Orange County plans to upgrade helicopter fleet

And, background on how the helicopter crews for Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Fire Authority have divided the responsibilities for rescues

Orange County Fire Authority flight crews
Orange County Fire Authority flight crews: L to R: Joey Heaslet, Danny Moorhouse, Jason Trevino, Desiree Horton, & Robert Bucho.

When Desiree Horton was hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2013 she became, as far as we know, the only female firefighting helicopter pilot working for a government agency. Her first posting with CAL FIRE was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.

Desiree Horton, Fire Pilot
Desiree Horton, Fire Pilot for the Orange County Fire Authority.

The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in Southern California became available she couldn’t turn it down.

“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.

CAL FIRE has started replacing their UH-1H Super Hueys with Sikorsky Firehawks. One or two of them have been physically delivered from Sikorsky and the after-market conversion company United Rotorcraft, but none have been officially accepted from the contractors yet.

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The OCFA helicopter fleet

The OCFA has four helicopters, two military surplus UH-1Hs and two Bell 412EPs based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California. They both can carry up to about 360 gallons of water but are limited to around 200 gallons if the fuel tank is close to full.

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, helicopters 1 and 4

In July of last year the OCFA received a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison for Coulson Aviation to supply two helicopters that were based at Fullerton Airport. One of the ships was an S-61 with a collapsable external tank capable of night flying and hover-refilling at night. The second helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76 that worked with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The two helicopters were staffed 24/7 and available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Night flying

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to perform rescues and fight fire. They spent $25 million to purchase two Bell 412 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.

But fast-forward to 2015 and the agency had four helicopters equipped for night flying and began a six-month pilot program in which helicopters rotated 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

Pilot Joey Heaslet said most of their flight training now is conducted at night, explaining that if you can perform a task well at night it’s even easier in daylight.

Chief Brian Fennessy

Brian Fennessy, Chief of Orange County Fire Authority
Brian Fennessy, Chief of Orange County Fire Authority

Brian Fennessy was the Chief of the San Diego Fire Department before he became OCFA Fire Chief in March of 2018. He said the UH-1Hs built in 1966 are showing their age, are challenging to maintain, and parts are becoming difficult to find —  the same issues that were identified by CAL FIRE when they made the decision to replace their Super Hueys with Firehawks. The Bell 412EPs were manufactured in 2008.

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, Helicopter 3, a UH-1H

“All four of our aircraft need to be replaced,” said the Chief who has served as Air Operations Branch Director on Incident Management Teams.

As part of the process of evaluating what the agency’s next step is after retiring the Hueys, he talked with several vendors last week at the HAI HELI-EXPO a few miles from OCFA’s headquarters. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center and about 700 exhibitors.

That evaluation process also includes a Fleet Replacement Analysis by an aviation consultant, Conklin & de Decker Associates, an organization that completed a similar study for San Diego in 2017 when Chief Fennessy was the chief there. After that study and one for Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2000 both departments purchased Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks.

The Chief said the study for OCFA has been underway for about a year and a half and he believes it is nearing completion.

Below is a table from the Conklin & de Decker study for the San Diego FD, comparing five models of helicopters:

Conklin & de Decker helicopter study
An excerpt from the study conducted by for the San Diego Fire Department in 2017.

Real-time fire mapping

Another program Orange County was involved in last year was  a 150-day pilot program that makes real time fire mapping available to firefighters on the ground. The Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling. Chief Fennessy began exploring this technology when he was in San Diego. It became real when implemented September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

Using FIRIS, heat from the fire is detected by sensors on the plane where a technician interprets the imagery and manually draws a line around the perimeter. A map is then sent through WhatsApp to cell phones of firefighters on the ground. Within about three minutes a super computer in San Diego can add a projection of the anticipated spread of the fire.

This equipment could be a major step toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

Conflicts between aviation units of OCFA and the Sheriff’s office

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has five helicopters, AS350s used for patrol and UH-1Hs with hoists for rescue.

According to the Orange County Register, in 2017 Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens decided to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas. Until then the Sheriff Department’s air fleet had taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority handled rescues. During parts of 2017 and 2018 helicopters from both agencies were appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion. At times the pilots of the Sheriff’s helicopters ignored orders from Incident Commanders to stand down. According to the Orange County Register conflicts occurred twice on April 29, 2017. In a recording of the radio traffic a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”

The interagency battle escalated to the point where the 2017-2018 Orange County grand jury launched an investigation. Their report listed a number of recommendations including having the Sheriff Department helicopters move from John Wayne Airport to co-locate with the Fire Authority at Fullerton Airport where there is unused hangar space owned by the county. The report stated, “Colocating allows public aviation units to leverage each other’s resources, gain economies of scale in maintenance and training, and encourages use of best practices.”

