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Helicopter pilots discuss different approaches to aerial firefighting around the world

By Michael Doran

Published on: September 28, 2022
Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 6 seconds.

With forest fires occurring around the world, the demand for helicopter operators specialized in fighting fires from the air has never been greater. But from America's West Coast to the Greek Islands, the techniques for combating fires differ noticeably.

For anyone who lives in a fire zone, there is no more comforting sight than when the ubiquitous Erickson S-64F Air Crane appears in the sky. With its praying mantis like profile and distinctive orange body, the Air Crane is seen on fire grounds from North America to Australia and Europe.

An Air Crane is currently on duty supporting the Los Angeles Fire Department, who call it in when they need a heavy hitter to kill a fire. Greg Doyle Photo

Air Cranes operate with fire agencies or on contracts all around the world, and as a commercial operator Erickson uses its own aircraft in an endless summer. With fire seasons getting longer, it’s a juggling act to move the aircraft and crews from one continent to another.

Chief pilot Justin Rath returned to the U.S. from firefighting in Greece a few weeks ago and is now in Southern California, where Erickson has three Air Cranes deployed. It’s a cycle that Rath has become used to: “We’ve got the whole shipping thing down pretty good.”

Rath’s current deployment is in Los Angeles, where Erickson has one Air Crane on contract with the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD). A second is based in San Diego to support San Diego Gas and Electric while the third is in Lancaster with the United States Forest Service.

While the Air Crane is on standby to help the fire department as needed, it’s unlikely to be turning up to a house fire. Rath says they are primarily used to “suppress a vegetation fire situation, maybe a park or something on the outskirts of town. They’ll call us up as a heavy hitter to help because we carry so much water.”

The Erickson Air Crane contracted to Los Angeles City also conducts missions to support the County Fire Department, where it heads out into the heavily forested hills, using the Air Crane to its full advantage in those ferocious fires so often seen on the nightly news.

A typical day, although there rarely is one, starts with crew doing the usual pre-flight checks and preparing the aircraft. In the United States, the crew comprises two pilots and two maintainers, supported by a fuel truck driver. Rath says that when the call comes to go, they are usually airborne within 15 to 20 minutes.

While the team moves quickly, there is certainly no mad rush out the door and a breathless sprint to the aircraft. He makes sure the team is clear on where they are going, where the water sources are, and who else is going to be on scene. “It’s not an emergency, but we’re very urgent in what we do,” he adds.

Listening to Rath, it’s clear there is an overriding safety culture at work among the crew, with an ethos of getting the job done but mitigating risk wherever possible. They work to a “most conservative rule,” meaning that if anybody is uncomfortable with a situation, they can stop what the crew is doing, reassess it, and continue.

In Los Angeles, one of the fire department’s aircraft acts as the HELCO, responsible for airspace management over the fire for all aircraft that respond. If the Air Crane is needed, it will pick up water on the way to the scene and check in with the HELCO on how it fits into the firefighting pattern.

The pilots communicate directly to the airborne HELCO, who is in constant contact with the incident controllers on the ground. Part of the HELCO’s role is to ensure that people on the ground are clear of the area where he wants the Air Crane to drop its water.

With a load of 2,500 gallons and a tank that empties in less than three seconds, it’s vital pilots ensure the ground below is clear of firefighters. Jeremy Ulloa Photo

That’s important for any aircraft, but particularly so for a CH-47 or the S-64F Air Crane, which has 2,500 gallons of water to dump. “When I come in, if I see the guys on the ground aren’t clear, then I won’t drop. I’m the guy driving the ship, so it’s my responsibility for those guys to be clear.”

This is particularly relevant in Los Angeles, because firefighters are usually first on the scene and are actively fighting the fire by the time the helicopter arrives. In a forest fire, the helicopter is among the first on the scene and can more easily establish a clear line for water drops.

It’s a notably different approach to fighting fires in Greece. While vegetation and fire conditions vary between regions, the single biggest challenge is the language barrier.

