Interoperability Should be Aerial Firefighting Industry Target, Says DynCorp International LLC
DynCorp International has been serving the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection - routinely referred to by the more catch name of "Cal Fire" - since 2001. The experience covers the full range of maintenance tasks of the entire fleet, with around 100 engineers supporting the fleet. The company also provides pilots for the fixed wing aircraft, while the state retains the role of hiring helicopter pilots.
The front-line firefighting fleet is headed by 23 Grumman S-2 Trackers which were converted to the firefighting role by Marsh Aviation. Additionally, there are 12 Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters, which have greater manoeuvrability, and are fitted with either a belly mounted tank or a hook from which to carry a fire bucket.
Cal Fire also flies 15 OV-10 Bronco aircraft which have both a command-and-control and a data gathering role. Onboard systems provide ground-based units with accurate GIS (Geographic Information System) data from which decisions are made on deployment of ground and air assets based on the front line of the fire, weather reports and forecasts, threat level of what is in the path of the wildfire and so on.
There are a handful of other aircraft involved including two Beech 200s, while DynCorp International use a fleet of six Cessna light aircraft to move flight and maintenance crews between bases as needed. Across the length of California are 10 fixed wing bases, 9 dedicated helicopter bases and two further bases from where both fixed and rotary wing aircraft operate. Deep maintenance is performed at Sacramento McClellan Airport and includes the full range of modification and depot-level work. To exemplify the range of abilities, March 2018 saw the arrival on the flight line of a Grumman S-2 Tracker after desert storage for 41 years and an upgrade project which was completed in just 22 months. The work included a significant amount of repair, corrosion proofing and modification.
As DynCorp International returns to Aerial Firefighting Europe 2019, their focus is on ensuring the company keeps on the cutting edge of this industry. While challenges across the aviation industry include subjects such as pilot shortages, there are plenty of opportunities too. Jeff Cavarra of DynCorp International, program director of the Cal Fire aviation program, is eager to make sure advances in technology are leveraged and incorporated into the aerial firefighting role. He would also like to see equipment and flight crews to operate better in conjunction with each other to maximise effectiveness: “As the costs to fight fires continues to grow and the aerial assets continue to be stretched thin, it seems that there needs to be more interoperability so that firefighting agencies and the firefighters themselves know what they are getting from an aerial asset. Same language, same terminology, same training standards.”
Looking at the possibility of using drones, the benefits of professionally-operated, medium and high-altitude drones, but highlighted the safety issues presented by the hobby drone community. If operating above the fire traffic area, the technical advantages of long loiter and real-time thermal and imagery updates can, and have made a significant difference. However, these attributes must be weighed against the aerial firefighting community’s safety concerns with the general public flying hobby drones close to wildfires.
The future for DynCorp International is very positive. Cal Fire will introduce the first of 12 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks to the fleet in May 2019, and this type will gradually supercede the UH-1 Huey as the primary helicopter in the fleet. In December 2018, the United States Coast Guard awarded DynCorp International the Progressive Structural Inspection (PSI) and Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) contract for C-130H and C-130J aircraft.
Firefighting at night is outside the current abilities of Cal Fire. Cavarra told Tangent Link that he expects the Black Hawks will have night vision capability, which will bring a new dimension to wildfire control in California.
Written by Jeremy Parkin
For Tangent Link Ltd