Sacramento’s 2012 Aerial Firefighting International Airshow and Conference

My lone encounter with a large “wildfire” occurred  five years ago while I was visiting Southern California.

Watching a steady stream of tanker aircraft shuttle to and from a huge unnatural-looking cloud on the horizon, their bellies red-stained and streaked with fire retardant, fueled my interest in aerial firefighting.

The 2012 Aerial Firefighting International Airshow and Conference, held at Sacramento’s McClellan Airport on January 25th and 26th, offered me a great opportunity to learn more about this unique segment of aviation. The event was sponsored by the British company Tangentlink whose aim is “Connecting Business through International Events and Targeted Networking”.

There’s long been discussion of convening a formal international  aerial firefighting organization to network and address common concerns; meetings like this support that idea.  One hundred fifty delegates from 13 countries attended a full day of presentations, while a second day was set aside for viewing a large aircraft static display, watching demonstrations of a pair of firefighting helicopters, and touring the nearby California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) aviation maintenance facility.

Delegates were both “thinkers” and “doers” , including airplane owners and operators, pilots, firefighters and officials, government managers, engineers, researchers, and sales representatives.  A two-day trade show was central to networking, and displayed innovative ideas from 22 exhibitors.  Fire retardant mixtures, radios, headsets, night vision goggles, command and control systems, displays for several time-tested and new air tanker projects, and numerous water/retardant delivery systems were displayed.

Wednesday January 25th was a full day of informative presentations led by Royal Navy Rear Admiral Terry Loughran, who introduced the speakers and moderated questions and answers.  Terry noted that technology is “doing more with less” and that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  He stressed the importance of the initial attack of a wildfire – that 5% of all fires (usually those are the ones not initially controlled) create 80% of all damages.  His observations were key points throughout the conference, noted by many subsequent speakers.

Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of CALFIRE, opened the conference with an address that included a review of plans for replacing the eleven effective but increasingly expensive to operate Super Huey helicopters used by CALFIRE.  Noting that “nothing’s off the table” as far as new aircraft and technologies are concerned, he said that using less costly “public use” aircraft (former military helicopters) was just one option.  Chief Pimlott also noted that nighttime aerial fire fighting is a “reality”, and his organization is developing a policy to allow night ops… but CALFIRE currently doesn’t have that capability.

Tom Harbour, the  US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Director, Fire and Aviation Management, gave the keynote address that centered around the National Cohesive Fire Management Strategy, that is the framework for communities and agencies to work together in planning responses to wildfires.  He stated that there are one billion burnable acres of land and forests in the 50 US States and its 7 Territories, and that the possibility of loss of life and property from wildfire has become the “most severe situation in this country than ever before”.   He also stressed the need for the industry to be able to show solid returns on air tanker operations to Washington analysts, to insure government funding for future firefighting contracts during times of fiscal cuts.

Jim Coyne, former US Representative and now-president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), spoke about the need to effectively communicate to Congress the aerial firefighter’s needs so future decisions wouldn’t be made without their input.  He agreed that a national organization for aerial firefighting would be beneficial and that NATA could help their cause. Ana Maria Canut Cunha, a coordinator for firefighting efforts in Brazil, outlined her country’s issues and responses to wildfires.  There is a large problem with land burning to clear acreage for agriculture, that often leads to massive wildfires.  A coordinated national response program to these fires has only been in existence for 3 years, and contains few aircraft.  Brazil has not enacted any regulations allowing the use of fire retardants yet,  so only water can be used for fighting fires.

Colonel Yoram Ilan-Lipovsky presented lessons learned  from Israel’s 2010 Mount Carmel  fire as well as last year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami, identifying the need for a robust and realistic command and control response to natural disasters.  He also hinted at the possible 2012 roll-out of a game-changing method of controlling wildfires with solid pellets (rather than liquid) delivered from the air.

Randall Stephens discussed the issues that need to be resolved to allow at least two effective firefighting aircraft to operate in the U.S. – the Russian produced Kamov KA-32 helicopter and Beriev BE-200ES scooper tanker.  Bilateral agreements between government agencies are needed to allow these aircraft to operate during the U.S.’s  fire season, and Mr. Stephens noted that Canada has already allowed the helicopter to work in its’ timber industry some years ago.

John Finnerty,a  retired helicopter pilot from the Los Angeles County Air Operations Section, spoke of the use of night vision goggles (NVGs) and their possible use for firefighting at night.  He discussed the limitations of NVGs and advances made over original models, as well as his preference for a hybrid NVG/synthetic vision system for the future.

Richard Alder, outlined aerial firefighting operations in Australia, and discussed a report on the devastating 2009 Victoria fires.  He also briefed on the International Fire Aviation Working Group, formed under the auspices of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction program. Sharing information between countries  on aircraft capabilities, operating standards and procedures, and deployment processes will be addressed within this work group.

