“The wind shifted suddenly, turning a small, contained fire into an inferno,” Barrett Farrell, Part 135 Chief Pilot at Bridger Aerospace, said. “We’d been over the fire for about four hours when the wind suddenly shifted and took the fire in a new direction. Being the only air attack available in the area, we didn’t have much choice but to stay. Things got even worse when a voice came on the radio saying an aircraft had gone down nearby. So, instead of turning back for fuel, we headed to the downed aircraft. We were calling in resources and talking with the ground crews until we knew everyone made it out safe. After a grueling 5.4 hours over the fire, we finally landed. And amazingly, we still had two hours of fuel when we touched down. We would have cut it close to running out of fuel with most aircraft. I’m just glad we were in a Kodiak.”
Aerial firefighting is an ever-changing industry. Older aircraft that were once critical in the success of fighting fires are slowly transitioning out. Although these aircraft have bragging rights to an impressive firefighting history, they eventually must give way to newer, more modern assets.
“We are stepping into the next chapter of air attack platforms,” said Darren Wilkins, COO of Bridger Aerospace. “The military and airlines consistently retire older aircraft and modernize their fleet. We are doing this within our air attack mission to better support and equip our pilots and better serve those we are trying to protect. In 2020, we added four Daher Kodiak K-100 aircraft to our air attack, aerial firefighting fleet. For the 2022 fire season, we are adding the Pilatus PC-12 to enhance our capabilities as fires start earlier and burn hotter and longer.”
The 40-year-old platforms Bridger Aerospace has been flying for several years are becoming more challenging to support and operate. Modern aircraft, such as the Daher Kodiak-100 and Pilatus PC-12, offer OEM support. Jeff MacLean, Director of Maintenance for Bridger Aerospace, stated, “Utilizing the Pratt & Whitney PT6A engines across all Kodiak and PC-12 platforms makes it far simpler to train mechanics and service aircraft in-field. The Kodiak and PC-12 have fewer inspection requirements and demand less downtime for maintenance. Being newer aircraft, they also have fewer unscheduled maintenance events in-field.” This high level of reliability allows the aircraft to be serviced and available for contract for more days. Tanner Hackbush, an A&P Mechanic for air attack, stated, “Last fire season, we never had any serious issues with the Kodiaks. They were almost always operational, and it was easily handled when we did have an issue.”
Adopting the Kodiak in 2020 was an essential step for Bridger in modernizing its fleet. “Unlike most air attack platforms, it can handle backcountry flying and offers remarkable STOL performance,” said Ryan Cleveland, Assistant Chief Pilot. “Above a fire, it can maintain the fuel efficiency required to loiter 6 to 7 hours. It offers improved visibility over a fire and an impressive reliability rating (not to mention the strong air conditioning).”
Bridger Aerospace is continuing its trend of fleet modernization to include the Pilatus PC-12, which can operate at an equivalent speed to a Turbine Commander. The reliability rating of its 1,200 horsepower PT6A-67B turboprop is among the best in its class. Its pressurized, spacious interior maximizes comfort and utility in-flight while improving visibility. Tyler Kern, Assistant Director of Operations for Bridger, stated, “We have developed an all-new avionics modification for the PC-12 with a full Garmin suite, including three FM radios and updated autopilot. We expect it to set the standard for PC-12 avionics in aerial firefighting.”
Modernization is a positive change for the industry. Older aircraft are passing the torch and opening opportunities for advancement. Operating newer platforms will ensure the right aircraft are ready and available to fly when needed. As the industry grows, airplanes such as the Kodiak and PC-12 will continue to set the standard for fleet modernization. However, “Companies like Bridger Aerospace would not be where we are today without our older, legacy aircraft,” said K Mita, Director of Marketing.