Summer wildfires test capacity of EHI’s fleet

 - April 25, 2008, 6:14 AM

With fires in Colorado and Arizona consuming more than 500,000 acres of forest earlier this summer and other wildfires burning three million acres across the U.S. as of July 4, Evergreen Helicopters Inc. (EHI) of McMinnville, Ore., scrambled to keep crews in action to meet Forest Service and international fire-suppression needs.

“We have only five aircraft contracted full time in the lower 48 states, 20 aircraft on contract in Alaska and up to 20 additional aircraft that can be sent to fires as needed,” said EHI president Tim Wahlberg. Earlier this summer, he said, EHI helicopters and crew simultaneously fought fires in Colorado, Arizona and Mexico.

One of eight subsidiaries owned by Evergreen International Aviation, EHI provides helicopter and fixed-wing services for a number of industries, including aerial application; construction and heavy lift; forestry and logging; marine services; petroleum support; powerline construction and patrol; recreation and research; emergency airlift; and cargo and personnel transportation, as well as in support of the other Evergreen divisions. However, firefighting is by far the largest chunk of EHI’s business, accounting for a full 30 percent of the company’s operations, according to Wahlberg.

“Of the 175 people employed by EHI, every person has at some time or another been involved in our firefighting operations,” said Wahlberg. When at full strength, as happened earlier this summer, EHI has up to 50 pilots on its payroll. The majority of these are helicopter pilots, since EHI no longer uses fixed-wing aircraft on firefighting missions. Instead, a fleet of 35 helicopters, ranging from the heavy-lift Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane to the nimble Eurocopter SA 315B Lama, is available to battle the flames while a veteran Lockheed C-130 tanker sits forlorn outside the company’s new museum in McMinnville. The extreme range in helicopter capabilities allows EHI to perform firefighting missions in a variety of locations; though the published service ceiling of the Lama is 17,720 ft, Wahlberg said the Evergreen Lamas have made mountain rescues at nearly 20,000 ft.

“The Forest Service has become sophisticated in getting the best economy for each helicopter being used,” Wahlberg told AIN. “The fire season is generally during the summer, which forces the helicopters to fly in hot-and-high conditions. Accordingly, it is looking for more light helicopters since they come closer to their maximum lifting capacity at higher density altitudes. Eventually, a Lama can outlift a Bell 212 at high altitudes.”

The Fleet
This may explain why Evergreen’s fleet consists of only two Type I (heavy lift) helicopters, the Skycrane and a Sikorsky S-61; nine Type II helos, including Bell 212s and 205s; and 26 Type III rotorcraft, including 13 Bell 206s, seven Eurocopter AS 350 AStars, three Lamas and a handful of others. Type II helicopters can lift 1,200 to 2,499 lb, while Type I aircraft can lift more than 5,000 lb.

This doesn’t mean that Evergreen is ignoring the usefulness of its heavy lifters. Early in last year’s firefighting season, Aero Union completed the upgrade of Evergreen’s Skycrane with a new snorkel system that fills the aircraft’s 2,200-gal belly tank in approximately 43 sec. A foam-injection system dispenses a controlled amount of chemical to conform with the desired concentration level, and the Aero Union patented constant-flow tank-door actuation design allows increased drop control and more uniform coverage. The entire package has now been branded by Aero Union as its new Skycrane Heli-tanker program.

In addition to the helicopters available for firefighting, EHI supplies more than a dozen rotorcraft to clients on permanent contract, including a fleet of six Hughes 500
helicopters performing aerial application missions in Africa to combat “river blindness” caused by the black fly. Contrary to its name, EHI also operates a small fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, including a Learjet 35, Gulfstream II, two Cessna 206s, two Lockheed C-130s and three Casa 212s. All of the fixed-wing aircraft operate under the company’s Part 135 certificate, generally for executive or cargo transport, depending on the aircraft.

