Columbia Helicopters, Inc., (Columbia) based in Aurora, Oregon, USA, has been fighting wildfires for 51 of its 61 years in operation. Beginning with a Sikorsky S-61 carrying multiple water buckets, Columbia quickly became an industry leader in heavy-lift helicopter firefighting services. The Company switched to tandem-rotor BV/KV 107-II helicopters in 1969, added BV 234s (the commercial version of the military Chinook) in 1984, and was the first to install an internal suppressant/retardant tank in a CH-47D Chinook in 2016.
One of Columbia’s pilots is Perri Hagen. Perri started flying for Columbia Helicopters 25 years ago after flying AH-1F Cobras for the U.S. Army. He began his civilian helicopter career like many of Columbia’s legacy pilots – as a copilot in heli-logging operations during the fall, winter and spring, and fighting fires in the summer. In 1993, during his first year as a copilot, Perri was on a logging job in Alaska when his Vertol 107 was dispatched to St. Regis, Montana, to help fight a wildland fire. Once the fire was out, they flew back to Alaska to start the next logging project. Perri has become one of Columbia’s more experienced field pilots, having recently flown his 20,000th flight hour, including more than 16,000 hours in tandems.
In December 2017, Perri was assigned as Columbia’s Fire Lead Pilot on the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in modern California history and the seventh most destructive in the state, burning approximately 440 square miles and destroying at least 1,063 structures. The base for this incident was the Camarillo Airport in Ventura, California. Perri’s aircraft was a CH-47D Chinook with a Simplex Fire Attack System internal fire suppression tank. Columbia’s flight crews typically work 12 days on and 12 days off. Perri’s team included himself as the command pilot, a copilot, a crew chief, field mechanics, and a fuel truck driver. Due to the scale and severity of the Thomas Fire, this was a 24 hours a day operation. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (‘CAL FIRE’) was in command of the incident for the first three weeks of the five-week incident. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) took over for the last two. A CAL FIRE or USFS helicopter manager would be assigned to Columbia’s aircraft to ensure that Perri and his crew had the proper resources and adequate coordination.
Every day just after sunrise, the morning crew of mechanics would inspect the helicopter following aircraft logbook entries and pass-down notes from the night crew, and prep the aircraft for Perri and his copilot to do their own preflight inspection. Once everything was checked and the cowlings secured, Perri and his copilot, armed with a cup of coffee and a notebook, would attend the morning briefing conducted by the CAL FIRE or USFS Helibase Manager. The briefing is attended by pilots from all the helicopters that might be involved that day, including aircrew from CAL FIRE, Air National Guard, and civilian contractors. The Helibase Manager would then review the Incident Action Plan, the weather, a recap of the previous day’s fire activity, the radio frequencies used for the day, general logistics, and any other pertinent information needed so that Perri would know which fire division they would likely be operating in for the day.
Following the brief, Perri and his copilot would return to his helicopter to wait for a mission request from Air Attack. Air Attack is a fixed-wing aircraft staffed with either a USFS or CAL FIRE manager who would continually circle the fire and direct helicopter and fixed-wing air resources.
For the Thomas Fire incident, Perri and his crew were assigned to the Fillmore, California area for the three weeks they worked on the Thomas Fire. This is a high-elevation region of Ventura County, heavily wooded, with plenty of hills and canyons. Once Perri and his crew received the mission request, they flew three miles to the Mobile Retardant Base (MRB) where dip tanks full of red fire retardant were set up, fed by hoses from a portable retardant plant. The Columbia Model CH-47D Chinook can fly up to a 2.5 hour fuel cycle and would typically refill with retardant about ten times per cycle, maxing out at eight hours of flight time for the day, in accordance with USFS rules. Depending on the distance between the MRB and the fire line, Perri and his copilot would typically perform 30 retardant drops during a full eight-hour day of flying.
At the beginning of each day’s first mission, Perri’s copilot would contact Air Attack to obtain permission to fly into the TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction, an area restricted to air travel due to hazardous conditions) to find out who their ground contact was for that fuel cycle. The ground contact was usually a USFS or CAL FIRE strike team leader who would direct Perri to drop the retardant or water in a particular place. Most of the time the instructions were fairly clear (“Work your way up that canyon”), but sometimes they were a bit more complex (“There’s a grey rock about a hundred yards to my East-North-East; lay down a line from that point toward the southwest and end at the patch of chaparral that torched about ten minutes ago”).
At the end of each fuel cycle, depending on whether the aircraft was needed back at the fire line, the flight crew would return to the Camarillo Airport and either ‘hot-fuel’ with rotors turning, or shut down for a short time. If the helicopter was shut down, the field mechanics would refuel the aircraft, inspect it for mechanical anomalies, and clean the residual retardant off the airframe with a high-pressure water hose. Due to the large rotor wash generated by the lift of such a big helicopter, excess retardant tends to fly around and can be corrosive if not cleaned soon after shut down. Perri and his copilot would take this opportunity to refresh as it gets very hot inside the cockpit. All the doors of the aircraft must remain closed during firefighting work to prevent smoke, ash, and retardant from getting inside.
Due to the fact that temperatures and winds tend to increase during the day, the afternoon hours are typically the most active on a fire and, correspondingly radio traffic intensifies as well. As Perri explains, “With six or more radio frequencies to monitor (two VHF, two FM, and two Guard channels), plus keeping track of production data on an iPad, watching for other air traffic and terrain, dodging thick columns of smoke, keeping an eye on all the gauges, and flying the aircraft, Crew Resource Management (CRM) is an important component in aviation firefighting. The key to a successful day on a fire is good communication.” There were up to nine aircraft in Perri’s area of operation, and communicating with each of them, Air Attack, the copilot, and the firefighters on the ground was crucial, especially if there was thick smoke and low visibility.
At the end of the duty day, usually just before sunset, the night mechanics would clean the helicopter, perform any required maintenance, and prep it for the day shift. Perri uses an iPad with Columbia proprietary apps to complete his final paperwork on how much retardant they used, where they were located for the day and any mechanical issues that arose. Hot and tired, Perri and his copilot would head to a local hotel to clean up, eat dinner, and rest up for the next day’s mission.
“Aerial firefighting is a challenging lifestyle,” Perri says, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The fire crews on the ground are the real heroes, but if we can support them in controlling the fire and saving some structures, that’s enough to put a smile on your face during the trip home.”
For more information, go to www.colheli.com
Article Written by Alisha Grezlik