Aerial Firefighters In Multi-Step Preparedness Process For Early Fire Season

Aerial firefighting companies have focused on an earlier than normal fire season in the western United States  as the region continues to cope with dry conditions.  But that does not mean they are taking short cuts in a multi-step annual preparedness process, which includes scheduled aircraft maintenance.

For example, Columbia Helicopters of Portland, Oregon, operates a Model 234 Chinook and three Vertol 107-II twin rotor helicopters which typically go on contract with the US Forest Service (USFS) in May and July, respectively. “The helicopters are now going through their normal winter maintenance, which is preventative, in order to assure they are mechanically prepared,” said Dan Sweet, the company’s public relations manager.  “But, depending on the severity of the fire season, we could make those helicopters available earlier than scheduled, if the USFS needs them.”

The winter maintenance protocol, as Sweet described, includes an extensive visual or x-ray check all of the helicopter’s sheet metal structures to detect any signs of cracks or corrosion, along with a check of all flight-related components.  The helicopters cannot go on contract, however, until the USFS certifies the aircraft, the pilots, mechanics and fuel service vehicles are ready for fire season.  The certification, known as “carding,” is done annually.

Sweet pointed out the carding process focuses on flight airworthiness, and specific operator and aircraft information, by serial number, including empty and maximum gross weight; as well as authorized uses such as water drops, fire crew transportation, and rappelling.  “The aircraft can be inspected at any time during the fire season to ensure airworthiness and contract compliance,” he noted, adding the USFS assigns a compliance inspection manager to each aircraft, who remains with it throughout the fire season.

“The manager does an inspection which covers the physical condition of the helicopter, that required equipment is installed and operable, and the required fuel service vehicles are safe and operational—prior to accepting the aircraft and crew,” Sweet explained.  “Since the same manager generally stays with the aircraft throughout the season, he or she is always aware of the aircrafts status.”

Toward late winter, the company’s pilots will commence their annual recurrent firefighting and bucket training, which includes multiple practice runs filling and emptying the helicopters’ external Bambi buckets, used for water drops.  As with the aircraft, pilots must be carded yearly by the USFS.

“Pilots must be certified by the FAA to operate their specific aircraft type,” said Sweet.  “In addition, all pilots must undergo a check ride by a USFS check airman every three years.”

Mechanics are also carded yearly, he added.  The certification process includes verification of a current FAA-issued airframe & powerplant license, experience with the aircraft on contract; the mechanic’s education and training records, field (away from shop) experience, and total years of experience.

Missoula Montana based airtanker operator, Neptune Aviation, is also into its annual winter preparedness program.  As Dan Snyder, the company’s Chief Operating Officer explained, of the six legacy propeller-driven P2Vs that Neptune will make available this year for firefighting, four have been through major maintenance, and two are in the process of being completed.  At the same time, the company continues to phase in its converted BAe 146 jets, which now total five.

“Two of the six P2Vs are currently operating out of Lancaster, California under a pre-season activation of their USFS firefighting contracts—due to the dry conditions throughout the Western US,” said Snyder.

Now in a phase-out mode over the next few years, the P2Vs require an annual heavy inspection requiring over 2,000 hours of labor, per aircraft, carried out at the company’s hangars in Missoula and Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The inspection, Snyder explained, encompasses a check of all systems for integrity, a significant structural examination, component repair or replacement, as well as a minor, general readiness check.

The BAe 146 heavy checks, which are done at Missoula, also consume about 2,000 hours, and are similar in scope and detail to the P2Vs.  The difference is that the inspection protocol is based on a forecast of the aircraft’s utilization over the coming calendar year, and focuses on structural items and components likely to need replacement or repair during that period.  The BAe 146 tanking system has been totally revamped and received interim FAA and Interagency Airtanker Board approval.

Snyder added that all of the P2V flight crews go through an annual training scenario, which includes classroom, flight training device (FTD) and aircraft training time.

“The FTD, which is located at Simcheck International, in Rancho Cordova, California, is a generic fixed based flight training device,” he explained.  “Our P2V pilots go through about four to six hours of training there.  They also have two weeks of classroom instruction, which includes ground school and system training which covers USFS requirements, as well as six hours in the aircraft.”

