AERIAL FIREFIGHTING INNOVATION
(In Spanish here)
Innovation in aerial firefighting, with few exceptions, is not O.K., it is K.O.
In most cases, innovation represents nothing but a hollow mantra promoted and repeated, over, and over.
By dint of repeating, we believe that society has state-of-the-art technology and that devastating mega-fires happen in the form of “Black Swans”; unavoidable surprises outside the current system and beyond the reach of the corporations in command.
But when you scratch the surface and look at the insides of the industry, you see that many specialized corporations have serious trouble adapting to the new technologies and innovations that the market is demanding.
Mega fires are not unpredictable Black Swans, nor are financial crises. The same patterns repeat in cycles and represent no surprise anymore. Incumbent operators and the established fire fighting setup are both responsible and complicit in the consequences of the fire. In the same way banks and the economic system are accountable for the damage caused to a society suffocated by debt.
There is a technological gap between what customers demand, and what incumbent organizations can offer. As responsible as banks and companies ordinary citizens are if we ignore it, be it financial abuse or when as a society we receive a service that is not up to par.
This 1 min video explains the concept of the Black Swans and the impact of the highly improbable, based on the original idea of writer and philosopher Nassim Taleb.
Why the technology gap between what customers demand and what incumbent organizations can offer?
- Due to the marked tendency of established companies towards continuous exploitation cycles, distinguished by infrequent, sustainable innovations; those that are based on the improvement of existing technologies.
- Due to the lack of exploration cycles marked by disruptive strategies and innovation, which would drastically change products and services.
- Due to the resistance to change of some companies that represent the industry.
- Because of the lack of a deep purpose in the organizations that have created the current paradigm.
- Because preventing and suppressing wildfires to reduce the threat to our citizens still does not count as a Homeland Security issue, therefore it is not adequately funded as other sectors: E.g. Defense Industry.
And while they continue to rescue banks and offer support to companies that do not invest enough in innovation, we have the individual responsibility and the collective opportunity to take the lead and change the course, instead of positioning ourselves in the comfort of victimhood.
Shall we start?
Same aircraft, same tactics, used 60 years ago
“Telephone did not come out of the persistent improvement of postal delivery” – Amit Kalantri.
Today we continue to fly the same aircraft used for fire fighting 60 years ago. Stubbornly we try to repurpose them due to corporatism and political interests.
I have already written about the flagrant case of the U.S.A. – California in this article. A state that continues to use overstepped aircraft and tactics that could potentially be improved according to the latest studies. The counterpart is an overwhelming Air Force fleet, both in cost and technology.
An example is the F-35 Lighting II case, a fighter aircraft of which the U.S.A.F. intends to acquire more than 2,400 units for a total price of $323 billion, more than $100 million per unit. The most expensive defense program in history.
Meanwhile, in aerial firefighting, they continue to operate the Grumman S2-T, a more than 70-year-old design adapted and retrofitted to serve a purpose for which it was not designed.
Does anyone think of using the design of a WWII bomber to meet the needs of a modern fighter?
Obviously, this does not happen, and the approach is a clean-sheet design according to the needs of society and Air Forces as end-users.
Investment in Prevention and Suppression VS. investment in Defense
The debate on what society needs could well need a full article. Political interests do not always represent the interests of the community. Indeed, a good part of California’s inhabitants may think that protecting our citizens and our forests from wildland-urban interface fires like those of Paradise or Mati in Greece is far more critical than sending soldiers and billions of dollars to fight in places that many people could not even find on a map.
Likewise, in Spain, citizens from areas with a higher risk of wildland-urban interface fires, such as some regions of Madrid and Gerona, may think that forest fires and climate change represent more of a real threat than geopolitical-sovereignty factors between Spain and Morocco. They would probably support a budgetary adjustment to increase prevention and suppression and decrease Air Force assets.
Contrarily, if we ask the relatives of those who perished during the 9/11 and the 11M (Spain) attacks, I bet they would prefer investment in Defense.
Finally, there will also be those who believe that it is not black or white. It could be possible to maintain an effective Armed Forces according to current threats, carry out a long-term firefighting prevention plan, while stop wasting in other less important aspects.
The technological gap between civil and military
When money talks
Beyond the previous debate, what I have been able to check first-hand is that my military colleagues have been flying at Mach 2 for decades, they currently use smart systems, automatisms, voice control, fly-by-wire, glide path vectors, and E.F.V.S., enabling a 12-year-old boy, raised in the familiarity of tablets and used to video games, to perform an approach below minima or fly visually at night.
Whereas in aerial firefighting we still cannot safely work at night. Our flagship automatism is called muscle memory, and the most sophisticated instrument we have is made up of “the balls hanging from the stick.” In other words, more refined and bombastic: “sense of the pants.”
Here is a cockpit photo of a couple of S.E.A.T.´s we usually work with, and although there may be variations among companies they all look pretty much the same.
