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Hard and Fast Helicopter Firefighting

Posted 8 years 300 days ago ago by Admin


Hard and Fast Helicopter Firefighting

By James Careless


There’s no time to waste. As a wind-driven wildfire roars through the dry, brush-covered San Gabriel Mountains in California’s Angeles National Forest, a Sikorsky S-70A Firehawk dives towards the nearest body of water, like an eagle chasing its prey. It’s one of seven aircraft dispatched to the scene by the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD).


Within seconds, the Firehawk’s snorkel is lowered into the water. One minute later the Firehawk’s 1,000-gallon tank is full. With its snorkel quickly retracted, the S-70A lifts above the water and races headlong towards the flaming mountain peaks in the distance. You can see it for yourself at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt3axc27qAQ.


This aggressive aerial attack, repeated hundreds of times, kept a bad situation from getting much worse after the Colby Fire – named for its proximity to the Colby Truck Trail – broke out on January 16, 2014. Even so, the fire was still bad enough. An illegal campfire that got out of hand was the cause. It destroyed five homes, burned 1,952 acres, injured one person, and forced the evacuation of thousands more. In fact, the fire was so large it could be seen from space.


“Our strategy for fires is to hit them hard and fast,” says LACoFD’s Chief of Air Operations Joel M. Harrison. “We knocked this one down using two Firehawks, three tank-equipped Bell 412s, a Bell 412 command platform and two Bombardier CL-415 ‘Super Scooper’ water bombers; each of which can carry up to 1,620 gallons of water.” Additional rotary-wing aircraft and air tankers from CAL FIRE and the United States Forest Service joined the assault.


Large Fleet, Large Mission 


The LACoFD got its first firefighting helicopter in 1957 (a Bell 47G2). “Today, we operate three Sikorsky S-70A Firehawks and six Bell 412s,” says Harrison. “In the peak fire season we are bolstered by the two leased Super Scoopers and a leased Erickson S-64 Helitanker.” The Firehawks and five of the 412s are equipped with bottom-mounted water tanks; the 412s’ tanks hold 360 gallons each. Harrison and other LACoFD managers use the sixth 412 as an aerial command platform.


Given the extended drought that California has been suffering, Los Angeles County’s peak fire season has extended well beyond the summer months. “The Helitanker was on duty with us until December 30, 2013,” Harrison says. “The two Super Scoopers went back to their home base in Quebec after March 29 of this year.”


The LACoFD protects 2,305 square miles in unincorporated Los Angeles County and 58 District cities. “We go from sea level to 10,000 feet in the mountains,” says Harrison. “We fly in all kinds of conditions, including hot conditions at altitudes that really tax a helicopter’s performance.” In 2013, the LACoFD’s Air Operations division delivered 1.3 million gallons of water and/or fire suppressant foam countywide. Harrison calculates, “In the same time period, we flew 1,051 EMS mission and conducted 90 hoist rescues.”


The LACoFD’s Air Operations Section is headquartered at Barton Heliport, near Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. “During the peak fire season we will station a Firehawk at Fire Camp Nine above Santa Clarita with a fire crew, to have them within striking distance of new fires,” explains Harrison. “We have a ground fill procedure at pre-designated ‘heli-spots’ to fill the 412s, or if needed, the Firehawks.”


When fires break out during peak season, the LACoFD responds fast by dispatching seven aircraft; namely two Firehawks, a 412 with a tank, a 412 command ship, the Helitanker and the two Super Scoopers. This shock and awe approach allows the department to get fires under control quickly, and prevent them from spreading. “It’s an approach that has paid off well for us,” Harrison says. For instance, the fast-moving Colby Fire consumed 1,709 acres during its first five hours. By that point the LACoFD had the fire 30 percent contained. At the fire’s peak, more than 550 LACoFD firefighters surrounded properties to hold back the flames, while the LACoFD’s aerial fleet and trucks attacked from above and below. The fact that just 1,952 acres were ultimately burned indicates how effectively the department squelched this Santa Ana wind-driven fire.


