With an increasing number of wild and bushfires around the world, there has been a dramatic uptick in aerial firefighting missions. This has been accompanied by an increase in accidents and fatalities resulting from crashes. In a 49-day period in 2020 – 7 July to 24 August, three helicopters and three air tankers crashed, causing the deaths of six aerial firefighting professionals.
So far in 2021, a number of fatalities has increased. In May, four aerial firefighters were killed when their helicopter crashed in Erhai Lake in Dali, China, while refilling its external bucket. Also in May, four people died in a helicopter crash in South Dakota, US; a preliminary report has identified the cause of the accident as the snorkel hose swinging so violently that it contacted the main rotor blade of the aircraft. Four people also died on 25 May in Florida following a helicopter crash.
In June, the pilot of a helicopter transporting firefighters in Alberta, Canada, died when his aircraft crashed; an investigation determined that the main rotor blade had detached from the main rotor head. In July, a Beechcraft King Air C-90 aircraft, conducting visual reconnaissance and aviation command and control over a fire in Arizona, US, crashed, and two men onboard perished. Other incidents where the crew escaped include a helicopter crashing into a lake on 7 July in California, and a firefighting helicopter crashing in Montana.
We all know aircraft crash, and in the midst of fire, smoke, and proximity to ground and water, accidents are all the more likely. But the question remains; is the increase in accidents proportional to the number of missions being flown?
Study finds risk of accidents has not increased
The Australian Transportation Safety Bureau (ATSB) has published a statistical report of aerial firefighting accident and incident occurrence data spanning a near 20-year period, in response to a request for information from the Royal Commission into National Disaster Arrangements on ‘key operational and safety challenges encountered in coordinating and responding to fires associated with the use of aircraft and aerial firefighting techniques’.
The safety analysis forms a central element of the ATSB’s response to the Royal Commission, commonly referred to as the Bushfire Royal Commission. Dr Stuart Godley, ATSB Director of Transport Safety, noted the report details both the number of occurrences and, where available, the rate of occurrences per hours flown and number of flights for aircraft conducting aerial firefighting operations between 1 July 2000 to 31 March 2020, including water bombing, surveillance, and air attack tasks.
“Aviation activity relating to aerial firefighting has increased over recent bushfire seasons. Estimates for the most recent season, 2019 to 2020, have been that there was a four-fold increase in aerial firefighting activity compared to other recent bushfire seasons,” Godley noted. “More occurrences involving aerial firefighting aircraft were reported to the ATSB between July 2019 and March 2020 than in any prior financial year in the study period. Further, there were two fatal aerial firefighting accidents between August 2018 and March 2020, whereas in the previous 17 years there were only three fatal accidents.” However, Godley specified the importance of recognizing correlation over causation: “Given the amount of recent bushfire activity in Australia, an increase in reported occurrences could be expected, so this does not indicate an increase in risk per flight.”
When these deaths can be avoided through investment in technology that enhances safety practices and reduces pilot workload, then governments and operators should be making every effort to ensure their aircraft are as safe as possible
Richard Butterworth, Head of Training for Kestrel Aviation in Australia, told AirMed&Rescue that the changing nature of the fire season is having a positive impact on safety, despite the increased pressure on resources: “Aerial firefighting resources have generally been engaged by fire agencies under a call-when-needed basis. However, recent large-scale disasters in Australia have highlighted the benefits of contracted services, with ‘call when needed’ models preferred for surge capability.”
Butterworth pointed out that contracted services that are run over several years offer profound benefits and collectively improve operational flight safety as a function of minimum forecast revenue. “Availability or standing-charge contract models offer an organization a degree of economic certainty, which allows for return investment in capability such as new aircraft, pro-active maintenance, role equipment innovation and training,” said Butterworth. “The roll-on effects for fire agencies and communities is a direct improvement to the quality of service which of course includes flight safety.”
Risk mitigation through avionics development
A key aspect of increasing safety levels is the advancement in avionics that assist the pilot in their role of flying low to the ground, dropping their water at exactly the right moment, and finishing the maneuver to return with the next water drop. Brett L’Esperance, CEO of Dauntless Air in the US, spoke to AirMed&Rescue about the investments made in its fleet of Fire Boss planes. These include glass cockpits to reduce pilot workload, a head-up display for the infrared cameras that aid improved awareness of exactly where the fire is for the pilot without taking their eyes off the windshield of the plane, and the HASAS – height above surface alert system.
The HASAS sensor is vital for one of the most dangerous parts of operating a single-seat water-scooping aircraft: picking up water, particularly when the water is glassy and smooth. L’Esperance said: “The inability to determine height above the glassy surface causes the pilot to decrease his angle of approach to the water and forces them to ‘feel’ for the water, thereby increasing distance to touchdown, time to scoop, and requires longer bodies of water for the longer approach to it.”
Jeff Baxter, Senior Director of Research and Development at Erickson Incorporated, staunchly holds that safer aviation lies in equipment development. He explained: “Training and airframe regulations are an extremely refined area, with decades of precedent. The most modern operational concepts eliminate the possibility of an air crew perishing in a crash because they are not onboard the aircraft. That gigantic leap forward will require a complete rethink of the historical training and airframe regulations, to adapt to that new environment.”
