Aerial Firefighters Reacting To An Early Fire Season In Southern US

December 2…. At a time of the year when most aerial firefighters would be engaged in equipment maintenance and crew training in preparation for the next year’s wildland fires, an earlier than normal start to the fire season in the Southern US has put some of the industry back to work.
Fires have ranged across eight Southeastern states, destroying more than 119,000 acres. “Fires in that part of the country in mid-to-late November are unusual, but not unheard of,” said Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for Helimax Aviation in Boise, Idaho. “There have been a few instances at this time of year, but mostly in Kentucky when the bootleggers and marijuana growers deliberately set fires to keep law enforcement officers away from their stills and fields.”
One of Helimax Aviation’s CH-47Ds has been working out of the Oxford, Alabama, airport since November 12, Kelley reported. The helicopter, which had been at Rifle, Colorado since late October, is assisting firefighters in the Talladega National Forest with water drops, using a 2,000 gallon power fill Bambi bucket. Supported by two pilots, a flight engineer, four mechanics, and a fuel truck driver, the helicopter is currently operating under a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract, which has been on extension since October 27.
While much of Helimax Aviation’s business is focused on the Western US, Kelley noted that the company was well prepared to deploy a mission-ready helicopter over a long distance. “We are a service company with the ability to go where we are needed–and when–so it makes no difference to us where we are assigned,” he said.
Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters has two CH 47Ds equipped with 2,800 gallon capacity Simplex internal tanking for water and retardant dropping, operating under extensions of USFS exclusive use contracts on the Southeastern fires since mid-November. “The extensions commenced at the end of each helicopter’s 150 day mandatory availability period, which terminated in September and October,” said Keith Saylor, the company’s Director-Commercial Operations. “Both helicopters were doing water drops on the Creek Fire, in Virginia during Thanksgiving Week, but have since been repositioned to Tallahassee, Florida, where they are currently in a standby mode. Each CH-47D deploys with two pilots, five mechanics and two drivers of supporting vehicles.
“What we are seeing is an early start to the Southern fire season—which usually begins in January—because the area has been plagued by drought,” Saylor pointed out. “It has been many years since we have sent helicopters there in mid-November.”
He added that the unusual contingency has not been an issue for the operator. “Columbia Helicopters is prepared to work, year round, if needed,” he said. “That is due to our aggressive maintenance program, and the readiness of our assets throughout the year.”
In addition to attacks by helicopters, the fires in the Southeast are being aggressively fought by fixed wing tankers, as Dan Snyder, Chief Operations Officer for Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services, pointed out. Two of the company’s BAe 146 tankers have been operating on fires in Tennessee and Kentucky, starting in late October and early November.
“One tanker was repositioned to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from San Bernardino, and the other was flown from Missoula to Chattanooga, after a short stand-by period in Lake City, Florida, due to that state’s current high fire risk,” Snyder explained. “Both tankers have been flying from the Tri-Cities area on fires in Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, under post-season contract extensions.”
Snyder termed the operation “sporadic.” On some days, he said, there are as many as five to six hours of retardant dropping, and on others, the aircraft are kept in a standby mode. A four-person staff comprised of a pilot, copilot, crew chief, and a maintenance support person who is also responsible for driving the support vehicle supports each aircraft.
“This is the first time our BAe 146 tankers have operated this far east, and for this length of time,” Snyder said. “The aircraft has a range of over 1,500 nautical miles, and the ability to cover long distances at very high speed. This is especially advantageous in the eastern United States, because the fires are more wide-spread, and tanker bases are more distant from each other.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington-based trade association which represents the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service and other agencies with responsibility for wildland management.”

