Ready for FireText and photography by Claude La FrenièreThe training of helicopter pilots to fight forest fires in Quebec and Ontario.Prior to the summer fire season, Aviation News Journal had the opportunity to attend training and requalification sessions for pilots of Saint-Hubert Airport-based Heli-Inter, at a local airport in Saint-Hyacinthe (CSU3).

With permission of Airport Director Gabriel Chartier, Heli-Inter uses these facilities because the airport is a 15-minute flight from its base of operations, it has moderate traffic on weekdays and is located outside the main urban area, mostly surrounded by farmland some kilometers from the city of Saint-Hyacinthe.

This allows helicopters to maneuver safely and practise water bucketing and water drops, thanks to a 2,100 foot long artificial water basin for seaplanes. This allows all types of bailing and pumping that pilots are required to complete during their training.
The Bell 205

Pilots are trained on two Bell 205A-1++ helicopters. Known for its lifting capabilities, the Bell 205 is a versatile aircraft in the transport category. It is at home in turbulent environments and high temperature areas, making it the aircraft of choice for fighting forest fires. Derived from the U.S. Army's Huey helicopter, the distinctive sound of its large 48-foot-diameter main rotor is similar to that of the Huey.

The company maintains its helicopters in top condition. They are equipped with modern avionics and have been upgraded to the 205A-1++ version with the addition of a higher performance Lycoming T5317 turbine and transmission, as well as a Bell 212 rotor system, increasing their lifting capacity over the standard Bell 205A-1. In addition to the Bell 205s, Heli-Inter uses Bell 212s and Eurocopter AS 350s for forest fire fighting in Quebec and Ontario.

These helicopters are all equipped to use a water basket called a Bambi Bucket. It is a flexible container similar to a collapsible bag and equipped with a pilot controlled valve that attaches under the belly of the helicopter with a lifting hook and a sling of 50 to 150 feet (15-50m). These buckets can be filled directly from any body of water to recover up to 1,226 litres (324 gallons) of water.

Some helicopters are also equipped with a ventral tank installed under the fuselage. It can hold 1,420 litres (375 gallons) of water or 114 liters (30 gallons) of retardant foam while leaving free access to the lifting hook under the aircraft. This tank is equipped with several hatches allowing for one, two or three hatch salvos and a pump that allows for a 60-second refill while hovering.
Training and requalification

We had the opportunity to speak with Patrice Bellerose, Bell 205 instructor and vice president of operations at Coast-to-Coast Helicopters, Heli-Inter’s parent company. He is a veteran of the aviation industry, qualified as a pilot on 11 different types of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, and an aviation safety specialist with over 20 years’ experience. He has worked on five continents and has accumulated an impressive total of more than 16,000 hours of accident-free flight time in his logbook.

He explained that the maneuvers we witnessed were part of the annual requalification of pilots who fight forest fires. The pilots I saw in action were seasoned pilots with thousands of hours of diversified aerial work recorded in their logbooks. Their annual requalification is part of the requirements of their employing agencies and consists of a review of common maneuvers that a pilot must perform during forest firefighting:
- Scooping with a water basket using a short and then with a long sling, and pumping water into a belly tank.
- Procedures for safely ascending with a water load and different types of water drops.
- Hovering a few feet off the ground to allow people to get on and off the aircraft to simulate transporting firefighters to sites where it is impossible to land.
- As these helicopters have single engines, pilots practice autorotation to be ready in case of engine failures.
Essential qualities required of pilots

For Bellerose, safety in aerial firefighting is vital. As a result, three essential qualities are required:

Vigilance: Good pilots are constantly alert and aware of their immediate environment. They are in constant contact with aerial spotters, supervisors, ground crews and all other aircraft in flight. They must respect the established altitude and trajectory to avoid any risk of collision between aircraft.

Versatility: Pilots’ diverse flying experiences allow them to adapt quickly to changing conditions on the ground.

Effective stress management: Pilots fighting a forest fire must have complete control over their stress. In a real-life situation with smoke and fire, in addition to air traffic in the area and constant radio congestion, tension can build. Pilots must be able to keep a calm and clear mind to operate their aircraft safely.

All of these qualities bring us back to safety, the number one priority of pilots in forest firefighting. Bellerose explained to me that with a major fire, air traffic is sometimes intense; there can be a large number of aircraft of all types (fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) in the area.
Coordination of operations and aerial forest fire fighting in Quebec and Ontario

Fighting forest fires in provinces such as Quebec and Ontario requires significant material and financial resources. The 2020 annual report of the Société de Protection des Forêts Contre le Feu (SOPFEU) indicates expenditures in the order of $105 million in province of Quebec, while the province of Ontario reported expenses of $69 million.

This year, SOPFEU indicated that it would have an air fleet including 14 air tankers, 24 detection aircraft, 8 air-spotters and transport aircraft and 16 helicopters. Apart from Government Air Service tankers, all aircraft are under contract with private companies such as Héli-Inter. Ontario also has its own fleet, which includes tankers and various aircraft with a number of aircraft under contract.

In Quebec, resources for forest firefighting operations are coordinated by the SOPFEU Command Centre and by the Emergency Operations Center (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) in Ontario. However, in the wildfire area, everything is controlled by the aerial spotters (fire bosses), forest fire-fighting specialists who fly over the fire area in an aircraft. They are analysts, flying air traffic controllers and the safety guardians of air-to-ground combat operations. They direct operations from the air and when the air tankers and helicopters arrive, they identify relevant targets.
Role of helicopters in forest firefighting

Helicopters are an essential part of forest firefighting; they can arrive at low altitude and drop water at a very specific location to slow down the fire and even open an escape route if flames surround firefighters on the ground. Smaller helicopters such as Eurocopter AS350s can take off and be on their way to a fire within minutes to fight an incipient fire.

A Bell 205 equipped with a belly is especially versatile. It can carry a whole team of firefighters, along with their equipment, and drop them off in a damaged area without landing on the ground if necessary. Then, as soon as it ascends, it can lower its pump, fly to the nearest water source and be back within minutes with 1,420 litres of water to support firefighters with accurate strikes.

At the end of an operation, water baskets are used to neutralize the last pockets of fire with a long sling of 150 feet (50m) to prevent the rotor reactivating the fire.
It was a great experience to attend these pilots’ requalification flights and see how skillfully they operate their helicopters, as, at the time of writing, they are all deployed with their aircraft and ready to fight forest fires in Quebec and Ontario.
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