A very basic layout. We do not even have an angle of attack indicator, which is essential for judging attitudes and energy management for the sort of flying we do.
Below is the same aircraft modified to serve the defense industry:
Money, money, money, must be funny, in a rich man world!
Anyone familiar with avionics will appreciate the differences without going through a “Where’s Wally” search exercise: top-of-the-range instrumentation, the Rolex watch, a fine Italian carpaccio, the weekend Dolce & Gabbana perfume, and that Tom Ford suit for the special occasions.
The angle of attack indicator I die for would probably be the less relevant instrument for the military pilot, who is surrounded by other impressive pieces of technology: Head-Up Display, Glide Path Vector, systems and instruments redundancy, sensors, and screens that in addition to spot the hair color of person thousands of feet below, would significantly improve the safety of the crew.
Are we facing an upside down scenario?
-Civil pilots fighting fires in hostile areas, armed conflicts, while using farmers technology
-State of the art Fighter jets dropping bombs over fires
It becomes paradoxical when some civilian firefighting pilots fly in red zones where we get shot. Yes, it sounds weird, but we use an armor system halfway the homemade-improvised and the professional. 1.5 inches Kevlar plates to protect ourselves from bullets; on the back of the seat, on the floor, on the cockpit sides, doors, and windows, up to a third of its surface.
We have also created firebombing procedures more similar to air-ground attacks (varying entrance, departure patterns, and heights) than to the standard aerial firefighting procedures in the rest of the world. Apart from fighting the fire, we need to keep an eye on an extra enemy, and hills and valleys are not just relevant to aircraft performance, but they could also represent a good shooting point.
A colleague got an AK-47 caliber bullet crossing the cockpit from side to side, just 10 inches from the head.
And once again, they have not told me; I lived it.
I have been there several seasons as a volunteer in red zones affected by a social conflict that I am not a part of, fighting fires from the bottom of my purpose and principles, and why not say it now in hindsight and seeing the bigger picture; from stupidity.
During one night our base, the same one that appears on the video, which has a double fence, guard dogs, lights, armed guards, and looks like a prison in the middle of the forest, was attacked, and all 3 light firefighting helicopters ended up burning.
Here is another example that came to light of how a Skycrane was set on fire during the night.
And I wonder who becomes accountable for this “world upside down” scenario?
Where is our “Archangel” with the “Longsword”? Whose responsibility is it to guarantee the crew safety, setting up the right basis for the contracts, choose the best assets for the mission and the appropriate standards?
Operators? Contractors? Fire Agencies? Government? Brand sales department?
Or just pilots for accepting it?
I don’t know.
I put my hand up, and I hope all parties involved take a step back, reassess it, and contribute.
What I do know is that we have seen state-of-the-art fighter jets bombing fires, obviously without any ground-to-air reply, and commanded by a crew that nowadays might have not ever been engaged in real conflicts in their entire careers.
It did not catch me on the other side of the world, nor have I heard it by far indirect sources: I was there fighting fires from the front line that year under a European Mechanism.
The bombs’ strategy still echoes in my head as a massive question mark. Maybe it’s just a master plan not understood at my front-line user level.
Perhaps one day I get the opportunity to speak to those “experts” mentioned in the article, understand it all and retract from my premature conclusions.
At first glance: an aberration in terms of cost, sheer nonsense, which makes me intuit that the gap, in addition to being technological, could also be deep in terms of knowledge.
If you need your military to act as firefighters, you probably need more firefighters, not more military.
Fortunately, unlike the previous scenario, here we have taken responsibility. It seems we are moving forward, now in the right direction. Although it’s just the beginning we are making positive progress, both for society and the entire sector.
Concluding this point; I can say it louder but not clearer:
“The day deaths from forest fires, material losses, and health problems are equated with the casualties and destruction from homeland security issues, acts of war, or terrorism; there will be no flame that dares to show up across forests.”
Regarding creative processes and technological improvements
The previous point links well to creative processes and technological improvements.
In the development of any creative process that seeks to improve the existing, be it a state-of-art supersonic fighter or a firefighting aircraft, we must ask ourselves two fundamental questions:
- What are end-users demanding?
- How can we improve current processes and products?
For the development of the F-35, I do not doubt that the thinking heads of the world’s most significant power have sat down. Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman, as primary partners, have addressed these two questions and many others. In addition to the United States, other powers such as the UK, Italy, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey have supported the program by providing additional funding.
And this process, so basic and necessary, does it happen in the aerial firefighting industry?
N – O, NO, negative, not at all.
And it’s not only the U.S.A., where Silicon Valley, worldwide technological spearhead and home of entrepreneurship, is just 80 miles from the epicenter of the worst wildland fires we have seen recently. The paradox mentioned above -the technological gap between offer and demand- also happens in the rest of the world.
