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18 Oct 2020

Bridger Aerospace Scooping to Success

Ryan Mason, AerialFire
Bridger Aerospace’s CL-415 EAF drops a test load of water over Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Photo by Ryan Mason

Initially formed to provide air attack services to support wildland firefighting operations, Bridger Aerospace has grown rapidly since its earnest beginnings. The completion of the 2020 fire season marks the sixth fire season in operation. Also new for 2020, it has incorporated new initial attack and air attack aircraft into the stack.

Staffing a company that has gone from strength to strength within the aerial firefighting world is a challenge undertaken by Owner and CEO Tim Sheehy and COO Darren Wilkins. Sheehy served as a Navy SEAL and team leader for ten years before founding Bridger. Wilkins, a former Naval Aviator, flew the EA-6B Prowler and the EA-18G Growler before joining Bridger’s team two and a half years ago.

Bridger Aerospace started with a single Shrike Commander and later added several turbine commanders as their missions and contracts increased. The company has continued to add to their aircraft inventory, recently adding four Kodiak 100’s to the fleet of seven Twin Commanders for a total of eleven air attack aircraft.

“We are a company that is very excited about moving the ball forward and investing in the future of aerial firefighting. We feel that our responsibility is to help deliver change to ensure firefighters on the ground have the best support from the air. We feel that the Kodiak is the advancement and edge we need to execute on our mission successfully,” said Wilkins.

Initial Attack

In addition to the air attack mission, Bridger began to think outside the box to expand into initial attack roles. Several types of airframes were up for consideration but one, in particular, stood out to Sheehy. The CL-215/415, designed from the ground up as an aerial firefighter, was an attractive option. Originally designed and built by Canadair, and now under the ownership of Viking Air Limited, Bridger began discussions to purchase CL-215/415’s. Viking demonstrated their knowledge of the aircraft’s history and design and forged confidence in their ability to deliver a brand new model, the CL-415 EAF (Enhanced Aerial Firefighter). A partnership was developed, and Bridger committed to purchasing the first six units as the first launch customer.

Bridger has so far received two of the new CL-415 EAF aircraft, the first of which was put straight to work in Nevada on an as-needed contract with the state. The second aircraft, received in August of 2020, was also sent to Nevada. In addition to Nevada, both scoopers have fought fires in  Washington, and Oregon.

The company expects delivery of two more aircraft in 2021 and the remaining two aircraft in the summer of 2022.

Unmanned Systems

Bridger Aerospace has continued to look for ways to provide a complete aerial firefighting ecosystem. Three years ago, the company began investing in technology to supply crucial information to firefighters on the ground. To accomplish this task, Bridger purchased two L3 Harris FVR-90 UAV’s and outfitted with the latest EO/IR and telecommunications technology. The UAV can carry ninety pounds of payload and sips fuel for over 13-hours of endurance over a fire. Unlike most quad-copter type configurations, the FVR-90 has VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) capabilities, which operates on batteries. It then switches to the fixed-wing mode for the duration of the flight running on fuel. The FVR-90 serves as an intelligence and surveillance (ISR) platform that provides real-time downlinked information on fire progression and direction and mapping fire boundaries to the Incident Commanders (IC). While fire crews catch up on much-needed rest during the night, the FVR-90 and her two operators can observe the fire with IR cameras. They can easily spot when the fire pattern changes abruptly and threatens a previously safe community. The operators will alert the IC’s to deploy resources to evacuate the neighborhood, ensuring no one is hurt. Vexos software, developed by Ascent Vision Technologies, and integrated into the system, enables the operators and Fire Management staff to watch the fire from anywhere in the world, with one of four onboard cameras.

“These systems provide the most up to date information, and it helps coordinate the fire efforts in real-time, even in challenging visible conditions. We’re providing essential and precision real-time information to deploy firefighters where necessary and, most importantly, pull them out before it is too late,” said Wilkins.

The Scooper

As the second operator in the United States to fly the Super Scooper platform, Wilkins stated that the CL-415 EAF suits their needs and that of their customers perfectly. The scooper’s ability to quickly attack a fire front, especially with a close water source, has already proven to be a huge asset in their early work in Nevada this year. On one mission, a single super scooper completed 68 drops for a total of just over 96,000 gallons of water dropped.

