Helitanker operators may have thought they would profit after the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior (DOI) terminated contracts for 33 fixed-wing large airtankers due to airworthiness concerns last May, but a quiet fire season and a decrease in profitable call-when-needed deployments mitigated the potential windfall. Although some rotary-wing assets journeyed to Alaska to assist in the riotous fire season there, most helicopter firefighting operators experienced a relatively slow year that resulted in lower revenues.
The USFS stunned the forest firefighting industry when it announced the cancellation of several large airtanker contracts following the April 23, 2004, release of an NTSB report regarding three airtanker accidents, two involving Lockheed C-130A Hercules airtankers and one involving a Consolidated Vultee P4Y Privateer.
All three airplanes suffered in-flight wing separations resulting from fatigue.
After the second Hercules and the P4Y breakups, which occurred within a month of each other in 2002, the Forest Service discontinued the use of these models, leaving approximately 30 large airtankers available for the 2003 fire season. However, when the April 2004 NTSB report warned that “no effective mechanism exists to ensure the continuing airworthiness” of the aging airtankers, many of which are between 40 and 60 years old and are no longer supported by their manufacturers or the military, the USFS took the radical step of grounding a total of 33 large airtankers and canceling their exclusive-use contracts before the start of the 2004 fire season.
Increase in Exclusive-use Contracts
To partially fill the void left by the grounded airtankers, the DOI and USFS nearly doubled the number of exclusive-use contracts for single-engine airtankers (SEATS) and rotary-wing aircraft, with additional signings including 36 SEATS, 26 Type 1 (heavy) helicopters, 45 Type II medium helicopters and two Bombardier
CL-215 airtankers at a cost of $66 million.
“We assume that this trend will continue this year with more exclusive-use contracts and fewer call-when-needed deployments,” said Evergreen Helicopters Inc. (EHI) vice president of administration Grayson Barrows. The rotary-wing division of McMinnville, Ore.-based aviation giant Evergreen Aviation, EHI signed nine new exclusive-use contracts with the USFS last year, including one in the continental U.S. and eight in Alaska. Anticipating additional exclusive-use contracts, EHI has added a second Skycrane to its fleet that will be ready for this year’s fire season.
Fresno, Calif.-based Rogers Helicopters signed all three of its Skycranes to exclusive- use contracts, as well as six Bell 212s, four Eurocopter AS 350B2 AStars, two Bell 206L LongRangers and three fixed-wing aircraft. But both Barrows and Rogers Helicopters vice president Robin Rogers noted that the increase in exclusive-use contracts did not guarantee an increase in revenue. In fact, the increase in exclusive-use contracts and a quiet fire season in the continental U.S., in which fewer than 1.5 million acres burned compared with 3.5 million acres in 2003 and more than six million in 2002, actually meant lower firefighting revenues for both companies.
“During a slow year, you just don’t fly the hours,” Rogers told AIN. “We are still compensated for having the aircraft available for the exclusive-use contracts, but we’re not happy with the results this year.” With approximately 20 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft available for firefighting operations, firefighting constitutes approximately 70 percent of Rogers Helicopters’ annual revenue.
Evergreen Helicopters, which operates more than 75 medium- and heavy-lift helicopters in a variety of industries, saw a reduction of more than 1,000 hours of flight time on firefighting aircraft last year compared with the previous two years. While EHI’s firefighting helicopters, which range from a Hughes 500 to several Bell 212s and a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, logged 3,959 hours during the 2002 fire season and 3,618 in 2003, the same equipment logged only 2,603 hours last year.
According to Barrows, the decrease in hours occurred not only because of the quiet fire season but because of the increase in exclusive-use contracts, which decreased the USFS’s requirement for more expensive call-when-needed deployments, further reducing revenues.
Alaska’s Active Fire Season Replaces Some Lost Revenue
According to numbers released by the National Interagency Fire Center on December 30, more than eight million acres burned in the U.S. last year, more than twice the yearly average of 3.67 million acres and second only to 2000’s all-time high of 8.4 million acres. However, more than three-quarters of this acreage, a whopping 6.5 million acres, burned in Alaska, which experienced an unusually warm and dry spring and summer. According to a report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2004 was Alaska’s worst fire season on record, topping the previous worst of five million acres in 1957 by more than 25 percent. Together, the Eagle Complex, Boundary, Central Complex and Taylor Complex fires consumed more than 1.6 million acres of forest and encroached by as close as 20 miles on the state’s second largest city, Fairbanks, where residents suffered more than one month of ashy gray skies and at least one full week of smoke so thick that it dropped visibility to less than one mile.
“It was like having the entire state of Delaware on fire,” said Rogers, who sent two Rogers Helicopters Bell 212s to Alaska in mid-June to assist with Taylor Complex fires near the village of Tok, approximately 200 miles southeast of Fairbanks. “We were up there 120 days,” he said. “It was snowing when we left.”
Alaska’s sparse highway infrastructure in a state more than double the size of Texas means that fire-suppression methods rely on aviation support. Helicopters and crews from a number of operators journeyed from the lower 48 states to assist in the $60 million fire suppression effort.
“In Alaska, you may fight a fire 200 miles from where the helicopter is based and where there is no road access,” said Lynn Pierson, Western U.S. regional manager for Anchorage-based ERA Aviation, which sent an additional three Bell 212s from its Reno, Nev. location to Alaska during the 2004 fire season. According to Pierson, who worked in Alaska for several years before taking over the company’s Reno office, firefighting aircraft are used a little differently from in the lower 48 states. “Crews are not able to get back to a normal hotel environment like in the lower 48,” Pierson said. “Even if they’re at a village, odds are that there aren’t any hotels in the village. So the aviation crews bring tents and sleeping bags and often bivouac with the firefighting crews near the fire site.”
Long hours of summer daylight allow firefighting aircraft to be double-crewed and operate around the clock, while cargo aircraft fly food, equipment, crew and fuel to the site. Helicopters operate with auxiliary fuel tanks because of the extreme distances covered, and since rotorcraft tend to sink slightly into the tundra, Bambi buckets are generally used instead of belly tanks.
But even though the active fire season required additional aircraft to be brought up from the continental U.S., operators did not quite make up the hours in Alaska that they lost in the lower 48 states. Even ERA Aviation experienced a reduction in flight hours, with firefighting equipment consisting primarily of Bell 212s flying an average of 20 hours less per aircraft in 2004 than in previous years. “A typical year is usually 160 hours per aircraft,” Pierson said. “In 2004, we averaged 140 hours per aircraft for a total of 1,400 firefighting hours.”
Poor 2004 Fire Season Not Affecting Upgrade Plans for 2005
Though hours and overall firefighting revenues were down for 2004, this didn’t stop plans for upgrading fleets for this year’s upcoming fire season. (See also next page.) In addition to the Skycrane mentioned earlier, EHI has also added a Sikorsky S-61 and a Bell 214ST Super Transport to its firefighting fleet, and its parent company introduced a Boeing 747-200-based supertanker with a water/retardant tank capacity of more than 20,000 gallons. The supertanker completed flight testing in Marana, Ariz., last summer and is ready to begin operations this year.
The outlook for this year looks promising, at least from the available fire-suppression budget.