AIRCRAFT BASED ON PRIMITIVE DESIGNS
As I have already anticipated, we continue to fly the same aircraft as we did 50-60 years ago.
I have not heard it; I have seen the process first-hand:
In the 70s, my father spent his time jumping from a Piper Pawnee Brave to a Thrush Commander. As a civil aviator he fought wildland fires around “Alto Ampurdán” in the Spanish Northeast territories close to Barcelona, and all over Spain. By then, the fix wing fleet’s flagship was already the Canadair CL-215, belonging to the so-called 404 Military Squadron.
Today, 50 years later, I, representing my father’s aeronautical legacy, fly a fantastic aircraft called AT802 which is still based on the legendary Leland Snow’s design and his vision. Although with a more prominent nose and oversized shoes!
A Fireboss is an ingenious idea, the product of a worthy creative process. Bob Wiplinger was the major “driver” behind the Fire Boss system design. He worked closely with the Wipaire and Air Tractor engineering teams to take the project from the drafting board to a fully certified product. It has been a game-changer in certain aspects, combining an agile initial attack with a massive continuous water delivery rate. But the foundation, same as the Thrush family, is once again underpinned by Leland Snow’s 1950s agricultural design.
You can put lipstick on a pig, and on a monkey – it´s still a pig, and a monkey
A C-130 Hercules or a CH-47 Chinook under nice corporatist designs and supported by a powerful Digital Marketing campaign makes us think that we have NASA technology to fight fires, as real as that is the same design remains since 1954 and 1960 respectively.
A CL-515, even though it is sold as top-notch technology by its new investors, it is just an improved CL-215 more than 60 years after its first flight.
The Thrush 710P is a real workhorse and great flyer but in essence, an improvement on Leland Snow’s 1956 original design.
And the charming Arnold – the Austrian Oak, even if he puts himself in the hands of the best plastic surgeons will not be able to represent Conan the Barbarian neither Terminator on the big screen again. Nor win a Mister Olympia as he did in the splendor of his career.
So what changes have occurred since the 1970s?
“Nothing changes if nothing changes.”
If nothing changes, we stay the same.
We don’t grow.
We don’t evolve.
We don’t get better.
And that’s not going to work—not for you, and not for the world.
We need positive change.
We need new ideas.
We need progress.
“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is thinking that what you did yesterday will be enough for tomorrow”. –William Pollard.
THE YELENA ISINBAYEVA EFFECT
In this poor breeding ground for innovation, R&D is brought to us with a dropper, imposed in a highly hierarchical way, not allowing nor promoting horizontal inputs from operational frontliners neither from the end-user’s needs.
Customer manipulation occurs through the continued exploitation of existing assets to obtain the largest market share and the maximum possible corporate profits.
For the purpose of this article, I called this phenomenon “the Yelena Isinbayeva effect.”
Isinbayeva is a retired Russian athlete, specialized in pole vault, Olympic, world, and European champion of this modality. She broke the world record a total of 28 times, 15 outdoors and 13 indoors. She still holds world records for the outdoor pole (5.06m), Olympic (5.05m), and the World Championships (5.01m).
There is no doubt that by skills, she could have progressed to her best marks faster than she did, but she was not interested in that:
Instead, she went little by little. Every time she broke her previous record she raised considerable sums of money, including prizes and sponsorship.
With no rivals at her level to push straight to best absolute performance; a centimeter-by-centimeter progression was enough to keep her on top of the game for a whole decade, allowing to increase overall earnings.
This sustainable long-term strategy is quite similar to what some incumbent operators do once they opted for a brand, acquired commercial commitments, and have to carry the weight of an entire fleet. They have to make whatever they have profitable, regardless of whether it may be considered obsolete, inefficient, or technologically overstepped.
Never-ending exploiting cycles and little innovation that makes a remarkable difference.
If there is no significant fresh wave of R & D that generates competition, dynamizes, and pushes for significant changes in the status quo; small improvements on the usual become good enough to create a fake image of innovation for the non-specialized public, allowing corporations to comfortably remain at the very top of the food chain.
BOB BEAMON, THE ANTITHESIS OF ISINBAYEVA – DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION
Beamon is an American athlete famous for his world record in the long jump called the jump of the century, achieved at the Olympic Games in Mexico (1968) with 8.90 meters, improving by 55 cm from the previous mark.
Former Olympic champion Lynn Davies told Beamon “You have destroyed this event,” and in sports jargon, a new adjective – Beamonesque – came into use to describe spectacular feats.
The best jump of his career before the record had been 8.33 m. Afterward, he did not exceed 8.22 m. On the day of the monster jump, he reacted with perplexity, and judges could not believe what they had just seen. They did not have the material to measure such a long jump, so the new record on the manual scoreboard took a long time to appear as they had to improvise the mechanism to measure it.
Improvements of the world record since 1901 have an average of 0.06 m, the largest being 0.15 m. At that time, the feeling was that it would be a record to break in the next century, a 21st-century record.
