USA — Operational readiness of firefighting aircraft during mandatory availability periods (MAPs) is assured, annually, thanks to an ongoing focus on heavy maintenance events scheduled for the low fire risk winter months.
MAPs are the specific time frames, usually ranging between 90 and 180 days, when the operators are contractually obligated to Federal or State fire protection agencies to have fixed wing tankers, or helicopters ready for deployment, when required.
Prep work for the coming fire season primarily centers on labor-intensive structural airframe and component inspection.
“We average about 4,000 man-hours, per aircraft, for maintenance and inspection of each of our P2V Neptunes and BAe 146 tankers at our Missoula, Montana, facility,” said Dan Snyder, Neptune Aviation Services Chief Operating Officer. The air tankers, he explained, are put through major structural inspections which include the repair and replacement of worn components. Inspections begin almost immediately after each aircraft is released by the US Forest Service (USFS). For the current fire season, six P2Vs and four BAe 146s are under exclusive use contracts, operating under MAPs of 120-180 days, starting as early as March.
Four of the BAe 146s under contract this year were fielded with the latest fire retardant tank modification, which, according to Snyder, is performing well in the field. The identical modification is slated for installation on a fifth BAe 146 acquired by the company this year.
Columbia Helicopters of Portland, Oregon, has four aircraft, including three Columbia Vertol 107-11s and one Columbia Model 234 Chinook, under USFS exclusive contracts, with MAPs running well into the fall of this year, and with one as long as 180 days for the Chinook. Preparatory maintenance usually begins in the December/January period.
“Although we consider it to be our routine winter maintenance, it’s extremely extensive,” said Columbia Helicopters Public Relations Manager Dan Sweet. “It involves a complete top to bottom inspection and servicing regime, in which we look for signs of structural corrosion and cracking. We also inspect all of the helicopter’s individual components including the electrical and hydraulic systems, the avionics, the rotor heads and the engines. Each aircraft will have differing service requirements that will be revealed during the inspection process.”
Sweet pointed out that each aircraft flight crew includes six-to-eight mechanics who conduct continuous routine maintenance on the aircraft while it is on contract. The pilots and the mechanics, he explained, have all been “carded” by the Forest Service, certifying that they are properly trained to fly or maintain the aircraft during the contract period.
Rogers Helicopters currently has five Bell 212 helicopters assigned to wildland fire protection missions, with two under USFS exclusive use contracts, and three under contract with the State of Alaska Division Of Forestry. The California-based helicopter services provider also has two Aero Commander 690B twin turboprops which support the fire operations. Robin Rogers, the company’s Vice-President noted that extensive upgrades and modifications were performed on two of the helicopters, prior to the current fire season, and their 120 day MAPs.
“The two helicopters that are on assignment to the El Dorado and Stanislaus National Forests in California underwent major modifications this past winter in preparation for the 2014 fire season,” Rogers noted. “The upgrades included a FastFin® tail rotor enhancement and stability system, plus a left hand drive cockpit installation so they can be flown from the left side of the cockpit.”
The helicopters also had major avionics upgrades. “We totally refurbished the instrument panels, and by USFS mandate, added a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), as well as a new GPS. In total, we spent about $100,000 per aircraft on the modifications,” Rogers reported.
For the protection of the crews and supporting personnel, the company also purchased new, state of the art fire shelters, at $800 for each unit. The shelters, Rogers explained, are small modules that can be used by pilots, mechanics and fuel truck drivers in the event they are surrounded by fire. “We have always used fire shelters, but as a result of the failure of those used by an elite fire crew in Arizona, last year, we purchased new, state of the art shelters, and asked CALFIRE to provide training,” he said.
“These companies perfectly illustrate how the private aerial firefighting industry, using its own resources, will apply what it takes in manpower and costs to assure a safe operation, when called to duty,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington. “The industry represents a valuable asset for fire protection, especially at a time of global warming and population growth within the urban/wildland interface zones.
Columbia Helicopters, Neptune Aviation Services, and Rogers Helicopter are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry.