Firefighting rotorcraft showed their worth; Europe responds

 - July 24, 2007, 10:25 AM

Last year was something of a landmark in helicopter firefighting activity. During one of the driest summers on record in the northern hemisphere, rotorcraft were deployed for long periods–often to areas where they had not been needed before–to stem the progress of flames.

But it wasn’t just the U.S. that suff-ered–southeast Asia and large swaths of European real estate were affected, especially in the south where the summers are long and hot. Fighting fires from the air is becoming big business for local operators, as well as U.S.-based equipment suppliers such as SEI Industries, which makes Bambi Buckets, and Simplex, which builds ventral water tanks. Nowadays, thankfully, more national organizations are planning their strategies and contracting their aerial support before the first blaze sparks into life.

This year these aerial firefighting forces are in demand once more. From early June to around the end of September, the authorities position aircraft (often helicopters, but some specialized airplanes become involved as well) at regional airports close to danger points, ready to react to what has become almost inevitable. Many blazes are caused accidentally–some by forces of nature. Others are encouraged by quirks of planning legislation–in Greece, land developers sometimes try to take advantage of laws that allow construction on burned land. Disturbingly, but not surprising, some fires there are set deliberately.

France has a particularly sophisticated military and para-military network to protect its vulnerable south–its maquis scrubland, which often surrounds expensive properties, becomes tinder-dry and one département, the Var, is 80-percent covered in woods. Policing that real-estate involves several agencies. A whole battalion of 2,300 French navy personnel, supported by a mixed fleet of fixed- and rotary-wing assets, is assigned to protect just the southern port city of Marseilles and its environs–an area of some 60,000 acres.

AStars and Alouettes tend to be deployed to the flanks of fires, leaving the most entrenched parts of the blaze to Bombardier CL-415 amphibians, which even the locals recognize as “Canadairs.” However, the helicopters can also shift equipment and deploy firefighting teams, which makes them an indispensable, multirole asset.

France’s Sécurité Civile (civil defense organization) is also involved in the region that
includes Marseilles, known as Bouches-du-Rhône, contributing two further helicopters to the firefighting role. Christian Lateyroux, head of the SC’s southern regional base, predicts that before long they will need dedicated heavy lifters “equipped with the means of carrying about 64,000 gallons of water”. During the winter, he argued, these helicopters can be kept on standby for moving personnel or equipment in the aftermath of natural disasters–flooding is another growing problem in the region.

Meanwhile, such is the effectiveness of the Marseilles operation that last year, although 1,200 fires started in the area, only about 321 acres were damaged.

S-64s Fight Fires in Italty
In Italy, after five years of chartering Erickson Aircrane S-64 Helitankers to fight fires along its mainland, as well as on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, the State Forestry Corps of Italy (Corpo Forestale Dello Stato, or CFS) bit the bullet in July last year and ordered four S-64s of its own. At press time, delivery of the first S-64 had been delayed, but the aircraft was expected to arrive in time to participate in the current fire season. The deal, valued at $95 million, includes a substantial spare parts inventory, support and training package (for both air and ground crew) and an option to purchase two more aircraft.

A new Erickson company, Skycrane Europe, has been set up in Italy to handle this new business, under the Florence-based stewardship of industry doyen Gian Franco Blower. Meanwhile, one of the Italian S-64s was sent last summer to Sardinia’s neighbor, the French Island of Corsica. Such was its success that–in its first penetration of the French marketplace–one is there on contract this year.

One of the Italian S-64s was also invited to take part in a pan-European firefighting exercise in southern France in April. Blower told AIN that the helicopter’s performance set the seal on the contract in Corsica. “France’s Minister of Interior was very impressed,” he said. Apparently there is talk within the Council of Europe of member states being given individual responsibility for aspects of disaster relief within the European Union. “I understand that Italy might be allotted the aerial firefighting task, in which case Erickson would be in a good position. But I welcome any opportunity to encourage commonality; we need to be talking the same language and using the same equipment.”