Russian Helicopters was the largest sponsor of the conference, and made an in depth presentation on the KA-32 helicopter.  As a firefighter, it has impressive performance capabilities; one KA-32 dropped almost 77,000 gallons of water on a wildfire in one day in Spain.

A presentation of  the capabilities of the jet-powered BE-200 jet scooper tanker was shown too.  A U.S. operator would have to present the FAA with a detailed operational proposal to be reviewed, and any concerns addressed, before any of these aircraft could be used as aerial firefighters here in the U.S..  That being said, there are many multi-lateral agreements in use today around the world that allow these helicopters and jets to  be used as firefighters outside of Russia.

CALFIRE Special Operations Battalion Chief Ray Cheney spoke about integrating military and other air assets into aerial firefighting operations.  Chief Chaney has first-hand experience working alongside military units assisting with fighting large wildfires.  How military assets were integrated into the civilian firefighting structure, and under what laws and Letters of Agreement , were examined.  In 2003, the Cedar Fire was the first example of the use of Navy helicopters; that squadron had routinely fought fires for the Navy on San Clemente Island’s gunnery ranges off the California Coast.

Captain Justin McKinney is a test pilot for VX-22, the Marines Osprey test squadron.  He outlined for the delegates how he and his crew tested various configurations of the MV-22 aircraft using a Bambi Bucket for airborne water drops.  Noting that the MV-22 is “essentially a small C-130 or a C-12 (Super King Air) that can hover”, he outlined how much water can be hauled, and  at what speeds it can be delivered.

The last presentation for the day was by a panel of pilots who interacted with the delegates on various subjects.  There were reports on jet air tanker conversions of the BA-146 and MD-87 airliners.  A pilot spoke about flying the Evergreen B-747 air tanker to Israel in 2010, make two drops at the Mt. Carmel fire, and continue ’round the world back to the U.S..

Finally, the team discussed some of their wishes for improved flight safety: a synthetic  vision system aboard aircraft to combat smoke and other visibility obstructions, and a dependable power line detection system.


Day Two

Day two was a more interactive meeting with pilots and operators of many of the seventeen aircraft arranged on  static display, which ranged from a small (relatively speaking) Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle unmanned air vehicle to a pair of former Aero Union P-3s.

The CALFIRE aircraft on display included their three main types.  The Super Huey helicopters are used for inserting firefighters near a blaze, and for rescue, resupply and as a water/retardant delivery system.  The S-2T Turbo Tracker tanker aircraft have been rebuilt from earlier piston-engined airframes, and are expected to soldier on for another decade and a half before being replaced.  The OV-10A Broncos are tasked with more of a command-and-control role, however the trio of newer OV-10Ds that will soon become operational may act as lead aircraft for the newest generation of turbine-powered tankers (such as the DC-10 and B-747) due to its increased speed.

A highlight for me was the tour of CALFIRE’s twin maintenance hangars, where many of the 53 aircraft they operate during the busy fire season were undergoing maintenance.  DynCorp is a major contractor for this aviation operation, providing maintenance personnel for all three airframes and pilots for the OV-10 and S-2T aircraft.

Military aircraft on static display included a Army National Guard UH-72 Lakota helicopter and an Air National Guard C-130J transport equipped with a MAFFS II air drop system, both from California.  A Marine CH-53E helicopter displayed its Bambi bucket water delivery system.

Some of the privately owned aircraft on display came from British Columbia… Conair brought a Convair 580 tanker and Fire Boss AT-802 amphibian, while Coulson Flying Tankers brought their Sikorsky S-76 derivative Firewatch76 helicopter that operates as a bird dog leader for the huge Martin Mars air tankers, and can operate as a command and control aircraft for all fixed wing and helicopter operations around a fire. Other domestically registered aircraft included a U.S. Forest Service Super Kingair and a Piper Cheyenne equipped with sensors and communications gear integrated from a trio of companies that offered a “Unified Command” aerial intelligence platform.

Both the Bell UH-1 Huey from Withrotor Aviation and the Sikorsky SH-3H conversion from Croman Corporation flew during the day, displaying their water pick-up and dropping capabilities.  Finally, a pair of ex-Aero Union P-3 turboprops were parked on the ramp, one opened for inspection. Aero Union ceased operations last year; their eight P-3 tankers along with spare parts and Aero Union’s intellectual property will be auctioned off on February 28, 2012.

While I entered the conference with very little knowledge about aerial firefighting, two days later I had learned quite a lot about its many challenges, including flight safety, contract and regulatory issues and roadblocks, and growing financial pressure to “do more with less”.  There are promising improvements from emerging technologies though, including jet powered tanker aircraft, more comprehensive command and control systems, and maybe even nighttime aerial firefighting operations.

The aerial firefighting industry will change quite a bit in the near future, and much of it was on display here in Sacramento.

Thanks to Tangentlink for allowing me to cover the Conference, and to the many CALFIRE, DynCorp, and other personnel who took the time to explain their missions, methods, and products to me.

Story and photos by Ken Kula

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 35 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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