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Dropping safety – Part 2: Ground personnel

Dropping safety for ground personnel

If you got here, you probably started with this LinkedIn post showing the dangers of dropping over personnel.

If not, it would be beneficial to go back there to better understand the context.

Here is the video if you just want to take it from here:

Credits and original source here.

The video just showed the kinder side of a drop. Getting wet and refreshed while having a laugh.

Well deserved after the hard work performed during and exhausting day fighting fires in Chile.

This video also went well.

Love was in the air!  👩‍❤️‍👨🥰

⚠️ The drop: a critical moment for the safety of ground personnel⚠️

Water can flow…or it can crash, right, Bruce?

 The following link describes the other side.

How a person was hospitalized and fought for his life after a pilot dropped 400 gallons of water on him as part of a pre-planned scene.

It was also supposed to be fun, but it did not end well.

It was North-East Spain (Ampuriabrava) back in 2014

The guy, a well-known professional skydiver and video maker thought about recording a drop from inside. He worked next door to the Firefighting base and got to know the firefighting pilots.

He sat backward in a chair next to the runway, which also was the Skydivers landing area.

As the plane approached from behind, it dropped the load.

It was not even a full tank for the Air Tractor 802, only half: 400-500 US Gal

Next thing:

  • The man was found 10 m away, knocked unconscious, the chair smashed into pieces, and spectators performing CPR on the improvised performer.
  • His condition was described as “critical” when he was flown to Girona’s Josep Trueta Hospital by air ambulance.
  • The event had consequences for the pilot, who was responsible for a state-contracted aircraft. Since then, he has not worked in Spain again.
  • The organization went through a PR nightmare as it was all over the news for a while.

Before dropping over people think twice about the consequences for the people below, your license, and your organization’s reputation!

How can we make it safer?

During the past article, Dropping safety Part 1: Aerial Assets, we centered on safety aspects to make pilots safer and more effective.

In this entry, we bring a few tips from the air side to make you safer down there.

As pilots, if we fully understand the consequences of our drops and act accordingly, we will avoid headaches, troubles, and fears of harming others.

In many countries around the world, including leading nations such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Mediterranean countries, fixed-wing aircraft have proven to be safe and effective.

However, the importance of awareness and accurate coordination between ground personnel cannot be overstated, as accidents could occur if we do not fully understand what our capabilities and responsibilities are.

Let’s begin by fully understanding what we are dealing with in terms of severity.

The following video is great to see first-hand what a few thousand well-compacted kilograms can do to a vehicle.

It is clear from this drop safety video that drops can have devastating effects.

The aircraft is the S2 Tracker, which carries similar amounts of water to the Single Engine Air Takers.

There is a danger with helicopters too

Here it is important to highlight that accidents and incidents are not inherent to fixed-wing and could happen with both fixed-wing and rotary wing, where we have seen buckets falling as shown in this video.

Buckets could sometimes be released by emergency, getting entangled with the same helicopter, or even hitting and killing ground personnel, as happened in Chile a few years ago while swinging it too low with a long sling.

Being right below aerial assets, be it fixed-wing or helicopters is never a wise idea, but it is possible to coordinate effectively, establish workflows and designate safe areas as we will see in the following points.


In the same way a good landing starts with a good approach, a safe drop starts with effective coordination well ahead.

The ground crew should be notified when we are dropping, and we should know their exact location before the drop.

Before entering the fire influence zone, aircraft must establish radio contact at least 12NM-5 minutes in advance.

The distances might vary from country to country, but they won’t be far off.

Any aircraft entering the protection zone (about 5-7NM / 2 min) should communicate with the coordinator or be fully aware of any other traffic. In the absence of air coordination, aircraft must coordinate between themselves.


Effective coordination between Air-Ground and establishing a predictable work strategy are both key aspects of a safe and efficient operation.

When approaching an airfield or water source, the aircraft should call at least 2 minutes prior to dropping. This will give time for the Fire Brigade leader to instruct the rest of the team on moving away from the dropping area.


Using the siren and landing lights allows dissipation and alerts forces on the ground that they are within the dropping area.

In case of doubt, do not drop.

If your gut feeling dictates that there could be people down there, drop at less coverage level and higher.

Btw, coverage level represents the Gallons drop per 100 s.ft

Worst-case scenario for the people on the ground:

  • Low.
  • Fast.
  • And maximum coverage level.

The fire-gate is as relevant to us as the surgical instruments to a surgeon.

While other fire-fighting aircraft can only make “all or nothing”, “black or white” drops, we have the full spectrum of the rainbow colors to choose from during our drops

If you feel like you have not been taught properly about coverage level and drops, this own-made table will help you understand

Depending on the intensity of the flame we are able to select the desired coverage level and it will make a huge difference to the people below, By altering these variables, we could make it feel like rain or being hit by a truck.

