American Aerial Firefighters Respond To Fires In Chile

Washington, DC, February 15, 2017.
US-based aerial firefighting companies deployed assets to Chile in response to an urgent call for aid by the Chilean government to fight a series of devastating wildfires. According to Chile’s national forestry agency, the fires burned some 289,974 hectares (716,540 acres) between January 15-26.
“This is the first time we have dispatched an air tanker outside of North America,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. The company, he explained, sent one of its seven BAe 146 regional jets, which it reconfigured for aerial firefighting. Neptune is slated to have nine by year-end, which will retire the last of its active Korean War Era P2V Neptunes. As former military aircraft, the P2Vs were not allowed to leave the US.
The BAe 146 had been modified with the installation a 3,000 gallon capacity internal tank, and has been engaged in water dropping since it arrived in Santiago on Saturday, February 4, after a two-day trip from Missoula which included five stops and an overnight crew rest in Lima, Peru. Upon arrival, the tanker was immediately repositioned to Concepcion where it has been based for the duration of the contract–which Snyder reported will be “for as long as needed.”
The aircraft was dispatched to Chile with a crew of three pilots—two captains and one first officer—two crew chiefs, and one mechanic who is fluent in Spanish. “This was very helpful, since he was able to facilitate communications between the pilots and the firefighters on the ground, who do not speak English,” Snyder explained.
While the tanker had just come out of winter maintenance, it was sent to Chile with spare parts including wheels, tires, brakes, starters and generator components, for field repair. “The aircraft has done very well, especially over mountainous terrain, since its smaller size enables it to get closer to the fires,” Snyder noted.
He added that as a result of this experience, Neptune Aviation Services has “gained “a tremendous understanding” of what is involved with moving an aircraft, internationally, through multiple countries. “We made some invaluable connections with the firefighting agencies and the National Forest Corporation or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal), which is contracted to fight fires in Chile and has operational control over our tanker while it’s in-country.”
Chamblee, Georgia-based Helicopter Express shipped three Bell 2051A++s, and a Kaman K-1200 K-MAX to Chile on January 31, in response to the emergency, according to Scotty Runyan, the company’s Vice-President, Government Services. The shipment of the helicopters was handled by Russia’s Volga Dnepr Airways, using an Antonov An-124 cargo aircraft.
”Because of the capacity of the Antonov An-124, there were no issues transporting the helicopters,” Runyan noted. “The only thing we had to do was to take the rotors off, and it was simply a matter of rolling the helicopters on and off the aircraft.”
Upon arrival, the helicopters were offloaded and positioned at Concepcion and Santiago. “We were ready to fly the moment we got to Chile,” Runyan noted. “The Volga-Dnepr employees were really great to work with.”
The four helicopters were accompanied by 10 Helicopter Express employees, which included a primary pilot and mechanic–for each helicopter, along with two management staff members. Also shipped to Chile was a truck-trailer combination for mobile, field level maintenance support.
As Runyan reported, each of the helicopters is engaged in water drops, averaging about six hours of flying per day. One of the Bell 205s is equipped with a 375-gallon capacity belly tank, while the other 205s are using external 324-gallon Bambi buckets. The K-MAX, he pointed out, is equipped with a 680 gallon capacity external Bambi bucket.
While the company’s helicopters have been deployed outside the US in the past, this is the first time they have worked in Latin America.
“There was the language barrier, but we were able to deal with this by hiring local interpreters who worked with our pilots and the firefighters on the ground,” said Runyan. “We also had some logistics challenges with bringing the helicopters to Chile, given the short notice we had.”
Under the agreement with CONAF, the helicopters will operate in-country for up to 100 days. If the contract is extended, Helicopter Express has the capability to extend the stay of two helicopters, with the other two returned to Georgia to begin operations under US Forest Service contracts.
Helicopter Express and Neptune Aviation Services are both members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C. headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service, and other US government agencies with responsibility for wildlands protection.

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.”