Tech-Driven Solutions


The LACoFD’s success in aerial firefighting has much to do with its technology choices, particularly by bolstering its 412 water bombers with high-capacity Firehawks, the Helitanker, and Super Scoopers. Other helicopter firefighting organizations similarly succeed through their tech choices. For instance, Panorama Helicopters of Alma, Quebec relies on a fleet of 12 rugged helicopters (Bell 205/206-L3/407 and Airbus Helicopters AS350 B2/BA+/BA and D) to help the provincial government combat forest fires every summer. “We count on SEI Bambi Buckets and long lines to do our jobs,” says Jimmy Emond, Panorama Helicopters’ general manager. Panorama has also used Simplex Manufacturing’s FAST bucket. Its capacity can be increased as the helicopter’s fuel weight decreases due to consumption.


Speaking of Simplex, one of the company’s most advanced products is its SkyCannon aerial firefighting system. It consists of a belly-mounted composite tank, a cockpit-control wiring system, a hover pump refill system, and a boom-and-turret water delivery system. A separate operator sits in the main helicopter cabin and controls the water delivery system. The SkyCannon, designed for urban high-rise fires, allows firefighters to immediately begin combatting the fire from the air while ground firefighting units are in transit to the site. Simplex Manufacturing’s Marketing Manager Darby Simshaw explains, “Fighting the fire using the SkyCannon slows the spread of the fire to higher floors in the building and gives ground crews more time to evacuate the building.”


Airbus Helicopters’ latest firefighting solution is the EC225 ‘fire attack’ helicopter. This configuration can carry up to 1,050 US gallons aloft inside a soft-sided water tank installed in its cabin. The EC225 uses its onboard pump and snorkel to extract this amount of water from a pond, lake or river in just 80 seconds.


“The EC225 helicopter is a new system with much more efficiency, reaching now the level of fixed wing in terms of ground footprint,” said Benoit Terral, Airbus Helicopters’ sales promotion manager. “We have increased the safety in operations thanks to a retractable pump that maintains the full flight envelope of the EC225; including flying and dropping up to 140 knots ” Additionally, Airbus Helicopters’ AS350 B3e is also well suited to aerial firefighting, using Bambi Buckets and long lines.


The Human Factor


Cutting-edge aerial equipment isn’t enough to battle fires effectively. To do the job right, the LACoFD needs experienced, highly skilled, and well-trained pilots – who are willing to do even more training.


LACoFD Senior Pilot Tom Short says that after a pilot’s LACoFD application gets accepted, that’s just the beginning. “We put them through a six month probation/training period that includes initial training at FlightSafety International on the Bell 412. If the applicant has prior Sikorsky S-70/UH-60 military experience then they might also attend the S-70 initial course at FlightSafety during that first six months. If they do not have S-70 experience, the initial transition training in that aircraft takes place after probation is completed.”


Pilot Short says those first six months are devoted to transitioning the new pilot to the department’s multi-mission role of firefighting, SAR, and HEMS. This transition includes the pilot obtaining an EMT-I certificate, ICS training, wildland fire behavior training, NVG training, and department specific training. “Because the department hires experienced pilots, the initial transition period is designed to introduce them to the surrounding area, airspace, mission specific requirements and SMS/CRM with the existing flight crews, maintenance, and support personnel,” he says. “An evaluation flight with the unit’s senior pilots is the final step in the probation process and the pilot becomes a permanent employee.”


When probation is over a LACoFD pilot receives additional training, including continuing education in EMT skills and annual 412/S-70 refresher training. Pilots also receive mission training “in hoist, short-haul, and swift-water/blue water rescue as well as external load, large animal rescue, helitorch, and unaided/aided (NVG) flight training,” says Short. That large animal rescue work can include hoisting an injured horse and rider off a mountain, which the LACoFD did this past March.


Chief Harrison concludes, “Our aerial firefighting mission is demanding, but thanks to the quality of our people and equipment, we are able to meet its requirements. Together, the LACoFD Air Operations Section has been able to save countless lives, homes, and acres of property from certain destruction.”


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