Wednesday, December 16, 2020

How the Rawlins Municipal Airport (KRWL) figured in the wildfire

2020 was challenging for Wyoming communities. The year began with ambiguous announcements about employment and economy. The winter quickly segued into pandemic concerns and panics

Then forest fires started in California, Oregon and Washington, followed by those in Idaho, Utah, Montana, Colorado and, ultimately, Wyoming..

As the wildfire gained ground, the Rawlins Municipal Airport/Harvey Field was a continuous stream of fire-fighting helicopter traffic flying in with water bags dangling below. It was headed by Laurel Wright, the U.S. Forest Service Aviation Operations Manager for the U.S. Department of the Interior water drop operation.

Wright, who was born in Casper and now lives and is based in Idaho, is a trained firefighter and helicopter crew member. She said she loves in a technical sense what she does her associated work environment. She described her frequent travel to assorted fire and environmental assignments which offer a birds’ eye panorama of the beauty of natural environments. She called that a little compensation for being absent from home for much of the time.

“The adventure substituting for a conventional 9 to 5 desk duty is good, too,” she said. She added that absence from the comfort of home and the inherent danger of the job develops personal focus, leadership abilities and personal relationship skills.

Wright introduced Wilson Wetzel, a UH1-1 water-dropping helicopter assigned to work the Seminoe Mountains Bradley fire. Wilson flies for Withrotor Aviation, out of Lakeview, Oregon.

Like Wright, Wilson flies frequently over the plains, forests and mountains throughout the western half of the U.S. Accompanying Wilson was Kyle Witham, Withrotor senior pilot, who also worked the Bradley fire. Withrotor Aviation operates the ubiquitous “Huey” — Bell UH-1H, a Sikorsky S-61A and Sikorsky UH-60A. These two “birds” are a Black Hawk prototype and the military version in civilian feathers.

Why so many stops in Rawlins?

The answer was given in one word: fuel.

During fire suppression, water is picked up near the fire. Fuel is not a natural feature in the boondocks. Helicopter and support personnel and equipment must follow the fire, as much as is practical. With a need to frequently refuel, the helicopter support crew has two options. Bring a fuel truck to the helicopter or bring the helicopter to the fuel truck.

Rawlins has limited off-runway/taxiway paved parking. This fact often forced the fuel trucks to approach through the grass as helicopters landed off the pavement.

For water transport, the smaller helicopters used a long tether with a bag. The pilot lowered the bag into a body of water.

(The lip of the bag is weighted to tip and sink the bag. The higher capacity helicopters dip a hose attached to a pump that fills a large bag or an internal tank. The pump allowed the pilot to take water from a shallow source.)

These water drop helicopters are operated single-handed by the pilot. The pilot flies, navigates, tends the water catchment and drop. The reason is for safety. Piloting a firefighting water-drop aircraft is not an easy or safe occupation.

On the fire-fighting scene, another hazard that pilots must avoid is the ever-present sightseer. Fires attract public interest, just as street accidents attract curious passers-by. Sightseers can get themselves in harm’s way or pose a workplace safety hazard that creates an attention distraction that pilots and other operators must avoid.

The ongoing improvements and expansion at the Rawlins Municipal-Harvey Field airport proved very valuable for firefighting staging and support.

The current $8,000,000 or so airport improvements made (and make) the Rawlins airport more than a simple convenience for the visiting air and support crews.

“Airport facilities like those found here in Rawlins are key to supporting aerial firefighting operations,” said Wilson. “These facilities provide a safe and clean environment to base both rotor wing and fixed wing aircraft.”

She went on to say that the airport facilities provided a hard, level, flat surface that made day-to-day operations much easier than had they been forced to operate from a field or other area that was not as developed as the airport.

Wilson also stated that airport security including the fences, gates, and passcodes systems were a huge benefit, as it mitigated the risk of theft or tampering of the aircraft while there was no one at the helibase.

“The infrastructure including water and sewage allowed our crews to keep the aircraft and support equipment cleaned to our standard,s as well as provide a sanitary means of accommodating biological needs,” she said. “As a helicopter aerial firefighting operator, we really appreciate being able to operate from an airport environment.”

Another advantage of utilizing an airport like Rawlins Municipal it provides an area for takeoff and landing that is free of flight hazards such as power lines, towers, etc. since airports have already mitigated those flight hazards prior to us even arriving. At some helibases based away from airports, there may be significant flight hazards that could sneak up on a pilot after a long day out working on a fire.

A larger ramp space or more taxiways to accommodate these helicopters currently forced to overflow into the brush would be a great benefit to the helicopter firefighting operations conducted out of this airport.

No comments:

Post a Comment