2012 archives

Walt Darran in front of a Beriev BE200 at Santa Maria, CA (2010).

To optimize the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of an integrated aerial fire suppression system, all parties must truly work together instead of pursuing individual agendas in isolated groups.Analysis by Walt Darran.

On February 10, 2012 the United States Forest Service released their Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy.

On the same day five U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack stating their concern regarding the upgrading, composition, contracting, and utilization of the Air Tanker fleet.

On March 6th, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress that his agency’s diminished and aging fleet of firefighting air tankers is insufficient to combat the nation’s increasingly severe blazes.

In a prepared statement, Chief Tidwell presented his vision of USFS goals and priorities under current budgetary restrictions. During testimony, Chief Tidwell noted that although efforts are under way to bring more civilian airtankers on line, he anticipates increased use of the eight  Air National Guard MAFFSII units this summer.

MAFFS units provide a useful surge asset for extended attack operations when civilian airtankers are fully deployed, but only have a requirement to respond within 48 hours. They are not available for all-important day-to-day initial attack.

Getting Down to Business

After years of reports and analyses, our problems with wildfire and aviation have been recognized and acknowledged.

With insufficient numbers of aging airtankers; systemic problems related to dispatching and utilizing those resources effectively; increasing environmental impediments; growth of the urban-wildland interface; continuing drought and forest infestation across our country; and severe budgetary restrictions, U.S. fire agencies and the air tanker industry find themselves in a challenging situation, with an increasing tally of problems, yet also new opportunities.

In consultation with boots on the fire line and aircrews over the fire about what really works, all parties need to evaluate our legacy operating procedures, parameters and priorities in areas including, but not limited to:

  • Aircraft handling and performance characteristics in the fire suppression environment
  • Drop systems that effectively dispense environmentally friendly retardant, gel, foam or water in all reasonable application scenarios, including over-the-top extended downhill runs
  • Crew/operator experience and demonstrated performance
  • State-of-the-art training programs
  • Implementation of user-friendly enabling technologies like Infra-Red (IR) spotting and mapping, Synthetic Vision Systems and Night Vision systems, for enhanced Safety, Effectiveness, Efficiency (SEE)
  • Enhanced tactics and strategies
  • Upgraded training, qualifications, procedures and authority for dispatchers
  • Thoroughly documented field evaluations of each air tanker/crew/fire chemical/tank system that include objective criteria such as IR imagery of drop effectiveness (since you can’t manage what you can’t measure)

With the acquisition of a modernized fleet we will gain significantly increased capabilities yet also face significantly increased costs, which, in turn, will require us to optimize the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of an integrated aerial fire suppression system by truly working together, instead of pursuing individual agendas in isolated groups.

The Plane Truth

We have a selection of potential airframes from which to choose — P2V, AT802/FireBoss, S2T, DC6/7, BAe146, CV580, CL215/415, Martin MARS, MD87, B737, C130H/J with RADS/AFFS II, DC10, and B747, BE200, Avro RJ85 and Dash8 Q-400. Possibly the P3 with a new operator.

Some have FAA/IAB approval, others are in various stages of certification. Plus, the Alenia C27J Spartan, Fairchild Republic A10 Firehog and the Lockheed Martin S3A Viking deserve attention. Some combination of these would offer a reasonable short-term (10-20 years) interim replacement for, and significant upgrade to, current air tanker fleet capabilities.

The USFS Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy by definition only addresses LAT replacement; but smaller, larger, faster, slower and/or more versatile airtankers will be offered that may give the fleet an even better overall capability. Over-emphasizing a single asset (C130J/AFFS II) as a “core” airtanker — as this report and the USFS-commissioned RAND study suggest- — ignores the toolbox philosophy: that different fires require different tools. LAT fleet modernization should be considered in the context of all available and potential aerial fire suppression resources.

Refining the Tools in Our Box

Commercial operators and crews have steadily increased aerial firefighting effectiveness since 1955. Bumps in the road have been caused by lack of funding and support, and misunderstanding of problems and opportunities both in the field and in offices. Different groups are sometimes viewing the “big picture” on different channels. Better two-way communication should help.

Taking that a step further, this seems an appropriate time for U.S. fire agencies to start working with industry on a true Next Generation airtanker(s), possibly purpose-built, to provide superior protection from increasingly devastating mega fires. If so, they probably need to start now if they want it to be operational in 15-20 years. But we can start addressing other issues today, such as dispatching, tactics, and strategy, enhancing safety, effectiveness, and efficiency at minimal cost, perhaps even saving a few bucks.

As noted in the modernization strategy, response speed is a critical component of initial attack success. The 2% of wildfires that advance to extended attack supposedly account for 85% of fire suppression costs. But aircraft speed is only one component of response speed. For instance, location of the aircraft at the time of dispatch, and distance between the fire and the reload base or scoop site, are usually more significant than aircraft speed alone. With only 11, 18, or even 24 airtankers spread between Florida and Alaska, true initial attack is difficult, if not impossible, to implement, even with 300 knot aircraft. Airspeed is often restricted well below 300 knots by FAA and Fire Traffic Area regulations.