CAN WE HAVE ONE OF THE BEAMONESQUE WAY, PLEASE?
Merging both examples of two great athletes, Isinbayeva and Beamon, and transferring them to the aerial firefighting scenario, I conclude that the severity and impact of mega-fires do not require speculative strategies:
They require Beamonesque actions driven by heart and purpose: exploration cycles, disruptive innovation, an overtaken to its time maneuver that elevates us above the rest, just like Beamon did.
Whatever you do, don’t do it at halfway or half-throttle. If we ask Isinbayeva, this might be seen as foolish or perhaps not the best financial strategy. But if we ask Steve jobs; foolish, riskier, heart-driven decisions might have been one of the keys to his success and huge financial return, according to his well-known quote:
Stay hungry, stay foolish – Steve Jobs
Beamonesque was the Titanic in the early 20th century, the Apollo program in the 60s, the Concorde in the 70s, or the General Motors EV1 in the mid-90s, 25 years before electric cars and Tesla were ordinary (it probably failed for the same reasons the firefighting fleet is struggling to innovate; interests of established corporations and the influence of lobbies).
Beamonesque actions require a clear philosophy of life, a genuine, sincere, and laudable personal purpose. We need heart, intuition, commitment, and values that can effectively serve society; actions beyond the short term financial return. Paraphrasing Jobs again:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
CREATIVE MINDS DON’T FOLLOW RULES; THEY FOLLOW THE ECHO OF THEIR INNER VOICE
Behind the major successes, you almost always see the same pattern. Before defining what we do or how we do it, we must be clear about why we do things.
Why goes first.
Simon Sinek well explains this concept in his book “the golden circle”, and in this Ted Talk which sums it up in four minutes.
1- Why do we do it? What is the purpose?
We do it to challenge the status quo, as current processes and assets have wide margins for improvement.
The purpose is to leave a positive legacy that helps people and society.
2-How do we do it?
We do it by offering a service based on innovation. We carefully merge the latest available pieces of technology and implement whatever new ideas are deemed necessary to get to the desired end-user service.
3-What do we do?
We provide agile, modern, and daring solutions in support of environmental problems that affect the world.
On the contrary, if we are tempted to take the shortcut to join the last stage without being clear about points 1 and 2, our project will most likely fail, and nothing or very little will change.
1-What is the purpose? Why do we do it?
The purpose is financial return. We do it because we are in an advantageous position.
2-How do we do it?
We do it by trying to profit from the current assets we have under the establishment regardless of the client and society’s needs.
3-What do we do?
We try to fight wildland fires using the assets we have.
There are always exceptions
The good news is that some organizations, such as CONAIR in Canada, operate under a laudable purpose, radiating success and leadership, all linked to a deeply rooted philosophy.
Their philosophy fits well within the proposed athletics examples and consists of “continually raising the bar,” just like Isinbayeva or Bubka in the pole vault. All well described in a very inspiring corporate video (shown below).
Isinbayeva or Beamon? Sustainable or disruptive? Exploitation or exploration?
Let each one judge.
Personally, I would have loved to see how a company like CONAIR tackles a specific clean-sheet design after all the experience acquired while operating and redesigning, rather than continually repurpose existing designs.
Either way they have bothered to make a purposeful effort, and for 50 years, they have been industry leaders and the aerial firefighting benchmark for many countries and organizations.
AERIAL FIREFIGHTING CONTRACTS: BETTER SHORT OR LONG?
Like politics: short, dynamic, and plural? or long, static, and one-sided? This is another hot topic that needs mentioning.
Specific sectors in the firefighting industry require longer contracts to promote technological advances and improve existing processes. The topic arose in the US Congress, where a modality of 10 years contract has been proposed.
I do not doubt certain companies founded from a sincere purpose and guided by the vision of dedicated leaders, such as Dauntless Air in the US or the previously mentioned CONAIR in Canadá (and surely others that I am not familiar with), will get the best out of this policy.
On the other hand, this proposal is not for everyone, and it gives off a smell of clinging to power. I am concerned that other organizations specialized in converting “Blue Oceans” into “Red Oceans” might use these policies to strengthen the status quo, forgetting about processes improvement, and limiting themselves to beat the competition to stay in power for as long as possible.
In the case of Spain, we are starting to see a fresh new trend aiming at shorter contracts divided by batches to prevent illicit associations from forming, and companies to manage contracts through mafia-style practices; fixing prices and dividing the territory by fire cartels.
Without purpose, there is no innovation. Without innovation, there is no possibility of “Blue Ocean”
The aerial firefighting market in Spain and Sudamerica is, in general, a busy space with plenty of similar offers and low prices. A burnt market.
