Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

Navy Blackhawk battles wildfire at night

Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two-Five
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two-Five based at Andersen AFB, Guam. US Navy photo.

A U.S. Navy Blackhawk helicopter, an MH-60S, helped suppress a wildfire that was threatening homes on Guam. Not deterred by darkness, the flight crew dropped 4,200 gallons of water using an external bucket.

Here is how the squadron describes their mission:

“HSC-25 is the Navy’s only forward deployed MH-60S expeditionary squadron. We provide an armed helicopter capability for US Seventh Fleet as well as detachments to various commands covering a diverse mission set. Flying the MH-60S, HSC-25 supports permanently assigned detachments to the USS Bonhomme Richard homeported in Sasebo, Japan, and Commander, Task Force 73. These detachments perform logistics, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance for US Seventh Fleet. HSC-25 is a tenant command on board Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. HSC-25 provides 24 hour search and rescue (SAR) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) service for Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands.”

USS Bonhomme Richard
Pacific Ocean (July 25, 2006) – The Wasp-class Amphibious Assault Ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) sails in formation with ships and submarines from the U.S. Navy as well as the Navies of the seven other nations. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist Seaman James R. Evans.

Below are videos of them dropping on other fires.

Two bases in Victoria are providing night-flying helicopters for bushfire suppression

Emergency managers in Australia will be using night flying helicopters operationally this summer for the first time, following a trial a year ago

Kestrel helicopter night fying
The Directors and Crew of Kestrel. EMV photo.

Victoria’s second night vision equipped firefighting helicopter was deployed yesterday in Mangalore.

For the first time Kestrel Aviation’s helicopter was double-crewed to ensure it had day and night personnel available for firebombing, if it was required.

They join another certified operator, Coulson Aviation, who can also provide a night firebombing service to Victoria with helicopters based at Ballarat.

Ballarat and Mangalore are the two locations where night firebombing helicopters are located, however the aircraft can potentially respond to any area across the state – but only in the right circumstances.

This summer the focus of the night firebombing trial is to test procedures and operations on real fires.

Night operations will be used as an extension of day operations, meaning aircraft will be able to assist ground crews on fires for a longer period of time. Night firebombing will only occur on actual fires where it can add value to fire operations, or in circumstances where the experience can help build or improve the night firebombing capability.

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.

Trial of dropping water on a wildfire at night begins in Australia

If successful, night-flying helicopters could be incorporated into the 2018/2019 summer bushfire season — then they will consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Above: The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase two of the night-flying trial. Photo by Coulson.

(UPDATED at 8:40 a.m. MT February 28, 2018)

The test of firefighting helicopters dropping water at night has started in Victoria, Australia. If after the test the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approves hover-filling and dropping at night, the next step will be to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

“Fighting fires in the dark hours, in the cooler part of the night or in the early parts of the morning would enable us to get on top of fires quicker, particularly those in remote parts of Victoria where access may be difficult,” Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said Monday.

“While the use of night vision goggles and infrared technology isn’t new, these have not been used together in Australia. We are very keen to trial this capability, and understand how it would work in a system, and make it safe to do so.”

CASA has approved the trial which will involve controlled conditions at all times.

The first of its kind in Australia, the test will be based at Ballarat Airport. Emergency Management Victoria is the lead with Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Country Fire Authority, and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

The trial will test the ability to hover-fill helicopters at night and the efficiency of night vision technology, including infrared systems and night vision goggles.

Several agencies in Southern California have been conducting night helicopter operations for years, but their SOPs require that they land to refill with water, rather than hover-fill. One of the reasons is that the B-212’s and B-412’s create too much mist for the pilots to see with night vision goggles.

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 drops water during the night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Coulson.

The results of the trial will guide the future use of night-time aerial firebombing operations in Victoria as well as other states and territories.

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation are participating in the trial. A Sikorsky S-61 will drop water while a Sikorsky S-76 will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator.