Taking into account increased fire activity and devastation, we need more airtankers, appropriately positioned. We probably need to be thinking in terms of 40-50 or more Type 1-3 airtankers, plus Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs), and Type 1 helitankers, just to return to the relative coverage we had a decade ago, in 2002. Not cheap, but we do have a choice: we can pay now, or we can pay later.

Current VLATs — DC10 and B747 — are extraordinary tools for combating extended attack and mega fires, but like every other tool in the box, they are not appropriate or effective in all situations. Spotty utilization and inadequately planned dispatching have probably kept them from achieving their full potential. For them to be cost-effective, dispatchers must be fully aware of VLAT capabilities and limitations, and given the authority and mandate to dispatch them in a timely and appropriate manner.

All airtanker Captains, from SEATs to VLATs, should be trained and vetted to Initial Attack PIC (Pilot in Command) standards, then used accordingly. There is no logical reason to require a properly trained and qualified VLAT crew to follow a specially qualified, dedicated leadplane on a drop (the B747 was used successfully without a lead in Israel and Mexico).

Part of the Aviation Tool Box.  Four FireBoss air tankers scoop water as they battle wildfires near Edmonton

USFS appears to be making a welcome start towards seriously evaluating both dedicated and multi-mission amphibious airtankers. L.A. County, Minnesota, and BIA/Washington State have used scoopers effectively for well over a decade. Bombardier CL215/415, Martin MARS, and the AT-802 FireBoss are not considered in this report, let alone the proposed Beriev BE200, ShinMaywa US-2, Marsh G-111 Wildfire, or AVIC Dragon 600 scoopers.

However, in a surprise announcement to Congress, “Tidwell said the Forest Service had contracted a pair of (amphibious) scoopers able to drop hundreds of gallons at a time on flames in remote areas (with access to suitable water sites). He said the agency would have to rely more heavily on its fleet of 30 large firefighting helicopters, down from 34 helicopters last year.” Prioritized mission sharing of these versatile aircraft with DoD, DEA, USCG, Homeland Security, FEMA, and Border Patrol might be an option to consider.

Collaboration is Key

It is encouraging to see USFS working with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre on two-way international cooperation and sharing, instead of reacting ad-hoc to requests for assistance on cross-border fires. As the range and speed of NextGen air tankers increase, that concept might be extended with other nations.

The up-coming sea change in aerial fire suppression platforms and technology offers fire agencies and vendors an opportunity for a fresh approach to consulting with firefighters at the tip of the spear, in the air and on the fire line, to compliment input from academic think tank studies and OEM lobbyists. A point of reference; the only italicized sentence in the 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel report:

Possibly the single largest challenge now facing leaders of these federal agencies is to foster cooperation and collaboration among working-level staffs, contractors, and states to raise the standards of aerial wildland firefighting in the United States. 

Cal Fire provides an example of how to involve all shareholders in addressing challenges and opportunities. Their highly successful Government-Owned, Contractor Operated (GOCO) model of acquisition, contracting, and operation of 23 Grumman S2T airtankers and 15 North American Rockwell OV10 Bronco Air Attack command & control aircraft at 12 Air Attack Bases, working side-by-side with their fleet of 11 UH-1H Super Huey Helitack ships on a GOGO program, will be covered in a future issue.

Finally, it is unrealistic to expect an operator of multi-million-dollar air tankers to survive, let alone provide reliable response and service, with current Call-When-Needed (CWN) arrangements. At the very least, some sort of basic retainer should be awarded to cover costs of maintaining aircraft airworthiness and crew currency to contract standards. When we need them, we really need them. Imagine SEAL Team 6 on a CWN contract.

No Time like the Present

So instead of just another well-intentioned study by an academic think tank that has probably never smelled wildfire smoke, let alone fought one, how about something with traction? How about an accountable, action-oriented aviation working group comprised of agency, industry, line pilots/mechanics, and possibly third-party observers, tasked with developing specific proposals in an established time frame, addressing real-world aerial fire suppression issues? With published follow-up reports on action taken and verified results.

The time has come for joint collaboration and action instead of endless isolated deliberations searching for a perfect solution. Consider alternate solutions, conduct a thorough field evaluation when possible. Then document, re-evaluate, disseminate results, commit and support when warranted. In a timely manner. Instead of “analysis paralysis.”

Or do we just wait for another Wallow or Station Fire, or a Storm King Mountain burn-over?

Winston Churchill noted: “There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” With the February and March announcements, change has begun. Time will tell if it’s in the right direction, but with our increasing fire risk and activity, time is truly of the essence.

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Walt Darran is Safety Committee Chairman and on the Board of Directors of Associated Aerial Firefighters (www.airtanker.org).