High Sierra Savior

Although a relatively small operation with three helicopters, the Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF) Air Operations program is an extremely useful component of Nevada’s yearly firefighting efforts. The program is based at Minden-Tahoe Airport in the Carson Valley, at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range at an altitude of 4,700 feet. This central location gives NDF the flexibility to respond to fires throughout the range.

Having to always work in a high-altitude environment makes flying for the Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF) Air Operations a constant challenge — but the terrain is some of the most spectacular in the world. Photos by Skip Robinson
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The NDF has three Bell UH-1H “Super Huey” helicopters, and while it operates and is available to assist across the entire state, its main mission is to stay near the eastern front of the Sierras. This area ranges from the Nevada-California border in the south, to Reno in the north and west to Lake Tahoe. To the east it covers the Eastern Sierra and the Carson Valley. As such, operational altitudes range from 5,000 feet to well over 11,000 feet, but the larger and most aggressive fires normally burn at 6,000 to 8,000 feet.

“The weather conditions in these mountains, with high winds and hot summer temperatures, means the division needs to get on an initial attack immediately with as much equipment as possible,” said Tom Knight, aviation services officer and program manager with NDF Air Operations. “We have very expensive homes that are tightly fit around Lake Tahoe and the surrounding areas, so our helicopters try to start dropping water as soon as possible.”

The NDF will work with California fire agencies if a fire is crossing state lines, and it also works closely with federal agencies, which can provide multiple types of air tanker and helicopter assets during initial attack or campaign fires.

A Need for Power

The NDF procured its first helicopters in the early 1970s, when it obtained three military excess property Bell TH-13Ts — the military variant of the Bell 47G3B-1. Obtained with assistance from the United States Forest Service (USFS), these light helicopters provided aerial surveillance and command and control functions. The TH-13T turbocharged piston engine gave sufficient performance when working below 8,000 feet, but with its limited capabilities, the aircraft saw limited use around the eastern Sierra front. The NDF retired the TH-13Ts in 1991 due to their age, the difficulty of obtaining a reliable parts supply, and the need for a more suitable platform to operate in the high and hot conditions of the Sierra front.

Since this photo was taken, the NDF has upgraded its 240-gallon Bambi Buckets to the more capable PowerFill version that allows the helicopter to use water from many more sources.

In replacing the TH-13Ts, the NDF sought a more capable helicopter that was able to perform direct fire attack and move fire crews. The Bell UH-1H Huey ultimately took the top spot, thanks to its availability and performance. Fortunately, the U.S. Army was in the midst of retiring hundreds of excess — but still operational — UH-1Hs. In September 1993, again with assistance from the USFS, the NDF acquired its first UH-1H helicopter. A few years later, with the aircraft proving its suitability to its role, the NDF got its second UH-1H.

The NDF operated the Hueys through the ’90s and into the 2000s, but the organization’s managers knew there were performance upgrades available for the UH-1H that could give a large increase in capability.

“We operated our stock specification Hueys to [their] extreme on almost every flight, as we need to lift as much water as possible on every turn,” Knight told Vertical. “We start operations at 5,000 feet, exactly where the stock Huey’s performance drops off. From there we go to 6,000 to 8,000 feet on normal firefighting operations, but go well over 10,000 feet in some instances.”

Because of this, in 2006, the NDF began researching modifications to allow increase the Hueys’ performance. In the early ’90s, the California Department of Forestry and Protection was the first to upgrade its UH-1H series to the “Super Huey” specification. These initial upgrades included replacing the original Lycoming T-53 1,400-horsepower engine to the more powerful 1,800-horsepower T53-L-703 engine. A Bell 212 main transmission, tail rotor gearbox, 212 tail boom and 212 main and tail rotor blades were then added. The increase in performance gave the California department’s UH-1H the ability to operate at well over 10,000 feet and still lift a load. After looking at the upgrades, NDF aviation managers decided they would perform some of the same modifications to their Huey fleet.

The plant lift covering the NDF`s operational terrain can vary from tall trees to low brushy growth, with each requiring different firefighting techniques.

From 2006 to 2008, the NDF converted its two Hueys to the Super Huey configuration, and then added a third Super Huey. Over time, the NDF added the BLR Aerospace FastFin modification and tail boom strake kits to increase the helicopter’s high altitude tail rotor effectiveness.

The NDF then added the ability to long line and perform external load operations (with bulged pilot windows and gauges), and added tundra pads to the rear of the skids to increase the helicopter’s stability during snow landings. Cockpit modifications included Diamond J gauges, a Garmin color moving map system, and a global positioning system. Because the NDF does not fly at night, night vision goggle modifications were not completed in the cockpit.

The NDF’s Hueys have never used belly tanks because of weight — from the beginning there has been a focused effort to keep the Hueys down to the lightest weight possible — but instead use 240-gallon Bambi Buckets with the new PowerFill function.

