The challenge of change for Cal Fire in the US
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, (Cal Fire) in the US operates an extensive range of fire fighting assets including specialist personnel, ground vehicles and support assets, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. For many years Cal Fire’s helicopter unit has operated a dozen examples of Bell’s venerable UH-1H ‘Huey’, which have served capably and reliably but are overdue for replacement by a newer aircraft with more modern systems and technologies. Cal Fire pilot Brent Starr explained that the state agency’s Hueys came to Cal Fire as federal excess personal property (FEPP) after military service and are technically on loan from the Department of Agriculture. “Our Vietnam era Hueys were produced from 1967 to 1969, so they’re now 50 or more years old. They don’t look like it because every 12 years they get completely stripped down and fully refurbished from the ground up but they’re still old aircraft with analog technology,” he related. In addition, it was desired that night vision goggle (NVG) operations be added to Cal Fire’s fire fighting repertoire and a twin-engine machine was seen as a necessary requirement for safety reasons. Just like the Huey was, Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk is built for the military, tough and rugged to operate in hostile environments, land in the dirt and take a pounding. These attributes make it a very good fit for the Cal Fire missions and Cal Fire’s first Cal Fire Hawk was delivered to the McClellan base on 12 October 2019, after initial testing at United Rotorcraft’s facility at Denver’s Centennial Airport.
Cal Fire operates their helicopters primarily as initial attack platforms, responding to wildland fires and complying with a state goal that requires 95 percent of all wildfires to be kept to an area of ten acres or less wherever possible. One of ten aircraft is stationed at each of ten bases around the state, with the remaining two machines based at McClellan as replacements for maintenance or unscheduled aircraft on ground (AOG) situations. The aircraft respond to each fire as rapidly as possible, carrying a pilot, two fire captains and a five or six-person ground crew of fire fighters, referred to as helitack personnel, with all their required equipment. Sean Ketchum is a fire captain and he described how one fire captain always flies in the rear of the aircraft with the helitack crew and stays on the ground with them when they deploy, while the other captain usually remains in the aircraft to assist the pilot with limited co-pilot type tasks and utilising their extensive fire fighting expertise. In the past, each base has made its own choice as to whether the second captain remains in the aircraft but Cal Fire pilot Glenn Galbraith stated that once the Cal Fire Hawks are operational, the choice will be eliminated and it will be mandatory for the second captain to remain in the cockpit with the pilot. This is in recognition of the much higher level of complexity of the S-70i and the higher pilot workload with the advanced systems on board. On arrival at the scene, a high level reconnaissance is performed, water sites located and the best location for the helitack crew deployment is determined and, if a suitable site is located, the helitack fire fighters are inserted before the aircraft commences water-dropping operations.
Starr explained that multiple Cal Fire ships may initially arrive at a fire scene but in normal circumstances, within 24 to 48 hours all but one will return to base and re-set for the next initial attack call-out to ensure readiness for the next call-out in the initial attack role. If the fire situation demands aerial assets to aid in or extend beyond the initial attack, call when needed (CWN) aircraft are called in, enabling the release of most Cal Fire helicopters. Helitack crews can remain on scene for much longer and have the skills and training to set up and run the helibase for all the CWN helicopter fleet, while Cal Fire also provides Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO) and aerial supervision for fires at which the state has command. Cal Fire has the fire suppression responsibility for approximately 31 million acres in California, also providing assistance to inter-agency partners such as Federal land management agencies and local government. While Cal Fire has responsibility for fire fighting in state responsibility areas; it does also contract to some local areas and operates as the municipal fire department in several cases. In other areas, letters of agreement or memorandums of understanding are in place that authorise Cal Fire’s involvement upon request so Cal Fire also cooperates with federal or local fire fighting assets and organisations when called upon and when there is a threat of fire spreading from federal to state property or in mutual threat zones.
In addition to fire fighting duties, the Cal Fire aircraft can fulfil a rescue function, although the department does not operate an EMS service. “Our helitack rescue personnel are trained to a minimum of EMT but we don’t have advanced life support capability on the aircraft,” explained Ketchum. “We can rescue someone from a scene, administer emergency first aid and hand them off to a waiting ground or air ambulance but we’re not in competition with the EMS service providers.” He did point out that in exceptional circumstances of imminent threat to life, limb or eyesight, it was permitted to transfer a rescue victim directly to a hospital but the weight limitations on most hospital roof-top helipads precluded the landing of a 17-22 000lb Cal Fire Hawk. On the advantage side, the internal volume and weight-carrying capabilities of the Cal Fire Hawks permit the permanent fitment of a Goodrich hoist and the carriage of the normal complement of rescue equipment on all operational sorties. That was not possible with the Huey, which had to fly back to base or rendezvous with a helitender and re-configure for the rescue role before it could be dispatched to a rescue. Historically, only around ten percent of Cal Fire s helicopter call-outs have been for rescues though, with 90 percent of their workload being fire fighting missions.
