Public Service

Dousing the Flames: San Diego Fire Department Air Ops Program  

By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | August 1, 2011
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The crew of San Diego Fire Department’s Bell 212 demonstrates a water drop over a remote part of the city. The aircraft’s orange snorkel can be seen dangling near the skid. When necessary, water can also be mixed with a special gel that allows it to adhere to potential fuel sources the fire might feed upon. Photo by Ernie Stephens

Fire. Never mind that we cook with it, warm ourselves with it, and even drive massive turbines with it. The word “fire” still brings to mind pictures of houses reduced to ashes, picturesque landscapes charred until black and gray, and towering plumes of thick, black smoke. But ask a firefighter, and they’ll add one more image to that list—a low-flying beast-of-a-helicopter rolling over a smoky ridgeline, releasing hundreds of gallons of water. In its wake, the sound of sizzling wood and the sight of white steam rising from extinguished material.

Nothing delivers a one-two punch to a wildfire like a firefighting helicopter. They are the stars of the show when news cameras spot them discharging loads with graceful climbing turns, and feverous runs back and forth across the face of burning brush—and standing as the last line of defense between the relentless flames and someone’s home.


Don’t let the word “city” in City of San Diego fool you. While this southern California metropolis boast a densely populated downtown area with well over 100 tall buildings, a significant part of its 324 square miles consists of residential neighborhoods that are surrounded by areas prone to accidentally and deliberately set fires. And when lightening and human carelessness—two major causes of fires—ignite a flame, it can quickly and easily engulf an entire community, unless swiftly attacked.

San Diego’s Bell 412EP (red and blue) poses with an Erickson S64E Air Crane similar to one owned by San Diego Gas & Electric. The helicopters work side by side fighting large fires under a partnership between the city and the power company.  San Diego Gas & Electric

This is why the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) operates one 1980 Bell 212 and one 2008 Bell 412EP (N807JS) out of its small base at Montgomery Field (MYF), seven miles north of the heart of the city. Commanding the unit is Perry Esquer, the chief of air operations.

“We have one helicopter operating 24/7, 365 days a year for multi-mission use,” explained Esquer, who has been the unit’s commander since 2009. “We do firefighting, hoist rescue, search and rescue, and at times, medical transport as well.”

SDFD aircraft, which log approximately 400 hours per month (cumulative), launch with a standard crew compliment of three, consisting of one pilot, one crew chief and one paramedic. And since San Diego sits adjacent to several bodies of water, including the Pacific Ocean, the paramedic is also a trained rescue swimmer.

When dispatched to a fire, the SDFD crew will hustle to their ship, plug the coordinates into the GPS, and head out to assess the situation. If a water drop is in order, the crew will go to the nearest natural body of water, dip its hover snorkel—so named because it’s designed to work while the aircraft is held stationary—and draw 300 gallons of water into its external, Simplex-brand belly tank. With the water separated by baffles to minimize sloshing while in flight, the water can be carried to the scene and released all at once through all three doors, or in stages via one door at a time. The aircrew, in conjunction with ground personnel, will decide if the flames should be doused directly, or if the water should be used to help make a fire break. Sometimes, it is even dumped directly on a structure as a preemptive measure.

“We were going gangbuster last month,” said Esquer of the unit’s June 2011 stats. “We put out two or three fires a day.”

Esquer described most of the fires the helicopters fought as “little,” but every huge fire, such as the one that destroyed 80,000 acres near Douglas, Ariz. during a four-week period between May and June 2011, began as a small one. Getting to them and attacking quickly is the key to putting fires out before they can entrap people, level neighborhoods and cause tens of millions of dollars in damage.

With that in mind, fires in southern California are particularly dangerous, thanks in no small part to the state’s dry, sometimes-hard-to-reach terrain, and strong, flame-fanning Santa Ana winds. With conditions such as those arriving during the dry months—particularly between July and November—the more aircraft there are available to drop water and gel-water mixtures, the better. Enter San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the area’s primary utility company.

San Diego Gas & Electric’s red, white and blue S64F Air Crane is primarily used for power grid construction and maintenance, but has a matching, detachable tank that can carry 2,650 gallons of water. It can draw its load from ground tankers, or through one of two snorkels lowered into a water source.  Photo by Ernie Stephens

SDG&E purchased an S64F from Portland, Ore.-based Erickson Air Crane (EAC) for lifting heavy power equipment, such as wind turbines and transmission towers. But beginning in 2009, the company partnered with the City of San Diego to make the helicopter available to the SDFD for use in attacking fires.

