For US Aerial Firefighters, 2017 Was A Year Of Dynamic Change

The privately operated US aerial firefighting industry experienced a period of changing dynamics in 2017, as legacy tankers were retired and some operators saw new or expanding opportunities in the international market. At the same time the huge, late autumn fires throughout California, made for an exceptionally long fire season.
For example, 2017 was the first year that Neptune Aviation Services had aircraft working 12 consecutive months, according to Chief Operating Officer, Dan Snyder. It was also the first time the Missoula, Montana-based company operated outside of North America–under a contract in Chile in January. By early fall, the tanker operator retired its last operational, Korean War Era P2V Neptunes, and now flies a modern tanker fleet of nine, BAe 146 regional jets, modified as air tankers.
“Two BAe 146s spent over 30 days in an initial attack role on the Thomas Fire—the largest one ever in California—as well as on smaller fires throughout the southern part of the state,” Snyder reported. “In 2017, we had the greatest number of flight hours in our company’s history, with some 3,405 between January 1 and December 31.”
Keith Saylor, Director-Commercial Operations, for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, also noted an unusual amount of demand during 2017. He pointed out that the company dispatched helicopters under exclusive use contracts—as well as numerous unanticipated call when needed contracts, from state and federal agencies. Among them was an exclusive use fire protection contract from a private organization in Chile, for which Columbia Helicopters is providing a Columbia Model 234.
“This is the first time that we have sent a helicopter outside of North America for firefighting purposes,” Saylor remarked.
He added that 2017 was the second fire season that Columbia Helicopters operated two of the CH47D Chinooks modified in-house with 2,800 gallon capacity internal tanks for water and retardant dropping. One, along with a bucket equipped CH47D, were deployed in December on the fires in Southern California in an initial attack role.
In another development, Saylor reported that Columbia Helicopters submitted a technical proposal to Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Center (NAFC) to send tank-equipped CH 47Ds to support Australian firefighting in 2018. “We are aggressively pursuing new firefighting opportunities in Australia and Europe,” he noted. “It’s an exciting time for Columbia Helicopters.”
Erickson, Inc., which emerged last year from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection under new ownership, continued to expand its international footprint in both firefighting and infrastructure support, according to Randy Erwin, Chief Pilot for the Portland, Oregon-based operator.
Erwin reported that last year, the company, which operates the world’s largest fleet of S64 Sky Crane helicopters, had six under contract with Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Center, as well as other S64s under firefighting contracts with the governments of Turkey, Greece and Chile. “This was the first time we had one in Chile for firefighting,” Erwin noted.
In addition to its off shore activities, Erickson also worked during 2017 under contracts with Los Angeles County, and the City of Los Angeles fire departments, as well as for San Diego Gas and Electric. “We also got one Type One helicopter exclusive use contract from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) when the wine country fires broke out last fall,” Erwin said.
In preparation for the 2018 fire season, Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter took delivery last year of a preowned Bell 412. Rick Livingston, the company’s President, pointed out that the 412 was selected as an “affordable” replacement for its Bell 212.
“The 412 does all the things the Bell 212 does, and is much more supportable since it is still in production,” Livingston said. “We have been stripping out much of the older, heavier and obsolete avionics, which we are replacing with lighter weight systems which better meet the needs of the aerial firefighter.”
For Fresno, California-based Rogers Helicopters, 2017 was the company’s busiest year “for at least the last five years,” according to the firm’s Vice President Robin Rogers.
“During 2017, five of our Bell 212 helicopters were actively involved with firefighting, with each averaging 175 days in the field,” he noted. “There were basically three areas where they were deployed. In late April, the helicopters started out in Alaska, and from there, were dispatched to southern Oregon where they operated for 65 days.”
In addition, Rogers said that two of the company’s Bell 212s, which went off US Forest Service exclusive use contracts on November 1, were immediately redeployed to the Napa County, California fires where they operated for another 10 to 12 days under CALFIRE contracts. “We worked for three agencies during 2017—the US Forest Service, CALFIRE and the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety,” he noted.
“The privately owned and operated aerial firefighters continued to prove their capabilities as an indispensable resource to combat fires occurring more frequently in the wildland/urban interface, as well as wilderness areas,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “For the industry, 2017 was one of the most challenging.”
Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters, are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association which represents the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before federal agencies tasked with wildland resource management and fire protection.

