Aerial Firefighting with Night Vision Goggles – Part 1

As wildfires become more prevalent and ferocious, many in the fire service are looking for better ways to battle wildland blazes. One factor that is almost universally accepted is that the vast majority of fires diminish in severity overnight, when...


Nevertheless, USFS did not, and still imposes restrictions on night-flying helicopters over areas administered by that agency. Although there was a tremendous uproar in Southern California after 2009’s deadly Station Fire, in which two Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters were killed, the USFS is still restricting their involvement with NVG to paper studies and probably won’t be venturing into that arena again any time soon.

CAL FIRE, California’s state firefighting agency, also looks unlikely to pursue NVG flights in the foreseeable future despite an attempt by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008 to fund 11 NVG-equipped Blackhawk helicopters for use by CAL FIRE. With current funding cutbacks in the amount of $30 million for that agency, the chances of equipping any aircraft in the state inventory with goggles that cost over $11,000 per set (not to mention the cost of training personnel to use them) is fairly unlikely.

Tactics

There are two schools of thought on how to load up with suppressant to fight fires at night: hover-fill and ground-fill. With ground-fill, the aircraft lands and is reloaded with suppressant (which can be water, foam, retardant, or gelled water) before taking off to drop on the fire. With hover-fill, the aircraft uses a snorkel extending from the tank to reload from a source, before heading to the fire. Engine crews assist with ground-fills by hooking their fire hose to an adapter, which attaches to the helicopter’s tank once the aircraft has landed. The rotor is spinning overhead during the fill-up, so the aircraft can quickly take off after the tank is filled.

According to some pilots, it takes less time to do a hover-fill, and typically less personnel, especially if it’s a water source like a golf course pond or aqueduct, but the risk factor goes up by doing this at night. Pilots complain of a “white-out” effect from water vapor stirred up by the helicopter’s rotor wash, especially over large bodies of water, and some have even reported mud on the windscreen from dust mixing with water vapor and sticking to the glass.

Likewise, there are two schools of thought on hoist rescues: traditional hoist and European style. With the traditional method, the aircraft hovers directly over the target while lifting and lowering personnel. European style is where the aircraft moves slowly forward while lowering the air medic, then hovers only during the last 10 feet of the medic’s descent. The advantages to the European method are twofold: less danger to those on the hoist or the ground if an engine failure occurs and less tendency for the people on the hoist to be spun around by the rotor wash.

Practitioners

Currently, three fire agencies in Southern California use NVG: Los Angeles County Fire Department, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, and Orange County Fire Authority. These agencies use Generation 3 aviator goggles (typically designated as AN/AVS 9 – nicknamed “Anvis 9”) and will be examined in more detail in the second installment of this series.

MIKE ARCHER is an author, wildfire consultant, systems engineer, and public speaker who has been interviewed by CBS News, KABC-TV, USA Today, and the Associated Press on wildfire topics, and has been part of a delegation testifying before government bodies (including Congress and the California Senate) on fire-related issues. He runs the Wildfire News of the Day blog and Firebomber Publications.