One of the reasons is the lack of purpose-specific companies suffer. Looking at our roots, we see generational replacements that transform an original idea full of meaning into a heavy inherited load, without the motivation, brilliance, and specialization that comes with being the father of a project 50 years ago. When you made something by the Sweat of one’s brow, you care more.
And sharing blood doesn’t always mean sharing genetic load nor aptitude. The one with limited vision tends to get surrounded by the cohort of the blinded. And when a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a hole.
In the hole, fundamental innovation is conspicuous by its absence. With the authorities hot on their heels, and without the possibility of agreeing on prices or distributing territories as if it was the 5 Italian families in the New York of the past century, there is no other strategy than to lower prices. Prices inevitably end up as deep they can get, and when you start paying peanuts, you start getting monkeys: a downhill road with no brakes…
In this context, fire agencies get trained in the art of bargaining as if it was Marrakesh Djemaa el Fna street-market. They embrace the cheapest bidder just because it’s cheap regardless of all other important factors as fleet state, crew experience, company safety culture. Or sometimes they go to the other extreme looking for desperate solutions: the biggest assets, even if the price is prohibitive and far from the most convenient use for society taxes.
Excellence becomes a utopia, and safety, which should the paramount, becomes a pantomime—a Red Ocean comes in the line of sight.
THE INNOVATION DILEMMA; SUSTAINABLE VS DISRUPTIVE
Disruptive innovation emerges in the garage, not in flashy facilities
Contrary to what quite a few might think, most disruptive innovations come from agile environments and individuals with more purpose than money: startups and small companies that in many cases end up being absorbed by large corporations that do not know or do not have time to innovate.
Innovators work everywhere, but many of those develop their activity from their own setup, be it a garage at home, a home office, a coworking space, or a small rented facility in an industrial state. The innovation spark can trigger pretty much anywhere, but we can’t control so much when the muses appear, right? That’s probably why creative people are not possessive neither like to be possessed, by having strict fixed working hours and scheduled tasks that could divert them from the innovation path!
Put a creative mind in the wrong context, and you will end up killing his innovative drive.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has – Margaret Mead
At the other end are large companies, which sometimes might represent a brake on innovation, and behind ostentatious shop windows, the backrooms show a real mess.
With excessive bureaucracy, aviation postholders always busy with the immediate, critical players at managerial levels and controlling shareholders unhooked from the operational reality, leading to an extreme focus on Financial Capital and short-term return, instead of caring for human capital, and long-term human performance.
It is not uncommon to see talented individuals and creative minds fall into the black hole of monotony and scheduled tasks; routine.
“Routine ruins life, variety vitalizes life.”
Sustainable vs. disruptive
While it is true that incumbent organizations – (larger corporations established in the industry) – outperform entrepreneurs and business daredevils in a context of long-term sustainable innovation (Yelena Isinbayeva, raising the bar cm by cm or CONAIR with hundreds of supplemental type certificates), they have nothing to do when it comes to competition for disruptive innovation (Bob Beamon and his jump of the century). This is due to several factors based on the insight of this Harvard Bussiness School Research:
- First, researchers realized that a company’s propensity for strategic change is profoundly affected by customers’ interests who provide the resources the firm needs to survive. In other words, incumbents listen to their long-time customers and, as a result, focus on keeping innovations in their line of interest.
- Researchers then arrived at a second insight: Incumbents’ focus on their existing customers becomes institutionalized in internal processes that make it difficult for even senior managers to shift investment to disruptive innovations.
The customer, who is the one who sets the course for innovation ends up doing so from its own biases and the deep resistance to change provided by established paradigms (our brain refuses to let go of the known). A continuous self-sustained loop is thus generated, in which neither operator nor customer can see the entire forest for the trees just in front. Continuous 2-way communication can lead to exciting outcomes. Or not! (See this AI experiment using 2 robots chatting to each other)
Science advances one funeral at a time. Or more precisely: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Max Planck
An example that is very close to my heart:
FAASA – now called Pegasus Aero group, a Spanish aerial firefighting operator- at the request of its main customer and supporter of the Chilean operations; Arauco -a private wood forestry corporation – creates a video recording system to monitor drops over the fire. The system allows the customer to remotely check the drops’ effectiveness by autonomously generating a 30-second clip, which is automatically sent through the mobile network.
The same customer funneled its efforts through the micro-management of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to unimagined levels. The operator follows the flow and we ended up normalizing 4 min response times (this might not sound crazy, but when you are at the other end of the base, have to get to the aircraft, load it, start-up, taxi, etc…it is as it tight it can get).
As a result, they have commonly achieved a significant improvement in sustainable technology and develop an ultra-early initial attack response that satisfies the customer-specific needs: to lower their mistrust levels and micromanage the operation.
But what about a more disruptive approach?
In that same example, both the incumbent and the customer are still strongly connected to the last 50 years paradigm; the Single Engine Air Tanker and rapid initial attack. At present, the strategies and assets available allow a more versatile approach, a much higher water delivery rate, a better service at a lower cost if the same aircraft used is amphibious and can scoop water from lakes and rivers. They can’t see the forest for the tree.