Late Season Southern California Fires Test Readiness Of Aerial Firefighters

With little advance notice, aerial firefighting companies demonstrated their rapid response capability to post-season fires throughout southern California, which have destroyed thousands of structures, and hundreds of thousands of acres across Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
As the fires, driven by the dry Santa Ana winds, spread, aircrews, mechanics and fuel truck drivers, who thought they would see no further fire activity this year, were once more deployed to support fixed wing tankers and helicopters—some literally within days of release from CALFIRE and US Forest Service (USFS) contracts. But despite the fact that the firestorm hit like a surprise attack, the air tanker and helicopter operators were well prepared.
“When high winds came through Northern California earlier this week, we prepared for the possibility of a fire event happening there, and alerted our crews in anticipation of that,” said Josh Beckham, General Manager of Helimax Aviation, Inc., in McClellan, California. “At the time we were called to fight the fires in Southern California, we were ready to move a helicopter where it was needed at the time the fires broke out.”
Beckham noted that Helimax deployed one of its CH-47D Chinook helicopters to a USFS helicopter base in Ramona, California. That helicopter was dispatched with a 2,000 gallon capacity external bucket for water drops, and is supported in the field by two pilots, four mechanics and a fuel truck driver. “Even though it’s late in the season, it is not unusual for us to be working in southern California at this time of year. In fact, we have had to do this over the past few years,” he said.
Keith Saylor, Director-Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reported that two CH-47D Chinooks, one of which is equipped with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank, have been operating on the fires throughout southern California. He attributes readiness to the company’s FAA-approved continuous airworthiness maintenance program (CAMP).
“Instead of doing a phased approach to maintenance, which can keep the helicopter out of service for weeks, continuous inspection permits us to do a different part of a major phased inspection on a nightly basis, so the helicopter can be ready to go the next day,” Saylor noted. “As a result, the two aircraft were ready to go when requested, initially by CALFIRE.”
Each aircraft, Saylor explained, was dispatched with two pilots, a fuel truck driver, and five mechanics, who were working on other aircraft when called up. “The mechanics and the pilots were ready to go to work, even though they were told to report on a moment’s notice,” he said.
Robin Rogers, Vice-President, of Rogers Helicopters, reported the company always has helicopters in a mission-ready mode. “And, our pilots and mechanics are also prepared for immediate dispatch in case of an emergency of this kind,” he stated.
The Fresno-based operator currently has three of its Bell 212HPs working the fires, including two flying out of Santa Paula on the Thomas fire, the most destructive of the six fires in southern California, and still only 30 percent contained. “Each aircraft is deployed with a pilot, mechanic, and fuel truck driver, functioning in an initial attack role,” Rogers pointed out. “All are currently flying five to seven hours daily.”
Dan Snyder, Vice-President, Operations for Neptune Aviation Services, reported that the Missoula, Montana based large air tanker provider sent two of its BAe 146 tankers to southern California on December 5. One aircraft, was dispatched from Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the other from Missoula. “Both aircraft had only just completed USFS and CALFIRE exclusive use contracts days before when they were immediately sent to bases at Ramona and Porterville, California,” Snyder remarked.
The aircraft, he explained, were activated within six hours of call-up by CALFIRE, as were pilots and maintenance technicians. “The mechanics had actually been working on other aircraft in our maintenance facility at Missoula, while the pilots were not scheduled to fly at the time,” Snyder noted. “But everyone was willing and able to go out and had a very strong desire to support the mission.” The aircraft have flown in excess of 27 missions on multiple fires since December 7.
“Typically, Southern California has a Santa Ana event at this time of the year, but it came a little later than we had planned for,” said Snyder. He also pointed out that this was the company’s first major tanker operation since the retirement of its last operational P2V Neptunes in September.
“The unprecedented fire events throughout California this year have been a huge challenge to the aerial firefighting community, but a challenge that the privately operated firefighters were well prepared to meet,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “As fire seasons get longer in California–and throughout much of the country–the operators have continued to demonstrate their capability to react to a contingency, even on the shortest notice.”
Columbia Helicopters, Helimax Aviation, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association which represents the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before federal and state agencies overseeing wildland management and natural resource protection.