“The Bambis with PowerFill are just awesome,” said Knight. “These give us the ability to go to virtually any stream or water source we can find to get water. We use the buckets because they save us 300 pounds over a tank and give us the ability to directly attach it to the belly during cheatgrass and sagebrush wildfires and then go to a 100-foot line to get to water sources within the tall trees of the forest.”

A normal flight crew consists of a pilot, a helicopter manager, and a six-man helitack fire crew. The helicopter will deploy and redeploy the crew as required.

With over 20 years of service, the updated Hueys have provided the NDF and the taxpayers of Nevada with a cost-effective, efficient and safe tool for responding to wildland fires and emergency incidents, carrying more firefighters and equipment for initial attack operations, and delivering more water in support of firefighting activities.

The NDF Team

The NDF has three full-time pilots and one seasonal part-time pilot. All do annual flight reviews from Flight Check Ltd., which provides ground school and basic flight maneuvers with emergency procedures training. Other annual training includes external load and long line operations, bucket operations in long and short line configurations, one-step insertions of ground crews, and confined area landings. The pilots also continuously train in high altitude mountain flying techniques and familiarization flights in local terrain.

“Pilots really need to understand the local area and mountain ranges because the area is well known for extreme winds and local weather conditions,” said Knight. “During the summer, pop-up storms can happen, and during the winter months if we are called on a search or rescue we have to deal with the winter conditions including winds and low ceiling. The eastern Sierra front is gorgeous terrain to fly in but it can catch the inexperienced very quickly if you don’t know the area’s microclimates.”

During firefighting operations, the Huey is flown with a single pilot to keep weight as low as possible.

Requirements to join the team include a valid commercial pilot certificate with helicopter rating, including instrument rating, and 3,500 hours logged as pilot-in-command. Flight experience must include 250 hours of low-level flight, 250 hours conducting external load operations, 500 hours of mountain flying above 5,000 feet at mean sea level, and 100 hours of flight time within the preceding 12 months.

Coordinating the day-to-day operations of the NDF’s Air Operations crews are three full-time helicopter managers. They manage the pilot, aircraft mechanic, fuel trucks and driver during duty days. They also coordinate logistics for the aircraft support trailer and fuel truck when they relocate on a fire. The manager flies on the aircraft with the helitack crew.

During the fire season, there are nine seasonal helitack firefighters and crewmembers assigned to NDF Air Operations. On an initial attack flight, six will board an aircraft with the manager, who sits up front with the pilot. The helitack crew is trained in safely working around helicopters, helicopter management, interagency aviation training, and NDF specific training — such as wildland fire behavior, general firefighting procedures and chainsaw operations.

The helitack crew is well equipped when it boards the aircraft. Its members carry hand tools, shovels, chainsaws, brush coats, brush gear, a water bag and a 35-pound personal gear pack with provisions for a stay overnight, including food and a medical kit. The equipment is heavy and because of the mountainous terrain and hiking required, the helitack crew is required to be in top physical condition.

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Single-skid insertions are used operationally when required, and are practiced during most training flights.

During a fire, the helitack crew is flown into the area and dropped off. It will then deploy the helicopter’s 240-gallon Bambi Bucket and PowerFill pump with a 100-foot plasma line or directly attached to the belly, depending on what type of terrain the helicopter is operating in. The helicopter stays in contact with the helitack crew and provides water drops in support. The helicopter also redeploys the crews as requested.

The NDF also has two fuel trucks with two seasonal truck drivers, each carrying 1,200 gallons of jet fuel. If they know the helicopter will not be coming back to Minden to refuel, a fuel truck will depart to where the helicopter is operating, be it an airport or offsite landing area.

Helicopter maintenance is provided onsite and in-house by Federal Aviation Administration licensed airframe and powerplant/inspection authorization maintenance technicians. These technicians are able to cover the daily maintenance tasks to keep the Hueys flying and will deploy with the aircraft when they work offsite.

A Change of Pace

During the winter months, the helicopters go into their heavy maintenance cycle, but one aircraft is normally available if it is needed by the state.

Rivers, lakes and any other water source will be utilized during a fire. Here, the Super Huey lifts a full load of water from a flowing river.

“On a limited basis, we work with the Division of Emergency Management for non-fire emergency use such as search-and-rescue or state emergency situations,” Knight said. “We get called out a few times a year to look for lost people or if they need an aircraft the size of the Huey. We are not hoist-equipped, so if [we] find someone we will do our best to land near them and get them out of the situation.

“Other than that, we also help the Nevada Department of Wildlife when they need an aircraft with more lift than the Bell 407 they fly. [We] then will use our bucket to fill water troughs/guzzlers around the state that wildlife drink from. Generally we use the winter months to prepare and do upgrades to the aircraft for the next firefighting season. After the new year we concentrate on pilot and crew training and by April or May are ready for what always seems to be an interesting fire season.”

The NDF Air Operations program has been doing its job now for four decades. The operation is cost-effective and gives the people of Nevada a strong capability for the investment. It also gives the state the ability to do initial fire attack with the goal of keeping fires to the smallest size possible..

Skip Robinson: