AFFNA 18 – More technologies please

Alan Warnes reports from AFFNA 18 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. This year’s event highlighted the requirement for more innovative ways to fight fires.

Of all the aviation genres, aerial firefighting (AFF) boasts some of the greatest personalities, and some of the biggest hearts. It isn’t like that in the military world, where I usually work.   The military kill and blow up things. People are sometimes reluctant to talk. But the AFF people are proud of their roles in trying to save people, properties and land. Even as I was told many times at AFFNA18, ‘there ain’t much money in it’. 

Why McClellan?

Every two years, Tangent Link organises an Aerial Firefighting North America (AFFNA) exhibition and conference. It provides the perfect platform for gathering all those connected with the industry to show their capabilities. We get the opportunity to meet the personalities, to find out what is going on and discuss topics of mutual interest.

For the fourth consecutive year, Sacramento McClellan Airport was the venue. The former USAF Air Force Base which once hosted the massive Sacramento Air Logistics Centre is now a major AFF hub. CALFIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) has its fleet of S-2F Trackers and OV-10 Broncos housed there. DynCorp International just down the ramp provides the pilots and maintenance personnel. Then there is Air Strike, a relatively new company which has acquired some of the ex-Aero Union P-3 Orions and Helimax, which flies six CH-47D Chinooks.

The airport is a good setting and the conference centre is an ideal venue for the AFFNA event.


To the casual onlooker, aerial fire-fighting is about dropping retardant or water on the fires. But that’s just the effects we see after the hard work carried out by many other people. By dropping their loads, the air tankers, which can be fixed wing or helicopters, are assisting the fire-fighters on the ground, known as ‘Hot Shots’ in the US. The aircraft are just part of a bigger air operation, which includes lead aircraft, and special mission aircraft fitted with EO (electro optical)/IR (infra-red) systems. The latter are a relatively new component in fighting the fires. Or one of the tools in the tool-box, as AFF people describe the assets.

Many operators and agencies are looking at more innovative ways to enhance their AFF capabilities. It isn’t all about modern aerial tankers, although we are seeing new breeds appearing, like the Bae146, RJ85, Boeing 737, Boeing 747, DC-10 and MD87.

Targeting the fire in a more efficient way for 24 hours a day, is the way ahead. At the moment as soon as dusk sets in all the aircraft are called back to the ground, which can often lead to the fires fighting back. It means more sophisticated systems have to be used, which is seeing military systems starting to migrate to the AFF world. So it was appropriate that the USAF’s Brigadier Dana A Hessheimer from the Joint Staff, California Military Department, could open the conference. His keynote speech focussed on how new technologies will change the way to fight fires.

He explained how California’s Rim Fire in August 2013, was the first time the USAF used their MQ-1 Predator (now replaced by the MQ-9 Reaper) UAVs to support fire-fighting operations. “So technologies we use overseas to [monitor people and vehicles] can now be used here to fight fires – looking for hot spots and people. It is all real time technologies, with the full motion video the biggest asset we provide.”

The downside is it took three days to get approval – which wastes valuable time for the Incident Command Post (ICP). Hessheimer sympathised and told the audience, “We want a more immediate response and we are trying hard to get the authorisation faster.”

Over 500 hours of recording was provided during its operation. But before the MQ-1 (which has since been replaced by the MQ-9) could start its work, the Dept of Agriculture has to agree to cover the huge cost of such an operation. While many at the conference agreed it was a fantastic capability, most said it was not within the scope of existing budgets.

On the third day, Insitu provided an example of the work they have done in the AFF community with their Scan Eagle UAV. The company has a lot of expertise, with over 1,000,000 flight hours, and 120,000 launch and recoveries and believes it has a lot to offer the AFF. Infra- red intelligence provided by the small UAV can record the fire’s intensity and its movement.

In August 2015, Insitu operated a Scan Eagle during Paradise Fire in Washington’s Olympic Park. Paul Allen of Insitu told me, “It was in a pretty remote location, and conditions were not good and we had the Scan Eagle working with a helicopter. We gave the helicopter pilot commands, pointing out the exact location of the heat source and he got the water right on the hot spot.

At some point in the future, a pilot could be data-linked with the imagery but as Paul told me, “they need to train first, they don’t want to add another element into a very dynamic environment already.”

Dave Toelle from the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, said he had been studying UAVs, and would provide the findings to other states, but they were all smaller ones which would not cost more than $50 to buy. They are set to be used for public safety and wildland firefighting.

Clearly, new innovative technologies is the way ahead, but it has to be affordable too and many of the more well-known UAVs or companies like Insitu, were outside of budgets, according to many.

