American aerial firefighters respond to fires in Chile

U.S.-based aerial firefighting companies deployed assets to Chile in response to an urgent call for aid by the Chilean government to fight a series of devastating wildfires. According to Chile’s national forestry agency, the fires burned some 289,974 hectares (716,540 acres) between Jan. 15 and 26.

Helicopter Express has three modified Bell 205A-1 helicopters, as well as a Kaman K-MAX, conducting firefighting operations in Chile. Helicopter Express Photo
Helicopter Express has three modified Bell 205A-1 helicopters, as well as a Kaman K-MAX, conducting firefighting operations in Chile. Helicopter Express Photo

“This is the first time we have dispatched an air tanker outside of North America,” said Dan Snyder, chief operating officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana. The company, he explained, sent one of its seven BAe 146 regional jets, which it reconfigured for aerial firefighting. Neptune is slated to have nine by year-end, which will retire the last of its active Korean War Era P2V Neptunes. As former military aircraft, the P2Vs were not allowed to leave the U.S.

The BAe 146 had been modified with the installation a 3,000-gallon capacity internal tank, and has been engaged in water dropping since it arrived in Santiago on Saturday, Feb. 4, after a two-day trip from Missoula, which included five stops and an overnight crew rest in Lima, Peru.

Upon arrival, the tanker was immediately repositioned to Concepción where it has been based for the duration of the contract – which Snyder reported will be “for as long as needed.”

The aircraft was dispatched to Chile with a crew of three pilots — two captains and one first officer — two crew chiefs, and one mechanic who is fluent in Spanish. “This was very helpful, since he was able to facilitate communications between the pilots and the firefighters on the ground, who do not speak English,” Snyder explained.

While the tanker had just come out of winter maintenance, it was sent to Chile with spare parts including wheels, tires, brakes, starters and generator components, for field repair. “The aircraft has done very well, especially over mountainous terrain, since its smaller size enables it to get closer to the fires.”

He added that as a result of this experience, Neptune Aviation Services has “gained “a tremendous understanding” of what is involved with moving an aircraft, internationally, through multiple countries.  “We made some invaluable connections with the firefighting agencies and the National Forest Corporation or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal), which is contracted to fight fires in Chile and has operational control over our tanker while it’s in-country.”

Chamblee, Georgia-based Helicopter Express shipped three Bell 205A-1++s, and a Kaman K-1200 K-MAX to Chile on Jan. 31, in response to the emergency, according to Scotty Runyan, the company’s vice president, government services. The shipment of  the helicopters was handled by Russia’s Volga Dnepr Airways, using an Antonov An-124 cargo aircraft.

“Because of the capacity of the Antonov An-124, there were no issues transporting the helicopters,” Runyan noted. “The only thing we had to do was to take the rotors off, and it was simply a matter of rolling the helicopters on and off the aircraft.”

Upon arrival, the helicopters were offloaded and positioned at Concepcion and Santiago. “We were ready to fly the moment we got to Chile,” said Runyan. “The Volga-Dnepr employees were really great to work with.”


The four helicopters were accompanied by 10 Helicopter Express employees, which included a primary pilot and mechanic – for each helicopter, along with two management staff members. Also shipped to Chile was a truck-trailer combination for mobile, field level maintenance support.

As Runyan reported, each of the helicopters is engaged in water drops, averaging about six hours of flying per day. One of the Bell 205s is equipped with a 375-gallon capacity belly tank, while the other 205s are using external 324-gallon Bambi buckets. The K-MAX, he pointed out, is equipped with a 680-gallon capacity external Bambi Bucket.

While the company’s helicopters have been deployed outside the U.S. in the past, this is the first time they have worked in Latin America.

“There was the language barrier, but we were able to deal with this by hiring local interpreters who worked with our pilots and the firefighters on the ground,” said Runyan. “We also had some logistics challenges with bringing the helicopters to Chile, given the short notice we had.”

Under the agreement with CONAF, the helicopters will operate in-country for up to 100 days. If the contract is extended, Helicopter Express has the capability to extend the stay of two helicopters, with the other two returned to Georgia to begin operations under US Forest Service contracts.

Helicopter Express and Neptune Aviation Services are both members of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C. headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service, and other U.S. Government agencies with responsibility for wildlands protection.

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