Columbia Helicopters revs up for firefighting missions

 - July 8, 2008, 8:53 AM

Summer means fire season, and Columbia Helicopters’ tandem-rotor Chinooks and Vertols have already been dispatched to their bases, primarily throughout the Western U.S., under contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.

Aurora, Ore.-based Columbia is the largest private-sector operator of tandem-rotor helicopters in the world and holds the type certificate (TC) for the Vertol, badged the Columbia 107, and the civil version of the larger Chinook, now called the Columbia 234.

Tandem-rotor helicopters are often a better choice for heavy external lift operations because all of the helicopter’s engine power is directed to the main rotors, as opposed to the loss of 15 to 16 percent of engine power required to drive the anti-torque tail rotor on a conventional helicopter. They also offer more flexibility in windy conditions. “You don’t need to go straight into the wind all the time,” said Todd Peterson, the company’s vice president of marketing. “It gives you a broad range off approach and departure paths.”

Columbia’s helicopters fly worldwide, from New Guinea to Peru to the Sudan, in support of the oil and logging industries and, occasionally, famine and disaster relief. Typically, helicopters are leased with flight and support crews. The Vertols in particular are workhorses, according to Peterson. Some Vertols fly more than 300 hours a month, and one has logged more than 70,000 hours. “They are extremely well built and reliable aircraft,” he said. “And we have developed quite a few modifications to improve them over the years.”

Columbia has two different types of firefighting contract with the Forest Service, exclusive use and on-call. In the former, a helicopter is assigned a permanent base for the 90-day fire season. These bases tend to be in the inter-mountain West and Pacific Northwest in states including California, Montana, Oregon and Washington. During the course of a fire season, it is not uncommon for a helicopter to spend 50 or 60 days away from its base, according to Peterson.

For its on-call contracts, Columbia updates the National Interagency Fire Center on the daily position of its aircraft working other jobs. When a fire breaks out, the government typically summons the closest and/or least expensive aircraft available for the mission. Columbia (and other operators) can accept or decline the call.

“It depends on what that helicopter is doing,” said Peterson. “If we are logging pine, which deteriorates fairly rapidly, we might not go. On the other hand, we have brought helicopters down from Alaska to fight fires [on-call] in the Western U.S., and in June we had one in Florida fighting fires.”

Columbia’s firefighting activities have increased as logging policies have placed more restrictions on federal land, according to Peterson. “It’s led to more severe and more catastrophic fires than we had 20 years ago,” he said. The risks those fires pose have also increased as human habitation encroaches more on wilderness areas, Peterson said.

The logistics and mechanics of aerial firefighting, especially with aircraft as large and complex as Columbia’s, can be difficult. “You have to take quite a bit of stuff, especially with the 234,” Peterson said. “Not only do you have to ferry the aircraft, you have to follow it with a convoy of support vehicles–fuel, equipment, service and crew trucks. Not only do you have to juggle the equipment, but you also have to manage driver and pilot times to comply with DOT and FAA duty-time requirements. It is not uncommon to have to move a helicopter 1,000 miles from one fire to another; our aircraft literally criss-cross the U.S. during the course of a fire season. It can get pretty complicated at times,” Peterson said.

Pilot training for firefighting is baptism by fire. “Nobody has come up with a realistic simulator yet,” Peterson joked, adding that copilots log “quite some time in the fire environment” before they become aircraft commanders. They also need to become adept at operating the external bucket used to douse fires that is slung beneath the helicopter.

In its early firefighting days, Columbia rigged a modified cement bucket, but now it uses the SEI Torrentula “Bambi Bucket” with Powerfill System. The buckets contain high-volume pumps that take on a full load of water in less than 90 seconds in depths as shallow as 18 inches. The 234 carries a 2,580-gallon bucket; the 107 can sling a 1,300-gallon bucket. They are attached to the helicopter with a 160-foot line that houses the system’s control cables, allowing a pilot to open and close the bucket and regulate the rate at which the water is dispersed during a drop.

A heavy-lift tandem-rotor helicopter mated to a Bambi Bucket can make up to four times as many drops as helicopters using other equipment, according to Columbia. During California’s 2007 Zaca Fire, the system allowed Columbia to extract water from a nearly dried-up river. The long line also provides less rotor wash and greater safety margins in the event of an emergency.

The 234s can also deliver heavy equipment, including bulldozers, directly to a fire or drop a “hotshot” team of up to 19 firefighters with all of their gear. They are also used as initial attack aircraft and have extinguished fires before the arrival of ground crews and other aircraft.

None of this comes cheap. The Vertols burn 170 to 180 gph while the 234s consume 380 to 400 gph. Peterson would not discuss actual costs per hour, but he did offer an insight into the math behind a fire season. “It’s difficult to do strategic planning. How do you plan for a fire season? It either happens, or it doesn’t.”

Columbia received the TC for the 234 from Boeing in late 2006 and currently operates six. By the end of next year three more will join that fleet. It also operates 14 Vertols. The combined fleet logs 30,000 hours annually. The company employs 800 and approximately 80 of them are pilots. All of Columbia’s helicopters are operated with two-pilot crews.