type='node' cid='402564' />An aerial firefighting crisis exists in the U.S. Nearly four dozen heavy air-tankers could be called upon to assist firefighters roping in past wildfires. But even as wildfires have increased in size and ferocity, air-tanker numbers have dwindled to a shadow of their former strength. Fire agencies have tried to fill the gap with helicopters and Single Engine Air-Tankers (SEATs), but the speed and retardant capacity of the heavy, fixed-wing air-tankers is sorely missed. Is there any way to increase the firefighting capacity of U.S. fire agencies quickly and cheaply?
An Alternative Solution
PCADS (Precision Container Aerial Delivery System) is the brainchild of William Cleary, an Advanced Systems Project Manager at Boeing Aerospace’s Long Beach facility. Cleary got the idea from dropping water balloons off a rooftop. “What we’re doing with PCADS is airdropping on wildfires,” he explains. “For a long time now, the Department of Defense has tried to improve how you deliver something to the ground, such as supplies to our warriors, and how you do it accurately.
“With PCADS, we are taking advantage of all the technology that is applied to airdrops today,” he continues. “What we found is that by using the aircraft technology, meaning GPS in the aircraft and computers that can measure wind and other factors way beyond GPS, we’re able to be extremely accurate with these PCADS.”
So what exactly is a PCADS unit? It is a 250-gallon plastic bag surrounded by a cardboard box and mounted on a skid. The units are loaded into the cargo bay of a transport aircraft, then a pilot simply flies to the GPS coordinates of the fire and the loadmaster deploys the bundles out the back of the aircraft at a safe altitude.
“What we’ve done with PCADS is to design them around the military system called CDS (Container Delivery System), so our 2,000 pounds fits that system perfectly,” Cleary explains. “We had to design PCADS so that it met an Air Force requirement, but we also had to create a scenario where it came apart when it got into the airstream. Because we use a CDS rigging system, we don’t have to use straps on PCADS.” As a result, the parts all separate on leaving the aircraft, with the oversized top acting like a parachute, and pieces that are like razor blades that are connected to the rigging with a lanyard, so that these razor blades cut the rigging.
“What we’ve done lately is that we’ve replaced those razor blades with a timing device that delays the cutting of the rigging at a pre-set time – 10 seconds, 4 seconds, etc. – to delay the time that PCADS bursts,” Cleary adds. “This allows the aircraft to drop from a higher altitude [than a conventional air-tanker would drop].”
Needless to say, the military is already adept at night-dropping cargo. “They have night-vision goggles, air-dropping requirements that they drop within certain distances at night, so we’re using the same crews who do the air-dropping for fighting fires,” explains Cleary. “What the IC [Incident Commander] has to provide the aircrew is latitude and longitude as to where you want PCADS.”
And the military is warming to the mission. “We’re now at a point where we’ll be working with the Air National Guard on the strategy and tactics for using PCADS on fires,” Cleary reports. “We’re very excited about the Air National Guard work because they have lots of ideas for PCADS and they have a requirement to fight wildfires.”
If you are concerned about difficult terrain, it is not a problem. “The good thing about this tactically is that it opens up opportunities that are not available right now [to air-tankers] because we can drop into a box canyon or a deep gorge,” PCADS team member and Wildfire Consultant Don Green explains. “There are so many different things this can do – we can drop on spot fires as small as a car fire. It expands the operational capability of aerial firefighting.”