Modern Technology

Moving forward, after the delivery of the final two CL-415 EAF’s, Wilkins stated that as the business grows, there is a strong interest in additional aircraft. He added they will be looking very closely at the as yet to be produced CL-515.

International Operations

Bridger is looking to become a truly global entity that provides aerial firefighting services worldwide. They are setting their sights on bringing the super scooper to Australia in the near future and demonstrate the platform’s effectiveness. Currently, super scoopers are not utilized on wildland fires in that country.

“We are a highly specialized company that continues to look for opportunities and technology to help support the ground crews. Make no mistake about it; our customers are the men and women that are on the ground. We want to aggressively help fire crews extinguish fires as quickly as possible. They are the ones that are in harm’s way and are the ones that are putting their lives on the line to protect communities, structures, and habitat. Whether it’s here in the US or down in Australia, we want to be wherever we can to provide the best support possible.”

Contracts

Even as a relatively young company, Bridger has continued to move from strength to strength based on the quality of the work they provide. The company has gained contracts with the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI), including the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They have also flown missions for many states as far as Florida and Alaska.

Hiring

Hiring qualified personnel is one of the more difficult tasks the management team at Bridger does. However, based on the level of experience needed and the volume of applicants, Wilkins states that the selection process for an aerial firefighting pilot with Bridger must be incredibly stringent. It makes a difficult task even more challenging and time-consuming to vet the right person for the job. Many great candidates are coming through the pipeline. Unfortunately, many lack the complete package required to be a successful applicant. To get a sense of the right skill set required, all of the captains flying the Bridger super scoopers have deep aerial firefighting experience and many thousands of hours flying scoopers, amphibious aircraft, or both.

For Tim Langton, Chief Pilot of the CL-415 EAF, he’s busy picking out the best candidates to fly the over 30 million dollar scooper over some of the most difficult mountain terrain while dropping water precisely where it is needed.The training foundation starts with ground school and sim training. After that, it is on to CRM training and a water survival course. All-in, training to fly a scooper takes approximately 4-6 weeks to complete. If the candidate checks out, they are then paired with a very experienced Captain to join the team as second in command and sit in the right seat.

Once in the super scooper, Langton states, “That is where the real learning begins.” We are working with pilots transitioning from the air attack side who already have the fire operations experience. However, moving into the scooper requires air attack pilots to learn a whole different set of radio procedures to operate in the fire traffic area. “Pilots then move into learning the full water scooping program, so it’s a transition of that knowledge into the ability to fly the plane and how to drop water effectively,” said Langton.

The Right Fit

When asked about hiring from the outside, Langton has a unique view of who the ideal candidates are to hire. “We could hire directly from outside the company, but I don’t think that’s great to way to transition pilots into the right seat of the scooper operation. We want to promote from within for a positive work environment.” Langton’s process of hiring the next generation of scooper pilots usually begins with selecting the best pilots from the air attack side that are interested in flying the scooper aircraft. “Generally, we look for people with IFR experience but also extensive multi-engine and floatplane experience. It seems like most people who have this experience come from Alaska, or potentially Florida or the Caribbean. If they have multi-engine, we can then get them into the air attack side for a year to understand the fire system. It’s an easier transition to the super scooper, knowing the fire environment.”

As a rapidly expanding company with plenty of media coverage, Langton says the company is inundated with pilot resumes, both qualified and unqualified. However, he and his team do their best to reply to every applicant. In particular, they pay close attention to serious applicants looking to get started in the industry. Langton believes that by showing encouragement and continued interest in new candidates by offering advice on their journey, the company fosters the next generation of aircrews for the industry.

“I always give positive encouragement and let them know what I’ve done in my career to fly this aircraft. Anyone who asks me, I’ll always tell them that it’s the hands and feet, and stick and rudder kind of stuff of floatplane operations that will make these jobs a lot easier—also knowing the crew environment. I always want to give people positive feedback on their abilities and how they can improve on them,” said Langton.