Aerial Firefighters Double-Down On Safety As Fires Rage

As wildfires rage across much of the US, aerial firefighters are continually reviewing and enhancing their safety management systems, with increasing attention to the impact of firefighting’s high-stress environment on pilots and ground crews.
“Aerial firefighting aircraft are often flying in close proximity, and typically at low levels over treacherous terrain,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “The safety management systems the industry has implemented in recent years have significantly mitigated the risk of accidents.”
Structured safety management systems have come about by regulatory mandate. Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, duty days for pilots are limited to 14 hours, with an eight hour maximum for actual flight times. Also, within any six consecutive days, pilots have a 42-hour limit on flying, but after 36 hours of flying within that time frame, must get the next 24 hours off. Along with compliance with those regulations, the industry’s safety management system programs are focusing even more on fatigue, a major issue for pilots and ground support crews, given the high stress conditions inherent with wildland firefighting.
“Under US Forest Service (USFS) guidelines, our pilots get 48 hours off duty after working a 12 day maximum shift,” said Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for Helimax Aviation in Boise, Idaho. “However, we modified that last year with 12 days on and two days off–and then, after the next 12 days on, we give them seven days off, which the pilots seem to like.”
Kelley added that Helimax has weekly conference calls with every aircraft and crew member regarding safety issues. “During these calls pilots, mechanics, and drivers have the opportunity to let management know what their concerns are,” he said. “If they have any, we are very proactive in meeting them.”
Kelley also noted a US Forest Service (USFS) policy which gives pilots some latitude with fatigue issues, if they pose a potential safety risk. “The managers will listen to the crew and if they determine that a pilot is getting tired, they will stand the aircraft down and slow the pilot’s flight time, which benefits the whole operation,” he remarked. “This prevents the pilot from trying to get the job done without admitting being tired or affected by the heat.”
Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters took a major step to mitigate pilot fatigue last year, when it integrated the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) “Land and Live” policy with its own safety management system program.
“It gives pilots the authority to stop work if they are not comfortable flying the aircraft for any reason such as fatigue, excessive visibility problems, or a large number of aircraft in the area,” said Dan Riches, the company’s Director, Health, Safety, Environment and Security. “Their first option is to land the aircraft to assure safety.”
To ensure that safety is maintained, the company, itself, closely monitors flight hours, as do the individual flight crews. “For the past several years, our evolving Risk Management Program has incorporated fatigue assessment which is done using a proprietary iPad application for risk management and dispatch purposes. This is carried out by the crews, daily, and electronically reported to the home office,” Riches explained.
David Barnett, Chief Pilot at Erickson, Inc. reported that during every fire on which the Portland, Oregon-based company’s aircraft are deployed, a morning briefing is held to ensure that the safety provisions under its Aerial Operations Policy Manual (AOPM) are being implemented. “During those briefings, any safety issues we believe the pilots should be aware of, such as nearby powerlines, other aircraft operating on the fire; as well as where ground-based personnel are working are discussed,” he said.
Barnett added that pilot fatigue is among the concerns raised at those briefings. “By policy, we will support any pilot who decides not to fly because he or she is too tired to carry out the mission, or sees see any kind of safety problem.”
Along this line, Rick Livingston, President of Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter, said that the company, which operates a single Bell 212, holds a formal safety meeting each Monday during which safety concerns are discussed. “The meetings include everyone with the company—the pilots, mechanics, and fuel truck drivers,” he explained. “For us, the major safety issues expressed are visibility—due to smoke and ash—as well as the heavy amount of radio traffic transmitted from numerous aircraft working on the fires.”
Livingston pointed out that with a single helicopter and just seven employees, Intermountain Helicopter has addressed any fatigue problems “by having the staff on hand” to relieve any pilot, mechanic or fuel truck driver, if necessary.
Airtanker company Neptune Aviation Services closely monitors the number of missions flown, number of hours flown, along with the hours of extended standby requested by the USFS, during any three day period in order to gage pilot fatigue, as Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company explained.
“We get reports from the crews about pilot fatigue, and if a certain threshold of reporting is reached, we will initiate a fatigue check, either by phone or with face to face interviews with the Chief Pilot or Flight Administrator,” Snyder noted. “Both also interface with the crews, on a daily basis, to check on their physical state by asking them how they are doing and if they feel they can fly.”
As Snyder explained, Neptune Aviation Services safety management system includes its maintenance crews.
“Mechanics have a requirement of at least eight hours off during any 24 hour period, and they must have two 24 hour periods off during any 14 day period they are working,” he said. “Also the drivers of the ground support vehicles must adhere to specific Department of Transportation (DOT) duty and time regulations.”
The maintenance crews are specifically monitored by the company’s Maintenance Control Center, which provides support and technical assistance. As with the pilots, that includes daily fatigue checks. However, at Neptune Aviation Services, pilots and mechanics also look out for each other.
“When we are working on contract, the maintenance crews have the right–through their managerial structure–to raise concerns about pilot fatigue. In a similar fashion, pilots can also raise concerns about mechanics’ fatigue,” said Snyder. “This is important because each group may become so involved with their work that they don’t recognize that they are showing signs of fatigue.”
Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the USFS and other regulatory agencies with oversight and management responsibilities for wildland resource management.