When the customer finally finds out that the trend in other leading countries is to use amphibious scooper aircraft, and they ask the incumbent for such an AT802 Fireboss, the organization’s head of operations, due to lack of knowledge on amphibious operations after being busy with the immediate for years, urges them to discard the strategy and continue within their comfort zone—the dead-end loop.
Two talented and creative individuals, the one who designs and implements the recording system and the head of operations, both wasted in the context of large corporations and sustainable specific innovation.
EXISTING TECHNOLOGIES AND AVAILABLE IDEAS
Whatever the case, a sole trader disruptive innovator or a large corporation part of the establishment, we should consider certified and proven technologies that are already leading other aviation segments and continue to advance in other disruptive innovation ideas that are yet to materialize.
1-First things first: let’s put the focus on prevention and not so much on suppression
First and foremost, and although this may go against the interests of the whole suppressing industry, especially the “large and very large tankers”, a progress noticeable for the society is more on the path of prevention and not so much on suppression. Let’s not forget that the ultimate interest is to protect Society minimizing fire damage to humans and properties, above corporatist interests.
As I have heard Juan Carlos Gómez Verdugo (a long-term master aerial firefighter and a mentor of many) saying: “the most effective asset is a bucket of water by the first spark”, for which we need large doses of prevention and planning.
And it’s not just Juan Carlos or me saying it. The European Commission, which is the one assessing budgets and setting up the foundations for a European global approach to wildland fires, clearly goes down the prevention path as well through its latest publication:
Evolving Risk of Wildfires in Europe “Shifting from suppression to prevention – U.N. office for disaster risk reduction. “
If we lead our innovation efforts to what society demands and to re-educate fire agencies in the importance of new technologies, then we will be able to position at a good start point. From then, it should be downhill or relatively flat in the race to achieving optimum results for the society, and also, as a side effect, great for the organizations’ profitability.
This German startup proposes a good system for Ultra-Early detection. It will work, or it won’t. But I think it is an excellent example of an attitude showing that in many cases innovation is born from small volatile environments that need creativity to survive.
And like this one, other ideas that are shown below are also directly transferable to aerial firefighting:
2-Improvement of structural efficiency: use of Composite Materials, lighter, more resistant, allowing higher payload
While we continue with the longtime tubular metal construction, interacting with water, salty environments, and suffering the consequences of corrosion, the posh aviation industry has successfully developed a state of the art design, entirely made of composite materials.
Although this construction has been available for a long time and has pros and cons, it has obvious benefits directly transferable to the work we do.
- Superior aerodynamics: increased operational speed, therefore, improved water delivery rate.
- Better strength/weight ratio: increased payload, more capacity, more water delivery rate.
- Lower resistance to wear, and no corrosion issues: increased tolerance to high load factor, less maintenance, less cost, enhanced safety.
Regarding floats for amphibious aircraft like the ones we fly, composite floats are already a tangible reality for some manufacturers.
In the nautical world, 95% of the 7 million pleasure boats are made of composite materials. “Composites are finding extensive use in the marine environment with applications including marine renewable energy systems, offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation (OGEE) structures, dock infrastructure, submarines and submersibles, lifeboats, naval vessels, fast ferries, power-boats, yachts, stern gear (propellers and rudders), rigging: (wing-)masts and sails, canoes, kayaks, surfing and fish farms.”
Another clear example is the latest generation aerobatic aircraft, designed to work under extreme forces of +/- 10G.
We, aerial firefighting “scoopers,” are half-ship/half-acrobats. When it comes to effectively putting fires out, lightness and material strength matter; the lighter the design, the higher the payload. It is common to work with turbulence that produces large structural stress.
It sounds like a no brainer to me.
“Innovating is seeing what every one has seen and thinking what no one has thought” – Albert Szent.
The classic drawbacks the industry holds into to avoid composite materials come from resistance, not from material resistance but resistance to change. It requires a highly specialized workforce and both investment in knowledge and human capital growth. Most incumbents, comfortable as they are, are unwilling to assume it as long as we keep swallowing it as end-users.
While the upper echelons efficiently travel at 330 Kts in a carbon fiber design with the aerodynamics of a Formula 1. While Redbull Air Race pilots pull G’s, knowing that it is more likely that a vein in their heads will burst before the structure of the aircraft snaps. We, the Scoobydoo and Shaggy of the business, remain trapped in the 130-150Kts range, flying designs with the aerodynamics of a flying washing machine.
After 70 years fighting fires, and already in the 21st century, perhaps we have earned the right to operate a modern specific clean-sheet design?
3- Two turbines on the same axis
Two turbines on the same axis is another technological solution for the single-engine vs. twin-engine debate, which is very present among operators specialized in aerial firefighting. The proposal uses a powerplant capable of merging both worlds’ best, redundancy without asymmetries. It combines two turbines on the same axis through a common gearbox.
