AERIAL FIREFIGHTING INNOVATION
Innovation in aerial firefighting, with few exceptions, is not O.K., it is K.O.
The technology gap between what customers demand and what incumbent organizations can provide has grown. Innovation is usually nothing more than a hollow slogan promoted and repeated over and over again.
We have repeatedly stated that society has state-of-the-art technology and that massive fires happen as “Black Swans.”; unavoidable surprises beyond the control of corporations and beyond government.
But when you dig deeper and look at the inside of the industry, you see that many specialized corporations have real difficulties adapting to new technologies and innovations.
As with anything else, there are exceptions.
Neither megafires nor financial crises are unpredictable Black Swans. Similar patterns repeat year after year and are no longer surprising.
We, as ordinary citizens, are also responsible if these issues become normalized, whether it is financial abuse or faulty services.
Why is there a technological gap between what customers want and what incumbent organizations are able to provide?
- Established firms tend to use continuous exploitation cycles, distinguishing themselves by infrequent, sustainable innovation; those that enhance existing technologies.
- We lack exploration cycles characterized by disruptive strategies which would drastically change products and services.
- Some companies in this industry are resistant to change.
- Organizations that follow the current paradigm sometimes struggle to connect with the original purpose their founders had back in their beginnings.
- Wildfires are not considered a Homeland Security issue, thus not as adequately funded as e.g. the military or other industries.
Same aircraft, same tactics, used 60 years ago
“Telephone did not come out of the persistent improvement of postal delivery” – Amit Kalantri.
As of today, we are still flying the same aircraft used 60 years ago for firefighting. Due to corporate interests and political pressures, we are stubbornly trying to repurpose them.
The case of the USA – California has already been discussed in this article. A state that continues to employ overstepped aircraft and tactics that could be improved based on recent studies. This is in direct contrast to the vast Air Force fleet, both in terms of cost and technology.
An example is the F-35 Lighting II, a fighter aircraft that the United States Air Force intends to buy more than 2,400 units for a price of $323 billion, or more than $100 million per aircraft. The most expensive defense program in history.
Meanwhile, they continue to use the Grumman S2-T, which was designed more than 70 years ago but adapted and retrofitted for a purpose it was never intended for.
AIRCRAFT BASED ON PRIMITIVE DESIGNS
We continue to fly the same aircraft we did 50-60 years ago.
I have seen the process firsthand:
My father spent the 70s jumping from a Piper Pawnee Brave to a Thrush Commander. He fought wildland fires around “Alto Ampurdán” in the Spanish Northeast territories, near Barcelona, and throughout Spain. As of then, the flagship of the fixed-wing fleet was already the Canadair CL-215, belonging to the 404 Military Squadron.
As a result of my father’s aeronautical legacy, I fly a wonderful aircraft called AT802, which is based on Leland Snow’s design and vision. Though the nose is more prominent and the shoes bigger!
AT802 Fireboss. As of now, one of the most effective solutions to fight wildfires
A Fireboss is the result of a worthy creative process. Bob Wiplinger was the major “driver” behind the Fire Boss system design. From the drawing board to a fully certified product, he worked closely with the Wipaire and Air Tractor engineering teams. This system has been a game-changer in certain aspects, combining an agile initial attack with a massive 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
In spite of nice corporatist designs and powerful digital marketing campaigns, we think we have NASA technology to fight fires every time a C-130 Hercules or CH-47 Chinook is deployed. Even so, the same designs have remained unchanged since 1954 and 1960, respectively.
While the CL-515 is marketed as top-of-the-line technology by its new investors, to me and others, it is actually just an improved version of the CL-215, 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.
So what changes have occurred since the 1970s?
A few, but not that many if compare it with other industries…
“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.
DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION – REAL GAME-CHANGERS
Disruptive 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).
Disruptive actions require a clear philosophy of life, a genuine, sincere, and valuable purpose. In order to effectively serve society, we need heart, intuition, commitment, and values beyond the short-term financial gains.
Paraphrasing Jobs once 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.
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 re-educate fire agencies on the importance of new technologies, then we will be able to position at a good starting point. From then, it should be downhill or relatively flat in the race to achieving optimum results for 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.
Firefighting “scoopers” are half-ships/half-acrobats. When it comes to putting out fires, lightness and material strength are important; the lighter the design, the higher the payload. But it has to be strong: turbulence can create large structural stresses, same as water interaction while scooping
Sounds like a no-brainer to me.
