Skip to comments.Pilots Take On California Blazes With Powerful Aircraft
Posted on 10/26/2007 9:29:07 AM PDT by Incorrigible
Wayne Lannin, a pilot with Helicopter Transport Services Inc., readies for a firefighting flight. (Photo by Michael Milstein)
OTAY MESA, Calif. On California's border with Mexico, the furnacelike Harris Fire hopscotches ridgetops and cinders anything, including homes, in its path.
Helicopter teams from Oregon are the first line of defense, sucking water from a lake and dumping it in air-raid style sweeps at the fire lin
These chopper teams lead in this risky kind of work, as successfully navigating forests with choppers derives from logging experience in the Pacific Northwest.
Flying from a crumbling and nearly forgotten former Navy airfield near the border, three massive helicopters race through choking smoke and squirrelly winds to throw about 2,000 gallons of water and fire retardant at a time onto one of the most destructive of the Southern California wildfires.
This air force, like a determined fighter squadron, has become a key weapon in the no-holds-barred battle against the blazes laying siege to the region.
Two of the Oregon aircraft were the first large helicopters to reach the Harris fire as fierce winds whipped it into a blast furnace over the weekend, when other air tankers and helicopters were in acutely short supply. Maneuvering through gusts that could ground smaller helicopters and many airplanes, the pilots aided desperate firefighters on the ground as homes and hillsides turned to ashes.
"I've been doing firefighting for 31 years, and flying for a little over 40, and this is as big, as extreme as anything I've seen,'' said Wayne Lannin of Port Orford, Ore., who once flew helicopters for the Los Angeles County Fire Department and now pilots a Sikorsky Skycrane for Helicopter Transport Services Inc. of Corvallis, Ore.
Other helicopters hitting the fire like a thunderous air raid come from Columbia Helicopters in Aurora, Ore., and Evergreen International Aviation in McMinnville, Ore. Oregon is known nationwide for its aerial firefighting muscle, a skill that evolved from helicopter hauling of logs headed for sawmills.
Lannin and co-pilot Brent Keeler of Albany, Ore., dumped water and retardant Wednesday on flames licking at homes from remote cabins to palatial estates in the rock-studded hills east of San Diego. The Harris fire turned deadly from the start, killing one person, and has injured more than 30, including firefighters, and turned about 200 homes to cinders.
Winds calmed in recent days and fire bosses cautiously hoped they could contain the blaze sometime next week.
As Lannin and Keeler guzzled Gatorade in a cargo trailer that provided scarce shade on the scorching tarmac, a man they had never seen drove up in a Buick and handed over an armful of fresh Quizno's sandwiches and icy Pepsis.
"Thanks,'' Lannin said.
"No, thank you,'' said the man, Michael Funkhouser, who owns a towing service near the airstrip. "My house is up there,'' he said, pointing to a smoke-shrouded ridge to the north. I've already been evacuated. Thank you for trying to save it.''
The fires even chased Lannin's crew. The team which carts a fuel truck and trailer full of tools and parts wherever it goes began working from an airport in Ramona, north of San Diego. Suddenly they looked up to see wind-whipped flames racing toward them.
"It looked like it was coming right to the airport,'' said Ray Willis of Corvallis, the crew chief. "They thought the airport might get overrun.''
The Ramona airport lost power and water. The entire city of about 36,000 was evacuated.
Families moved from their homes to cots and tents in the concrete hallways of the San Diego football stadium and other evacuation centers. Leaders pleaded for citizens to save electricity and water, and avoid using cell phones so they'd be available for firefighting forces. Shopping malls in a region known for its gorgeous weather and perpetual sun stand dark and empty amid a pall of choking brown smoke.
"It's unreal we're flying over shopping centers where there's not a car in the parking lot,'' said Mark Johnson, a pilot with Columbia Helicopters. He and his crew were ferrying logs in Northern California until they got orders to fly their twin-rotor Boeing Vertol 107 to the fires blowtorching the southern end of the state.
The fires kept one-upping aircraft and fire crews racing in from all directions.
"First there were eight fires in San Diego,'' said Jerry Cimini, a U.S. Forest Service helibase manager. "The next day there were 13. So it was like, 'When is it going to stop?''' He said the helicopters were vital in defending houses.
The Evergreen and Helicopter Transport Services aircraft work under contract to the U.S. Forest Service throughout the summer, chasing flames from Georgia to Idaho.
Indeed, with drought stalking the West, there's almost no place the fire-fighting choppers haven't been.
But each fall they are likely to end up in Southern California, where devilish, house-rattling winds howl off the desert and fan the slightest spark into an inferno.
Willis points to a map taped to the ceiling of the crew's trailer, covered with push pins.
"We've been to a lot of other places,'' he says, with a note of apology. "But we ran out of push pins.''
(Michael Milstein is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at michaelmilstein(at)news.oregonian.com.)
Not for commercial use. For educational and discussion purposes only.
Tough work. Long hours.
HTS's Sikorsky CH54B Helitanker
Evergreen's 747 SuperTanker
Columbia's Boeing Vertol 107
God bless these pilots and keep them safe....
John J. Nance - Fire Flight - great book about exactly what these incredible men and women are doing.