This is not even new as it is the standard on twin-turbine helicopters and what Pratt & Whitney calls it Twin-Pac.
Why have we accepted that in the rotary-wing sector, using the same turbine manufacturer, we cannot continue to safely assume a single turbine operation, and when it comes to fixed-wing we dodge the issue? Most modern fire fighting contracts require twin-turbine helicopters.
In the fixed-wing world, if your engine quits while flying low over the hostile terrains we normally fly over, even if we can glide, the outcome is clear: controlled crash in the best scenario. Unless you are virtuous by genetic, in addition to being lucky, and you manage to make an emergency landing with minimal damage as my colleague and friend Javier masterfully did.
On the contrary, others did not have the same luck, as is the case of friend and colleague Ricardo García-Verde, who was killed in Chile in 2016. The pilots closest to the accident including myself, have data and testimonies that indicate a potential lack of power during takeoff as the trigger for the fatal accident. By the way – the official treatment of the accident was a real collective botch in terms of standards and the final report of the Chilean D.G.A.C was shameful, as well as insulting to the colleagues and friends that continue in the frontline.
The alternative to it in the fixed-wing sector is called Dual Pac by Soloy Solutions, and although it did not take off in our market, it took off for real, and it’s advertised as available technology. The potential demand exists (the case of Securité Civile in France comes to mind, where they are not fans at all of anything with less than two engines, discarding the S.E.A.T. concept and opting for larger, more expensive options). Still, to know if there is demand and continue developing the idea with more powerful turbines, we need to ask around, carry out studies, and have a sincere desire to improve.
Whether it is the Dual Pac concept or the Push-Pull concept, the goal to achieve remains the same; enhanced safety through systems redundancy, without asymmetries, and keeping it relatively simple.
4-The electric engine
Other unstoppable realities are that of the electrical industry and the eco-sustainability trend. We see how this tendency, step by step, is gaining a more significant market share in the automotive sector.
And it is more than a utopia in the aeronautical sector. If you disagree, please ask the Magnix team, which has already repurpose several platforms, with dimensions and weights similar to those of some aircraft that we use in aerial fire fighting, to fulfill the new self-sustained electrical next-generation aircraft.
From the depths of the purpose of the task we carry out:
Am I the only one who sees the grace of a CO2-free platform to combat the destruction and CO2 emissions produced by uncontrollable wildland fires?
Resistance to change?
Electric amphibian aircraft is real. The question is not if it will hit us; it will. The question is, how long until we see an electric airplane in the 1500-2000 S.H.P. range capable of carrying 500-1000 US Gal for two hours?
No idea. Hopefully soon, in the next five years.
5-A light and safe in-flight self-refill system that makes ground loading unnecessary, and exceeds amphibious aircraft capabilities
Those who are still trapped by the old denialism, thinking that the concept is a utopia and it won’t change the existing paradigm, please take a look at the following links:
Through the Horizon 2020 program, the European Commission has financed a project for the in-flight self-refilling to turn Air Tankers into water scoopers with € 2.7M. See details
The Firecatcher F-45, the world’s largest single-engine fire fighting aircraft, a new design that includes a revolutionary in-flight water self-fueling system.
The key design goals of the F-45 are:
- Minimize operating costs
- Maximize effectiveness
- Maximize payload capacity
- Maximize reliability
- Minimize the complexity of the systems.
Instead of trying to hold into long contracts the Firecatcher program, in addition to the technological innovations, proposes a disruptive approach on the contract model:
Exclusive Use / Pay-As-You-Go (E.U.P.A.Y.G.)
- Provide fire-fighting aircraft for exclusive use, available to use 365 days a year.
- Support the aircraft nose-to-tail, including engineering/spares, etc.
- Pilots and fuel provided by the customer (they can be arranged too)
- Fire-fighting or training; you only pay as you go!
Source | Firecatcher www.firecatcher.aero
Utopía or the wave of the future?
Hmmm…Think about it through the following questions:
- Do you use traditional photo cameras since smartphones integrate quality cameras?
- Do you still take a walk to the video club to rent a movie or go to the cinemas since Netflix and other digital platforms are available from the sofa?
- Do you use and update your old Tom-Tom since we have Google Maps or Waze?
- Do you use regular cabs since UBER and CABIFY are also an option?
Some disruptive innovations succeed; some don’t.
We will see what the Firecatcher project is made of and if it takes off as a game-changer or fades away in a complex process.
If I were the controlling shareholder of one of the incumbents, I would be concerned and proactive instead of ignoring early-stage disruptions.
Another interesting one is what European company Roadfour is proposing through the Seagle.
11.000L scooper, safety-minded and built under 21st-century technology for a fraction of the cost of its existing competitors. It does not sound bad at all!
