Coulson Aviation: Breaking New Ground In Aerial Firefighting

With wildland firefighters on the ground hampered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fire managers are putting more emphasis on air attack to make up for fewer ground crews who have to maintain social distancing rules. As such, new technology is being applied to the age-old goal of putting the wet stuff on the hot stuff.

Over the years, Coulson Aviation has introduced new technology along (or over) the fireline, premiering their 737 Fireliner, which can carry not only retardant, but fully-loaded wildland fire crews. They’ve also mated computerized drop systems with the redoubtable C-130 transport to produce an air-tanker that is a step above previous C-130 hybrids.

They also spearheaded a project with Australian bushfire agencies to implement nighttime air operations on bushfires last season using a laser-equipped S-76 helicopter to designate a target with pinpoint accuracy, just in time for the horrific Black Summer bushfires.

Never satisfied with resting on their laurels, Coulson Aviation is applying new technology to great effect for its customers across the globe.

Nighttime Air Operations

Wayne Coulson, CEO of Coulson Aviation, discussed the major difference between operations in the daylight versus those at night.

“I look at daytime operations as a reactive part of our business: you get a 911 call, you fly off to a dip site and off you go to work versus nighttime, which is the exact opposite for us; it’s more proactive. We’re pre-determining dip sites and we’re pre-determining drops for the firebombing aircraft.”

Infrared detection over a wildfire is also more effective at night than it is during the day.

“In the daytime, we attack the head of the fire and the hotspots. Although the fire could be creeping ahead, you can’t see that, so at times we’re actually dropping in the middle of the fire. In night operations using Night Vision Goggles (NVG), you can see the flames, but you can also see the embers that are creeping ahead of the fire. We may drop one load on the head of the fire to knock it down, but then we’re using a laser to hit the creeping hotspots.”

And not only does the fire stand out better at night, its activity also diminishes, as Coulson explains.

“At nighttime you’ve got no heat, because the sun is down, the humidity has gone up, so that slows the fire down so that it’s simmering. If you look at the cycle of the fire, it lays down when the sun goes down for about six to eight hours, then about 5-5:30 in the morning as the sun is getting ready to come up it heats up. By six to seven in the morning the fire is beginning to come back to life and by 10 to noon it’s back to life."

"From noon to seven o’clock it’s full-on wildfire behavior.”

Help From Above

“We’re trying to get smarter about fighting fire at night,” Coulson continued.

“The Incident Command Team (ICT) has all kinds of issues, like how many firefighters do I have, how many fire engines do I have out there. We look at technology platforms above us at the 10,000-15,000’ level, multi-purpose IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) aircraft that can generate value, which is becoming more and more prevalent for our customers in the United States, customers in Australia, in Chile, and in Indonesia. We’re looking at aircraft with a thermal imaging HR (High Resolution) camera on a gimble mount so that we can see what a fire is doing and get that information back to the ICT.”

As part of this project, Coulson Aviation has added a few new aircraft to their expanding stable.

“We just bought four Citation II jets that are ex-Border Patrol with a gimble that is factory installed. That’s a bit of a trick ride,” Coulson said with a chuckle.

“It has a workstation in the back where the guy can run the camera. We see it as a lead plane/intel aircraft, so it’s multi-purpose. They can lead the Boeing 737 Fireliner or the C-130 Hercules, then stay onsite and map fires, upload video through satellite internet back to the customer."

“We’re introducing these multi-purpose technologies. If we’re looking to work at night with the C-130 fleet, we’re going to need some support aircraft, and we’re not sure if that is going to be a jet or our helicopter working low-level, building flight paths for the air-tankers,” Coulson stated.

“The Australians are up for that discussion. They like the C-130 because it’s a tactical low-level aircraft, and the majority of our C-130 flight crews are NVG-certified. Tanker 131 is NVG-certified and we’ve been practicing in the hills of San Bernardino, California. Our flight crews are comfortable flying at low levels and we see a significant amount of terrain in Australia that is benign, where we could work the C-130 at night on air-tanker missions.”

