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Flying With Fire

By Douglas W. Nelms | July 1, 2005
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Carrying Rain

Dumping large amounts of water onto a raging fire is not rocket science, but it does take good judgment, a steady hand and special training.

In the 1989 movie "Always," Richard Dreyfus plays a firefighting pilot who flies right through the smoke and fire, his aircraft falls apart and he's killed. While he does come back as a fairly benevolent ghost, there is the nagging feeling that if he'd had a bit more training, maybe he wouldn't have flown right through the smoke and fire and gotten himself killed.


OK, admittedly that is a bit flip, but the sad truth is that accidents do occur during firefighting operations and pilots do get killed--and in several cases training could have prevented the accident. Fighting fires with helicopters is not a particularly difficult operation for a highly experienced, highly trained pilot, which most pilots involved in firefighting operations are. However, like any niche segment within the helicopter industry, it has particular dangers that can easily cause accidents--fatal or otherwise.

And like flying in any niche market, the major key to safety is training. According to a December 2002 Blue Ribbon Panel study done for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management, training for firefighting pilots "is under funded and inadequately specified for helicopters, large air tankers and other fixed-wing operations."

Kevin Hamilton, helicopter program manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho, stated that in the past, the bureau has not had a lot of specific firefighting requirements--training or otherwise--for contract pilots. "When we contract an aircraft, the pilot has to meet certain requirements regarding flying experience, so many hours total, so many hours in make and model, so many hours in mountain time and things like that, but there are not any specific firefighting requirements within that."

However, he did note that BLM technical specialists do go out into the field and go on check rides with the pilots. "If (the pilots) do specialty things, such as being approved to do water bucket drops, then the technical specialists will want to see them pick up the bucket, go get water and drop the water. But it's normally done on an airport without any fire involved." Primarily the check-ride items involve seeing if the pilot "can handle the equipment hanging underneath the helicopter."

By the time a pilot gets to the point where he is going to become involved in fighting fires, he (or she) is normally highly experienced with good piloting skills and a large number of hours in the flight log. The practical application of training specifically for helicopter firefighting is therefore fairly straightforward.

Jim Coates, chief pilot for Aurora, Ore.-based Columbia Helicopters, said that based on Forest Service requirements, pilots flying under contract have to have at least 1500 hr. total pilot-in-command time plus 100 hr. within the past year plus specified times in type and model. Specific training for the firefighting role is handled in-house.

"Company-wise, we have our own training for water bucket training," he said. "If a guy hasn't fought fires before, he goes out with an experienced guy. A pilot goes out with an experienced command pilot and watches what the command pilot does before we throw him into the fray. Every year we have initial or re-current training where they go out with the bucket on the helicopter and get re-familiarized on how to go into the water, how to get into the dips, then go out and pick a particular spot and hit that spot. But before our guys ever fight a fire, they have extensive long-line work, so it's not as if they are unfamiliar with external loads. Plus we have quite a few memos and fire-fighting guidelines that are published company-wide that give a lot of information on the types of hazards and dangers that you can face while fighting fires."

So, if the pilots are all highly experienced, with hundreds of hours logged, why are firefighting helicopters crashing?

The five-member, Blue Ribbon Commission reported that in the 10-year period prior to its study, there were 36 accidents related to fire service helicopters. Of those, roughly one-third resulted from mechanical failure while approximately one-quarter "were associated with operating at the edge of or outside the approved flight envelope and clusters of accidents involved entanglements with loads or long-lines. Several wire-strike incidents were also noted." The panel's conclusion was that "the high accident rate appears to be associated with deficiencies in operational control, maintenance and training."

The panel also reported that a lot of the problem had to do with pilot culture, that pilots too often accept risks to accomplish a mission. "With each passing season, crews discover they can accept a little more risk than before and still survive, and be paid for doing so. Risk become addictive, additive and accepted. Risk is one of the most attractive features of the mission."

The panel said that, in general, "aircrews of contract aircraft lack training in contemporary aviation management subjects." The problem, it said, is that, "The Forest Service has not identified aircrew-training requirements, the contract award process does not consider aircrew-training accomplishments, nor are training records required as proof-of-accomplishment. There were no contract incentives found that would encourage operators to retain full time safety officers to supervise and manage aircrew training."

While stating that the biggest problem appeared to be the inability of large fixed-wing tanker pilots to communicate with one another and coordinate their activities, it also said that "helicopter crews are similarly isolated from other air activities, and, from what the panel was told, helicopter crews learn little about the other elements of aerial firefighting, even when everyone is working over a wildland fire."