Carrie Braun, Director of Public Affairs and Community Engagement for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said they have discussed co-locating with the Fire Authority and those talks are ongoing.

The grand jury report includes a copy of a July, 2017 Memorandum of Agreement drafted to establish responsibilities, frequencies, and procedures for incidents where more than one helicopter is at the scene. There were several interagency meetings held to work out the details. OCFA was invited to participate, but attended only one meeting and was the only air support unit not to sign the MOU. The document has signatures for representatives of the Sheriff’s office, Highway Patrol, and two local cities, but the line for the Fire Authority’s signature is blank.

On January 27, 2020 I asked Chief Fennessy about the issue:

“That was a very ugly chapter I think in both ours and the Sheriff’s history. When I came here [in March, 2018] that was pretty embarrassing… When I was named to be the Chief the very first thing I did before I even showed up for my first day at work was I met with Sheriff Hutchens… She wanted this thing to be behind her too… Let’s tell everybody this is how we’re going to behave and this is how it’s going to work and be done with this. And literally within days if not weeks of my arrival here, not just because of me but because of the willingness on the Sheriff’s side, we made a few necessary changes within our organizations and it ended.”

“We send three helicopters generally in the summer on the report of a fire,” the Chief said, “two of ours and one of their’s. They’ve got aircraft that are capable of dropping water, why wouldn’t we? If we need to put a spotter up, a HLCO [Helicopter Coordinator], they make one of their helicopters available.”

The solution they came up with is to split the responsibility for rescues. The Sheriff’s ships respond on weekends, Friday through Sunday, and OCFA takes Monday through Thursday plus, using their night flying capability, OCFA handles all fires and rescues at night.

Ms. Braun of the Sheriff’s Department said talking points their agency prepared for an August, 2018 press conference in which Sheriff Hutchens and Chief Fennessy discussed the resolution of the helicopter response responsibilities indicate that that the Sheriff thanked the Chief for his leadership and collaboration, and felt that, “Back in January, I wasn’t sure we would be standing here today. We had tried to mediate the situation and had come to an impasse. From the moment Chief Fennessy entered the conversation, bridges were being built.”

Australian Navy recovers helicopter from reservoir

The UH-1H helicopter ditched while working on a bushfire

helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
An Australian Army Heavy Recovery Vehicle is used to successfully recover a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.

On Sunday members of the Australian Army and Navy successfully recovered a UH-1H helicopter that had ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, New South Wales on January 9, 2020.

UH-1H helicopter submerged Ben Boyd Reservoir
A UH-1H helicopter partially submerged in Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, New South Wales January 9, 2020. Photo by Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service.

According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, “While conducting aerial fire control operations, [the helicopter] lost power and collided with water.” The aircraft submerged but the pilot, the only person on board, was able to self-extricate and swim to shore. The helicopter is registered to Garlick Helicopters and was working on the Clyde Mountain Fire under contract with the government.

The Canberrra Times reported that the 47-year old pilot was treated at the scene by paramedics for shoulder, back, and ankle injuries before being taken to the South East Regional Hospital.

The ATSB is investigating the incident.

The reservoir is a drinking water source and there was concern that fuel could contaminate the water.

helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
Royal Australian Navy clearance divers examine a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.

Using floats secured by Navy Clearance Diving Team One, the helicopter was floated approximately 400 meters to a boat launching ramp while being held within containment and absorbent booms to alleviate potential water contamination.

The Bell UH-1H was then brought onto the shore by an Australian Army Heavy Recovery Vehicle.

helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
Royal Australian Navy clearance divers prepare to recover a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.
helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
Australian Army soldiers and Royal Australian Navy clearance divers work together to recover a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.

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

Helicopter ditches in lake while fighting bushfire in Australia

The pilot swam to shore and was taken to a hospital

UH-1H helicopter submerged Ben Boyd Reservoir
A UH-1H helicopter partially submerged in Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, New South Wales. Photo by Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service.