As such, industry experts sharing knowledge, research, and insight is key to forwarding safety initiatives, according to Baxter: “If we can all work together, it will be much safer. Think of this: there have been many thousands of flight hours of optionally piloted and unmanned aircraft, and there has (to my knowledge anyway) never been a single fatality. Are these aircraft as capable as today’s manned aircraft? Certainly not. We need to work to improve them to get to a future that is safer for everyone. Our viewpoint is to allow both manned and unmanned operations in an extremely capable aircraft. To achieve that, we need continued investment in technology.”
Eder Navacerrada, a firefighting pilot in Europe, highlighted several avionics developments that have boosted safety levels in aerial firefighting, including ADS-B, which improves traffic awareness for pilots via satellite navigation. “Independent of the debate about its obligatory nature,” he added, “ADS-B is a toll that notably improves the co-ordination and separation between aircraft in uncontrolled areas.”
Step into the ARENA
James Koens, Deputy Captain of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told AirMed&Rescue that such investment is reflected in the development of ARENA, a situational awareness program implemented by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) and State and Territory Fire Agencies across Australia, which provides a common registry of aircraft available for firefighting services.
Koens said: “What stands out most about ARENA, from a safety perspective, is its ability to track in real time the location of aerial assets, exactly what, when, and where a drop was conducted, and the airtime of the respective aircraft. This software has allowed fire agencies to maintain safer skies through better situational awareness and monitoring of aerial assets.” Through continued innovation and improvement, NAFC has been able to maintain a nationwide database and aerial tracking system to improve response times, asset efficiency, and most importantly, safety.
Navacerrada also noted the importance of asset management and flight tracking software as safety enhancers, saying that while existing programs enable safer operations for pilots and fire managers, there is still room for improvement in this particular aspect, and he is working on developing a program with a fellow aviator and software engineer to fill this need. Having an interactive database of water scooping areas as part of a pilot’s electronic flight bag has greatly enhanced awareness of depth before operating in new water bodies: “There have been quite a few incidents and accidents relating to pilots not knowing the depths of water bodies in the past,” he told AirMed&Rescue. “New software that gives pilots a 3D view and contour lines for water gives a greater and better perception of depth.”
Proactive, not reactive
Part of the problem is in the nature of preventing aviation industry accidents through regulations: the incidents need to happen before regulations are made to ensure that the same accident is less likely to happen again in the future. However, this approach – reactive rather than preventative – essentially necessitates the loss of life. Companies around the world are investing in technology and safety training for their crews to ensure that risks are minimized and mitigated from the very moment a fire starts.
Conair’s Shannon DeWit told AirMed&Rescue: “Training was once focused on operations but now the focus is risk management. Crews are taught to think and work safely by identifying threats, evaluating consequences, practicing situational awareness, and gauging fatigue.” Jeff Oliver, Director of Safety at Conair, added that teams are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to listen, learn and improve, and are empowered to take decisive action if the risk is deemed to be too high: “Both our aircraft maintenance engineers and pilots are fully supported to just say ‘no’ if they identify an unsafe condition.”
Training is an essential component of increasing safety in aerial firefighting, and Conair’s Training and Tactic Centre has taken significant investment from the company to make it into a reality. The center, based out of the operator’s hangars in Abbotsford, British Columbia, provides pilots with the ability to master mission-based procedures using flight simulators. DeWit said: “The repetitive action of practicing real-life scenarios in a controlled, safe environment prepares pilots for challenging real-world aerial firefighting missions. Simulators afford pilots the ability to practice maneuvers they couldn’t perform in real life such as emergency landings or engine failures.”
Currently, the Center includes an AVRO RJ85 Level D Full Flight Simulator, retrofitted for aerial firefighting, and an AT802 Level 5 Flight Training Device. “Most impressive is the Mission Training System (MTS), which, when completed, will be the first in the world of its kind. It incorporates up to six aircraft platforms – birddogs and tankers - that can operate in concert over a simulated fire,” said Mike Harris, Chief Pilot at Conair. The MTS is scheduled to be fully operational March 2022. In the future, the software can be shared with government agencies so that integrated training can take place around the world, with pilots linked to one mission, regardless of where their FTD is located.
This ‘safety first’ culture is a sea change in the industry
Butterworth said that the increasing severity of fire seasons in Australia have shifted the focus from the ‘at-all-costs’ mentality to a more risk-based approach, supported by standardized procedures and a collective safety first culture. He added: “The increased reliance on industry services creates an additional layer of complexity in the form of commercial pressure, which can result in adverse effects to flight safety. The last five years in Australia has seen a significant focus on safety culture from both fire agencies and aerial firefighting organizations.” He went on to explain that, while the desire to win the tactical battle remains, tasking agency and in-field decision making is underpinned by the establishment and promotion of an ‘accepted line of thinking’ or culture. “Behaviors,” he believes, “can be molded to create a common mindset which becomes a far more effective tool in the interpretation and understanding of mission objectives and the adherence to safe practices.”
Ultimately, Navacerrada got the the heart of the matter: “The day deaths from forest fires, material losses, and health problems are equated with the casualties and destruction from homeland security issues, acts of war, or terrorism; there will be no flame that dares to show up across forests.” The death of anyone in the airborne special missions sector is undoubtedly cause for grief, but when these deaths can be made avoidable through investment in technology that enhances safety practices and reduces pilot workload, then governments and operators should be making every effort to ensure their aircraft are as safe as possible.