Aerial Firefighters Pressing Colorado Lawmakers To Consider Contracting

Washington, D.C., March 28….At the urging of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry, Colorado State Senator Steve King (R-Grand Junction) has inserted language into a Bill, which–if enacted–would give the Colorado Division Of Fire Prevention And Control the authority to lease or contract three Type 1 helicopters and up to “four large aircraft from the Federal government or other sources” for aerial firefighting.  The legislative proposal, known as Senate Bill 164, also contains a purchase option.

“We fully support the efforts of the State of Colorado to employ assets for aerial firefighting, but we believe it will be far more cost efficient to contract those assets from the private aerial firefighting industry, which is prepared to make them available for this year’s fire season,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “We applaud the fact that, unlike legislation introduced last year, Senate Bill 164 specifically includes language which permits the State of Colorado to contract those aircraft from private operators.”

According to Ron Hooper, Chief Executive Officer of Missoula, Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services, the biggest impediment to state ownership and operation of aerial firefighting assets is what he called “the very large initial upfront investment,” which he explained.

“The state would be looking at aircraft acquisition costs and the expenses associated with the operational support infrastructure which includes constructing or leasing hangars, the hiring of flight crews and mechanics, and a spare parts inventory—all of which could run into the tens of millions of dollars.  However, by contracting with private operators, these large upfront costs would be avoided.”

Neptune Aviation Services, Hooper pointed out, is currently engaged in discussions with high level Colorado state government officials concerning the contracting of an aircraft and crews for this year’s fire season.

“We could make a BAe 146 Next Generation tanker available on either a long-term exclusive use contract of as much as five years, or for as little as one year to help the state government get the initial experience of working with a private operator,” he noted.  “We respect Colorado’s long term plan to have a dedicated aerial firefighting force, but we believe they should consider at least a one year contract with a private operator as a practical interim measure to protect the critical watershed in western Colorado,” said Hooper.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that should Colorado issue a request for proposal (RFP), the company could make a Sikorsky S-61, or a Eurocopter 332L-1 Puma available in June of this year for the duration of this year’s fire season.  Both are Type 1 helicopters.  While CHI Aviation, according to Kelley, has not had discussions with the Colorado state government about contracting operation of the helicopters, he reported that contracting would be a “win-win” situation.

“We already have the pilots on staff, and we are paying their salaries as well as their training costs.  In addition, Colorado would receive a helicopter that is ready to fight fires, and position it to whatever location requested by the state,” Kelley said.

“When a state has an exclusive use contract with an aerial firefighting operator, the state knows it will have that resource available to them throughout the contract period, and not have to worry about it being moved elsewhere—which can happen with a tanker on a US Forest Service contract,” said Kristin Edwards, Vice-President, Sales for Olney, Texas-based Air Tractor, Inc.  The company manufacturers the AT-802F, a single engine air tanker which has been used under state fire protection contracts.  “In fact, I know of one operator of our aircraft, which has had contracts with Colorado since the 1990s.  I am glad to see that Colorado continues to consider contracting with private operators, instead of having to deal with the costs of owning and maintaining their own aircraft.”

Air Tractor, Inc., CHI Aviation, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wild land firefighting.

Columbia Helicopters Adding Army Surplus Heavy Lift Helicopters

Washington, DC……Columbia Helicopters is expanding its fleet of heavy lift, twin-rotor aircraft with the acquisition of five Boeing CH-47D helicopters, formerly operated by the US Army.

The helicopters, originally manufactured in the early 1970s as CH-47C models, but upgraded in 1988 to the D-model configuration, will join the operator’s fleet of six Columbia Model 234 Chinooks, and 14 Columbia Vertol 107-II.  According to Todd Petersen, the Portland, Oregon-based company’s Vice-President, Marketing, Columbia Helicopters has already taken delivery of the first one, with the other four slated to arrive “shortly.”  The CH-47D, he explained, is the same size as the Model 234, which is the commercial variant of the military helicopter.

“We have been considering the purchase of surplus CH-47D Chinooks for the past several years, but had to wait until the aircraft were made available for auction by the General Services Administration (GSA) before we could act,” said Petersen.  “We purchased them in order to increase our presence in our current markets—specifically construction, the oil and gas industry, and aerial firefighting.”  There are no plans, he reported, to retire any of the company’s currently operating aircraft as the CH-47Ds come into the fleet, and no specific projects or contracts have been announced involving those additional aircraft.

As former military aircraft, they will be operated by Columbia Helicopters under FAA Restricted Category regulations,” Petersen explained.  “As such, we won’t be permitted to use them in a passenger transport role, but we should be able to deploy them to meet our other project requirements.”

As the CH-47Ds enter Columbia Helicopters’ maintenance facility at the Aurora (Oregon) State Airport, the company’s technician teams will conduct extensive inspections of the airframes, systems and components, and will carry out all of the work necessary to make them airworthy, said Peterson.

“We will work closely with the FAA on all maintenance, as well as any mission-related modifications we need to perform on the aircraft,” Petersen noted.  “Our current maintenance staff has extensive experience with the CH-47 family, but we expect to add additional technicians as the four helicopters become operational.”

Pilot training, which Columbia Helicopters carries out in-house, will involve a modified Model 234 training curriculum.

“With its purchase and refurbishment of the five military surplus CH-47Ds, Columbia Helicopters is an example of how a privately-operated national firefighting asset is continuing to build its infrastructure, as climate change increases the risk and severity of wild land fires,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “At AHSAFA, we are continuing to work with Congress and the appropriate government agencies to assure a presence and growth opportunities for the private sector in aerial firefighting.”

Columbia Helicopters is a member of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wild land firefighting.