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With less than a year remaining, aerial firefighters are on track to meet the Jan. 1, 2020, deadline for ADS-B Out equipment installations. After that date, any noncompliant helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft will have limited access to U.S. airspace.
ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance broadcast) is considered an essential tool of 21st century air traffic management and is being implemented in both the U.S. and Europe. ADS-B Out avionics continuously broadcast an aircraft’s position (out) to air traffic controllers, within as little as one meter of accuracy. While ADS-B Out is mandated, operators can also select ADS-B In as an option, enabling pilots, themselves, to see the location of nearby aircraft on a cockpit-mounted display.
To meet the ADS-B Out deadline in the U.S., operators have been actively scheduling equipment retrofits — in some cases, as an integral part of scheduled winter maintenance.
For example, Helimax Aviation began installations of ADS-B Out equipment on its four CH-47D helicopters commencing in its 2014 winter maintenance cycle, with all compliant by January of this year. According to Josh Beckham, the Sacramento-headquartered company’s general manager, each installation was performed by Helimax under FAA field approval, and included new global positioning system (GPS) equipment, and new radios and transponders. “We have always been proactive about adopting the latest technology,” Beckham said.
Neptune Aviation Services has selected both ADS-B Out and ADS-B In for its nine BAe 146 tankers, with retrofits slated for completion during this year’s winter maintenance period. Dan Snyder, chief operating officer of the Missoula, Montana-based company, explained that the retrofits are being implemented under a supplemental type certificate (STC) developed in-house and certified by the FAA in November 2018.
“The STC mainly focuses on enabling the aircrafts’ existing transponders to work with a wide area augmentation system (WAAS) component, we are purchasing, off-shelf,” Snyder said. “The WAAS will provide a GPS location within the required one meter of accuracy range.”
Snyder justified the selection of the optional ADS-B In for its extra margin of safety in the aerial firefighting environment. “With ADS-B In deployed, our pilots will be able to see the call signs of all the aircraft working on the fire,” he said. “This will improve situational awareness.”
Sandpoint, Idaho-based Timberline Helicopters has modified five of its nine helicopters with ADS-B Out equipment, with the remaining four to be completed this winter. The company, which operates five former-military UH-60 Black Hawks, plus two MD 500s and two K-MAX helicopters, is implementing ADS-B Out under FAA field approval. It is also considering ADS-B In at some future date.
“I have flown fixed-wing general aviation aircraft with ADS-B In, and from my experience, it makes pilots more aware of exactly how many aircraft are operating nearby,” said Brian Jorgenson, Timberline Helicopters’ vice president. “In the meantime, ADS-B Out also enhances safety, since it allows air traffic controllers to see where you are at all times. It will make the national airspace system that much safer.”
Rick Livingston, president of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, stated that he is waiting until the autumn of this year to modify his single Bell 212 helicopter with ADS-B Out, given the rapid changes in technology likely to occur. “The installation can be done quickly since our helicopter is already equipped with an ADS-B Out compliant transponder,” he explained. “By holding off on the retrofit, we may also benefit from some price reductions, as products are improved and competition increases as the mandate gets closer.”
Livingston, however, questions whether ADS-B Out will make a difference with safety in firefighting, or other jobs, such as construction or snowpack surveys, in which his helicopter is typically engaged. “The helicopter has been equipped with traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) due to a U.S. Forest Service requirement a few years ago,” he said. “ADS-B Out, as I see it, is more of an informational device, broadcasting who you are and where you are. It’s a requirement we have to comply with and that’s why we’re doing it.”
Rogers Helicopters in Fresno, California, plans to have its 12 helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft ADS-B Out compliant by November. Robin Rogers, the company’s vice president, also has some doubts about how ADS-B Out will make firefighting operations that much safer. “It really has no great advantage in aerial firefighting,” he said. “The helicopter’s TCAS will make the pilot aware of other traffic around him, but ADS-B Out will not.”
In fact, he expressed some concern as to how air traffic controllers will react when they see large clusters of helicopters operating close to one another during a typical firefighting operation. “It will be very interesting to see how this would play out,” he said.
Helimax Aviation, Intermountain Helicopter, Neptune Aviation Services, Rogers Helicopters, and Timberline Helicopters are members of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C.-headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before government agencies tasked with wildland and natural resources protection and management.