CDF Aviation Management Program - History - CDF Helicopter Program

CDF Helicopter Program

In 1960 the Division of Forestry decided to experiment with a small, skilled initial attack, or "helitack" crew to be transported by helicopter to increase the early arrival of manpower and equipment to an initial attack fire. Although the crews were trained for hover jumping and had purchased heli-jump suits from the US Forest Service, it was never found necessary to make a jump. Six helitack bases were established in the early 1970s. They were staffed with contracted Bell JetRangers. A typical CDF helitack crew which responded with the helicopter consisted of one fire captain and two to three seasonal firefighters.

CDF began using contractor-owned helicopters for fire control in the mid 1960s. Bell 47, Hiller FH1100, Bell 206 JetRangers and Aerospatiale Alouettes were used the most through the 1970s. The helicopters were located at CDF facilities which protected high value timberlands and critical watershed areas generally in Northern and Central California with one located at Ryan Field in Southern California. The helicopter began playing an increasing role in the Department's Initial Attack strategy during the late 70s. In 1978 three Bell 205 medium helicopters were hired in addition to the standby helicopters. One helicopter was located at the Howard Forest, Mendocino Ranger Unit Headquarters. The other two were located at Hemet/Ryan Field and the Monte Vista, San Diego Ranger Unit Headquarters. Each of the medium helicopters was assigned 11 person helitack crews. Unfortunately, in the mid to late 1970s CDF experienced an increased accident rate throughout the helicopter program. Five accidents involving contractor-owned Bell Jet Rangers occurred in 1979.

As a result of the accidents, CDF decided that better approach would be for the agency to own and operate its own helicopters. In 1981, CDF leased 12 excess UH-1F Hueys which had previously been used by the USAF in Vietnam. Nine helicopters were initially reconditioned, and were operated as non-certificated, public-use aircraft. The first helicopter was built up November, 1981 and was placed in service at Hemet-Ryan Helitack Base. Six more F Model Hueys were built up and placed in service at helitack bases throughout California in the summer of 1982. During the first two years CDF employed “Personal Service Contract” pilots. Each base was assigned a full-time pilot and a seasonal relief pilot who covered two bases. The majority of the contract pilots became state employees in 1984. The helitack unit was designed to be a cohesive unit which consisted of the helicopter and helitack crew. A typical configuration for the helicopter was a Helitack Fire Captain in the copilot's seat and a Helitack Fire Captain plus six fire-fighters in the passenger compartment. The water bucket was replaced in 1984 with a newly designed Canadian 324-gallon Bambi bucket. In the mid-1980s, fixed water dropping tanks were installed on several helicopters. Water bucket operations over ever-increasing populated regions in the urban interface areas of eastern Riverside County had been causing a concern. An accidental drop of a water bucket could cause catastrophic results, while a fixed tank reduced the exposure. In addition, some areas where the helicopters operated had few water sources from which a helicopter could fill its bucket. A fixed tank allowed the helicopter to obtain water from sources previously unobtainable with the bucket.

As the 1991 lease agreement expiration date with the USAF rapidly approached, the Department started a search for a replacement that ultimately resulted in the acquisition in 1989 of the UH-1H. The airframes that the Department obtained were part of 100 that had been released by the Department of Defense to the Forest Service for distribution to states as Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) for wildland fire fighting.

The UH-1H aircraft were significantly modified to meet CDF’s specialized needs. The modified helicopters were designated as "Super Hueys". The Super Huey sported a larger, more powerful engine, transmission and rotor system. The tail boom and tail rotor were also modified to accommodate the engine, giving the aircraft greater performance than the standard U.S. Army UH-1H helicopters in hotter and higher conditions typical of California.

Both the F model and the Super Huey maintenance programs were developed by CDF using the most restrictive overhaul/replacement criteria of the military or Bell Helicopter. All maintenance is performed by contract mechanics. Big Valley built up and maintained the F model helicopters from 1981 to 1990 at their Stockton facility. They also started building up the first Super Hueys in 1989. San Joaquin Helicopters completed the Super Huey build-ups and maintained them in their facility in Yolo County and later at the Aviation Management facility at Mather Field in Sacramento from 1989 to 1999. DynCorp was awarded the contract in 2000 and continued to maintain the Super Hueys at Mather and later at McClellan Airfield in North Highlands, California.

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