After riding out the worst bushfires in their history, the Australians are moving ahead with new concepts to help with the nighttime air attack program.

“One thing I like about the Australians is that they’re carving up the land base so that they’ve got green zones, which are flat, and then there are yellow zones or red zones which are tougher terrain, that you may or may not go work in. There’s no reason we can’t go and put retardant line in at night around communities in the green zone.”

The CH-47 Solution

Not everybody is on board with the idea of large aircraft flying around at night, as Coulson explained.

“Some of the users may not feel comfortable flying a 155,000 pound air-tanker around the Los Angeles Basin at night, so our CH-47 helicopters have a 2,800-gallon RADS (Retardant Aerial Delivery System) tank, which we feel is the platinum tanking system in the world. It has a retractable snorkel for dipping. We can fly it into any air-tanker base because we have external plumbing, so we can go in just like Tanker 131 and 137 (C-130s) and use the external loading capability to tank up in the middle of the night, then go build line."

"On a recent fire in Northern California with CAL FIRE, the CH-47 was used as an air-tanker, building retardant line from a remote retardant base with excellent results.”

And when it comes to fighting wildfires in tight spaces, the CH-47 is a great platform.

“We’ve been able to recreate the same coverage level as the C-130 with the CH-47, which has a 200’ hole in the bottom containing the constant-flow RADS tank identical to the C-130 and the 737,” said Coulson.

“That means that we can recreate a C-130 drop out of a helicopter. We can get into some of those fires in L.A. that occur in the canyons, pop in and lay line at night instead of waiting until morning when you get smoke when the fire wakes up, losing time. Whether it’s our C-130 or our CH-47, we’ll be the only aircraft in the world that can put as much retardant down as an RJ-85, MD-87, or a BAe 146, at night. So there won’t be any penalty to the customer for load volume.”

Computer-Assisted Operations

As computers get smaller and more powerful, they are finding their way into aerial firefighting.

“Our computer system will calibrate the flow rate based on 40 knots airspeed,” Coulson revealed.

“The magic of our system is that the computer takes the airspeed and altitude into account through the GPS in the RADS tank and adjusts the flow rate all the time. We can use that in the CH-47 so that it can drop at coverage levels identical to the fixed-wing air-tankers, so the firefighter on the ground won’t know if the drop is coming from a C-130, the CH-47, or a 737.”

Coulson Aviation plans to leverage computer technology by drilling down into the details of how much retardant is required on a fire.

“One of the cool things about our technology package in the intel aircraft flying above the fire is that we can take a picture of the fire, and based on the performance of our aircraft when we did our grid test when USFS certified the aircraft, we can predict how many retardant drops it will take to complete the line. It can tell us ‘it will take two C-130 drops or four CH-47 drops where the ICT wants the line.’"

"We’ll be able to pre-plan based on the initial attack as to how many loads we’ll need, here’s how many air-tankers we’ll need. That’s the kind of information we’re developing. Eventually, we’re going to have sensors on air-tankers so that when the air-tanker gets to a fire, it sends an image back to the ICT to populate the model so that they know how many air-tankers they need."

And supercomputers can provide even more help with shaping the wildfire battlefield.

“We worked with San Diego State University’s supercomputer last year,” Coulson recalled. “On October 23rd, 2019, there was a Santa Ana event while we were in Orange County with the S-76 and the S-61 helicopters. We got a call at 3:15 AM that a drunk driver had hit a pole and started a fire. We got out to the fire and the Santa Ana winds were blowing 40-50 mph. We mapped the fire, sent it to the supercomputer, and within ten minutes they sent a fire prediction model back to the ICT in Orange County, who sent it back to the helicopter. A presentation was made to Congress about it after the fire.