Skycrane Europe also provides two Helitankers to Greece’s Ministry of Interior for fire-suppression duties out of bases at Andravidha, on the west coast of the mainland, and the capital Athens. (In 1999, one of the helitankers was also dispatched to Turkey to fight an oil-refinery fire in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake centered on Izmit.) The helicopters have already been in action during the buildup to this month’s Olympic Games–one fire was stopped about 2.5 miles (four kilometers) from the newly completed Olympic Village, where 16,000 international athletes and officials are about to take lodging for the duration of the Games.

The S-64 features microprocessor-controlled tank doors that can give eight different coverage levels, either of water or reseeding materials for scorched earth. The microprocessor adjusts for airspeed, opening or closing the tank doors to deliver a flow rate that matches the particular coverage level selected by the pilot. Erickson said the tank adds the delivery capacity of fixed-wing tankers to the maneuvering capability of a helicopter.

Operators of smaller types also profit from this growing, but unfortunate, forest-fire trend. Portugal’s National Fire Fighting Service (NFS) annually contracts more than 20 helicopters, positioned at airports and heliports up and down the Atlantic-facing state.

The biggest contributor of these assets is Heliportugal, a utility operator with its headquarters at Tires, a town near the famous gambling resorts of Cascais and Estoril and some 40 miles north of Lisbon. When not snuffing fires, Heliportugal’s activities include infrared inspection of power lines, live line insulator spraying, forest fertilizing (guided by differential GPS), aerial film and video, hauling parachute jumpers, air ambulance and work precision load lifting.

For what has now become a significant slice of business, Heliportugal commits its four AS 350B AStars and charters several more from the cooler north. This year, an extra seven rotorcraft have arrived from Germany’s Meravo-Helix He  licopters and Hahn Helicopter Flugdienst, putting at the disposal of the Portuguese operator a total of two B1 and nine B2 variants. Freelance pilots boost Heliportugal’s strength to 24 crewmembers.

As the aircraft arrive, five 280-gallon Simplex belly tanks and snorkels await them in the maintenance hangar. These can drop a trail of water 130 feet long and 50 feet wide. Others are fitted to carry Bambi Buckets, each containing 212 gallons of water on the B1s or 236 gallons on the B2s. The Heliportugal team employs four pilots and seven mechanics, all of whom are Força Aerea Portuguesa (Portuguese Air Force) veterans. One of them is Paulo Galvao, who remembers working particularly hard last September.

“Last year was one of Portugal’s worst ever as far as forest fires are concerned. More than 988,000 acres, or 1,540 square miles, were burned–that’s about 4 percent of the country’s total surface area. During the season we operated 12 helicopters–three AS 350B1s and nine B2s. Five of the B2s were equipped with the ventral tanks and were fitted with a pump at the end of snorkels from the belly tanks so they can fill up within a minute. The rest carried Bambi Buckets.”

The outbreaks became so severe that more help was sought from other European states. Germany’s Border Guard (Bundesgrenzschutz, or BGS) responded by dispatching three helicopters from France, where they had been fighting fires in the Hautes Alpes area, to an area south of Lisbon. The BGS later calculated that its crews had dropped a little over one million gallons of water during 2,350 missions there last September.

Galvao calculates that he and his colleagues logged some 1,650 flight hours during September alone, and made more than 20,000 water drops–the equivalent of 12 rotations per machine every hour. “We shared the workload by flying dual pilot, from eleven bases spread throughout the country. Between us, we flew an average of nine hours a day and managed to put out more than 1,000 fires. This success was thanks in no small part to the reliability of the B2 AStars. But the B3 models that we were able to fly during 2002 gave us even better performance, as well as more payload. Their FADEC systems also make flying a lot easier, especially in extreme conditions.

“I have yet to fight a fire this summer,” he said, “but others have. As a group we have already flown more than we expected–34 hours in the past four weeks alone. This is going to be a hot one."