NTSB issues report about crash of night-flying helicopter

You may remember that on August 4, 2015 a helicopter with a water bucket crashed into a lake while helping to suppress a fire in Montana. It happened at about 10:30 p.m. when one of the helicopters owned by Two Bear Air, flown by Jordan White the executive director and flight officer of the company, was dipping water out of Beaver Lake north of Whitefish. Mr. White was able to extricate himself from the helicopter and swim to shore just before the aircraft sank. He had minor injuries and it was discovered that there was substantial damage to the helicopter after it was recovered from the lake bottom by divers.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a report about the accident, saying, basically, it was pilot error. The pilot reported that he was hovering over a lake at night while engaged in water bucket operations. He was using the MD Helicopters 369E landing light and newly installed movable searchlight positioned to shine underneath and toward the left side of the helicopter for illumination. He reported that he was able to see the shoreline, horizon, and the texture on the water during these operations.

During the third load, he reported that he was transitioning his sight “forward and inside to the instrument panel,” and that while he was scanning the instrument panel, he “noticed the rotor disk dipping toward the water.” He stated that he saw the main rotor blades strike the water and then the helicopter impacted the water. The cockpit filled with water as the helicopter rolled upside-down and began to sink. The pilot reported that while he was egressing from the cockpit underwater, he felt his “helmet tug backwards and I realized the communications cord was still attached to the helicopter.” The pilot removed his helmet, surfaced, and swam to the shore without further incident.

The recovery of the helicopter from the lake revealed substantial damage to the fuselage, the main rotor blade system, and the tail boom. The pilot reported there were no preimpact mechanical failures or malfunctions with the airframe or engine that would have precluded normal operation.

The pilot reported that he had prior formal external load training, but no formal over-water external load training. He reported that he had never had formal underwater egress training and was not wearing a flotation device at the time of the accident.

Presentations from Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Summit

Presentations from the recent Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Summit are now available. The conference was organized by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting held January 27 and 28 at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, Colorado.

The topics of the presentations posted include night flying helicopter operations in three agencies in southern California, and companies representing the optionally-manned K-Max and the 747 “Supertanker” that is currently being renovated. The Powerpoint about dispatching indicates that most of the dispatch centers involved in night flying operations in southern California were not organized to handle the increased workload in 2015.

 USFS Night Aerial Firefighting Operations RAVCO-Kmax Unmanned Aerial Firefighting
 Dispatch During Night Operations  ASU Night Vision
Ventura County Night Aerial Firefighting Operations Global Super Tanker 
 LA County Night Operations Helicopter Express Night Operations. 
 UAS Fire Briefing

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

Report of helicopter making emergency landing following a wire-strike

H-531 emergency landing

Reports from several sources indicate that a firefighting helicopter struck a wire while working on the Cabin Fire in southern California Friday afternoon. The tail number visible on news reports shows that it was N15HX, Helicopter 531, which is a Bell Super 205 equipped with a belly tank and snorkel, supplied to the Angeles National Forest under a contract with Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia.

All indications so far are that the helicopter made a successful landing near a reservoir.

(UPDATE April 25, 2016: The FAA “brief report”.)

Helicopter 531 wire strike fire
File photo of Helicopter 531 and the four crews that staff the aircraft. USFS photo.

The Cabin Fire started at about 1 p.m. PT on August 14 eight miles north of Azusa, California in the Angeles National Forest. It had burned 800 acres by 5:30 p.m., according to the Forest Service.

Helicopter 531 is the only night-flying helicopter used by the U.S. Forest Service. In 2014 when it began the night flying contract, it was staffed 24 hours a day, using five helitack personnel on each 12-hour shift, changing at 0600 and 1800. There were four 5-person shifts of firefighters, A, B, C, and D, in order to have coverage on days off — a total of 20 firefighters for the helicopter operation, plus pilots.

The helicopter was flown in 2014 by one pilot during the day, but added a co-pilot at night. It was scheduled to respond to fires with a Captain and two other helitack crewpersons on board while two more traveled by ground vehicle.

The helicopter and the air attack ship worked out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California in 2014.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
Night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Night-flying firefighting helicopter crashes into Montana lake

Tuesday night, August 4, a helicopter with a water bucket crashed into a lake while helping to suppress a fire in Montana. It happened at about 10:30 p.m. when one of the helicopters owned by Two Bear Air, flown by Jordan White the executive director and flight officer of the company, was dipping water out of Beaver Lake north of Whitefish. Mr. White was able to extricate himself from the helicopter and swim to shore just before the aircraft sank.

We checked, and the sun will set at 9:06 p.m. in Whitefish, MT tonight.

After several hours of searching the lake with sonar, Flathead County Sheriff personnel and their dive team were able to attach floats to the helicopter, bring it to the surface, and take it to the shore.

