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.