Aerial Firefighters Double-Down On Safety As Fires Rage

As wildfires rage across much of the US, aerial firefighters are continually reviewing and enhancing their safety management systems, with increasing attention to the impact of firefighting’s high-stress environment on pilots and ground crews.
“Aerial firefighting aircraft are often flying in close proximity, and typically at low levels over treacherous terrain,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “The safety management systems the industry has implemented in recent years have significantly mitigated the risk of accidents.”
Structured safety management systems have come about by regulatory mandate. Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, duty days for pilots are limited to 14 hours, with an eight hour maximum for actual flight times. Also, within any six consecutive days, pilots have a 42-hour limit on flying, but after 36 hours of flying within that time frame, must get the next 24 hours off. Along with compliance with those regulations, the industry’s safety management system programs are focusing even more on fatigue, a major issue for pilots and ground support crews, given the high stress conditions inherent with wildland firefighting.
“Under US Forest Service (USFS) guidelines, our pilots get 48 hours off duty after working a 12 day maximum shift,” said Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations for Helimax Aviation in Boise, Idaho. “However, we modified that last year with 12 days on and two days off–and then, after the next 12 days on, we give them seven days off, which the pilots seem to like.”
Kelley added that Helimax has weekly conference calls with every aircraft and crew member regarding safety issues. “During these calls pilots, mechanics, and drivers have the opportunity to let management know what their concerns are,” he said. “If they have any, we are very proactive in meeting them.”
Kelley also noted a US Forest Service (USFS) policy which gives pilots some latitude with fatigue issues, if they pose a potential safety risk. “The managers will listen to the crew and if they determine that a pilot is getting tired, they will stand the aircraft down and slow the pilot’s flight time, which benefits the whole operation,” he remarked. “This prevents the pilot from trying to get the job done without admitting being tired or affected by the heat.”
Portland, Oregon-headquartered Columbia Helicopters took a major step to mitigate pilot fatigue last year, when it integrated the Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) “Land and Live” policy with its own safety management system program.
“It gives pilots the authority to stop work if they are not comfortable flying the aircraft for any reason such as fatigue, excessive visibility problems, or a large number of aircraft in the area,” said Dan Riches, the company’s Director, Health, Safety, Environment and Security. “Their first option is to land the aircraft to assure safety.”
To ensure that safety is maintained, the company, itself, closely monitors flight hours, as do the individual flight crews. “For the past several years, our evolving Risk Management Program has incorporated fatigue assessment which is done using a proprietary iPad application for risk management and dispatch purposes. This is carried out by the crews, daily, and electronically reported to the home office,” Riches explained.
David Barnett, Chief Pilot at Erickson, Inc. reported that during every fire on which the Portland, Oregon-based company’s aircraft are deployed, a morning briefing is held to ensure that the safety provisions under its Aerial Operations Policy Manual (AOPM) are being implemented. “During those briefings, any safety issues we believe the pilots should be aware of, such as nearby powerlines, other aircraft operating on the fire; as well as where ground-based personnel are working are discussed,” he said.
Barnett added that pilot fatigue is among the concerns raised at those briefings. “By policy, we will support any pilot who decides not to fly because he or she is too tired to carry out the mission, or sees see any kind of safety problem.”
Along this line, Rick Livingston, President of Sonora, California-based Intermountain Helicopter, said that the company, which operates a single Bell 212, holds a formal safety meeting each Monday during which safety concerns are discussed. “The meetings include everyone with the company—the pilots, mechanics, and fuel truck drivers,” he explained. “For us, the major safety issues expressed are visibility—due to smoke and ash—as well as the heavy amount of radio traffic transmitted from numerous aircraft working on the fires.”
Livingston pointed out that with a single helicopter and just seven employees, Intermountain Helicopter has addressed any fatigue problems “by having the staff on hand” to relieve any pilot, mechanic or fuel truck driver, if necessary.
Airtanker company Neptune Aviation Services closely monitors the number of missions flown, number of hours flown, along with the hours of extended standby requested by the USFS, during any three day period in order to gage pilot fatigue, as Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-headquartered company explained.
“We get reports from the crews about pilot fatigue, and if a certain threshold of reporting is reached, we will initiate a fatigue check, either by phone or with face to face interviews with the Chief Pilot or Flight Administrator,” Snyder noted. “Both also interface with the crews, on a daily basis, to check on their physical state by asking them how they are doing and if they feel they can fly.”
As Snyder explained, Neptune Aviation Services safety management system includes its maintenance crews.
“Mechanics have a requirement of at least eight hours off during any 24 hour period, and they must have two 24 hour periods off during any 14 day period they are working,” he said. “Also the drivers of the ground support vehicles must adhere to specific Department of Transportation (DOT) duty and time regulations.”
The maintenance crews are specifically monitored by the company’s Maintenance Control Center, which provides support and technical assistance. As with the pilots, that includes daily fatigue checks. However, at Neptune Aviation Services, pilots and mechanics also look out for each other.
“When we are working on contract, the maintenance crews have the right–through their managerial structure–to raise concerns about pilot fatigue. In a similar fashion, pilots can also raise concerns about mechanics’ fatigue,” said Snyder. “This is important because each group may become so involved with their work that they don’t recognize that they are showing signs of fatigue.”
Columbia Helicopters, Erickson, Inc., Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the USFS and other regulatory agencies with oversight and management responsibilities for wildland resource management.