Mr. White, the former Flathead County undersheriff, said the helicopter is not part of the Two Bear Air rescue fleet.

The company was founded by Mike Goguen, a managing partner of Sequoia Capital, the California firm that was the original financial backer of Apple, Google and YouTube, among others. He provides a Bell 429 and an MD 500E to any agency that needs a helicopter for a rescue mission — at no charge. He has spent $11 million purchasing, equipping, and operating the two rescue helicopters based in Whitefish, Montana.

In 2014 they flew 125 missions, an average of one every three days. In March, 2015 the Bell 429 used its night flying capabilities, hoist, and infrared sensor at 1 a.m. to locate a teenage girl who became lost and was pinned when a tree fell on her.

Articles at Fire Aviation tagged Two Bear Air.

Orange County helicopters ready for night flying

The Orange County Fire Authority now has four helicopters ready to operate at night. Beginning in March, the southern California agency began a six-month pilot program in which their four helicopters rotate 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to fight fire. They even purchased $25 million worth of helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Orange County Register:

…The benefit of night flights was shown on Sept. 4, 2010, when the fire authority sent a helicopter into a nighttime blaze for the first time. The crew made 12 water drops, and helped contain a 10-acre fire in less than three hours. The flight crew was in the parking lot on its way home when they got the a call around 7:56 p.m. for assistance.

The [six-month trial program] comes six years after an independent auditor recommended the fire authority could improve after the 2007 Santiago Fire that scorched more than 28,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes in Orange County.

Because of budgetary and safety concerns, round-the-clock air operations took a back seat to other issues in the six years since adopting night-vision technology, said Gene Hernandez, vice chairman of the Fire Authority’s board of directors.

“There was significant changes occurring in the organization that we needed to address, and this wasn’t a front-burner issue,” Hernandez said, citing budget cuts at the time.

The extra coverage allows the fire agency to respond to the 25 percent of calls for air assistance that used to fall outside the previous 12-hour duty day, according to a staff report. Last year, the agency’s helicopters responded to 196 calls total.

The helicopters sometimes still flew at night, but only when on-call crews responded back to work.

Under the new program, one aircraft will be staffed with a pilot and crew chief, with a firefighter/paramedic rescuer added on the weekends, at an annual cost of $1.5 million.

A fire you didn’t hear about

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
Night flying helicopter dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Firefighters on the ground and in the air routinely put out fires when they are small, but only the large fires that threaten private property get the extensive news coverage. The Mesa Fire was knocked down Saturday at about 7 p.m. after burning two acres in Cajon Pass in southern California near Interstate 15. Helicopter 531, Air Attack 51, and firefighters on the ground made the stop.

Night flying fire suppression drill scheduled in California

The Kern County Fire Department in Bakersfield, California will be hosting a night flying and night vision goggles (NVG) fire suppression drill on June 5. The Department recently distributed the following information. It is interesting in that it will involve not only night flying helicopters, but also crews, engines, and dozers.


“On June 5, 2014 the Kern County Fire Department will be hosting the Southern California Interagency NVG Fire Suppression Drill in the Greater Tehachapi area. Kern County Fire Department, Orange County Fire Authority, Los Angeles City Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, Ventura County Fire/Sheriff, and the US Forest Service will participate in the drill with their aircraft.

The drill will begin at 2:00 PM with aircraft arriving at the East Ramp of Tehachapi Municipal Airport, the Drill Helibase. The airport east ramp will be closed to other aircraft and access will be limited to drill participants, Fire Service observers, and support staff only.

The Drill In-briefing will commence at 3:00 PM, following the brief aircraft will conduct area familiarization flights during daylight and return to the Helibase where dinner will be provided at 18:00. NVG Fire suppression operations will commence at approximately 8:45 PM, concluding at approximately 1:00 AM on June 6th. Fire suppression apparatus, including crews, engines, and dozers will be stationed at the burn site on Cummings Ranch.

Helicopters will depart the Helibase on order from the HLCO, proceed to the Tank-Fill site near Brite Lake, take on water and commence water-drop operations by flying circuits from the Tank-Fill site to the fire site on Cummings Ranch. Aircraft will complete as many evolutions as required for each pilot to demonstrate proficiency in night water drop operations. Additionally, Fire Crews will have the opportunity to work with night water-dropping helicopters to practice, train, and develop night water-drop coordination procedures (Identification, Communication, Feedback, etc.).

Aerial Supervision will be provided by the USFS Night Air Attack airplane and Kern County Fire NVG HLCO.”


Night flying helicopter used on the Mountain Fire

The U.S. Forest Service has been using their new night flying helicopter and air attack ship on the Mountain Fire west of Palm Springs, and proudly produced this graphic.

Night flying data, Mountain Fire

And, they should be proud. It is a big step for an agency that is not known for innovation in their aerial firefighting program. The night flying helicopter concept was reintroduced in the USFS during the first part of June this year.