Neptune’s BAe 146 pilots also go through recurrent training consisting of one week of ground school, in Missoula or at the company’s Alamogordo, New Mexico base, and  six hours of full-motion simulator time at either the Oxford Training Academy in Oxford, UK, or Ansett Aviation in Melbourne, Australia; plus six hours of airplane time.

As with other operators, the P2Vs and the BAe 146 aircraft and crews go through an annual USFS carding event.

“Most Americans have no idea of the level of maintenance and training that’s behind the high level of readiness of the private aerial firefighting industry to protect our wild lands, and the growing population of the urban-wildland interface,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association.  “The industry is determined to maintain the highest standards of safety and preparedness, even as fire seasons get longer and more severe.”

Columbia Helicopters and Neptune Aviation are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the aerial firefighting industry.

Small Aerial Firefighter Invests Large In Helicopter Upgrades

Washington, DC, February 17…Aerial firefighting specialist Intermountain Helicopter is putting its only aircraft, a Bell 212 HP, through an estimated $450,000 retrofit involving airframe modification, an avionics upgrade and engine replacement in preparation for this year’s fire season.  Of that amount, some $70,000 will be spent to meet US Forest Service (USFS) contractual mandates.

“It is very unusual for a company of our size to invest that kind of money into an aging aircraft, but we had to for contract compliance, and operational safety,” said Rick Livingston, President of the Sonora, California-based company.

The helicopter a 1975 model was acquired by Intermountain in 2003, and to date, has nearly 14,000 hours of flight time.  With a capacity of nine passengers, plus the pilot, the Bell 212 HP is deployed by Intermountain Helicopter in an initial attack mode, ferrying ground-based firefighters and supportive equipment where needed.  It is also used to drop water and retardant from a 324 gallon external Bambi bucket.

Livingston reported that one of the contract compliance modifications involves the installation of a BLR Aerospace FastFin® and Dual Tailboom Strakes kit, which will enhance the helicopter’s stability and improve out of ground effect hover performance.

“It’s a labor-intensive, and expensive modification at a cost of about $40,000,” he noted.  “At the same time, we are mandated to install an air traffic advisory component, although the challenge is to find one for which we have room on our instrument panel—and affordable.”  That, Livingston explained, would add another $25-30,000 in mandatory upgrades.

But the most extensive modification is the replacement of the helicopter’s two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3 engines with the more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3B powerplants.  “The PT6T-3B twin pack will give us better ‘one engine inoperative’ (OEI) performance for a greater margin of safety,” explained Fritz Bayer, Intermountain Helicopter’s Chief Pilot.

The engine change decision, Bayer said, was not a contract mandate, but prompted by the fact that the PT6T-3s had reached their life limits.  “One of the engines had just about hit its 4,000 hour limit, while the other was nearly 500 hours beyond the 4,000 hour limit, operating under an approved extension by the FAA and Pratt & Whitney-Canada,” he explained.  “We had the choice of overhauling them to zero-time, or spending the money for a more modern engine with greater supportability and available parts, since there are more PT6T-3Bs in the active Bell 212 and Bell 412 fleets.”

The new powerplant installation, which will run about $380,000, is slated for completion by the end of February.

The modifications, which have been ongoing since Christmas, will have no impact on the helicopter’s availability during the fire season, since they were performed in tandem with the normal, 12-month scheduled maintenance.  This, as Bayer explained, includes component overhauls, and replacement of parts which have reached their life-limits.

“We do a lot of routine, heavy maintenance during the winter,” said Bayer, who added that in June, the helicopter will deploy to the Forest Service’s Shenango Helicopter base near Bozeman, Montana for a 120 day exclusive use contract period.

“In today’s aerial firefighting business environment, private operators are being told by the US Forest Service to do more, at their own expense, in order qualify for Federal contracts for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA).  “Intermountain Helicopter is a good example.  This is why it is imperative that the private enterprise aerial firefighting infrastructure, typically made up of small to midsize companies, be maintained, and allowed to compete on a level playing field.”

Intermountain Helicopter is a member of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-based trade association representing commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.