“Innovating is seeing what every one has seen and thinking what no one has thought” – Albert Szent.
Industry resistance to composites lies not in material resistance but in resistance to change. A highly specialized workforce and investment in knowledge and human capital are required. It is unlikely to be assumed by incumbents as long as we keep swallowing it as end-users.
While the upper tiers efficiently travel at 330 Kts in a carbon fiber design with the aerodynamics of a Formula 1, and Redbull Air Race pilots pull G’s knowing that a vein in their heads may burst before the aircraft breaks. We, the Scoobydoos and Shaggys of the business are trapped in the 130-150Kts range, flying older designs with the aerodynamics of a washing machine.
Having fought fires for 70 years and being in the 21st century, has it not earned us the right to use 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 using the Dual Pac concept or the Push-Pull concept, the goal remains the same; enhanced safety with redundant systems, without asymmetries, and keeping things relatively simple.
4-The electric engine
Other unstoppable realities include the electrical industry and the trend toward eco-sustainability. This trend is step by step, gaining a larger share of the automotive market.
In the aeronautical sector, it’s much more than a utopia. To implement the new self-sustained electrical next-generation aircraft, the Magnix team has already repurposed a variety of platforms with dimensions and weights similar to other aircraft we use in aerial firefighting.
As we look at the purpose of our work, we find that a CO2-free platform to combat the devastation and emissions produced by uncontrollable wildfires makes a lot of sense
It is possible to fly electric amphibians. Whether or not it hits us is not the question. The question is: when will we see an electric airplane with 1500-2000 S.H.P. that can carry 500-1000 US Gal for a couple of hours?
No idea. Hopefully within a few 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, is 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.
Another interesting one is what European company Roadfour is proposing through the Seagle.
12.000L 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.
WHAT DO FIRE AGENCIES, END-USERS, AND SOCIETY NEED?
What improvements can be made to current products and processes? What are we missing?
With all these advancements at my fingertips and not being more than a Tom, Dick, or Harry to the incumbents, I can ask myself, WHAT DO WE NEED? And even drop some innovations that could help us get there.
First, what products are on the market and what are end-users demanding?
There is a lot of light aircraft on the market.
Several companies operating larger tankers and heavy scoopers compete for the best contracts, but their prices are prohibitive for many end-users, and the cost/effect ratio is questionable by anyone who works in the industry.
Between 4M$ and 40M$, there is a noticeable economic gap.
There is a market for an aircraft with an intermediate water capacity (4000-5000L/1000-1300 US Gallons), which can deliver as much water as amphibious scoopers and helicopters, with the simplicity of a modern, specific, clean-sheet design. Once the redundancies and complexities of obsolete assets and retrofitted systems are removed, it is possible to create an aircraft which is both effective and economic
Based on the obviousness of the existing gap, I don’t think this concept would join to take a small share of the market; rather, I believe it has the potential to take over, change the rules of the game, and revolutionize the industry.
This is still an individual, limited, and biased view of a “front liner”.
Imagine what a committee of specialists made up of first-class airmen, engineers, maintenance technicians, aeronautical managers, foresters, and financial specialists could accomplish under authentic leadership!
This article’s main idea is that my view doesn’t have to be correct. It probably has sharp edges, and I may be wrong in some ways.
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 ultimately leads to progress.
Conversely, complacency, conformity, the silent dictatorship of the status quo, indoctrination, and clinging to long-term paradigms are all anti-progress and anti-innovation.
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.
Let’s work together to improve society
For those of you who are visionaries, entrepreneurs, or incumbents committed to the sector. To those who dare to challenge the status quo, believe we can and must improve, and love challenges, I encourage you to push hard!
We have a common responsibility.
Thanks for reading! Thanks for caring!
(The original extended version of this article published in early 2021 could be found here)
I am am aerial firefighting pilot, instructor, and examiner. I have performed more than 15 seasons firefighting, and logged 7000 hrs in stick and rudder aircraft, of which 1500 are on the amphibious scooper model called Fireboss.
I admit my own biases influence me. 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 own my standards, 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.
I am financially independent of flying and organizations. I certainly don’t need to endorse products or ideas that I don’t firmly believe in.
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 left on me (aerial firefighter from the ’70s who died when I was 8).
- The feeling of having a purpose while protecting people and society.
- The self-imposed responsibility of leaving a legacy; a safer scenario to future generations.