Dennis Brown has worked for Cal Fire for the last ten years in a number of positions, Aviation Safety Officer, Fixed-wing Programme Manager, Chief of Flight Operations and most recently, 18 months ago, as the Senior Chief of Aviation. Previously he had an extensive and widely experienced 38-year US Forest Service career in fire fighting, fuels management, Battalion Chief, Air-Attack Supervisor and Region 5 Aviation Safety Officer positions. He explained that the first Cal Fire Hawk, Copter 903, was intentionally designated as one of the two spares and held back at McClellan as a training aircraft. “We knew we couldn’t put our first aircraft out onto a base and expect them to hit the ground running, as there was always going to be some spool-up time with entry in to service and training. Our 900 series aircraft have traditionally been the spare and training aircraft held at McClellan. Our next aircraft - designated C-205 - is scheduled for delivery in February and is the first aircraft that will be sent out to an operational base, going to Vina Helibase, just north of Chico, California. The pilots are receiving their training at Flight Safety and as there has been some delay, they’ll get recurrency training and some aircraft time in C-903 just before their new aircraft goes on line. The third new machine will be picked up in March and another two should be ready in April. The purchase orders have been cut for four more that are on the assembly line in Poland now and we intend to order the last three at the start of next fiscal year in July 2020, so we hope to have all 12 operational within two years from now.” Brown reported that, although Cal Fire’s aircraft are operated in the public use category and exempt from a number of FARs and other FAA standards, the department operates and maintains them to the higher FAA standards. “We have our own Part 145 repair station here for our three fixed-wing aircraft that are type-certificated and we do our best to follow the same rules and guidelines for the maintenance and operation of all our aircraft, to the same standard as if they were standard or restricted category machines, even if they are operated under public use. All of our current and future hired mechanics for the S-70i’s are going to the Sikorsky Academy for their maintenance type training,” he said.
Brown, who is not a rated helicopter pilot although his commercial fixed-wing pilot experience does allow him to train and fly Cal Fire’s OV10 Broncos and Grumman S2 Tracker air tankers, reported that there have been only minor glitches with the first of the Cal Fire Hawks’, primarily related to the integration of the modifications and he considers that the greatest challenge presented by the switch in types will be the transition for personnel, both pilots and fire fighters, from the Huey to the Cal Fire Hawks. “It’s not just a plug-and-play scenario. These are much more complicated and sophisticated aircraft with a glass cockpit and much more automation so it’s going to take a while to get everyone up to full competency in the new aircraft. If we went and hired ex-military Black Hawk pilots who could already fly the aircraft, they wouldn’t have the fire fighting experience that our pilots already have so we would have a time frame to get them trained up as well. Over time, hiring a mix of skilled fire pilots to transition to the Black Hawks and some ex-military pilots to train as fire pilots will be our best model. There are other differences too, the rotor wash is much stronger than that of the Huey, so the ground crews are learning that it may be better to just wait for the aircraft to depart after disembarking, rather than trying to move away immediately and pilots will have to be very conscious of the rotor-wash and its effect on the fire itself during water dropping.
On the maintenance side we do want people with some experience working on the S-70i, so we reached out to different branches of the military, the National Guard and different arenas, trying to locate suitable people and between us and DynCorp, (our current contractor for mechanics) we’re having some success with that,” he related, before explaining that although all aircraft maintenance services and the provision of pilots for the fixed-wing fleet are contracted out to DynCorp, the helicopter pilots are all full-time state employees. The fire captains are also full-time but the rest of the fire fighting personnel on the helitack crews are seasonal, working for nine months each year and going through re-hiring and re-training at the beginning of every season. Five of the ten Cal Fire operational bases are slated to become 24-hour bases once the Cal Fire Hawks are fully NVG operational and the pilots and crews are trained and comfortable with this change in mission tasking.
There is no current intention to deploy helitack crews at night or increase the size of daytime helitack crews so no extra fire fighters have been funded and Brown stated that when NVG missions are commenced, they will be dispatched with the minimum required crew for the mission. For water dropping that will include just the pilot, front seat captain and rear cabin observer but for air rescue an additional rescuer may be required. While night-time fire fighting is not a frequent occurrence, Cal Fire will eventually have this capability as well enabling 24-hour rescue capability at the five designated bases. Both of these are additional missions that Cal Fire does not currently enjoy but will be able to undertake in the future, courtesy of the added capabilities of the Cal Fire Hawks.