Thursday afternoon January 9 at about 4 p.m. local time a helicopter under contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia ditched into a lake on the far south coast of NSW. After impacting the water the UH-1H helicopter submerged but the pilot was able to self-extricate and swim to shore. The pilot was the only person on board.

The Canberrra Times reported that the 47-year old pilot was treated at the scene by paramedics for shoulder, back, and ankle injuries before being taken to the South East Regional Hospital.

The helicopter was refilling with water at Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, in the Bega Valley Shire.

The aircraft had been moved from the Clyde Mountain Fire to work on the Border Fire in Eden which has crossed from NSW into Victoria. It merged with another fire creating a massive 150,000 hectare (370,000 acres).

Washington DNR prepares helicopter fleet for wildfire season

Washington DNR's UH-1H helicopters

Above: One of Washington DNR’s UH-1H helicopters. Washington DNR photo.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources is getting their fleet of eight helicopters ready for the coming wildfire season. The agency began acquiring their military surplus UH-1H (B-205) ships in 1989.

The DNR started their helicopter program in the 1960’s with two Bell-47’s used for recon and carrying a 50-gallon water bucket which was designed by one of their pilots, Harold Clark. By the mid-1970’s the Kaman Husky, which could carry up to 450 gallons, replaced the Bell-47’s. Those six Kaman’s were phased out in the late 1970’s due to a shortage of spare rotor blades and the availability of the more reliable and faster Huey UH-1B, which were replaced by the UH-1H about 10 years later.

Kaman Husky
A Washington DNR Kaman Husky from the 1970’s. It had interlocking rotors, not unlike the present day Kaman K-MAX. DNR photo.

The agency now has a program manager, one helicopter coordinator, 11 U.S. Forest Service certified helicopter pilots, 6 aviation maintenance technicians (AMT) who maintain, and configure the aircraft, and one chief pilot who leads the team. Usually 7 helicopters are deployed, with one held in reserve as a spare.

All of the pilots have current Class II Medical Certificates and FAA Commercial Rotor Wing Certificates. Many maintain an FAA Certified Instrument Instructor rating and Airline Transport pilot certification.

In addition to the pilots and mechanics, the staffing includes one transportation supervisor, 7 helicopter managers, 7 squad leaders, 14 firefighters, and 8 support drivers. All helitack modules have an incident commander. Generally they stage at Omak, Deer Park, Dallesport, Pomeroy, Wenatchee, Colville and Olympia.

Washington DNR's UH-1H helicopters
Maintenance on Washington DNR’s UH-1H helicopters. DNR photo.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Spokesman.com:

The department pays for fuel, operations and maintenance, which works out to about $1,600 an hour when they fly.

Dropping water on forest fires can be rugged work. But while these “Hueys” are old – the most senior helicopter in the DNR fleet came off the factory line in 1963 and did two tours in Vietnam, where it was shot down twice – they’re extremely reliable and spare parts are plentiful.

Washington DNR's UH-1H helicopters crew
Washington DNR photo

Montana still disappointed that the USFS will not approve their helicopters

The disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Montana over helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation continues.

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program. After the state made several significant modifications to the aircraft they no longer conform to the specifications the USFS requires to be approved, or “carded”, so that they can be used on federal wildfires. With the modifications, Montana now calls them “MT-205” helicopters. The change most often mentioned is the 324-gallon water bucket they use when the maximum allowed for that model under USFS regulations is 300 gallons.

In the latest development in the disagreement, MTN News reported that on Wednesday Montana’s Environmental Quality Council voted to send letters to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, asking that an exception be made that would allow the modified MT-205’s to be used on federal lands.

In an excerpt from an article by Jonathon Ambarian of MTN News, DNRC Director John Tubbs explains why they do not wish to use the USFS approved water bucket.

Tubbs said the MT-205 helicopters would have to be outfitted with a bucket smaller than 300 gallons in order to meet the federal standard. He said DNRC isn’t willing to make that change, because they want to maintain as much firefighting capacity as possible.

After we wrote about this controversy in 2015, representatives from three privately owned helicopter companies sent us a letter laying out a number of reasons why the MT-205’s should not be granted an exception to the federal standards. In addition to the issue of government competing with private enterprise, they said:

The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to.

And their letter continued:

[The helicopters acquired through the FEPP] are to be maintained in accordance with the original military standards or a combination of military or commercial (FAA) standards, whichever are more stringent. The DNRC has done neither.

