Aviation History, Part 2

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The CAL FIRE Helicopter Program

CAL FIRE began using contractor-owned helicopters for fire control in the mid 1960's. Bell 47, Hiller FH1100, Bell Jet Rangers and Aerospatiale Alouettes were used the most through the 1970's. Five accidents involving contractor-owned Bell Jet Rangers occurred in 1979. CAL FIRE decided that owning and operating agency-owned helicopters was needed. In 1981, CAL FIRE obtained 12 Bell UH-1 F series helicopters. Although the "F" model served the CAL FIRE well it was difficult to support. In the late 1980's CAL FIRE began a program to phase out the "F" model and upgrade to newer, larger UH-1 H helicopters.

F Model Helicopter
The original "F" model helicopter.

In 1960 the Division of Forestry decided to experiment with a small, skilled initial attack crew to be transported by helicopter to increase the early arrival of manpower and equipment to an initial attack fire. Because of the limited capacity of the helicopter, CAL FIRE selected "men that were light in weight and tough in muscle and fortitude" for the helitack assignment. Although the crews were trained for hover jumping and had purchased heli-jump suits from the US Forest Service, it was never found necessary to make a jump.

Six Helitack Bases were established in the early 1970s. They were staffed with contracted Bell Jet Rangers. A typical CAL FIRE Helitack Crew which responded with the helicopter consisted of one fire captain and two to three seasonal firefighters.

The helicopters were located at CAL FIRE facilities which protected high value timberlands and critical watershed areas generally in Northern and Central California with one located at Ryan Field in Southern California. The helicopter began playing an increasing role in the Department's Initial Attack strategy during the late 70s.

In 1978 three Bell 205 medium helicopters were hired in addition to the standby helicopters. One helicopter was located at the Howard Forest, Mendocino Ranger Unit Headquarters. The other two were located at Hemet/Ryan Field and the Monte Vista, San Diego Ranger Unit Headquarters. Each of the medium helicopters was assigned 11 person helitack crews. Unfortunately, in the mid to late 70s CAL FIRE experienced an increased accident rate throughout the helicopter program. Five accidents involving contractor-owned Bell Jet Rangers occurred in 1979.

Huey Model Helicopter
The red and white Super Huey.

As a result of the increase in accidents involving contracted helicopters, in 1981 the Department acquired through a "lease", 12 excess UH-1 F Hueys which had previously been used by the United States Air Force in Vietnam.

Nine helicopters were initially reconditioned. The helicopters were operated as non-certificated, public use aircraft. The first helicopter was built up and carded in November, 1981. It was placed in service at Hemet-Ryan Helitack Base. Six more "F" Model Hueys were built up and placed in service at helitack bases throughout California in the summer of 1982.

During the first two years CAL FIRE employed "Personal Service Contract" pilots. Each base was assigned a full-time pilot and a seasonal relief pilot who covered two bases. The majority of the contract pilots became state employees in 1984.

The Helitack Unit was designed to be a cohesive unit which consisted of the helicopter and helitack crew. A typical configuration for the helicopter was a Helitack Fire Captain in the copilot's seat and a Helitack Fire Captain plus six fire-fighters in the passenger compartment. The water bucket was replaced in 1984 with a newly designed Canadian 324 gallon Bambi Bucket.

In the mid 1980s fixed water dropping tanks were installed on the Hemet-Ryan and Bitterwater helicopters. Hemet-Ryan was performing water bucket operations over ever-increasing populated regions in the urban interface areas of eastern Riverside County. An accidental drop of a water bucket could cause catastrophic results. A fixed tank reduced the exposure. The San Benito-Monterey region is comparatively arid for water bucket operations. A fixed tank at Bitterwater allowed the helicopter to obtain water from sources previously unobtainable with the bucket.

As the 1991 lease agreement expiration date with the US Air Force rapidly approached, the Department started a search for a replacement that ultimately resulted in the acquisition in 1989 of the UH-1H. The airframes that the Department obtained were part of 100 released by the Department of Defense to the US Forest Service for distribution to states as Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) for wildland fire fighting.

The UH-1H aircraft were significantly modified to meet CAL FIRE's specialized needs. The modified helicopters were designated as "Super Huey's". The "Super Huey" sported a larger, more powerful engine, transmission and rotor system. The tail boom and tail rotor were also modified to accommodate the engine, all giving the aircraft greater performance than the standard US Army UH-1 H helicopters in hotter and higher conditions typical of California.

Both the "F" model and the Super Huey maintenance programs were developed by CAL FIRE using the most restrictive overhaul/replacement criteria of the military or Bell Helicopter. All maintenance is performed by contract mechanics. Big Valley built up and maintained the "F" model helicopters from 1981 to 1990 at their Stockton facility. They also started building up the first Super Hueys in 1989. San Joaquin Helicopters completed the Super Huey build-ups and maintained them in their facility in Yolo County and later at the Aviation Management facility at Mather Field in Sacramento from 1989 to 1999. DynCorp was awarded the contract in 2000 and continued to maintain the Super Hueys at Mather and now at McClellan Air Park in North Highlands, Sacramento County.

1995 saw two Helitack Base changes. Bitterwater moved to Bear Valley Station in the San Benito-Monterey Unit and Boggs Mountain in the Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit replaced a contract helicopter with a CAL FIRE Super Huey.

For more information, please read the

CAL FIRE Aviation Management Program

section of this website.

 

 

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