Aerial firefighting crews in the western U.S. are continuing to face a challenging wildfire season as pilot-duty limitations are reaching maximums and aircraft are requiring increased maintenance support. Companies involved in the fire-attack operations are addressing the demanding workload of pilots and mechanics with relief crews and additional personnel. According to Rogers Helicopters, the current fire activity has forced the company to provide relief crews earlier than normal as expansive flight hours are being logged over a short duration of time.
Neptune Aviation Services is currently using three BAe 146s to attack the Carr fire in California—the largest one in the state's history—while additional tankers have been deployed in Colorado, Nevada, Washington, and Idaho. “July got busy and stayed busy, and we know that August and September will be very busy as well. Fortunately, we planned to have enough reserve crews on hand to rotate both pilots and maintenance crews, in and out, as they start to fatigue,” said Dan Snyder, CEO of Neptune.
Pilot workload has also become a major topic of concern for Helimax Aviation as the company has already had to send relief pilots three times within two weeks this season, as compared to a typical rate of one or two times per wildfire season. “Our pilots are now maxing out on their flight-duty limitations, 42 hours during the course of six consecutive days as specified by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) contracts,” said Josh Beckham, Helimax general manager. “We’ve had to send additional crews into the field to relieve mechanics, all across our fleet this season.” Four of the company’s six CH47D Chinooks are currently fighting fires in California, Oregon, and Idaho.
Columbia Helicopters has also been dispatching additional crew support to satisfy USFS rules. “If a pilot goes beyond 36 hours within any six-day period, that pilot must take a day off. The relief crews enable the pilots to take that day off and reset their duty times,” said Keith Saylor, director of commercial operations for Columbia.
Rogers Helicopters' maintenance crews are focusing on airframe and powerplant inspections based upon aircraft being flown an average of seven hours per day to ensure aircraft readiness. Columbia is also addressing maintenance issues through preventive measures. “We stay ahead of any anticipated problems during the helicopter’s normal maintenance period. If there is a maintenance event, we will bring in a mechanic to fix the problem as soon as possible to the best of our ability,” said Saylor.
Rogers, Neptune, Columbia, and Helimax are members of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “As longer, more destructive fire seasons become the new normal, the industry will continue to be proactive with greater efficiencies in aircraft and personnel utilization going forward,” said George Hill, executive director of AHSAFA.