“We were the first company to hover-fill a Type I helicopter at night in the L.A. Basin. We got to the fire about 3:40 AM, and by 5:15 AM we had knocked the fire out. The fire prediction model had stated that, by 8 AM there would be 22 homes affected. It was a great example of how the supercomputer was able to tell us where the fire was going, so all the state troopers and first responders were notified that we’ll have a 911 incident if we don’t catch it, the cause and effect of killing this fire was a significant savings to the community and state. All too often, the big fires that get away are reported, not the ones we catch early.”

But supercomputers are only part of the system, as Coulson explained. “There are 160 weather stations in the L.A. Basin that feed the supercomputer, enabling it to provide an accurate picture of what was going to happen during the first 90 minutes of the fire starting.”

A Detail-Oriented Approach

The level of detail available with this system means that fire managers and others will have an unparalleled view of the situation on the ground – in real-time. “I can see that the world is going to fire prediction models so that ICTs have a sense of where that fire is going and what the risk and exposures are to communities. You can have details on what fire trucks are at Incident A over in this canyon, the personal ID of each of the firefighters involved, and details on aircraft available – ‘I’ve got one CH-47, two S-61s and one C-130 inbound, with six loads or eight loads, and we’re trying to protect this ridge over here because there are fourteen homes tucked away in this little canyon.’”

In this scenario, even the governor of the state can go on his iPad or computer and get a grasp of the situation, what resources are available, and what the exposure is to the community. He can identify virtually all the firefighters on the ground, how many fire trucks are on scene, and what departments or agencies they’re from.

Coulson is proud of the technological advances his company is making with their aircraft and how it fits into the overall picture. “This is the direction we’re heading and, of course, we’re doing it all on our own R&D budget. It’s a reinvestment strategy as a company, backing our industry for our customers and for the communities that we serve.”

Coulson Aviation’s diversity of products and services also helps. “We’re coming at this from multiple directions. We’re the only company that runs Type I air-tankers and Type I helicopters, so we get a different view of the landscape than our competitors, which is an advantage. The night flying that we’ve done has taught us a lot about wildfires. If we can hone our skills during night operations, we’re just going to be that much better during the daytime operations.”

The Importance of Performance Metrics

Video recording all of their operations is also a plus, as Coulson explained. “We’ve got two DVRs in our aircraft and we’re the ones with the cameras getting the opportunity to provide a service, so we just need to create the optimum value for our customers. One of the things we can do because we’re on video is that we can start creating best practice models that nobody talks about.

“Because we’re such an opinion-based industry, when we start being able to measure the performance of aircraft and fire behavior, and put those components together with gel or retardant, you can baseline what the best practices of the industry should be. I’m confident that, at the end of the day, we’re going to have a better industry. We’ll share with our customers what we’re seeing and we’ll baseline out what works and what doesn’t and map out a course from there.”

Critiquing their performance is already a part of Coulson Aviation’s process.

“After every night mission we do debriefs, document hazards, what went right and what went wrong, which isn’t easy because there are so many variables going on around us on these fires at night,” Coulson admitted.

“We’re on a learning curve, and we’re going to be learning about this for some time, but at least we’re beginning to get a picture of things we can do better, which is a good thing."

“When we do present an idea to our customer, we want to make sure that it’s well thought out. We want to know the answers to questions before they ask them so that we don’t embarrass anybody. We’ve come a long way and I’m really proud of our team. We’ve learned a lot from working with customers in other countries. Everybody we’ve worked with has had such a positive impact on what we’re able to do.”

At the end of the day, the customer Coulson is referring to is not just the agency they are working for, it’s also the people whose homes are in the path of a wildfire. In addition to the metrics of how efficiently the fire is fought, how much waste is reduced in the process, and how much more effective the tactics employed prove to be, add some metrics which are more important to civilians: lives saved, property spared, and tax dollars that won’t go up in smoke. In the final analysis, those last metrics may be the most important of all.

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