We saw several companies offering the latest water-dropping technologies, with one eye on the CALFIRE deal for 12 S-70i helicopters. Helitak, Simplex Aerospace, SEI Industries and United Rotorcraft were all exhibiting their latest solutions. Australian-based Helitak went to great effort by building a static display for their S-70 water tank solution, which they demonstrated during the static display. However, on the second day of the conference, CALFIRE’s Director, Chief Ken Pimlott confirmed the S-70i contract had been awarded to United Rotorcraft. The company, previously known as Air Methods is working with Sikorsky, by offering a multi-mission S-70. It will provide the RADS III/Helitack tank system, with a 1,000 gallon ater tank and a 30 gallon foam tank. With a snorkel that dips into the water, it can pick up 1,000 gallons per minute.

All year-round fires

Many people these days don’t talk about the fire season, as Shawna A Legarza, the USDA Forest Service, Director Fire and Aviation Management pointed out. “The biggest change we are all seeing is the length of fire season. It used to start in May and continue through to October – a true six-month season. Now we don’t see a fire season, it is all year round.”

Supporting her words were the fire warnings issued that week in most of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, southern Kansas, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southeastern Missouri.

She told us that last year, blazes in the USA affected more than 10 million acres, 10,000 structures and 8,000 homes – five times higher than the average 1,500 houses a year. Around 29,000 fire-fighting resources were deployed at the height of last year’s fire season – the closest year to that was 2015. Aviation resources were truly tested, with 87,000 flight hours flown in 2017, responding to fires in USA. The trend is likely to continue and already there are more fires this year than at this time last year.

Along with UAVs, fighting fires at night will have to be another goal. Wayne Coulson, who is always pushing the technological boundaries with his new systems, talked about his recent night fire-fighting operation trials in Victoria, Australia. He used an S-76D fitted with an EO/IR turret, with a laser illuminator to guide the NVG-equipped S61 helicopter on to a fire. From the footage he provided during his presentation, we could see the S61 pick up the water and using the IR technology the helicopter flew 1,000 feet over the fire before dropping its load. Six drops were made the night in question, and we saw through the IR imagery footage, the white heat being eliminated. It’s a very exciting development and one that will need further trials in the USA. The helicopters will of course need to be upgraded with night vision systems, which is where companies like Aviation Specialities Unlimited which was in attendance at the event, will increase in importance.

Static Display and Aerial Demonstrations

AFFNA18 was undoubtedly the biggest such events stages by Tangent Link, attracting over 40 exhibitors and around 400 delegates. In addition to that, 15 aircraft managed to visit the AFFNA18 static display outside the DynCorp International hangar. They came in all shapes and sizes. You couldn’t help to notice the biggest aerial fire-fighting tanker in the world. The huge Boeing 747-400 owned and operated by Global SuperTanker loomed large and left a large shadow across some of the aircraft as the sun went down. Parked next to it was a Coulson Aviation Boeing 737, one of six which are set to join the AFF ranks when converted to a Fireliner. An immaculate looking CH-47D Chinook, owned by Helimax also caught the eye. The company operates six, one of them was returning home by ship from Victoria, Australia after a hectic fire-fighting season.

Aeroflite from Spokane, Washington exhibited a BAE Avro RJ 85 one of six fitted with a 3,000 gallon tank. Parked alongside was a CL-415 Super-Scooper amphibious water bombers, which can drop 1600 gallons of retardent. Conair out of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada have brought a Citation Jet C525, which they use for air attack operations, although in the US it is often termed as a ‘lead plane’ in the USA.

Coulson Aviation is exhibiting one of its Boeing 737-300 Fireliners. CALFIRE contributed a S-2F and a OV-10 Bronco, both looking immaculate.   HP Helicopters flew in one of the two S-70As it operates from its base at Redlands, California. Formed in November 2017, the company has been busy building up its business over the winter working in the construction industry – building ski-lifts and repeater towers. With the fire-season looming the aircraft is being prepared to join the fire-fighting fleets. At AFFNA 18 it was fitted with a 900 gallon bambi-bucket. The second UH-60A was from PJ Helicopters based out of Redbluff, California. This particular helicopter is fitted with a Simplex 370i internal tank which can carry 850 gallons of water. Mark Zimmerman, President and CEO of Simplex Aerospace said: “It is the first installation of this series in a helicopter, which will be operational by the summer.

For those who simply like veteran aircraft, the star of the event was the Airspray L188 Electra, which came in on Monday morning but left before the conference opened. Fitted with a RADS 2 tank, the prop-liner looked stunning in the California sun parked in front of a vintage-60s hangar.

Airspray Airtanker, brought two of its float-equipped AT-802 FireBoss single engine air tankers (SEATs) as well as their BAe146. All three made up the aerial demonstration which took place later in the afternoon. The recently converted Bae146 made a single water drop over the runway, while the two Fire Bosses performed a tandem-trailing drop.

Alan Warnes