“HTS’s Sikorsky CH54B Helitanker”
How many gallons of water can that baby carry?
Thank you for this post. God bless these heroes and keep them safe.
I love John J. Nance. All his books are great reading!
Boeing helped Evergreen design the adaptation. When it operates as a tanker, it carries 200,000 pounds less than the aircraft's original gross weight limit. It can pull up out of a canyon more steeply than current aircraft. It can make effective drops from about twice as high above the fire, as current aircraft.
Due to its size and high performance, it can deliver as much water to the fire, in repeated drops, as ten or more of the aircraft currently in use.
And, the photo is NOT of Helicopter Transport CH54B. It is S-64E or S-64F from Erickson Aircrane.
Helicopter Transport is a Canadian company, they operate seven CH54's in the states, under US registry, primarily for firefighting.
Erickson holds the STC's to upgrade CH54's to S-64E & F standards. They also have the ability & authority to build new, from ground up.
As far as I know, none of Helicopter Transport's CH54's have been modified as Helitankers, so they will be using large Bambi Buckets.
Coulson's Mars, if close to a suitably long body of water can outdeliver it, over a long period, and with greater efficacy.
That is one of the claims made those who have been blocking its deployment, but Evergreen has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not true. It drops much larger volumes, under pressure, and the water does not disperse anywhere nearly as quickly as with other aircraft.
The 747 Supertanker has demonstrated that it can deliver large amounts of liquid water to the ground from 800' AGL. No other air tanker can even come close to matching that performance.
But...but...I thought all aircraft were grounded because of government red tape?!?!?! /sarc
I’ve always loved the Skycrane.
I rented one in 1998 to put four AC units on top of my factory.
However, we should really look at the Russian stuff for firefighting.
Much more lift capacity.
“John J. Nance - Fire Flight - great book about exactly what these incredible
men and women are doing.”
Thanks for the tip.
I’m used to trusting “John Nance” for comment/analysis on aviation affairs
(on ABC News).
I didn’t know he wrote as well.
(although I admit that non-fiction is my taste in books...I might
check out his novels).
Reference for the FR forum:
John J. Nance, ABC aviation affairs consultant:
Fire Flight: A Novel
by John J. Nance
But like you said, The Mars and the retardant tank equipped C130's have a much greater drop / hr capabilities because of their lift / weight ratios and in-close maneuverability with short runway requirements.
I think the Mars only requires 6000 ft of water runway to take off fully loaded with water.
The average drop height of the Mars Bombers is 150 to 200 ft.
From ther site (Mars Bombers):
This part of the flying operation is, perhaps, the most demanding in terms of teamwork among the crew. The Captain executes a normal landing, keeps the the aircraft "on the step" and allows the speed to decrease to 70 knots. He then passes engine power to the Flight Engineer and selects the scoops to the "down" position. The ram pressure for injecting the water into the tanks is such that the aircraft is taking on water at a rate in excess of a ton per second. To account for this added weight, the Flight Engineer must advance the throttles to maintain a skimming speed of 60-70 knots to ensure the aircraft remains on the step. Pickup time is, on average, 25 seconds. When the tanks are full, the Captain will have the scoops raised, call for takeoff power from the Flight Engineer and carry out a normal loaded takeoff. Once airborne, the foam concentrate is injected into the water load (normally, 30 US gallons of concentrate into the 7,200 US gallon water load) where it is dispersed and remains inert until the load is dropped. Once dropped, the tumbling action causes expansion which converts the water load into a foam load. This process is repeated for each drop. In other words, this vital team work is carried out, on average, every 15 minutes per aircraft. For a Gel drop , the concentrate is injected during the scooping process to allow even mixing.
Each Mars carries 600 US gallons (2,270 litres) of foam concentrate - enough for 21 drops of a 0.4% solution which is the standard used although it may be decided to use more or less foam as dictated by the Incident Commander. The Mars are also equipped to deliver Thermo-Gel which when mixed with water forms a light gel by encapsulating the water droplets. This product provides a more even coating of the fuels as well as lasting longer on the ground.
Flying Tankers completed test and evaluation of Class A foam in 1986 and began using it with the Mars as a matter of routine in 1987. It has been estimated that the foam capability of the aircraft increases the efficiency of the Mars by at least 30%. The ability of the machines to drop massive amounts of foam lends itself particularly well to the suppression of urban/rural interface fires and the Mars have excelled in this regard.
Wow, low passes by a 747 must be something to see. I did not know anyone had made one into a tanker.
Erickson, on the other hand, can build new Skycranes if the market is there for them.
Wrong - just the opposite - because it IS dispersed under pressure at 800'. The effect of disbursing water, under pressure, into an airstream is to impart a shearing effect, turning it into a mist.
A mist from 800' simply cannot be as effective as a gravity drop from 200-300', assuming you are dispersing the same volumes at comparable airspeeds.
Most gravity bombers use from 2 to 8 doors; Coulson's Mars use 26 - they can knock trees down, so proper safety proceedures are essential in it's deployment.
I wasn’t thinking of the same class as the Skycrane, but the smaller Kamovs, like the Ka-27, that we use for logging and other remote lifting.
Good power, great hover capability.
Those things would hold a huge bucket.
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