New mission for Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft

Monday night it was investigating the drone activity that has been observed in Colorado and other states

Drone Swarms
CBS News

One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission Aircraft”, primarily used for detecting and mapping wildfires, took on a new mission January 6.  Its new job that night was related to the swarms of drones that have been seen in recent weeks over Colorado and Nebraska.

There are reports that up to 30 drones at a time have been flying in sparsely populated areas of the two states. A number of agencies are trying to figure out what the drones are doing, including the FBI, FAA, Air Force, and the Army. Authorities are looking for a closed box trailer or a large van with antennas that could be used as a command vehicle.

The operators of the drones may not have broken any laws, but the very unusual aviation activity has generated many questions.

PC-12 multimission durango airport
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 multimission aircraft, and Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck. Photo by Rick Freimuth May 31, 2019.

The PC-12 spent almost five hours Monday night flying at 14,750-feet in an irregular pattern northeast of Denver. According to Fox News in Denver, “The joint operation found no verification of suspicious drones,” said Caley Fisher, a spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

On January 9 the Colorado Department of Public Safety released a statement about the PC-12 mission. Here is an excerpt:

On Monday, January 6, 2020, the MMA flew for 4.8 hours in northeast Colorado, communicating with law enforcement vehicles on the ground.

As calls came in reporting potential suspicious drone activity, the MMA was prepared to identify which ground resource was closest to the sighting in order to deploy that vehicle in search of more information. The aircraft typically flies 10,000 feet above ground level (AGL), well above drone operations.

The MMA has the capability to detect heat signatures; it did not detect any suspicious heat signatures or drones related to the drone reportings during its flight. During the flight of the MMA, every report of a suspicious drone was investigated and was resolved, and none was substantiated.

From the Daily Mail, January 9, 2020:

…Meanwhile, another drone sighting was reported near Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday night. Television cameras for WOWT-TV spotted the mysterious flying object just outside of Mead, Nebraska.

An unmanned aircraft measuring about four-to-six feet was seen flying overhead. According to the news channel, the drone flew so close to the ground that the sound of the propellers could be heard on camera.

Local officials are baffled as to why anyone would operate a drone over an area that is entirely made up of rural farmland.

‘There’s not much out here to look at, so it kind of makes you wonder, well, if they’re not looking at anything, what are they planning, you know? Or whoever or whatever is going on?’ Saunders County Deputy Kyle Kennenbeck said.

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

Using infrared to detect gaps in retardant coverage

One of Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft shot this infrared video of an air tanker making a drop on the 500-acre Hunter Fire southwest of Meeker, Colorado about five days ago. Heat from the fire shows up as white and water or retardant drops are dark grey or black. It appears that the air tanker is attempting to fill in a gap in a retardant line, but as you can see, incomplete coverage remains.

The air tanker is very hard to see — it’s just a little dot, but it becomes obvious when the retardant is released. This shows the value of an air attack ship having infrared capabilities; the crew can direct aircraft to fill in gaps in retardant lines, in addition to mapping the fire perimeter.

Single Engine Air Tankers are a very important tool in the firefighter’s tool box, but this also shows the value of large and very large air tankers. A much longer drop means fewer gaps to worry about.

35-minute turnarounds for Tanker 12 at Sunshine Fire

Sunshine Fire

Above: Sunshine Fire near Boulder, Colorado. Boulder Office of Emergency Management photo.

Tanker 12, the BAe-146 air tanker working the Sunshine Fire near Boulder, Colorado on March 19, was dropping retardant about every 35 minutes, according to Rob McClure of the CBS TV station in Denver.

After a million acres burned in Kansas and Oklahoma on March 6 and 7, the National Interagency Fire Center mobilized three large air tankers on March 10, a little earlier than usual, sending Tanker 12 to the Jeffco Air Tanker base at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and two others to the OK/KS area.

It turned out that Jeffco was only 12 miles southwest of where the Sunshine Fire started on March 19 near Boulder, Colorado. Rob McClure of CBS4 in Denver timed the interval between drops made by the BAe-146, determining it to be about 35 minutes.

Sunshine Fire Boulder
The Sunshine Fire was 12 miles northwest of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (in the foreground).

From the air tanker base the pilots could probably see the fire soon after it started. If they took off from runway 30R they would be heading straight at the fire.

In addition to Tanker 12, four helicopters and Colorado’s Multi-mission aircraft were working the incident.

Three National Guard helicopters were made available by a verbal executive order by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper hours after the fire started. The aircraft, from Buckley Air Force Base, included two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, one CH-47 Chinook helicopter, as well as a refueling truck.

Firefighters limited the wildland/urban interface fire to about 74 acres according to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. We were not there but this appears to have been a pretty aggressive initial attack, an aspect of firefighting along the Front Range that has improved in the last couple of years.