This video transfers the concept of coverage level and how the fire gate works during our daily scenarios. It provides several examples of real drops, from the longest drops for grass/pasture to the most compact and forceful, and everything in between.


As mentioned earlier, when combining ground personnel and aerial assets, we need to know where each other is.

Having individuals spread all over the perimeter of the fire on separate micro efforts is far from ideal, as they will be difficult to see from above and their individual contribution will be less effective.

A better option would be for the fire personnel to act as a group in the same area where the aircraft performed the drop. This would enable them to finish the job, stop the spread, and stay stronger and more visible as a group.

In many countries that combine aerial assets with ground forces, it is common practice to start from the flanks forward, to finally be able to attack the head.

There is a tendency with the less experienced firefighters about tackling the head too soon when the fire has too much energy and there is too much smoke.

This will make our drops ineffective on most occasions.

And we will be more exposed to hazards.

It is important to follow instructions and respect hierarchy, but learn to say no.

Remember that you are responsible for your safety and the decisions to be made involving the aircraft.

The picture below is a good example of a too-powerful head for a direct attack.

Perform a direct attack there would be arguable.

By extinguishing a part of the fire feeding the head, the overall energy of the fire is reduced.

As a result, less smoke covers the head, allowing aircraft to attack it later.

Further, ground personnel will remain away from the spread of the fire, so that they are less likely to be trapped.

Image from Jorgen Eriksson (SAAB)

Safety Margin

Personnel on the ground must move to the side before the drop takes place. When the pilot announces 2 minutes to drop, they should establish a safe distance.

50 m is usually a safe distance, but it will depend on the aircraft, the country, the fire brigade standards, etc.

Ground personnel should return to the flank line after the aircraft drops to continue working on the fire line.

Do you know what fire line means?

A fire line is a break in fuels created by removing all vegetation up to an existing barrier.

Ground personnel spend a lot of their time establishing or getting to a fire line.

In the following drops the aircraft will continue to overlap the drops, so in addition to the lateral distance granted, there will also be a margin from the rear to the front, as seen in previous images. Ground personnel would focus on finishing drop 1 and the aircraft for the following drop would be ahead – drop 2 – drop 3 and so on).

Image from Jorgen Eriksson (SAAB)

Types of drops: Indirect attack vs Direct attack 

During a drop, we might get asked to perform an indirect attack or direct attack.

In the indirect attack, we will drop offset, normally building a chemical line with retardant, or reinforcing an existing break, either made by the ground forces present there or naturally present (fire break, rocks, roads, etc…)

In fires we can cover all the size of the flames, or when we still can enter and be effective in reducing intensity, we might get asked to drop right over the flames. The drop should be placed, whenever possible, so that 1 /3rd covers the fire part and the other 2/3rds the green (unburnt).

This will lower or remove the flames while refreshing the area to be burnt.


It is pertinent to highlight that a combined effort is needed.

It is not one or the other, the aircraft or ground personnel.

Sometimes we see ground personnel moving away completely and staying away while the aircraft works.

That is not the most effective.

Sometimes we see ground personnel not moving at all.

That is not safe.

And sometimes we see aircraft missing the drops completely due to inaccurate instructions or other factors.

Neither effective nor safe.

A combined effort under effective 2-way communication becomes essential.

The correct flow of events

  1. Aircraft reports 2 min to drop
  2. Ground personnel move away to a safe distance
  3. Aircraft drops
  4. Ground personnel return to the line to work in the area where the aircraft just dropped, which must be wet, flames low, or no flames.

The operation repeats and after a while, everyone gets into a predictable flow expecting the aircraft to come back after a certain amount of time, which will repeat. In a typical scenario, aircraft drop every ten minutes for scoopers and every thirty minutes for land-based aircraft.

If it is determined that the water delivery rate is too high, for example, 5 min between drops because the water source is nearby, and ground personnel cannot clear the area and return in between drops, then the area should remain clear and ground personnel can focus on another area, for example, the opposite flank.

⚠️ In case you get caught by an unexpected drop ⚠️ 

If the forces on the ground get caught by a drop in the target area, what can they do?

Fire crews gain upper hand over Greek blaze

Each country and organization may have different standards, please make sure you know yours.

As a general guideline and in the form of known good practices, please consider the following as well:

  • Do not run, unless you are sure that you can get out of the area being hit.

  • Do not protect yourself under trees, as the drop can break branches and reach you.
  • Never stand out, unprotected, in the drop area.
  • Those individuals that cannot avoid the drop, must lie on the floor belly to the ground, facing the aircraft, with the helmet and glasses on and well secured on the back of the head, feet apart to keep the body stable and remaining equipment very firm.
  • Take advantage of the protection of large and firm objects, such as large stones and vehicles.

Stay safe down there!


If you found this post insightful, you might also enjoy the first part: Dropping Safety part 1: Aerial Assets

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