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.

A Kern County FD night-flying helicopter assisted last month on the fires in Northern California

Above: Kern County Fire Department Helicopter 407, a UH-1H. Kern County photo.

Kern County Fire Department (map) has two helicopters, UH-1H’s, outfitted for flying at night to assist firefighters on the ground. One of them assisted on the Tubbs Fire last month, the blaze that eventually destroyed thousands of homes and killed numerous residents.

The Tehachapi News has an article about the Department’s night-flying program. Below is an excerpt.

After the Cedar Fire chewed up hundreds of thousands of acres in 2003, killing 15 people and costing well north of $1 billion, agencies recognized certain policies had to change, and that included implementing night-flying helicopters, said Pat Williams, the Kern County Fire Department’s chief pilot.

Under the FIRESCOPE program, a partnership representing local, rural and metropolitan fire departments, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and federal fire agencies, guidelines were created for night flying.

Night flying helicopter drops water on structure fire near World Series game

Two fires broke out Wednesday night near Dodgers Stadium, a brush fire and one in a condominium.

Above: A helicopter dropped water on a fire in a condominium near Dodgers Stadium Wednesday night. Screen grab from CBS LA video.

(Originally posted at 2:53 p.m. MDT October 26, 2017)

Two fires broke out Wednesday night during the World Series game on opposite sides of Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. First was a grass fire reported at 7:35 p.m. in the 1800 block of Academy Road. A night-flying helicopter assisted firefighters on the ground by dropping water on the blaze that burned about two acres.

The helicopter was then diverted to a fire on the third-floor balcony of a three-story condominium in the 1000 block of Everett Place where it made two water drops. Los Angeles City Department Assistant Chief Tim Ernst called it, “A quick knockdown”.

There was a report that the owner of the condo could see the fire from the baseball game.

Report on the use of night-flying helicopters on the Cedar Fire

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a report on the use of night-flying aircraft on the Cedar Fire west of Kernville, California that burned approximately 30,000 acres in August.

Two night-flying helicopters, from the Angeles National Forest and Kern County, were used along with a night-flying air attack. The video above shows the two helicopters flying to and dropping on a spot fire detected by the air attack ship.

Below are some quotes from the report:

“We were the first resources into the subdivision. We were having a difficult time figuring out where to go (fire front). Night ATGS located us with infrared and directed us to the right location.”
Engine Captain

“The Helicopter saved our bacon and let us keep working on digging line.”
Crew Member

“We were digging line next to the fire. I looked up and there were 25-foot flames. H-531 came in, cooled it down, and we continued digging line.”
Crew Member