When the average person thinks about aerial firefighting, images that come to mind are often of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropping water and retardant lines around or directly on fires. Synonymous with those mental images is the familiar sight of some of the most commonly referenced aircraft, the red and white striped aircraft fleet of CAL FIRE, what is recognized as the world’s largest aerial firefighting fleet.
Before their rebranding as CAL FIRE, the state’s aviation fleet was not always as extensive. The California Department of Forestry, the name of the agency before being CAL FIRE, has slowly built up its firefighting fleet deployed around the state of California over the years. The state of California is arguably one of the world’s most wildfire-prone areas, with over thirty-three million acres of state and federal forests throughout the state that spans over 163,000 square miles. ™
The CAL FIRE fixed-wing fleet consists of 23 S-2 tankers capable of 1200 gallon water and retardant drops, 16 OV-10 Bronco air attack aircraft, and soon seven Lockheed HC-130H aircraft that will be fitted with Coulson Aviation RADS tanks. These new CAL FIRE aircraft were secured through the National Defense Authorization Act. The aircraft were recently procured from the Coast Guard after the U.S. Forest Service, which initially acquired the aircraft from the Coast Guard, decided to eliminate their program in 2018.
Each has now been painted in their CAL FIRE liveries and delivered to the agency’s base at McClellan Air Attack base, where they await their tank fit-out and depot level maintenance is completed. Training on the HC-130H has already begun on select aircraft in the fleet to reduce training time once the fleet becomes fully operational in the near future. The addition of the seven RADS tank-equipped HC-130H aircraft will see CAL FIRE move into providing VLAT service with the tanks capable of dropping 4000 gallons of either retardant or water on fires in the future.
CAL FIRE’s rotary fleet is also under a major overhaul as the agency’s 12 UH-1H Super Huey ++ aircraft that has served the agency for decades begin the process of being phased out, replaced by the versatile Sikorsky S-70i FireHawk, which the agency started receiving after their completion by United Rotorcraft in 2019. CAL FIRE’s Huey fleet has served admirably for a long time, until the helicopter’s capability and volume were called into question after releasing a 274-page report from the Blue Ribbon Commission after the devastation of the 2003 fires that ripped through California.
The report noted several deficiencies in how the state mitigated fire risk and dealt with fires once they began, from preparation and pre-fire mitigation to the current capabilities of the then California Department of Forestry aerial firefighting fleet. Recommendations were made for the agency to source more capable aircraft that would increase the ability of the state to fight fires, like those in 2003, more effectively.
As with many significant aircraft acquisitions, the process of obtaining a new and effective solution for CAL FIRE’s aging fleet of Huey’s was a long one. Suffering several setbacks, the process included the scrapping of the initial bid process in 2015 and a contract challenge after the contract was awarded to United Rotorcraft in 2017 by losing bidder Philadelphia-based Leonardo Helicopters, who had submitted a bid based on the AW189 platform.
The contract awarded to United Rotorcraft was for the supply and outfit of 12 new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks over five years to CAL FIRE at the cost of $240 million. Although the process of acquiring the aircraft is over five years, United Rotorcraft appears to be well ahead of delivery estimates, with the 7th aircraft of 12 delivered shortly after AerialFire visited CAL FIRE’s base at McClellan AAB in June.
As part of the contract awarded to United Rotorcraft, the Colorado-based company received the Sikorsky S-70i, the internationally marketed version of the Military UH-60M Black hawk in “green” condition. As each aircraft arrived, build-out began for the entire aircraft, which included a custom multi-mission interior, NVG capable cockpit, the addition of a Kawak 1000- gallon tank, and high landing gear modification necessary to accommodate the new tanks system. The 1000 gallon tank offers a 66% increase in water capacity compared to the previous 360 gallon capacity of the agency’s Huey fleet.
According to CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Manager and Chief Helicopter Pilot, Ben Berman, the initial results of switching to the S-70i have been all positive. One of the most significant and immediate benefits gained as they transition from the Huey fleet is the new aircraft having more than double the max gross weight capability. Due to weight and balance issues, the agency’s Huey fleet often had limitations on what they could and could not do. Those issues have since become obsolete thanks to the increase from 10,200lbs in the Huey to 23,500lbs (external) in max gross weight.
“With the S-70i, we have triple hydraulic system redundancy and dual-engine capability in addition to a full glass cockpit. So, the aircraft has many redundant features that the Huey did not. We are fortunate to have the S-70i, which was born from the same sort of situation that we had with the Blue Ribbon Commission. The UH-60 has a long history of being a tried and true aircraft, which was also developed through a similar kind of Blue Ribbon Commission Army study after Vietnam,” said Berman.
Training pilots to fly the much larger S-70i has not come without challenges for CAL FIRE, who have had to train dozens of pilots, some with no experience in an aircraft as big as the Fire Hawk. In addition to the steep learning curve, the logistics of training so many pilots from initial flight training to full deployment as certified pilots has presented unique challenges for the training team. Once complete with training, pilots are released, capable of flying single pilot operations flying firefighting or rescue operations.
To achieve this monumental task, Berman and his team of four training pilots based at McClellan have undertaken the task of writing a training syllabus for the new aircraft and executing all of the agency’s primary flight training. Initially, this training was conducted through United Rotorcraft and Sikorsky as part of the contract award until Berman, who has been with the agency a year, was recruited after a long and successful career in the United States Coast Guard. Berman has thousands of flight hours flying the MH-60 variant of the Black Hawk, the MH-65, and the C-130 for the Coast Guard.