Starr flew Black Hawks for 18 years in the military, with about 14 years instructing and he is one of only three Cal Fire pilots with any previous Black Hawk flight experience. He is therefore well qualified for his current position at Cal Fire’s headquarters base at McClellan, establishing training syllabi and schedules for the changeover to the new type. He works with a cadre of other pilots and fire captains to ascertain not only how best to transition the flight crews but how the fire captains and helitack fire fighters need to modify their procedures, how and where to store their equipment in the Cal Fire Hawks’ very different cabin, even how to best enter and deploy from the much higher cabin of the S-70i. Brown also explained that options for tool storage were still being finalised as the helitack crews experimented in the new airframe’s cabin. Unlike the Hueys, the Cal Fire Hawks, are brand new aircraft and the model is essentially the civilian version of the current and latest ‘Mike’ version of the military’s UH60 Black Hawk and fully compatible with NVG operations.
With only a very few of Cal Fire twenty fire-pilots boasting any NVG experience, Starr advised that it is intended that everyone flies the S-70i on at least one full season of daytime fire operations before NVG operations are considered. This is to ensure that all pilots are totally current and comfortable in the aircraft before tackling the challenging mission of night-time fire fighting under goggles. Most of the UH60-M’s specialist military equipment is obviously missing from the Polish-assembled S-70i but the model retains the Mike’s full glass cockpit with four MFDs, inbuilt software and HUMS system, the dual multi-band secure-capable Raytheon ARC-231/MXF-4027 radio sets, aircraft survivability equipment (ASE) and optional fittings. Specific modifications and extra equipment for the Cal Fire Hawks’ over the standard S-70i include the external water tank, the 18 to 20-inch extension of the landing gear to accommodate the tank, collapsible crew seats in the rear cabin, a FlightCell system enabling airborne communications and automated flight following, wireless and waterproof Axnes portable radio for rescues, external PA, siren and LED flashing/steady lights, Martin Baker seats in the cockpit and installation of a pair of Technisonic TDFM-136 radios which are integrated into the Becker ICS system but not into the aircraft flight management system or MFDs.
The most significant advantage that the Cal Fire Hawks offers over the Huey is the new type’s ability to deliver almost triple the amount of water in each drop from the external tank; typically eight to nine hundred gallons compared to the 350 gallon capacity of the UH-1H. Kawak Aviation Technologies Inc manufactured the 1 000-gallon external tanks for the Cal Fire Hawks, based on the Aero-Union tanks fitted to the older model Firehawks that LA County has successfully operated for about eighteen years. Starr pointed out that that their extensive experience with the Aero-Union tanks enabled LA County to suggest a significant number of improvements and refinements for the new Kawak tanks, increasing usability, maintainability and performance, increasing the baffling to reduce sloshing and eliminating the 120kt maximum airspeed restriction. The improved tanks and necessary strengthening of the airframe mounting structure do impose a subsequent weight penalty of about 400lbs but the S-70i’s substantial performance advantage still allows it to carry and deliver significantly greater weights than the superseded UH-1H. A speed advantage of around 40 knots over the Huey means that the Cal Fire Hawks can not only deliver almost three times the water in each drop but can also more rapidly carry out drop-cycles, although response-time to a fire scene is slightly increased due to the newer aircraft requiring a few minutes longer start both engines and take off. The Cal Fire Hawks’ greater endurance also permits 15 to 20 minutes longer on station with a correspondingly greater number of water drops between each refuelling break.
Brown says he is happy with the progress of the programme so far and advises that he has good support from upper management, with no undue pressure to rush the implementation and NVG timelines. He stresses that it is crucial that everybody gains sufficient experience in daytime operations to become extremely confident and competent in operation of the new aircraft before any move is made to implement night-time NVG operations. He is also complimentary of the relationship with the supplier. “It’s been an exceptionally good relationship with the prime contractor United Rotorcraft, as well as Sikorsky itself and the only challenges that have come in have been with some delays in the time-frames and I guess we should expect that as this was the first of this aircraft type they’ve done as a complete turn-key package,” commented Brown. “The people we’ve had to work with, their willingness to cooperate with us and the quality of the work have all been great so far. I’m really proud of what we have here, the people that make it work and the people that have come before me at Cal Fire to set me up for where we are.” In Starr and Galbraith’s opinions, the Cal Fire Hawk has been the right choice. Galbraith commented, “I think overall it’s been good and Brent and I have been involved with the program, with Dennis giving us responsibility to help develop and establish a successful program, while Starr enthused, “It’s amazing, definitely the right machine for the right mission!”
Source: Heli Ops