When the plan was first suggested, government officials were concerned over what SDG&E would want in exchange for the use of the expensive Air Crane, which costs several thousand dollars per hour to operate. David Geler, vice president of SDG&E, said that the power company would provide the helicopter and its crew, all of whom are experienced in using the S64F as a firefighting platform, free of charge for the first two hours that the city uses it. After that, San Diego would pay SDG&E $7,500 for every additional hour of use.

When asked what SDG&E’s motivation was for absorbing the first two hours of the Air Crane’s operation, Geler replied, “Our motivation is to stop catastrophic fires. We’ve been working very hard at that, and we feel this partnership we put together is a great tool…”

With its detachable, 2,650-gallon water tank, the $30-million Air Crane can use its hover snorkel to draw a full load of water in 45 seconds, said Patrick Pilolla, technical manager for EAC. When it pulls the scoop snorkel through the water, it can fill the tank in 25 seconds. “But with density altitude,” added Pilolla, “they’ll probably only go out with 1,600 to 1,800 gallons.”

Deputy Chief Brian Fennessy, SDFD’s second in command, and one of the driving forces behind establishing his department’s six-year old helicopter unit, was very pleased with the agreement struck between the city and the power company. “Having this available in our county for initial attack absolutely provides the kind of protection that our citizens deserve," he said.

Maintenance for the Air Crane is provided on site in San Diego by Erickson, which flies parts and tools down from its 150,000-square-foot maintenance and warehouse facility 900 miles away in Portland. Overhauls, however, are done at the shop in Portland.

Since brush fires can grow very large and quickly cover a huge area, SDFD’s air unit can find itself helping or being helped by other helicopter units in the region, such as those belonging to the City of Los Angeles and the counties of Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Unfortunately, fires don’t just occur during the day, when crews can see obstacles surrounding the engulfed area. To make operations safer, SDFD flight crews have night vision goggles (NVGs) available for night missions, especially when a call takes them out into the surrounding desert. When donned, the pilot—and the crew chief—has a better chance of spotting power lines, towers and the mountains that nearly surround San Diego.

When the need comes to take on water for a night drop, SDFD won’t draft water from natural locations, to eliminate falling victim to the false altitude cues that operating over water can cause when it’s dark. Instead, crews land at a temporary landing zone, where pumpers and water trucks fill the tanks using a hose.

Other equipment used aboard San Diego’s Bell 212 and 412EP are the 30-million candlepower Spectrolab Night Sun, to illuminate locations at night; a nose-mounted FLIR 8500 forward-looking infrared system, to detect hot spots during day and night operations; and a digital downlink system that can transmit the FLIR images seen by the flight crew down to ground personnel.

Equipment alone is not enough for safe and effective helicopter firefighting, though. A skilled flight crew is also a necessity. Luckily, talented paramedics and rescue swimmers were already available within the fire department, and captains who wanted to be crew chiefs could be recruited from within. But where would the pilots come from? As it turned out, highly experienced pilots were right under the department’s nose.

Prior the unit’s start in 2005, the city leased helicopters, pilots, maintenance services and a fuel truck from a private aviation company that assigned the same pilots to fly for San Diego every fire season.

“When we decided to purchase our own aircraft, we interviewed a number of pilots,” recalls Esquer. “When the interviews were over, the SDFD hired the four contract pilots. They know where they’re going, they know the mission profile, and they obviously have a lot of time doing this.”

Once the crews were trained and ready to fly, the unit adopted a safety rule that still stands. Put simply, it says, “Three to go, one to say no.” So, in essence, before any launch, all three members of the crew must be briefed on the mission, and all three must agree that the mission can be flown. But if one person—regardless of rank or team seniority—feels the assignment is unnecessarily dangerous, the mission cannot be flown.

Communities around the nation have been reporting record heat and drought conditions, making this a busy year for firefighting helicopters. From the Northwest Territory of Canada to Mexico, and from the shores of the Atlantic to the beaches of the Pacific, crews are standing ready to save lives and property from the ravages of fire. The days are long, and the shifts can be busy. But airborne fire attack is an important, necessary service that saves lives and property around the world.

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