In the trial the S-76 Firewatch helicopter orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 water dropping operation. It used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the fire bombing helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles, but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

In the video below an australian official says the next step is to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Coulson helicopters to participate in Australian night-flying trial

The project will begin February 23 with two Sikorsky helicopters, an S-61 and an S-76.

Above: Coulson night-flying helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61. Coulson photo.

(Originally published at 11:10 MT February 21, 2018)

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation will be participating in a night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. When we first reported on this project, Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre said, “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use night vision goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to extend firebombing into the night.”

One of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-61’s, Helicopter 347, that was already working on a firefighting contract in Australia will be dropping water during the trial. It will be working with another of the company’s helicopters, a Sikorsky S-76, which will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The S-76 was not in the country but was transported there from Canada in a 747 on February 14.

The video below includes a September trial of the two aircraft working with night vision goggles showcasing how the two aircraft interact with each other.

The trial will begin February 23 in the state of Victoria.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Australia to experiment with night-flying helicopters

This will be the first trial of helicopters dropping water on fires at night in the country.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass in Southern California, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Fire management authorities in Australia are planning a trial of night-flying helicopters later this year. Emergency Management Victoria is leading the effort which could begin toward the end of the current bushfire season in March or April.

“There is still a lot of planning and due diligence to complete, and regulatory approvals to work through”, Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre said.  “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use Night Vision Goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to  extend firebombing into the night.”

Mr. Alder said fixed wing air tankers will not be part of this trial, but they are examining the possibilities for future phases of the project.

The video below is an example of a night-flying helicopter dropping on a structure fire in Los Angeles (at 1:08).

Around half a dozen or so agencies in Southern California have been using night-flying helicopters for a number of years.

The Australians have 42 Single Engine Air Tankers working this bushfire season — 40 AT802’s and 2 Hubler Turbine M18’s. Two of the AT802’s are Firebosses on floats.

They have also had four large air tankers from North America working in the country during their summer.

  • DC-10 (-912 contracted from Agair who work with Ten Tanker) based at Richmond near Sydney;
  • L-100 (T-132, Coulson Aviation based at Richmond) – the Mandatory Availability Period is already completed for this one;
  • C-130Q (T-131, Coulson Aviation) based at Avalon near Melbourne;
  • RJ85 (FieldAir with AeroFlite) based at Avalon.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre is in the process of issuing contract solicitations for the 2018-2019 bushfire season. They expect to have about the same number of SEATS, large air tankers, and Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters.

“Overall we would expect generally similar total numbers, but these solicitations could potentially see some changes in providers or fleet mix”, Mr. Alder wrote in an email. “Our multi-agency evaluation groups are currently working through all the options (and budgets!) and we hope to have a better idea of how the future fleet will look in a few months.”

Colorado issues analysis of nighttime aerial firefighting

Above: A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopters drops water on the Fish Fire, June 21, 2016. LACoFD photo by Gene Blevins.

(Originally published at 5:344 p.m. MST January 24, 2018)

Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting has issued a 28-page report that analyzes nighttime aerial firefighting. Primarily it documents what several Southern California firefighting agencies are currently doing with helicopters at night.

The table below from the report presumably applies to the single helicopter that is double-crewed on the Angeles National Forest to operate both during the day and at night.

aerial firefighting at night
From the CoE report on aerial firefighting at night.

The report does not make any recommendations about flying at night, but does list seven “scenarios” that could be considered for Colorado:

  1. No night aerial firefighting operations in Colorado
  2. Night Operations statewide — wildfire only
  3. Night operations statewide — all hazards
  4. Location-specific night operations
  5. Expanded Multi-Mission fixed wing, for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at night (the state owns two Pilatus PC‐12 fixed‐wing  aircraft currently being used for missions such as these)
  6. Extended daytime flight hours
  7. Unmanned aerial systems night operations, short-term and long-term

You can download the entire report here (large 2.6 MB file)

Below are tweets showing mostly Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopters operating at night.