Pushing a Bad Decision?

By By Lee Benson | June 1, 2015
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The California state agency CAL FIRE and its Aviation Division have an enviable history in firefighting with aircraft.

After World War II, CAL FIRE employed a variety of airplanes, such as Stearmans, TBMs and N3Ns, as air tankers. In short order, two things were learned: air tankers could play an important role in fire suppression, but a better airframe was needed.

Not being terribly interested in airplanes, I will keep this short. In 1970, CAL FIRE acquired Grumman S-2 Trackers. These worked well, but their radial engines were at best problematic. In the mid-90s, CAL FIRE replaced the S-2s’ radial engines with turbine engines. Then, in 1996, it transitioned from the S-2 to the heavier S-2E/G model. With their 1,200-gallon tanks, these airframes are still in use to this day.


Since 1993, CAL FIRE has employed OV-10 Broncos for its command and control platform.

On the helicopter side, CAL FIRE started contracting helicopters in the mid 1960s. In 1981, it acquired several Bell Helicopter UH-1Fs. The F model Huey employed a GE motor that was difficult to support and regarded as a poor choice for off-field operations. The F model used a short body, similar to the Bell 204. Issues related to center of gravity and a lack of tail rotor authority were further impediments to utility operations.

By 1989, CAL FIRE was transitioning to H model Hueys. The GE motor was replaced with the Lycoming T53-L-13, considered one of the best helicopter engines available at that time. The longer H model body resolved a lot of the center-of-gravity concerns.

This was only the beginning for CAL FIRE’s H models. Over the next several years, CAL FIRE upgraded to a Bell 212 drive train and tail rotors, mitigating much of the tail rotor authority issues. CAL FIRE also upgraded to the -17 engine and eventually incorporated tail boom strakes.

I mention all of this because CAL FIRE is about to turn a page and acquire a replacement helicopter for its Super Hueys. As far as I can tell, these will be new, standard-certificated helicopters. As much as I disagreed with “Mother” CAL FIRE policies and practices in my past job as chief pilot for Los Angeles County Fire, I have always respected the work that its aviation unit has accomplished. In my opinion, CAL FIRE’s use of three surplus airframes, the S-2, the OV-10 and the Huey, has been the best example of surplus aircraft operations in the industry. The aircraft chosen for the specific mission envisioned was spot on. The improvements that CAL FIRE made to its respective airframes have made it ever more capable in its mission assignments.

My question about CAL FIRE’s plans to acquire standard aircraft is this: Without the NTSB and the FAA making so much misdirected noise about public aircraft operations over the last decade, would CAL FIRE still be committed to a standard -certificated helicopter? After a decade of making noise, we are no closer to a clear path forward. I have spoken with more than one public operator who is reluctant to invest in surplus aircraft for fear of a draconian mandate from the powers that be.

I spent my first full season as a firefighting pilot with CAL FIRE, as did both of my helitack captains. You can see how this had the potential to go sideways. I will not hesitate to admit that I had a lot to learn about firefighting and its culture, and I was responsible for some of the grief that occurred during that first summer. But it’s more fun to tell stories about others making mistakes.

One day we were called out to a tree struck by lightning. I landed the helicopter in the only suitable spot close to the tree, toward the side of the mountain. After exiting, the guys determined that the 150-200-foot tree had to be dropped to put out the fire high in its crown. Looking at the tree, I realized that the helicopter was within the distance the tree might hit when it came down. Accordingly, I told the captain that I would move the aircraft to the valley below. The captain informed me that the tree would fall the other way and that he had no intention of billing the state for my unwarranted flight time. I assured him that my company would pay for the flight time and left.

When the tree fell exactly where the helicopter had been sitting, I submitted a bill with the aforementioned flight time.

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