Helicopter Express Bell 205A 1++. Photo courtesy of Helicopter Express
On July 8, a wildfire broke out northwest of Santa Barbara, California, in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Within six days, what became known as the Whittier Fire had burned more than 13,000 acres. On July 14, The Santa Barbara Independent reported, 1,200 firefighters were battling the blaze with support from 12 aircraft.
When that day turned to evening, there were 1,612 firefighters on the ground and only one helicopter in the night sky: a Bell Helicopter 205A 1++, operated by Chamblee, Georgia-based Helicopter Express and fitted with night-vision goggle (NVG) capability by Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU).
This week, significant fire activity at the site about 15 nautical miles northwest of Santa Barbara ended and a national interagency incident management team was handing off control to local officials. The fire, which is under investigation, had burned 18,430 acres (including controlled burns) and destroyed or damaged more than 50 structures.
As the fire’s force waned, R&WI discussed the NVG capability of that light, single-engine helicopter (which was flown under contract to the U.S. Forest Service) with ASU’s director of operations, Justin Watlington. He said the 205 was the only helicopter flying for the federal government that is able to fight fire at night, although some local governments have added the capability to their fleets. Watlington told R&WI he hopes that fighting fires at night will become a common practice, in federal operations and otherwise.
“What we're advocating is working on the perimeter of [the fire] and where the fire allows you to work it, just like you would during the day,” Watlington said.
He explained that ASU has seen success in other countries that do night fire attacks by working closely with meteorologists to forecast where winds will blow the fire the next day. “They work very diligently to drop a line of water or retardant on that particular area so that when the sun comes up, and if the meteorologist is correct, … they've already got wet soil or wet trees or retardant on it. It helps to dissipate that fire.”
Using NVGs, air crews can see hot spots on the ground, “glowing embers the naked eye couldn't see at all during the day.”
Watlington said that, for the past decade, he and ASU have been working to help the U.S. Forest Service understand the benefits of fighting fires with night vision. Five years ago, he said, the Forest Service awarded its first helicopter firefighting NVG contract to Helicopter Express, which had been developing procedures for that type of operation. (That contract runs through 2018, he said.) Helicopter Express then contracted with ASU to modify aircraft, sell it the goggles and train its crewmembers.
At the beginning of the contract, Watlington said, ASU also provided subject matter experts who flew with the pilots and has since trained Forest Service inspectors who oversee the operation. ASU also trains the crewmembers to assist with annual recurrent requirements.
“The most crucial portion of learning how to fly on night-vision goggles is the training and having the right equipment: the top-of-the-line NVGs, the best cockpit modification and the best training that's out there,” Watlington said. “I always tell my students that when they forget that they're flying with NVGs, well then they know they've arrived. You're just used to having them on in front of your face. It's just part of or an extension of who you are and what you do.”
Two reasons the federal government has not contracted for a fleet of night-vision-capable firefighting helicopters could be safety and feasibility. Flying at night with an increased use of instruments could present risks. If the federal government found the benefits outweighed the risks, fighting fires with helicopters at night would require additional funds. Watlington believes the pros outweigh the cons and offered NVG usage in air ambulance operations as an example.
Emergency medical service operators started using night-vision goggles in the early 2000s, and the practice was met with much opposition. Watlington said the skepticism was understandable, as the night-vision goggle technology before that point had severe limitations, with potentially lethal consequences if those limitations were exceeded. But the technology in the early 2000s was very capable.
“We've seen our accident numbers in EMS go down tremendously with night controlled-flight-into-terrain incidents since the general use of night-vision goggles,” Watlington said, arguing that aerial firefighting is in the same stage as air ambulances in the early 2000s. “We're just kind of getting started right now. I really think that there is a true interest in putting the fire out. Fighting fire at night is an essential part of that.”
Since the early 2000s, night-vision goggle technology has gotten better. Watlington pointed out two improvements: acuity and color.
In the right lighting, he said, night-vision goggles can give 20:20 visual acuity. They have the ability to sense and control brightness, so if a wearer looks into the fire, then looks away, the goggles can adjust automatically and immediately. The goggles outperform the human eye in this way.
Modern night-vision goggles also use white phosphor instead of green phosphor. ASU has an entire whitepaper dedicated to the advantages of white phosphor. One simple explanation is that white phosphor allows the eye to see the full color spectrum, while green phosphor only shows shades of green.
The industry has also had a chance to gather lessons learned over the years. The biggest, Watlington said, could be aircraft configuration.
On the original Forest Service contract, he said, the process was designed so that the same aircraft that fought fire during the day was fighting fires at night, too. This required the aircraft to be reconfigured between day and night, which required staffing.
There are still more lessons that can be learned. One that Watlington said he would like to see is about hover filling a helicopter’s tank. Current rules limit an aircraft using night-vision goggles to filling its tank on the ground fill. In Watlington’s opinion, having practiced the maneuver, hover filling is a “non-event.”
Watlington said he believes the next step is raising the comfort level for night-vision goggles in aerial firefighting, changing the perception of aerial firefighting at night from a safety risk to a positive.
“The Forest Service and the federal government have embraced it already by awarding the first night-vision goggle firefighting contract,” Watlington said. “I think there's been some natural learning processes, which they've been very wise to do by crawl-walk-run phases.”
Within the last year or so, he said, federal agencies have “starting to pick up their stride into a run. We have seen the number of flight hours and water drops increase year over year.”