The video below was shot March 19 from the Multi-mission aircraft, showing normal and infrared images.

Infrared aircraft detects single-tree wildfire

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control posted this video which apparently shows one of the state’s Multi-Mission Aircraft using infrared sensors to detect a single-tree fire. In the brief period of normal (not infrared imagery) there is very little visible smoke.

Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft”
One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-Mission Aircraft” at McClellan Air Field March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Colorado’s Multi Mission aircraft enhance firefighter safety

Colorado MMA
One of the two Multi Mission Aircraft owned by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. CDFPC photo.

(This article first appeared on Wildfire Today, October 26, 2015.)

The two Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA) recently purchased by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control could be significant progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of a wildfire and firefighters.

The Pilatus PC-12 single-engine aircraft have sensors on board combined with communications and software capabilities that can provide a version of the Holy Grail to office-bound fire managers as well as firefighters on the ground.

Operating well above firefighting air tankers and helicopters, the MMAs have two cameras, color and infrared. The color camera provides video similar to that used by news helicopters orbiting over a wildfire in California. The heat-detecting infrared sensor can map the location of large fires and can find small ones that can be difficult or impossible to spot from the air using just human eyesight. The cameras can be used to monitor the locations of firefighters on the ground, however their identities or resource designators would not be automatically provided.

The suite of communications and software, called Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS), transmits the data from the sensors in a usable form to a network where it can be accessed by authorized personnel in offices, fire apparatus, and firefighters on the ground with hand held devices.

Half of the Holy Grail appears to be provided with the MMAs — the real time or near-real time location of the fire. The other half, knowing the location of firefighters, can be determined to a certain extent, but only if the equipment operator devotes a significant amount of their time using the cameras to follow personnel and equipment on the ground. On a small fire this could be done while still maintaining the big picture of the spread of the fire, but on large incidents with hundreds or thousands of resources, it would be impossible. However, if a crew reported that they were in a dangerous situation (think Yarnell Hill Fire, where 19 firefighters died), perhaps the operator could use the infrared and visual sensors to locate them and relay that information to resources on the ground or in the air that could provide assistance.

The wildland firefighting agencies still need to adopt hardware and communications systems that can track every piece of apparatus, crew, and any resource operating alone on the fireline. That information could then be accessed on a display that could be monitored, at a minimum, by a Safety Officer, and others as needed; eventually by fire supervisors with hand held devices.

Some of the air attack aircraft under federal contract either have or will have video capabilities similar to that on Colorado’s MMAs, but a system needs to be utilized by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies that can make it usable to firefighters on the ground. Colorado has provided a template proving it can be done.

The CO-WIMS being used now by Colorado to provide real time intelligence is a huge step forward. While the state is far from developing a comprehensive organization for responding to and managing wildland fires, they deserve kudos for what they have already implemented with the MMAs and CO-WIMS.

It’s kind of like a homeless person being given a pair of $500 shoes. It’s a nice addition to their wardrobe, but there is still more that needs to be done.

More information: A .pdf version of a DCFPC presentation about the MMA and CO-WIMS at the October 21-23, 2015 Colorado State Fire Chiefs Fire Leadership Conference.

The following videos demonstrate some of the intelligence gathering capabilities of the MMA:

Continue reading “Colorado’s Multi Mission aircraft enhance firefighter safety”

Colorado shows off new multi-mission aircraft

The state of Colorado is showing off their two recently purchased multi-mission, high-tech, single-engine, fixed wing aircraft that can be used in a variety of roles for fighting and managing wildfires. The Colorado Firefighting Air Corp, working under the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), bought two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes configured and outfitted by the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

The aircraft have three sensors, one for infrared and two for color. They can map wildfires and detect a campfire from 30 to 45 miles away.

Last July we asked DFPC Director Paul Cooke how the aircraft will be used. He replied:

When presented to the Governor and Legislature other potential uses of the multi-mission aircraft were discussed, including:

• Transportation of critical medical personnel, supplies, and equipment
• Insect damage and forest assessments for the Colorado State Forest Service
• Office of Emergency Management: disaster assessments/reconnaissance
• Department of Mineral and Geology: mine assessment/compliance
• Dam safety and inspections
• Environmental monitoring and compliance
• Search and rescue missions
• Avalanche control

VIP and prisoner transport are performed by the Colorado State Patrol.

The aircraft will be Part 135 Certified and we expect they will also be ATGS platform carded. However, it will not perform Lead Plane functions and it is not currently planned to serve as an ASM.

Colorado mulit-mission aircraftWe last wrote about the aircraft in September when the agency acquired one on a temporary basis.