Experienced Crews
Evergreen looks for experience when hiring its firefighting pilots, including a minimum of 400 hr in the aircraft type. “Fire makes its own weather, with severe updrafts and downdrafts,” said Wahlberg, noting that the pilots must be particularly familiar with the operation of that aircraft to work fires. “Many times the fires occur in the mountains, and mountain flying itself is difficult, even without the fire. There can be up to six operators with rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft working in a smoky area. Spotter airplanes try to keep everyone safe, and if it’s too smoky we won’t fly.”

Wahlberg said most of his firefighter pilots worked their way up from aerial applications, progressing from crops that are “less particular” to those that require precise laying of the chemical. Though one might think that GPS systems would be used by the firefighting pilots to determine precisely where to fly and drop the load, the EHI president said the pilots perform the entire mission manually, “pretty much going by line of sight.”

“We have been using a new high-tech GPS drop system for the Hughes 500 helicopters [working on the African black fly program],” he said. “And a spray program in Maryland plots out the aerial application on tape that tells exactly where the chemical was sprayed.” Wahlberg said that as of yet the Forest Service has not been interested in paying for similar technologies used in firefighting, but he surmises that Forest Service use of these technologies may be around the corner.

EHI uses a variety of systems to accomplish its firefighting missions. In addition to the aforementioned modifications to the Skycrane, Evergreen has installed firefighting systems from Isolair, Simplex and Era Helicopters on various aircraft. Several EHI Bell 212, 205 and 206 helicopters have Simplex tanks that can be used for either spray or water, allowing the aircraft to be pulled from aerial application duties to firefighting with a minimum change of configuration. Some aircraft use Griffith water-hauling buckets, while others use “bambi” buckets; a few Bell 212s have Isolair Eliminator II firefighting systems installed, which load the tanks from water sources as shallow as 12 in. in 55 to 75 sec.

Old Player
Evergreen is an old player in the firefighting industry. Though current firefighting operations span the entire length of North America–from Alaska, through Canada and the lower 48 states to Mexico–Evergreen started in Anchorage in the early 1960s. Founder Delford Smith later moved the company headquarters to McMinnville, where the company flourished as it picked up contracts in forestry and petroleum. Wahlberg contends that “Evergreen reseeded the majority of the Northwest.”

The company used fixed-wing aircraft during its early firefighting contracts. From 1975 to 1985 Evergreen’s main firefighting platform was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress of World War II fame, then it switched to Lockheed P-2B Neptunes. In the mid to early 1990s, Evergreen was embroiled in controversy over its C-130s, ostensibly obtained from the U.S. Forest Service back in the early 1980s for firefighting missions but allegedly used in secret CIA missions instead.

Evergreen has continued its tradition of keeping older aircraft in service, as some of the aircraft flown by EHI today are nearly as old as the company. “The first 205 that Bell delivered still flies today as part of EHI’s inventory,” Wahlberg said. “We don’t look at age as a deterrent. As long as the airframes and engines are well maintained, the age of the aircraft doesn’t matter.”

Covering the entire North American continent requires at least a few Evergreen fire crews to be on standby at all times. The company bases its firefighting crews and equipment in Anchorage, McMinnville and Galveston, Texas. Wahlberg said Alaska’s fire season runs from April through July, while the Northwest U.S. fire season is from July through Sep- tember. Mexico’s fire season runs through the winter.

“But with the extended drought we’ve been working fires all year,” Wahlberg told AIN. “The Forest Service hasn’t been thinning trees and has been building fewer roads through the forests. There has also been more application work for insects that kill a lot of trees, and dead trees burn a lot more easily than live trees. Selective logging by helicopter would help thin the forests and could remove the dead trees,” reducing the fuel available to feed the monstrous fires seen in Colorado and Arizona earlier this summer.

When necessary, the helicopter crews bunk with the aircraft at the site of the fire, taking along sleeping bags and foregoing modern conveniences for weeks at a time. In some cases, EHI double-crews the aircraft to maximize its time in the air. “It’s certainly not the cleanest job,” said Wahlberg. “Everything gets covered with smoke and soot.”

Although EHI does not currently conduct firefighting operations outside North America, Wahlberg said the company is looking to expand into other countries in the near future. “We’ve looked at Europe and Australia,” he noted. “We’re gauging the activities of other companies in those areas and think there might be opportunities in those regions.”