Aerial Firefighters Scramble As Early Season Wildfires Torch Plains States, Florida

Washington, D.C., March 14, 2017….Aerial firefighters are quickly deploying helicopters and fixed wing tankers to the devastating fires throughout much of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, and the Southeast, during an earlier than normal start of the fire season throughout those parts of the country.
The urgency of the rapidly unfolding fire emergency required one operator to take the unusual step to prepare an aircraft for deployment from a major industry trade show, where it was on display.
“This is the first time we have received a resource order for firefighting duty, while displaying our helicopter at a convention,” said Keith Saylor, Director, Commercial Operations, for Portland, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters. Reached by phone at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) convention in Dallas, Saylor explained that transitioning the helicopter, from a static display to a mission-ready firefighting aircraft, involved removing the rotor blades, exiting the convention center, then reinstalling the rotor blades. This was followed by a flight to a nearby airport for refueling and overnighting. Called up on March 9, the helicopter was deployed the following day to a fire base at Ardmore, Oklahoma, under an optional use clause of a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract. The helicopter was dispatched with two pilots, five mechanics and ground support equipment drivers.
A former US Army-operated CH47D Chinook, the helicopter was modified by Columbia Helicopters with a 2,800 gallon capacity internal tank for water, jells, foam, or retardant dropping, and had been flown to the convention following firefighting duty on East Coast fires.
Also responding to the fires, Neptune Aviation Services has dispatched three of its BAe 146 tankers to multiple locations, according to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer for the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company. Three of the tankers were dispatched from Missoula between March 9 and 11, and flown to USFS tanker bases in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Abilene, Texas, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Airport, near Denver, Colorado. A fourth BAe 146 tanker will continue to fly out of a base at Lake City, Florida, where it has been on duty since February 20.
The tanker fleet, all of which are operating under a USFS exclusive use contract, have been dispatched with a total staff of 16, under a contract provision that permits deployment on notice of 24 hours or less. Snyder pointed out that one of the aircraft had just returned from a firefighting assignment in Chile.
“We understand that an earlier than usual fire season is always a possibility, even though there is no guarantee that it will happen from year to year,” Snyder remarked. “But, because we know it is possible, we keep some aircraft ready for a pre-season deployment. To do that, we perform all of the required maintenance and training—proactively–to enable us to respond to these situations.”
“The capability to respond on a moment’s notice, from anywhere, at any time, is typical of the privately-owned and operated aerial firefighting industry in the US,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The operators, in fact, are gearing up for an especially active fire season, which is already following more recent patterns of early starts throughout much of the country.”
Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the interests of the privately owned aerial firefighting industry in the US, before the USFS and other federal agencies tasked with wildland management and natural resource oversight.

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.