Three Hueys dipping water

This video was posted on Facebook yesterday by Gastón Tomcat who wrote:

Hi from Dominican Republic, this was today in Santo Domingo. Independence Day.

Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies

MT DNRC helicopter
Helicopter operated by the Montana DNRC. Photo credit: Montana DNRC.

Representatives from three private helicopter companies in Montana have waded into the controversy about the U.S. Forest Service not approving modifications made to helicopters operated by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The lack of approval means the helicopters cannot be used for fires on national forest land.

The DNRC operates five UH-1H (Huey) helicopters that are on loan from the U.S. Forest Service under the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program.

On August 21 Montana Governor Steve Bullock called the Forest Service’s position on the issue “nonsensical”, according to Newsmax, and in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote:

I am doing my part to mobilize every available firefighting resource at my disposal, and make them available to all fire protection agencies. I encourage you to do your part by directing leadership within your respective agencies to rescind this unnecessary and artificial restriction on Montana aircraft as soon as possible.

The FEPP program requires helicopters to be in full compliance with FAA regulations, however the DNRC stated in 2010 that they do not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates.

The representatives from the Montana helicopter companies say there is much more to the story. We received the following letter written by Will Metz of Vigilante Helicopters, Gary Blain from Billings Flying Service, and Mike Mamuzich of Minuteman Aviation.

****

September 18, 2015

“To: Bill of Fire Aviation   

RE: Use of Montana UH-1H Firefighting Aircraft on Federal Lands is Suspect

From 2009-2012 Aviation Watch Inc., a non-profit organization that represented private aircraft operators and contractors, conducted a review of the MT DNRC Aviation Program. This in depth FOIA review discovered concerning and glaring operational and maintenance issues regarding Montana DNRC Aircraft. These technical and sometimes complicated issues are previous to this year’s fire season and are ongoing. 

Although in recent articles the DNRC has explained some of the issues away as good ideas in the name of performance, the facts remain.  The Forest Service has not approved their aircraft for use, and has not for several years, because engineering and data for certain modifications performed on their aircraft is suspect or missing.  Furthermore, critical required engineering data that has been provided to the DNRC is not adhered to. For instance, letters written to the DNRC by Billings Flying Service and the response by the DNRC, along with the related engineering report, you will see items highlighted that are of continuing concern. 

The last page of their own engineering report, Fig 13 Weight Altitude and Temperature (WAT) Chart, which is required, clearly limits their lifting capability. This has been referred to in recent press articles as “the bucket issue”. It is not the size of the bucket but rather the weight you can lift with approved performance data. The DNRC has surreptitiously omitted this from their own flight manual supplement and apparently it is not applicable to them, even though they paid for the data.  Civilian helicopters are capable of lifting more than the performance charts allow as well, but they cannot self-approve themselves to do so, nor is it safe.

There were numerous other issues raised, some egregious, as part of the operator review that are available. Even the possibility of one such discrepancy in the civilian world would ground aircraft, some permanently.  These Documents, attachments and others are available on a website. 

As they should, the Forest Service requires all aircraft fighting fires on Federal lands to adhere to the same performance and standards for safety and standardization reasons. The MT DNRC requires private operators contracting with them to adhere to these standards as well, of which they themselves do not meet.

Continue reading “Controversy over Montana DNRC helicopters intensifies”

Helicopter pilot shortage at Washington DNR

A shortage of pilots is grounding some of the Washington DNR helicopters.

Washington DNR UH-1 Huey
A Washington DNR UH-1 Huey. Photo by Washington DNR.

The acting Chief Pilot for the Washington Department of Natural Resources said a shortage of pilots is grounding some of their helicopters. The DNR has eight UH-1 Hueys in their fleet and their goal is to have at least six operational at any given time during the fire season.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Seattle Times:

Just days before a series of deadly, record-setting wildfires began exploding across Washington, the acting chief pilot for the state’s wildfire-attack helicopters wrote a letter to his superiors.

Unfilled pilot positions were grounding some helicopters, John Adolphson wrote to senior staff at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Of the agency’s eight helicopters, “Right now we can only fly between 4-5 DNR helicopters because we don’t have the pilots,” Adolphson wrote in a letter sent Aug. 11 and obtained by The Seattle Times.

Adolphson argued low pay was making it hard to recruit pilots, and the state should spend some of the money it uses to contract for additional helicopters to beef up its own staff…

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