6-Fighting fires at night and seeing through the smoke during the day. Another utopia?
Maybe not so much.
It seems that some organizations like Elbit Systems recently spotted the potential technology transfer from the military industry and C.A.T. to aerial fire suppression, and E.F.V.S. systems are becoming better known by operators after webinars like this one.
SO WHAT ARE FIRE AGENCIES, END-USERS, AND SOCIETY NEEDING?
How can we improve current processes and products? What do we need?
Aware of all these advances and being nothing but a Tom, Dick, or Harry for the incumbents, I can ask myself WHAT DO WE NEED, and I dare to propose some innovations that could potentially lead us to accomplish the need.
As you can see, they have nothing to do with some relatively recent expensive creations that Russians, Chinese, and Japanese have brought to the market and that is not having the expected success (by their creators):
First, what is in the market, and what is the demand of the end-users?
The red ocean markets are flooded with light aircraft. Quite a few companies operating larger tankers and heavy scoopers compete for the most succulent contracts, but their prices are prohibitive for many end-users, and the cost/effect questionable by anyone who is in the bussiness. There is a noticeable economic gap between 4M$ and 40M$.
There are space and demand for an aircraft with intermediate capacity (4000-5000L/1000-1300 US Gal), which allows a high water delivery as amphibious scoopers and helicopters, with the simplicity that comes with a modern, specific, clean-sheet design. Price up to 5M €/$ is doable, after getting rid of the redundancies and complexities from obsolete assets and retrofitted systems.
I don’t think this concept made from the obviousness of the existing gap will join to take part and keep a small market share; I believe it has the potential to take over, change the rules of the game, and revolutionize the market.
Second, how can we improve current processes? What established and reliable technology is available, and what innovations should we develop to meet point 1?
Contrary to what is usually thought, revolutionary creations or designs that we consider groundbreaking, like the iPhone, are based on ideas that have already been around. It is due to the “Breaking, Bending, and Blending” creative process, well described in the book “The Runaway Species”, and in this 5 min fantastic video by its co-author David Eagleman.
Here is my raw creative process; a draft scheme showing the core ideas for a clean-sheet proposal made off borrowed technology and new features. I made it in early 2020 after moving away from the status quo, due to unpair policies and never-ending stagnation. It combines certified and proven modern components with innovations based on the above-explained breaking, bending, and blending concept.
Still is the individual, limited, and biased vision of a “front line” who has a dream. Or many.
Imagine what a committee of specialists made up of first-class airmen, engineers, maintenance technicians, aeronautical managers, forestry brigades, financial specialists under authentic leadership could conclude!
The powerful idea behind this article is that my view doesn’t have to be correct. It probably has sharp edges, and I am wrong in many respects.
I would love to be proved wrong since it is the attitude of questioning regardless of economic interests, the vision of other 10 restless individuals, the debate, the synergy, the healthy competition that will ultimately lead us to progress.
On the contrary, comfort, conformity, the status quo’s silent dictatorship, indoctrination, and holding on to long-term paradigms are all innovation killers and enemies of progress.
People at power levels should treat bold thoughts and disruptive contributions with respect. Our ideas represent our legacy. We want to be recognized, cared for, and supported. Ignoring ideas is the best way to convince front-line people that innovation is nothing more than a hollow mantra.
Please feel free to contribute to providing a better service to society
If you are a visionary, entrepreneur, an incumbent committed to the sector, you dare to question the status quo, you believe that we can and must improve, you like to take part in challenges, and you see merit in developing any of the ideas that I propose; I invite you to try turning them into something real!
If you think I can help you get things done, do not hesitate to reach out.
And if not, do not worry; in such a small world, I am sure we will still end up crossing paths sooner or later. Just say thanks and get me some dinner!
I admit my own biases influence me. Among these biases is the hindsight bias; perhaps I might also be falling on the affinity, framing, and self-serving bias.
But as real as my biases (which we all fall into, with more or less awareness), is the fact that my modus operandi is governed by my values, life philosophy, and my professional ethics.
I work globally as a consultant for the aerial firefighting industry, driven not by money, but by three fundamentals: the emotional imprint that my father, an aerial firefighter from the ’70s, left on me, the feeling of having a purpose while protecting people, and society, plus the self-imposed responsibility of leaving a legacy; a safer scenario to the future generations as well could be my son.
I am financially independent of flying. I certainly don’t need to endorse products or ideas that I don’t firmly believe in. I own my standards, and if I find a corporation aligned with my philosophy, bingo! I provide my services, and we establish labor synergy under a WIN-WIN framework.
I am the father of a family, a Spanish citizen, and an inhabitant of the world, so what is happening globally does not leave me indifferent. I consider I have the moral right to have an opinion. And I have the assertive right to change my mind and apologize if some of my statements are proven wrong or inaccurate.
Thank you for reading! Thank you for caring!