Aerial Firefighters Express Reservations About Night Time Operations

The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has expressed concern about the US Forest Service (USFS) proposal to lift a decades old ban on night time operations by helicopter operators engaged in fighting fires on Federal lands going into effect in 2013.  The policy change, which was announced by the USFS on August 16, would apply only to federally protected wildland fires in Southern California.

“While we understand the desire of the USFS to permit aerial firefighting operations after dark, the industry is going to approach this with caution,” says Tom Eversole, AHSAFA Executive Director.  “Night operations in wildland aerial firefighting bring their own sets of challenges, not the least of which is the combination of darkness and heavy smoke.  This can make for high risk conditions for helicopter pilots flying at low altitudes over unfamiliar territory, often fraught with high voltage power lines and other strike hazards.”

Some AHSAFA members have also expressed concern.  Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot for Hillcrest Aircraft Company in Lewiston, Idaho, says his company is taking a cautious approach to the proposal.  “We will have to wait for the USFS to do its due diligence with respect to the kind of technology required for night time firefighting, and to issue a request for information (RFI) or a request for proposal (RFP).”  “In that way we could see what technology retrofits would be required and if it fits our business model.”

Todd Petersen, Vice-President, Marketing for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon, reports that while the company respects the fact that catastrophic fires call for dramatic ideas regarding containment, the potential risks involved with using helicopters to fight fires at night outweigh the benefits.  “The lack of vision in low light environments substantially increases the potential for strike hazards, especially when flying into and out of the water source.  No fire is worth the potential loss of life from these hazards.”   As Peterson explains, night time helicopter flying would mandate the use of night vision goggles (NVG), along with training pilots to use them in a firefighting scenario, requiring a significant financial outlay.  “For the limited area where night time firefighting would be performed, and the limited opportunities we’d have to fight fires at night within that area, it simply would not be cost-effective for us at this time.”

This view was shared by Pete Gookin, chief pilot for Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California. “I don’t see this as a viable option for us, given the economics,” he notes.  “There is the expense of equipping the helicopter for night vision flying, and the cost involved with training pilots–both initially, and recurrently–in the use of night vision goggles.  It would be prohibitively expensive for an operation of our size, and we would not be able to charge the USFS enough to recover these costs.”

One operator, Rogers Helicopters of Fresno, California, is enthusiastic about the proposal, since it is already prepared for night flying, given its years of emergency medical services (EMS) flying, with seven Bell 212-HP medium helicopters.  “Those aircraft operate at night all the time.  Our pilots are experienced with night vision goggles, and the helicopters we fly are FAA certified for night vision goggle use,” says company Vice President Robin Rogers.  “So, if the USFS plans to use commercial helicopter operators under contract, I’m all for it.  But if they plan to purchase their own helicopters and fly them with their own pilots, I oppose it.”

Columbia Helicopters, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, Intermountain Helicopter, and Rogers Helicopters are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.

Western Fires Stretching Aerial Firefighters Thin

With over 60 fires scorching more than a dozen States in the Western US, aerial firefighters are experiencing maximum aircraft and crew utilization for the first time in years, according to industry operators.

“Everyone we talk to says that he can’t remember a fire season as bad as this one in the Northwestern US–at least since 2000,” says Stuart Taft, Chief Pilot, for Hillcrest Aircraft Company of Lewiston, Idaho.  “Normally, we would expect the Pacific Northwest fire season to end by mid-September, but we’ll probably go more into October because of the dry weather, the low humidity and high temperatures.  There is really no relief in sight.”  Currently, Hillcrest Aircraft Company has 10 helicopters working fires throughout the Pacific Northwest, including one in Oregon on standby for initial attack.  The company deploys a fleet of Bell 205s, used to drop water or fire retardant; as well as Bell 407s and Bell 206Ls, used mostly for water drops from external buckets.  According to Taft, the company’s pilots are approaching the maximum number of hours they can fly under US Forest Service (USFS) regulations which stipulate no more than 36 hours in any six day period.  “In past years, this has not been an issue,” he says.

Small fires, sparked by lightning strikes, have also kept Intermountain Helicopter, Inc. “noticeably busier this season,” says Pete Gookin, Chief Pilot of the Sonora, California, company. “The ground is much drier than in past years, and the air is much hotter and drier.  That makes for a lot of fuel,” he says.  The operator’s Bell 212-HP has been working out of White Cloud near the Tahoe National Forest for the past six weeks, averaging four to five hours of daily flying, anywhere from four to seven days per week, Taft notes.  Along with dropping water from an external bucket, the helicopter is also being used to ferry firefighting crews and equipment to the fire lines.

Mike Rotonda, Aerial Firefighting Manager for Erickson Air-Crane reports that nine of its S-64 heavy lift helicopters are engaged in firefighting throughout the Western US under USFS contracts.  Another two of the Central Point, Oregon-based company’s helicopters are on standby with the fire departments of the City of Los Angeles, and Los Angeles County.  The aircraft drop water or fire retardant from externally mounted tanks.  “That is the most we have had working fires at any given time,” Rotonda points out.  “In a normal season, it would be more like seven on active fires.”  He adds that in years past, one or two regions of the US would be considered at risk for a fire outbreak.  “Now, it’s the entire western part of the US that’s at risk for major fire activity.”

In fact, that includes Alaska, where Rogers Helicopters has a Bell 212 working a fire, according to company Vice President Robin Rogers.  Other aircraft operated by the Fresno, California, company two Bell 212s on fires in California, and another two working fires in Montana and Idaho.

Dan Sweet, Public Relations Manager for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon echoes observations that fires this year have been far more scattered.  “We have been on fires as far away as Florida, as well as in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico and Washington,” he reports.  “Four helicopters, available to the USFS under exclusive use contracts, are out fighting fires, and a fifth one, is being deployed under a ‘call when needed’ contract.”  As Sweet points out, to support the helicopters in the field, the company has had to “double staff” its fuel and maintenance equipment vehicles, in order to reach the far flung locations where the company is operating–faster–as well as to comply with USFS mandated rest periods.

Construction Helicopters has been in a continuous firefighting mode since May 15, according to Larry Kelley, manager of the Boise, Idaho-based company’s West Coast Operations.  He calls this year’s fire season its busiest since 2007, with helicopters currently deployed in California, Idaho, Colorado and Utah on exclusive use USFS contracts.  “Just this month, we have flown over 300 hours from a base in Ogden, Utah–alone–and over 250 hours from other bases” Kelley says.  “In other years, it would have been about 150 hours.”  He adds that the company is approaching nearly 100 days straight on fires in locations, flying seven to hours per day–about twice the number in more normal years.

Also in a maximum utilization mode is large tanker operator Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Montana, with seven P2Vs and one modified BAe 146 in the field.  Dan Snyder, the company’s President, reports that given the number of fires, their locations are changing almost daily.  Neptune is flying more cycles, compared to last year, but he attributes this to the mid-season, 2011, shut down of a competitor.  In addition, he notes that the BAe 146, which came on-stream last fall has proven itself effective in the firefighting environment.  “It handles as well as, if not better, than our P2Vs, although we are still working out some minor issues with the tanking system.”

“The extraordinary challenges of this year’s fire season have, once again, shown that the private operators of helicopters and fixed wing air tankers were well-prepared for any contingency, including greater utilization of equipment and people,” says Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).

AHSAFA is the Washington-based trade association representing the commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.  Columbia Helicopters, Construction Helicopters, Erickson Air-Crane, Hillcrest Aircraft Company, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services and Rogers Helicopters are AHSAFA members.