Aerial firefighting company Aero-Flite – based in Spokane, Washington – is a business with 60 years of experience in the aerial firefighting sector. It employs over 170 aviation experts, including 51 pilots and 74 mechanics, and operates a mixed fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, including seven Avro RJ85 air tankers and four De Havilland CL-415 water bombers. New to Aero-Flite’s fleet is the Dash 8-400AT, one of the world’s most modern air tankers.
Working in harmony
As an operator that works across the US, Aero-Flite is called upon to fly missions over a wide range of geography. “In the Pacific Northwest, there is more mountainous terrain, which requires skill and experience when planning and executing a drop on a wildfire,” said Chris Niemann, General Manager at Aero-Flite. “Pilots must take into consideration wind, slopes, smoke, and fire behavior to allow for safe entry and exit paths. In states which are flatter, such as Texas and Oklahoma, there are more options about where to lay down a line to slow fire progression, so that ground crews can work towards containment. Ultimately it is the firefighter on the ground that puts out the fires.”
Niemann explained that an air tanker’s role is to place a line of retardant along the outside perimeter of the fire, ‘to slow its spread, giving time for containment lines to be built’.
He added: “Retardant coats the fuel, remaining on the grass or forest bed long after water in the mixture has evaporated. It slows combustion, slowing fire from moving forward. But if it’s hot enough and windy enough, an extreme fire can jump the fire line. To prevent this, water bombers are used in conjunction with the air tankers, dropping water directly on the fire to cool the flames and further slow the spread.”
Aero-Flite’s pilots take all these factors into account, with a view to maintaining a high level of safety for both aircraft and crew. “We want them to make a decision that is conservative,” Niemann said. “Low level flying in challenging conditions is unforgiving, so we have very specific rules about who does what in the cockpit, from a pilot or copilot perspective, to mitigate risk.”
Ultimately, he said: “Crews have full authority to abort a drop if conditions warrant. It is never a negative to place safety first.”
Coordinating with firefighting agencies
Wildfires are managed in the US by federal, state and local agencies, with these agencies managing all air assets, ground crews, and strategy around wildfire response.
Niemann explained that the company has ‘exclusive-use contracts with two primary agencies at this time – the US Forest Service and the State of Washington’ – meaning contracts whereby specific aircraft are provided for dedicated use for a period of time.
“The contracting agency decides where, when and what air asset is deployed to what fire. The agency can decide to use the air asset within their own region, or in times of less need, send air assets to other regions, sharing resources with various agencies,” said Niemann. “The Forest Service is a large agency with assets contracted from various aerial firefighting companies – everything from smaller, single engine air tankers and helicopters to larger air tankers and water scoopers. They decide where to assign those assets based on the wildfire threat.”
The company also contracts a portion of its fleet on an on-call basis – responding to agency requests as needed. “We have fought fires in nearly every state in our 60-year history,” shared Niemann. “But exclusive-use contracts are becoming more prevalent as state agencies work to secure air assets so that when wildfires erupt in their region, they have assets readily available to deploy.”
Pilots must take into consideration wind, slopes, smoke and fire behavior
He added that: “With the increase in wildfire behavior, including longer seasons and more volatile and larger blazes, regions can’t always rely on shared resources like they could in the past. There is a good chance if one state is experiencing wildfires, the neighbouring states are too. There is a limited pool of air tankers in the country, the air assets just aren’t available, meaning relying on on-call services is a risk.”
Aero-Flite draws on a broad range of aviation backgrounds when recruiting its pilots. Niemann explained: “We have some former military pilots, airline pilots, agricultural spray pilots, bush pilots, and some that grew up in fire aviation. Obviously, aerial firefighting requires a unique set of skills. We intentionally hire from a mix of backgrounds so we that can incorporate the best training, standard operating procedures, and practices from each one of those environments.”
Aerial firefighting requires a unique set of skills
Modern firefighting practices, he explained, are much more prescriptive in nature than they were historically: “There is a different level of adherence in how strict your standard operating procedures are, and how closely you must follow them. As an industry, we have moved away from an era where no rules existed to one where risks are mitigated, and safety is paramount.”
With safety in mind, Aero-Flite pilots undergo a range of training each year – including aircraft type training, ground school, and simulator training plus an in depth onwing training exercise each March involving all aircraft and pilots.
“During our annual training in Chico, California, we fully simulate a wildfire environment, so pilots have an opportunity to train, and be flight checked, prior to the start of the fire season,” said Niemann. “Personnel on the ground simulate fire activity, including smoke machines and visuals on the terrain to indicate the fire boundary. Pilot crews practice radio communications with dispatch and firefighters on the ground, replicating the complex radio environment over wildfire incidents. Air tankers simulate initial air attack drops, training for realworld operations. It is one of the most comprehensive training exercises in the country.”