The Air Crane can fill its 2,500-galln tanks in around 40 seconds, either from hover or skimming the ocean sea at 25 to 40 knots. Greg Doyle Photo

Firefighting there requires the pilot to coordinate directly with the local incident commanders on the ground, so unless you speak Greek, that means there’s an interpreter sitting in the Air Crane’s back seat.

“I’m relating through the interpreter to the ground commanders, and they are relating to the interpreter back to me where they want me to be,” Rath says. “So, there’s an added layer of complexity that makes things a little more difficult.”

When asked to compare his missions in Greece and Los Angeles, Rath highlights weather conditions, vegetation, and water sources as the main differences. The terminology may be different, but the actual firefighting techniques are much the same.

“I would say it’s more similar to Southern California, with more dry, windy conditions as opposed to the thick, forested areas of the U.S., although the olive trees add an extra element,” he explains. “There’s extra hot fuels, similar to the gum trees in Australia, but very reminiscent of fires in Southern California.”

Finding water to fight wildfires is an issue in most parts of the world, especially during the longer and drier fire seasons. In Greece, that often means the Erickson pilots are filling their tank from the sea, which requires a sea snorkel. In a hover there is the danger of ingesting salt into the engines or over the aircraft. The technique involves dropping the sea snorkel and flying the aircraft at 25 to 40 knots, keeping the snorkel and the rotor wash behind it. It’s a safer and less corrosive method and fills the tank in the same 30 to 40 seconds as from a hover refill.

Flying a huge aircraft like the Air Crane in these extreme conditions requires pilots with skill, dedication, nerve and the desire to make a difference. Greg Doyle Photo

“Most of the fires in Greece we can put out in the first two hours, because typically they call us out at the very beginning of the fire. In the U.S., the forest services manage fires a little bit more, so you may not jump on it as quick,” he notes. “In Australia or Greece, when they tell you there’s a fire, then off we go.”

A different approach is employed in Canada where Rapattack teams are used as first responders in hard to access terrain. Rapattack teams consist of three to four crew, who rappel out the helicopter with the aim of suppressing the fire before it gains a large foothold.

British Columbia Wildfire uses Rapattack teams, and Jeremy Neufeld is the supervisor for the provincial Rapattack programs. He says that when the aircraft arrives on scene, which is usually in densely wooded areas, the crew rappel out, their gear is lowered, and the team is ready to go in around five minutes.

Part of their gear is a flexible bag used as a water tank, which is filled from the hovering helicopter’s belly tank via a hose. “Within two minutes the crew has 300 gallons of water that they use to pump out to put the fire out, and it’s something unique to us,” he says.

“While the crew is setting up, the helicopter can then drop water on the fire and keep it small until they are ready. Within five minutes of arriving the helicopter’s putting water on the fire.”

In the U.S., keeping aircraft separated is the job of the HELCO, who will keep the smaller helicopters away from Air Cranes. For example, the larger aircraft will use a different water source and attack the main flanks of the fire, while the smaller aircraft will hit more strategic targets.

As chief pilot, Rath has a diverse team to look after and says all of them, including himself, are always learning and seeing something new. He shares a recent experience from a Los Angeles fire about the care required when dropping water while coordinating with other aircraft.

“There were eight other aircraft on scene and to deconflict with those guys, and all the communications that involved, was a real eye-opener as typically there’s not that many aircraft involved,” he says. “It was a new experience of working with so many different types of helicopters and aircraft on one small fire, and that’s always good.”

Rath served 20 years with the U.S. Marine Corps and has racked up nine years with Erickson, both high pressure, stressful jobs. With the long stretches away from home thrown in, one might wonder why he does what he does.

Erickson move its Air Cranes around the world, following the fires in an endless summer. Greg Doyle Photo

“It’s the satisfaction of going out there and making a difference every day. I’m improving somebody’s life by saving lives or property or livestock and those sorts of things. That’s the satisfaction I get out of it.”

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