Aerial Firefighters Tackle Late Season Western Wild Fires

Washington, D.C., October 26, 2016… Aerial firefighters have continued to battle a series of late season wild fires burning across much of Colorado and the Great Basin area of the Far Western U.S, which historically have had much earlier fire seasons.
“Colorado does not typically have a fire season at this time of year,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. “The wildland fires normally take place in June and July, so this is unusually late.”
Snyder pointed out that until major fires flared up during October, Colorado had been experiencing a low intensity fire season. “Neptune deployed tankers to the state earlier this year, but the fires were small—mainly in the area of Durango and Grand Junction—because the weather in Colorado has been relatively wet. The dry weather conditions which would lead to fires this late in the year were simply not present.”
One of Neptune’s P2V tankers had been working out of Pueblo on fires along the Front Range between October 4-12, under a US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contract, following redeployment from a USFS tanker base in Santa Maria, California.
Currently, one of the company’s modern BAe 146 jet tankers, flying out of Pueblo, and the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, is dropping retardant on the massive Junkins Fire, which has scorched over 18,000 acres to date. That aircraft, supported by a flight crew and maintenance crew of two, each, had been based at San Bernardino, California. “It has been on the Junkins Fire since it broke out on October 17,” Snyder noted. “It is also operating under a USFS exclusive use contract.”
Snyder also noted that, in addition to Colorado, the Great Basin states of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, are under an elevated fire danger at this time. In fact, Neptune has a P2V working from Cedar City, Utah, on the Hicks Creek Fire near Zion National Park. “Typically, the fire season for that area of Utah is in May and June,” he reported.
“Overall, we seem to be busier in the Rocky Mountain region this entire fire season than we were in previous years,” said Dan Sweet, Public Relations Manager for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon. “The fire season seems to be extending for a longer period of time.”
Sweet reported that one of the company’s Columbia CH-47D Chinook helicopters is now in a standby mode at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, having just finished working on the Freeman Fire, near Rifle, Colorado where it had been stationed since October 15th, under an exclusive use USFS contract.
“That helicopter is one of two Columbia CH-47D Chinooks equipped with an internal firefighting tank which holds up to 2,800 gallons of water,” Sweet noted. “The pilot can quickly fill the bucket from a variety of sources, and discharge in various patterns–such as spot drops on fire lines—depending on the needs of the firefighters on the ground.” The helicopter also carries a 160-gallon short term retardant tank, allowing the crew to deploy “foam” on the fires if requested.
Larry Kelley, Director of Fire Operations at CHI Aviation in Boise, Idaho, reported that one of its CH-47D helicopters was at work on the Freeman Fire out of Eagle, under a USFS exclusive use contract, but has since been reassigned to Canon City, Colorado in support of another fire that had requested another Type I aircraft for support doing water drops. “The fire season in Colorado is running about a month later than usual,” Kelley reported.
The helicopter, operated by subsidiary company Helimax Aviation, is supported by two pilots, a flight engineer, and five mechanics. Equipped with a 2,000 gallon Bambi power fill bucket, the helicopter has been engaged in water drops.
“ We are seeing significantly different wild fire patterns now as compared to the ten year average. I think we can expect to see more wild land fires in places, and at times of the year not normally experienced,” said George Hill, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “I believe our industry is seeing extended fire seasons in more places as the new normal.”
CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, which represents the interests of the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service, and other government agencies with responsibility for wild land fire protection.