Berman and his team now conduct a three-week initial training on the aircraft that involves intensive classroom training, simulator training, and initial flight training out of the CAL FIRE Aviation Training Center located at the CAL FIRE base at McClellan. To facilitate an influx of trainee pilots and while looking forward to furthering training objectives CAL FIRE leased additional training space, taking over the lease of the McClellan Convention center that will now function as the training headquarters for all CAL FIRE flight training. The total move-in will be completed in the coming months. CAL FIRE has already begun using the space after the installation of a full-function AATD S-70i Simulator along with a fully functional training space for initial classroom instruction.
With seven of the twelve aircraft already delivered, the agency has begun to deploy their aircraft into the field with aircraft already stationed at CAL FIRE bases at Vina, Hemet/Ryan, Boggs Mountain, Columbia, and two aircraft that function as primary training aircraft based at McClellan. Each aircraft that is now crewed at each location can be deployed with a crew of three rescue and fire-certified crew members, consisting of one pilot, a front seat captain, and a rear-seated operations supervisor. The final bases will receive their allotted aircraft as each of the remaining five aircraft are delivered to fulfill the contract.
Even though seven aircraft are now operational in the field, Berman stresses that their work regarding training is not done by far as it pertains to the S-70i rollout. Crews will be required to attend the new CAL FIRE Aviation Training Center for ongoing training at the end of the fire season that covers all aspects of CAL FIRE operations, from rescue work to firefighting.
In addition, Berman and his team are developing a night vision goggle training syllabus to enable the new S-70i to operate with firefighting and rescue capabilities at night. The agency chose white phosphor NVG units from Aviation Specialties Unlimited in addition to an NVG-capable lighting system that was included as part of the fit-out of the new S-70i. CAL FIRE aims to roll out training as soon as it is feasible, making each Fire Hawk base a truly 24-hour single-pilot rescue and firefighting operation at each agency’s bases spread out around the state.
“We’re in the middle of creating the curriculum for NVG use. It’s a crawl, walk, run type of approach, though. The Hawks are so new for everybody here. We have to get the training right and let the pilots get their confidence in the Hawk first. At this stage, we require each base to have one year of Hawk experience under their belt before we even introduce an NVG program. So we’re looking at probably late this fall before we roll out the first NVG program.”
In addition to Berman and his cadre of instructor pilots at the CAL FIRE Aviation Training Center, some additional instructors train the Tactical Air Operations group members. “That unit is a very specialized unit where they are the aviation experts that aren’t necessarily pilots; they focus on the tactical aspects of our operation, they are the air attack and air tactical group supervisors, they’re the ones that are prior fire captains and prior helitack personnel or air rescue crew members. It’s a considerable team effort, and this aircraft requires a lot of CRM. And because of that, there is no room for that line of demarcation between the pilot and the crew, it’s a very tight-knit group when we go up, and we fly. So, we train them to all be part of the whole flight operation,” said Berman.
The cadre of thirty pilots is backed up at CAL FIRE with double that number in other aircrew members that function in various roles of front seat captains, rescue crew members, crew chiefs, and ops supervisors. However, a skilled crew is only as good as its aircraft. To service the new aircraft, maintainers from DynCorp were also trained on the new airframe, requiring significantly different maintenance procedures. DynCorp is responsible for providing pilots for CAL FIRE’s fixed-wing fleet in addition to providing all maintenance services for both the fixed and rotary sides of the CAL FIRE aviation program, which on the rotary side required significant investment for additional training for maintainers, which the company is currently undertaking with additional support from United Rotorcraft.
Design for Deployment
When looking at the cockpit of the S-70i and everything that has been added as standard to each aircraft, it is evident that a great deal of thought went into designing the perfect multi-mission aircraft interior that would serve the agency’s needs for many years to come. From the custom-designed rear cabin that can quickly be reconfigured between aerial firefighting, rescue, or troop transport to the NVG capable cockpit, the CAL FIRE S-70i is a game-changer for the agency and a massive step up from the UH-1H workhorse.
From Berman’s perspective, the reason that the aircraft is so well designed is not only due to input from their team when the helicopter was being planned, but from input from key stakeholders, from the radio manufacturers to the avionics companies, but especially from United Rotorcraft that completed the aircraft. While Berman stated that initially, there were some slowdowns as the company got used to their new normal and ramped up production of the S-70i to accommodate, the company has gone above and beyond at every turn to make deliveries and adjustments seamless as well as being available for anything the agency needs that may not have been thought of when planning the scope of the initial contract.
“This aircraft is a heavily laden avionics aircraft, so there are some teething problems that go with it, but the avionics are top-notch in the aircraft. Because that’s always been a single point of failure in other areas with the military version, we have some very talented electricians and avionics techs on deck that know their stuff,” said Berman.
In addition to the avionics suite, dual-band UHF, and VHF radios, each helicopter is equipped with wireless ICS enabling crew members to depart the aircraft while maintaining communications. Also included in the S-70i is an iPad that functions include fire mapping and charts as needed. QR code reading is also an essential part of iPad usage in the helicopters, with daily fire maps and destinations for each unit dispatched by the information contained in the QR code.
As with any major aircraft acquisition, there are training, operational, and sustainment challenges, however, the Cal Fire team, United Rotorcraft, and stakeholders have done an excellent job thus far. They are well on track to provide a massive functionality increase for the helicopter program and the people of California in the future.