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Monday, March 1, 2010

Suspension of Disbelief

By Lee Benson

I recently attended an aerial firefighting conference in Rome, Italy. The food was great, the people are wonderful, but I managed somehow. Conference attendees came from all aspects of aerial firefighting. Great discussions were held in the conference itself and more importantly in the bar.

One bar comment comes from an observation over the last 40 years. I don’t drink, not a big deal, I never did drink, but I have observed at conferences and the HAI Convention that more truth is spoken at 11 p.m. in the bar then at 11 a.m. on the convention floor. The hot issue at the conference was the use of night vision goggles (NVGs) for firefighting. I listened as various speakers and attendees discussed plans to incorporate NVG technology into their operations. This included Canadair CL-415 and Skycrane operations. Finally on the last day of the conference, I had to say something.

I know that comes as a shock to those of you that know me. What I said is this; Los Angeles City and County Fire Air Operations have conducted more night firefighting operations then the rest of the world put together. Los Angeles City doesn’t use NVGs for firefighting. County pilots do use them for flights over dark terrain to and from the fire, but not on the actual drop itself.

The only pilot fatality that the Los Angeles County Fire Department has suffered in 53 years of service occurred in 1977 while conducting NVG operations on a fire. This accident occurred when the unit employed much different technology than we have today and is not a straight apples-to-apples comparison. The findings of the accident review board listed the mixing of two different agencies working from the same helispot as a major contributing factor to the accident.

I take from the report the following: the number of helicopters that can be utilized from one helispot should be limited to two, certainly not more than three and then only if they are from the same agency. The ability of the pilot to maintain spatial awareness of where other aircraft are located is greatly hampered at night.

Differences in protocols among agencies for separation and traffic patterns do not help the individual pilot’s awareness of his flight environment. If you have a large fire and two independent helispots can be established with non-conflicted routing between the helispot and the respective flanks to be dropped on, the number of helicopters can increased accordingly. If two agencies are employed, separating the agencies to different helispots is very desirable.

Pilots must account for the higher risk element of night operations. Good moonlight, lots of ambient light from infrastructure, and a reasonable number of aircraft from a limited mix of agencies working on the fire all reduce risk. The gain side needs close attention. Will this operation save lives or property? Can the night operations add to the safety of firefighters on the ground? If the answer is no, and all we are going to do is put out weeds in the middle of nowhere, then I for one strongly believe that your risk versus gain is out of balance. Los Angeles County Air Operations evaluated night snorkel operations with its Firehawk aircraft.

The unit concluded that hovering four-to-eight feet over water at night with poor viability due to rotor wash was unduly risky. At night, Firehawks are filled with a fire hose off of an engine. I would caution others to take a hard look at this issue before committing to night snorkel operations. The idea of trying to scope on goggles with a Canadair aircraft off a lake, seems a bit sporty to me. But I am not a fixed-wing pilot so others will need to address that issue. I am a qualified helicopter coordinator and have worked helicopters and Canadair aircraft together on many occasions, and I would refuse to attempt it at night.

Several years ago, a pilot was quoted as saying that if he would have been allowed to conduct night operations in his Hughes 500 with a water drop bucket, he would have extinguished a Santa Ana-driven fire. Let’s say that for once in my life I agree with Hillary Clinton, that pilot’s comment “would require the willing suspension of disbelief.” The fire went on to destroy hundreds of homes and the politicians grabbed his comment to try and vilify anyone who questioned night aerial firefighting operations. This was in an attempt to move the spotlight off of their own neglect of the issues at hand.

The fire pilot community has been trying to find balance on this issue ever since. The Los Angeles County Fire pilot who died in that accident was Tom Grady. Let’s hope Tom is the only one that pays the price for the lessons learned.


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