“To enhance this live training session, we also have access to our own Level D full motion RJ85 simulator, complete with fire graphics, to practice virtual missions,” added Niemann. “And we are the only organization in the country with access to a Mission Training System where multiple Flight Training Devices are linked together, with pilots training over the same virtual fire at the same time. Our new Dash 8-400AT pilots, plus our RJ85 crews, can train in this system together, along with Lead Plane pilots and agency wildfire management teams.”
A mixed fix-wing fleet
According to Niemann, the aircraft operated by Aero-Flite is key to its aerial firefighting effectiveness. “We have chosen airplanes to convert to air tankers that fit aerial firefighting missions well,” he explained. “Our RJ85 air tanker is a four-engine jet that can carry a large retardant load, up to 3,000 gallons, while providing a fast response to the fire and back to reload.”
By contrast, Aero-Flite’s primary water scooper is the CL-415. “It can reload in about 12 seconds from a water source, such as a lake, and then go back to the fire with up to 1,600 gallons of water, working for more than four hours before having to go the base to refuel” shared Niemann. “We deploy them in pairs, so they get lots of water on a fire in a very short period of time. Very good for an initial attack.”
“All of our CL-415 pilots are Initial Attack rated pilots, meaning they don’t need any airborne supervision. They can be the first on scene, assess the fire, and determine where to drop, handing over the fire management to a lead plane when it arrives,” he added.
Aero-Flite’s fleet is equipped with a range of current technology, including infrared cameras on the CL-415 to see hotspots through the smoke, as well as a specialized Flight Air Tanker Envelope System, which provides safety awareness information, such as slow speed awareness and angle of attack detail to pilots, helping keep them and their aircraft safe.
Niemann explained that the focus was on investing in ‘technologies that make operations safer, more efficient and more effective’.
The company has recently introduced the new De Havilland Dash 8-400 air tanker to its fleet. “The Dash 8-400 air tanker can fly as fast to a fire as larger jets, can deliver almost the same payload, and burns 30 per cent less fuel than air tankers of similar size, a benefit when fuel costs are high, and supply is low. Plus they can fly into smaller tanker bases, positioned closer to where wildfires ignite. A fast initial attack is vital to containing a wildfire,” Niemann explained.
A fast initial attack is vital to containing a wildfire
The timeline for Aero-Flite to roll out additional new aircraft into its fleet will be based on how quickly the organization can train and certify crews. The US Forest Service currently cards, or certifies, pilots for aerial firefighting operations. To become an Initial Attack Captain, capable of responding to a wildfire without airborne support from a lead plane, requires at least three lead plane recommendations and a check ride with a US Forest Service Pilot Inspector. “There are currently a limited number of inspectors available in the country qualified to card all large air tanker pilots. You can imagine their significant workload. It is a fairly lengthy process that takes a substantial period for time.”
The company is expanding its hangar facilities to accommodate the new aircraft, with plans to accommodate up to 20 large air tankers of this type in the future.
Maintenance is conducted in-house
Niemann explained that Aero-Flite conducts all aircraft maintenance in-house at its facilities in Spokane, rather than relying on a contract with a third-party provider. The intention behind this is to guarantee control over all outcomes, and to ensure that aircraft are in the ‘best shape possible when they go flying’.
“We do all of our own heavy maintenance,” he explained. “We invest approximately eight hours of maintenance to every hour of flight time to keep the aircraft well maintained, given the stresses placed on the air tankers due to the low level, drop missions they fly. Our mechanics perform engine breakdowns, component overhauls, non-destructive testing – and we have our own structural repair shop where we can bend metal, do skin replacements and perform repairs.”
Cost, while ‘always a factor’ in maintenance, is never a deciding factor. “We don’t decide not to fix something because it’s expensive,” he added. Despite this, Niemann admitted that one motivation behind the introduction of the Dash 8-400AT was the expectation that Aero- Flite’s older aircraft will become costlier to keep functional over time.
“The RJ85 is a great airplane, but it hasn’t been produced in a very long time,” he explained. “Which means that some of the equipment will become obsolete on it and, as it ages, it will become more and more difficult to maintain – you can anticipate that as any air tanker ages, there will be more and more downtime, and less availability for aircraft.”
By contrast, the Dash 8-400AT – or ‘Q400’ as it’s nicknamed – offers lower maintenance costs, as well as far greater fuel economy. Niemann explained that from an environmental perspective, the aircraft delivers almost the same load as an older Large Air Tanker, ‘but does it at less fuel burn’.
He added that in addition to offering lower costs and less pollution, introducing a more fuel-efficient aircraft to the fleet offered greater security for operations in the face of potential fuel surges or shortages. “In 2021, there were significant concerns about the fuel supply chain issues associated with Covid-19, to the extent that air tanker bases were threatened by running out of fuel,” he said.