PCADS: A Military Solution to Wildland Firefighting

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...

Platform Diversity

Unlike purpose-built firefighting aircraft, PCADS isn’t picky what you use to drop it. “The other beautiful thing about PCADS is that it separates the system from the platform,” Cleary confirms. “There are multiple platforms that can use PCADS. We’ve been asked to test with the C-17, there are also military helicopters that have ramps, and the Italians have a C-27, which is a smaller C-130-type of aircraft.”

The Army National Guard isn’t the only outfit with C-130s. “We’ve also used Marine Corps C-130s, and a private company in Alaska that has C-130s as well,” Cleary reports.

The switchover from heavy-lift helicopters to the new MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at West Coast Marine bases provides another platform for PCADS. Lt. Col. Nash of the San Diego-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing passed along a press announcement via one of his wildfire aviators, Captain James Tiller, which states, “With the V-22 squadrons beginning to stand up, we would like to use them during the fire season.”

And military bases are everywhere! “There are Air National Guard assets in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, along with already-qualified crews, so there’s a response-time benefit and a cost-benefit, too, because it’s very expensive to maintain aircraft used only for fighting fires,” says Cleary.

Proven Track Record

The PCADS team members have been frequent visitors to Yuma Army Proving Grounds in Arizona. “We’ve dropped over 300 units this summer, without any leaking on the aircraft,” reports Ty Bonnar, VP of Global Operations for Flexible Alternatives, a manufacturer that works with Boeing to provide engineering and operations for many of the PCADS parts. “In the last six months we’ve dropped over a half million pounds of cargo and delivered over 70,000 gallons of suppressant (water and gel) onto Army test drop zones.” Because of that delay device, team members can determine where it’s going to burst in the air. “We can extinguish spot fires with 16 PCADS like 16 [Type II] helicopters!” adds Green.

A Look Ahead

The U.S. isn’t the only country with wildfires, and for those without a heavy air-tanker fleet, PCADS could fill the gap, as Cleary points out. “Ten foreign countries are interested in PCADS right now, including Greece, Italy, and Argentina.”

One of the things they have been talking about is weather modification, especially at night, according to Cleary, when it might have a greater impact on the fire than anticipated. “The Air National Guard sees that too,” he says.

What is the Forest Service’s reaction to PCADS? “The Forest Service has been with us on most of our test drops,” reports Green. “Their primary concern was about the PCADS elements falling to the ground. We've accounted for the safety aspects of the falling elements by ensuring our operational parameters fit specific guidelines for use. PCADS will not only enhance firefighting capabilities, but actually make aerial dropping safer for the air crew and ground forces as well.”

But wildland firefighting is just one facet of what PCADS can do. “We’re a delivery system, so we’re constantly looking at different media, whether gel or water or retardant,” says Bonnar. And who knows where PCADS might pop up next?

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.