Making it to the Big Seat

Making it into the scooper copilot seat requires a good amount of flight hours, a wide variety of different aircraft experience and ratings. Making it to Captain’s chair in the scooper is a long-term commitment. At Bridger, the time it takes to transition from copilot to pilot in command of a super scooper can vary from two to four years, depending on the individual’s experience level. For Langton, the level of experience and each pilot’s learning on the job is vital in transitioning from one role to the next.

“There is a lot to understand in the operations of that airplane. As you gain that experience it’s not necessarily a number of hours flown. But it’s the experience of flying the plane knowing the systems knowing the limitations and how to operate it effectively.”

Langton stressed, one of the essential traits to be successful in the Bridger is teamwork. Not just between scooper pilots. He explained that the Bridger team as a whole, works like a well-oiled machine because everyone is working for the common goal. The logistics of getting aircraft and support to deploy to a fire, organizing staffing, maintenance teams, and receiving operational support from Montana’s company headquarters all require a team environment to be continually fostered. Teamwork can also mean from outside of the company working with other operators and sometimes competitors out in the field.

Langton gave details of a fire operation recently in Elko, Nevada, where teamwork between themselves and competitor AeroFlite was essential. Good coordination and working as a team of scoopers, and not two separate companies, was the difference between getting ahead of the firefighting effort, which went seamlessly during the operation. Company ego can’t be a part of the equation when people’s homes and land are at stake.

Maintenance

Bridger Aerospace’s maintenance operations have been in a state of continual change since its founding in 2014. Starting with a small piston-powered Twin Commander, then transitioning to turbine-powered aircraft, and as of 2019, two new airframes, all of which required new tools and knowledge. To complicate matters, many of the maintenance staff are on the road supporting all the aircraft located on different bases throughout the country. Working out of a mobile repair unit, they don’t have the comfort of having all the parts and tools they need for the job. The job requires long hours and concentration to ensure that the aircraft can continue to operate safely and reliably.

Dallas Hanson is Bridger’s CL-415 EAF Maintenance Lead. Hanson, a maintenance engineer with over 25 years of maintenance experience, came to Bridger from Canada, having a wealth of experience maintaining super scoopers for the Canadian government before joining Bridger.

“The work at Bridger is a welcome challenge,” and Hanson considers the work he does as his biggest challenge yet. “It’s a whole new game,” said Hanson. But he also stated that the difference between working in his previous environment had been the support offered from management to get the job done right, no matter the cost. “From setting up the operation and to safely maintaining the aircraft in the field, I have never had such great support.” According to Hanson, “It has been a learning curve. Everyone wears at least five hats. The company continues to evolve and is going through the growing pains associated with bringing an entirely new airframe and supporting it from the ground up.”

Hanson continues to build the maintenance operation at Bridger with a little help from Canada. Notwithstanding its position as one of the largest operators of the CL-215/CL-415 airframe, Bridger had difficulty finding experienced maintenance personnel with experience on the airframe in the United States.  As a result, Hanson and his team got to work, bringing in experienced Canadian maintenance personnel that could also train new staff up to their standards on the new CL-415 EAF.

Parts

Parts procurement is always a challenge with any airframe, and the same holds true with the Viking CL-215 and 415 series aircraft. Making sure the company has an adequate level of inventory keeps Hanson and his team very busy. Sometimes it requires getting on the phone and calling colleagues on the other side of the world and might involve a little bit of horse-trading to get the right parts. Although he deals with a global community, it is still a relatively small one. He is grateful that everyone involved understands the unique challenges they face. With support from Viking, he endeavors to overcome it together.

Changing the Game

As a relative newcomer to the industry in the last five years, Bridger has shown that the company is one of several that think ahead for the industry’s greater good. Bridger continues to bring new products to the aerial firefighting industry that push the envelope and provide new solutions that provide services faster and more efficiently than previously seen in the industry.

Bridger is fast becoming one of the operators to watch in the aerial firefighting industry with rapid growth. They continue to blaze a trail and succeed in offering aircraft and solutions to the industry that not only benefit those in the air but those on the ground as they continue to fight the good fight to save lives and property.

Article provided by AerialFire Magazine

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