So aside from training on basic pilot technique, a major emphasis is now being placed on firefight management--the intellectual rather than the physical aspects of flying a firefighting helicopter.

Hamilton said that the BLM is developing a web-based on-line study program specific to helicopter pilots "that is going to be required before they come fly for us on fires, but that is still in development." The agency already has a similar program available for fixed-wing pilots, but the rotary-wing program "should be on-line in the spring of next year," he said.

The on-line program will be set up in modules, "providing information about fires, fire behavior, the kind of things to expect if they fly for the forest service, how it is organized, how the fire management organization is and who the players are, a little bit about communications and operating within the airspace over fires, and some tactical information," Hamilton said.

Columbia Helicopters is also developing an on-line training program that will be required for pilots who want to fly firefighting operations, Coates said. Training for the mission requires more than just being able to drop water on the right spot, he said. "It is a very crowded airspace, so you have to constantly monitor your radios and keep your eyes peeled. You can't become complacent and think you're the only one out there. There are a lot of helicopter and fixed wing mixtures, so you have to understand the capabilities of each one and how they do their job."

Perhaps the biggest effort in helicopter firefighting training through classroom study is through the National Aerial Firefighting Academy in Tucson, Ariz. Initially established in Boise, Idaho in 1997 by the U.S. Forest Service, NAFA was created "To enhance aviation safety by integrating tactics, operations and experience into aerial firefighting training, educating both agency and contract personnel using expertise from both sectors."

The program is an annual one-week course, with the next course scheduled for the week of January 30, 2006, according to Deborah Corner, NAFA training specialist.

This course is strictly classroom study, aimed at providing aerial firefighters with the knowledge they need to fight fires safely. Course objectives include common fire terminology, the application of Risk Management in the use of aviation resources, principles of crew resource management, retardant application, human factors, fire behavior, and recognizing opportunities and impediments involving mixed types of aircraft.

Additional information on the NAFA course can be obtained by going on-line at, or by calling Deborah Corner at 520-799-8752.

Helicopter Firefighting companies, to include those that contract with the Forest Service and those who support local fire departments, are becoming more aware of the need for ground school training to prevent accidents.

Randy Erwin, assistant chief pilot and chief flight instructor for Erickson Helicopters, said for practical application of firefighting techniques, their pilots have a ground school on the operation of their fire tank system, then get a two-hour flight training period on how to pick up water using the sea snorkel, the device that allows them to fill the fire tank in forward flight. Erickson also holds annual meetings for all their pilots in which they discuss the previous year's experiences and lessons learned. "We hold about three meetings of 25 to 30 pilots per class, with classes devoted just to firefighting," Erwin said. These classes range from discussion on how to fight fires to changes in contracts, paperwork requirements and coordinating radio communications with other elements involved, he said.

Both Coates and Erwin are big proponents of the National Aerial Firefighting Academy, sending large numbers of pilots to Tucson to attend it. Coates said that Columbia Helicopters has been sending "four or five of our guys back there every year for about the past six years. So we have quiet a few guys who have gone through the course, plus a lot of guys who have fought fires for over 20 years."

There is a tendency to picture helicopter firefight as attacking raging fires burning tall trees in the great north woods. Unfortunately, there is just as much danger from tall grass in the southeast. A wet winter followed by a dry spring virtually guarantees a bad brush fire season, albeit somewhat abated by the onslaught of the hurricane season in June.

One of the major combatants of these fires is the Miami-Dade County Air Rescue Unit, which includes firefighting along with other multi-mission roles such as search and rescue and EMS.

Jim Hunter, training and standardization officer for the unit. said their training is done in-house using highly experienced pilots who have been fire fighters in previous jobs. This training includes learning to work with ground crews on tactics such as learning to use natural fire breaks, to coordination among the various elements involved, such as local firefighting companies. Hunter noted that while fighting grass fires in the Everglades is a major portion of their firefighting efforts, they also train to protect houses, since people are now building homes right up against the famed swamp.

The unit has just purchashed its fourth Bell 412, an EP model, which will have a Simplex Fire Attack belly tank. The tank will remain on the aircraft year round, although during fire season all extraneous items will be removed from the helicopter so the tank can carry its maximum amount of water.

Traditionally, the unit is called in to support local fire departments when a fire reaches three alarm level. However, the new 412 will be on constant standby, "and we are trying to educate the local fire chiefs to call us in early, before the fire gets big, so we can help put it out in the early stages."

The new 412EP will be delivered in September, Hunter said.

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