Adapting to the challenge of perpetual wildfire

July 1, 2024

Preparing for wildfire season when it is a year-round threat, by Nic Lynn, VP of Operations, Neptune Aviation

The time that airtanker companies put into preparing for wildfire season is critical to ensure that their aircraft are available when they are called on to support wildland firefighting.

However, as wildfire season has expanded into what some now refer to as a “wildfire year,” this preparation has had to evolve to remain effective.

This year-round threat demands ongoing vigilance and focus on getting equipment and personnel ready for the fight.

Continuous preparation

Preparation for each subsequent year starts as soon as we are wrapping up aircraft inspections for the current year, and busier wildfire seasons add some pressure to completing all preparations.

Typically, we battle wildfires into October or November, and the next season is kicking off earlier and earlier – our aircraft already started flying wildfire missions for 2024 in March.

Added to that, an aircraft will come to the end of its contract in that October-November timeframe, but its service can be lengthened through “extended use” periods, meaning it can be out battling fires even later in the year.

At that point, we need to have conversations with the agency we are working with to ask them if they want that aircraft available for a potential fire at the end of the current season, or if they want it to be ready for the next year.

Once an aircraft is released for the season, it takes 8-10 weeks of maintenance to get it ready for the following year – with a fleet of nine aircraft on contract during the year, juggling that schedule with the limited downtime we have to get everything completed is the biggest challenge we face.

We came into 2024 in great shape, following a relatively slow year for wildfires.

While 2023 marked one of the worst wildfire seasons on record in Canada, the US received somewhat of a reprieve from what has been a decades-long increase in activity.

To put things into perspective, in a typical year, our airtanker fleet normally average around 2,500 hours in the air, and last year that time was down by roughly 45%.

Aircraft that is always ready for the call

While actual preparation activities start when firefighting activity wraps up for the year, initial planning for the following season happens more than a year in advance.

This spring, our maintenance team is determining what aircraft checks will need to be completed in the fall to prepare for 2025 – i.e.

what routine maintenance will need to be completed on the landing gear, engines, and other parts of each of our aircraft.

At the same time, our flight training department starts reviewing what training they can conduct in the fall to help our pilots brush up their skills.

Once we start our maintenance, there is a pretty extensive list of tasks that need to be completed.

Unlike an airline, we do not know where our aircraft will be from day to day throughout the season.

We can be battling a fire in Northern California for weeks at a time, and then have the plane called to another fire in Colorado, or New Mexico at a moment’s notice.

To ensure that our aircraft are ready for that we have to clear our maintenance schedule each winter, and the entire fleet will go through a combination of checks:

  • A Check: Our baseline inspection, focusing on systems maintenance and visual inspections of the aircraft.
  • C Check: A more in-depth inspection that takes the aircraft out of service for weeks to get a deeper look at all aircraft systems.
  • D Check: The most extensive inspection which includes corrosion control and protection (CPCP) tasks as well as structural inspections–this inspection typically will take longer to complete.

When it’s all said and done, there are nearly 400 maintenance tasks completed on each plane, which takes roughly 4,000 hours of work, spread across many mechanics.

When this meticulous overhaul is completed, the aircraft is cleared for its next 600 cycles, or 400 hours of flying time.

To accommodate the longer fire season, and the expansion of our operations to support wildland firefighting in Australia, Chile, and other international points, we have added maintenance lines, so that we can now work on three planes at once.

That helps us to have three of our aircraft airworthy at any given time, so that they are available for fire dispatch, or for pilot training.

This maintenance period is also used to upgrade aircraft with the latest technology to help improve its firefighting efficacy and increase the safety for firefighters in the air and on the ground.

These enhancements differ from year to year, but we are currently upgrading each of our BAe 146 aircraft with dual Garmin GTN750Xi Navigation/Communication (Nav/Coms) with a Garmin GWX 75 Weather Radar System.

The Nav/Com systems installed in the aircraft when we received them are robust, and they work well when you are flying from airport to airport.

Working in aerial firefighting, however, is a little different.

We will likely start from an airtanker base but will be travelling to a specific latitudinal and longitudinal point to battle a fire.

The Garmin 750 gives us higher reliability and is much better suited for a firefighter mission.

Pilot training

Keeping pilots trained on the latest flight and firefighting techniques and helping them to brush up their general aviation skills is just as important to the success of wildland firefighting missions.

During the offseason, our pilots typically complete a week of ground training at our headquarters in Missoula, Montana.

At these sessions, we cover everything—tactics and standard procedures, lessons learned, down to including how to fill out a flight log—all the minutiae the job entails when pilots are not in the air.

Our pilots then participate in 16 hours of training in our flight simulator.

In the past, pilots would be sent to other locations for flight simulator training, but having our own simulator gives us much more flexibility.

The training covers areas such as emergency procedures, ground proximity warnings, wind shear recovery, engine issues, instrument approaches, as well as crew resource management (CRM) training.

Once that is all accomplished, each pilot will complete five hours of live training in one of our aircraft to reinforce the skills practiced in the flight simulator and to gain experience in real-world firefighting.

We conduct water drops, and put them through various scenarios, profiling wildfire activity on mountainous terrain, flat terrain, hard-to-reach areas, etc.

In June of 2023, we offered air attack services under a Call When Needed (CWN) US Forest Service contract.

Our two aircraft were actively working until released in September, solidifying our capabilities, which led to the BLM awarding us two five-year long Exclusive Use (EU) contracts starting this season.

The air attack pilots attend a week of ground school covering aircraft systems, tactics, standard procedures, emergency procedures and lessons learned.

They follow up the ground school with flight training in our aircraft that includes instrument approaches and departures, tactics, aircraft performance and flight planning.

Each pilot receives around 10 hours of flight training in the aircraft.

Once this extensive training is completed, our pilots are confident, prepared, and ready to go for the next wildfire season.

Looking ahead

As wildfires increasingly become a year-round threat, the importance of meticulous preparation and adaptability cannot be overstated.

For Neptune Aviation, the extended fire season means that the maintenance, training, and operational strategies must be continuously refined to ensure our aircraft are always ready and available.

Maintaining a fleet capable of responding immediately to wildfires involves an extensive and well-coordinated effort.

From detailed off-season maintenance to comprehensive pilot training, Neptune Aviation’s year-round vigilance ensures that both aircraft and crews are ready when called upon.

The preparation we conduct for wildfire season reflects a broader necessity within the industry to adapt to a changing environment.

By maintaining high standards of readiness and continuously evolving our practices, we play a critical role in combating wildfires and protecting communities throughout the year.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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