Service DC-3, retires. USFS photo, taken at Ogden, Utah, October 24, 2012.
Redding smokejumpers' Shorts 330 Sherpa
Redding smokejumpers’ Shorts 330 Sherpa. USFS photo.
Smokejumper aircraft, N143Z
Smokejumper aircraft, N143Z. USFS photo.
USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, their Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z
Lead planes at Cheyenne
Lead planes at Cheyenne, WY, May 7, 2013. These were not government owned, but were under contract to either the USFS or BLM. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Fire Watch helicopter
The U. S. Forest Service’s Fire Watch Cobra helicopter. July 28, 2011.
US Forest Service infrared aircraft N149Z
USFS infrared aircraft N149Z at Phoenix in 2013

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Leo