Aerial Firefighters Question Firefighter Transport Using Restricted Use Aircraft

Washington, D.C., April 7, 2016….Representatives of the US aerial firefighting industry are questioning a recent bid solicitation issued by the US Department of the Interior (DOI) Bureau of Land Management which would allow respondents to use restricted category helicopters to transport firefighters and other personnel not considered flight crew.

The aircraft would be contractor owned and operated. The bid period closed March 31.

By federal air regulation, a restricted category fixed wing aircraft or helicopter is not approved to carry people, other than the qualified flight crew, a flight crew trainee or qualified non-crewmember under special circumstances. The movement of firefighters constitutes a passenger operation, which only a standard category aircraft is certified to perform.

“The DOI’s solicitation of bids from operators of restricted category aircraft is a departure from DOI’s prior policies against passenger transportation in that type of aircraft, and could conflict with long standing regulations prohibiting passengers from being carried on restricted category aircraft,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “It appears the DOI believes it can transport passengers in a restricted category aircraft by redefining any passengers as ‘qualified non-crewmembers’ at its own discretion. However, this could fall within a potential regulatory gray area, and even imply some safety considerations for which the agency may be ill-prepared. It would set a questionable precedent.”

Hill added that the language contained in the bid specifications was clearly written to favor the Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk, a restricted category aircraft designed to fill a military role.

“This solicitation is not focused on the Black Hawk because of any capacity or unique capability issues, since there are sufficient numbers of standard category aircraft available to meet the DOI requirement,” said Hill. “Aerial firefighters, as an industry, believe that the DOI should continue to abide by the policies that it has had in place for many years, which is to use standard category aircraft to carry personnel.”

Robin Rogers, Vice-President of Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, California, is among those who have voiced concerns about using restricted category aircraft to transport ground-based firefighters.

“The DOI is not acting in the best interest of safety, since there are standard category aircraft which are capable of filling this request for service,” Rogers said. “Restricted category aircraft are not certified to haul the public in any way. The Black Hawk was built as a military aircraft to perform a military mission, and is not even equipped with passenger seats.”

Rogers also pointed out that restricted category aircraft are not allowed to operate over congested areas, and require special permits to land at airports equipped with control towers.

Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations at CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that the company has bid the RFP with a standard category aircraft. “All I can tell you at this moment is that CHI Aviation submitted a bid for the RFP with an aircraft that meets the requirements of the DOI contract—but with a standard category aircraft,” Kelley stressed.

“In my opinion, it is frustrating for those of us who go to the huge expense of maintaining a standard category aircraft, and play by the rules,” stated Rick Livingston, President of Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter. “The government is bending the rules so it can get what it wants.”

Rogers Helicopters and CHI Aviation and Intermountain Helicopter are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated companies engaging in aerial firefighting.

Aerial Firefighters Adding Capabilities, Seeking New Markets

As the US aerial firefighting industry prepares for another busy year in 2016, some operators are expanding their capabilities, and actively pursuing new market opportunities—even outside the United States.

“Thus far this year, six Erickson Aircrane helicopters have been busy in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, fighting fires at the height of the Australian bushfire season,” said Andy Mills, Vice President of Commercial Aviation services at Erickson, Incorporated. Mills reported that in mid-January, the Portland, Oregon-based company extended a contract in the Australian state of Victoria to deploy a third Aircrane to support firefighting efforts there. “This Aircrane was mobilized from New South Wales, where it just finished fighting fires,” he said.

Mills added that Erickson has renewed a contract with the Greek government’s Hellenic Fire Brigade to provide three Aircranes during their 2016 fire season. “This marks the 18th consecutive season that Erickson has been contracted in Greece for wildfire protection and suppression,” he explained.

Also working in Australia is one of three US Army surplus CH-47D helicopters acquired last year by CHI Aviation for operation by Helimax, CHI’s Sacramento-based sister company. According to Larry Kelley, CHI Aviation’s Director of Fire Operations, the CH-47D is currently engaged in firefighting under a contract with a selected Australian partner. “There are numerous overseas companies that would like to contract the Chinooks,” Kelley reported. “We are investigating several opportunities and are anxious to see what happens in the very near future.”

CHI Aviation is also increasing the capabilities of its CH-47Ds. “We are in the final stages of developing an internal 2,500 gallon water tank for fighting fires, with foam capability, and expect to be the first operator to use this new system for the 2016 fire season,” said Kelley, who explained that CHI will own the tank and all technical data for the tank and the supplemental type certificate (STC) under which it will be certified “Once the tank has final approval and certification by the Air Tanker Board, we feel this will be a huge asset to the firefighting community. It will provide all the agencies increased performance, quicker turns, and larger payloads than some of the air tankers currently in use.”

Kelley said that he is hopeful that Helimax will be awarded two US Forest Service (USFS) Exclusive Use contracts for the CH-47D. “If not, we will pursue other overseas contracts for the Chinooks, which at this time seems very positive,” he stated.

Also leveraging its technical expertise, fixed wing air tanker operator Neptune Aviation was awarded a USFS contract last August to perform heavy inspection and repair services on up to 10 twin-engine Sherpas, a military variant of the Shorts SD3-60 twin turboprop regional airliner, which had been operated by the US Army. According to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered operator, Neptune is providing the labor to perform base-line maintenance in preparation for civil certification as transport category aircraft to enable them to conduct smoke-jumper and cargo ferrying missions in support of wildfire suppression. The focus of the inspections—and any necessary repairs—will be on the airframe, engines and landing gear.

To date, Neptune has performed the contracted work on two Sherpas at the USFS base in Ogden, Utah, with all subsequent work on that aircraft to be performed by Neptune in-house at Missoula, where inspections on a third aircraft have just commenced.

“The Sherpa project is truly an example of the capabilities we have always had in support of our air tankers, and we saw an opportunity to use our expertise and capacity on another program. We have always had a desire to diversify our capabilities, and this was a natural fit with what we have already been doing with our air tanker program,” Snyder explained.

“The privately operated, US aerial firefighting industry is both technologically creative, as well as mission-skilled,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “That, along with the entrepreneurial nature of its operators, is giving it an international footprint, which we expect to increase going forward.”

CHI Aviation, Erickson, Inc., and Neptune Aviation, are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry before various regulatory agencies with responsibility for wildland management and fire protection.