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Scooping reconaissance

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If not, for a better understanding of the context, it would be beneficial to return there before continuing.


Having flown the Air Tractor Fireboss for several organizations and in different countries, I have noticed that many safety events continue to occur repeatedly. There have been at least five incidents and accidents related to scooping site reconnaissance that could have been prevented if some barriers had been implemented.

Water reconnaissance is crucial for float plane pilots to ensure their safety and the operation’s safety when scooping from bodies of water. By identifying potential hazards, suitable scooping sites, and assessing water conditions, pilots can make informed decisions and minimize risks.

Here there is a summary of an accident in Spain back in 2011 where the Fireboss ended up atempting to scoop in a less than 10 inches depth.

12 years ago, we already had some official recommendations on the points we are going to refresh today:

  • -Pilots not having the right information for the assessment.
  • -Rushed and poor assessments.
  • -Light conditions.

Since then, there have been a few very similar events.

Today, some organizations continue repeating the same mistakes and last season we saw a few related incidents and accidents.


The full report can be found here. It is a Google Translated version of the original Spanish Accident report. Though some words may be inaccurate, the main points can be understood by anyone.

2011_020_A English

If we don’t want to end up crashing an aircraft, starring another report, and being air lifted out from the shallow by a helicopter while Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing “In the sha-ha, sha-ha-llow,” then we need to stay away from shallow and hazardous scooping areas.

How can we avoid ending up in this scenario?

As individuals and organizations, there is a lot we can do to prevent these incidents.

First, what is causing these events?

  1. Rushed assessments (such as doing a quick flyby or rushing straight for a known area)
  2. Poorly performed assessments (such as not considering the sun’s position and flying low)
  3. Not having a guide for scooping sites or not up to date.
  4. Not having real-time sources of information, such as those available for airports and terrain (Foreflight, Jeppesen, etc.)
  5. Role complacency, where only one experienced leader is actively looking, and the rest of the group is either following or busy flying in formation
  6. Ineffective scanning, where pilots look but fail to identify potential hazards.

It is crucial to identify the root causes and potential solutions to prevent such incidents from happening.

Here are some solutions to the issues we identified:

1-Rushed assessments:

It is important to take the time to conduct thorough water reconnaissance and assess the scooping site before beginning the operation. Rushed assessments can result in pilots overlooking potential hazards or not identifying suitable scooping sites.

A half-full can of soda can potentially damage your float. A tree trunk or branch will definitely get you in trouble, but can you imagine what submerged rocks can do to your aircraft?

Pilots should plan ahead and allow sufficient time for the reconnaissance phase.


2-Poorly performed assessments:

Pilots need to consider the position of the sun and its reflection when assessing the water’s condition. A low sun angle or strong reflection can make it difficult to identify hazards and suitable scooping sites. Pilots should aim to perform assessments with the sun at a higher angle and from the back, to minimize the impact of the reflection.

Here is an example from a vacation on a lake in Austria, and the differences when looking at the water with the Sun behind me and then walking to the other side to look at the same spot but with the Sun in front.

It is obvious that we don’t see the rocks at the bottom as well when the Sun is in front! Saaaa reflctiaaann

Here is a mitigation we used to solve 1 and 2, rushed and poorly performed assessments, aiming at being specific and methodical to build the same habits among pilots.

Nowadays, it is extremely easy to track compliance with procedures and see how our pilots are performing the scooping reconnaissance through Spidertracks 3D replay.

3-Not having a guide for scooping sites:

Pilots can benefit from having a guide or a list of recommended scooping sites to ensure they are using suitable locations. Guides can be developed based on previous successful scooping sites, or through collaboration with local authorities or experienced pilots.

In the accident we have just studied, it clearly stated the information was not up to date.

It is common for the Canadair operators as Spanish 43 group, French Securité Civile or Italian Protezione Civile, to have and mantain their own guide for scooping sites where they will identify the length, depth, hazards, etc. in a common format, almost like a VFR chart.

Having said that, in other countries where there are so many water sources, such as could be Finland, Sweden, or Alaska to the other side of the pond, it will be unrealistic to chart every single possible scooping site.

In those cases, we should have strong standards, establishing our categorization system depending on experience, plus other means of obtaining the information in real-time as we will see in the next point.

This image illustrates our standards and how they are translated into a map categorization. When deployed to a mission, we knew beforehand what lakes we would have available in the vicinity of the fire.

That previous work kept us in a better spot, less prone to improvisation and procedural drift.

4-Real-time source of information:

Pilots can benefit from having access to real-time information on water conditions, including water depth, currents, and wave action. This information can be provided through digital tools such as Garmin Navionics, or through collaboration with local authorities.

Navionics works. I have no doubt it is one of those technological improvements worth using and exploring. I own this learning to a guy called Henrik Landqvist, a very experienced sailor and seaman who introduced me to the app.

When we started using it in Sweden, most operators were skeptical and liked their own previous ways.

Today, I see more and more pilots helping themselves, and although it is true that not all the scooping sites would be charted, many of them are, and once we have the specific lake or piece of sea on our screen, our environmental awareness goes through the roof.

We can measure distance, see depth, rocks, etc.

Navionics works great for our seaplane use and the idea of keeping it simple in a busy single crew cockpit where we have to attend many “Airmanship” related tasks, on top of the specific “Seamanship” considerations. By only placing the pointer (or your finger in a tablet) it will inform on any item displayed in the chart as well the depth.

Here is an example of the area where the accident happened:

We could place our waterway between the 2 pins, red and purple into the wind, knowing the distance and staying away from the shallower areas (darker blue).

During flight and scooping we would see (from the corner of our eye) our tracking line matching our waterway.

Then we know we are within our safety protection area.

Worth to mention that the idea is not to fully trust Navionics and become fooled by technology.  The idea is to carry out our assessment as we would do otherwise, carrying out the reconnaissance flybys and scanning the area, but having valuable previous information and delimiting the area to be scanned.

Additionally, users could add notes on sandbanks as it is the case (where the red circle is)

Information: Narrow and deep channel that can reach 2.5 meters, even 2, but sand and mud. Enter very slowly to the starboard of the two small yellow buoys, at about 100 meters better, taking reference to the line of mussels to the bow north, maximum the first channel between the first two mussels. A pair of binoculars helps because you can’t see the bottom. Enter following a line parallel to the south coast from before the buoys, with an initial sounding of about 3.5 mtr, to avoid the strip of sand on the northeast side.

This specific platform and others will continue to evolve to give us more detailed information.

We cannot be far from being able to integrate this information into a Head-Up display we could pull down while performing our High Recon pass.

5-Role complacency:

It is essential to ensure all members of the team are engaged and alert during the reconnaissance phase. Pilots can benefit from rotating the role of the lead pilot or assigning dedicated team members to perform scanning duties.

It could get really boring to be just the follower, especially when wrongly briefed to follow a tight formation, which will deviate focus and attention from scanning the environment.


6-Ineffective scanning:

Pilots need to ensure they are actively scanning the water surface and identifying potential hazards. We often see pilots looking but failing to identify potential hazards. Effective scanning involves using a systematic approach and scanning the water’s surface from multiple angles, and it is something that can and should be trained.

Picture source

In conclusion:

By implementing these solutions, pilots, and organizations can reduce the risk of incidents related to scooping site reconnaissance and ensure the safety of their operations.

It is not one way or the other, doing it the way we have always done it, or just relying on technology. Both ends will take us to Lady Gaga singing for us.

It is that sweet spot, between not burying our basic skills and senses with technology, but accepting the help we have to some extent, that will bring the best results.

We have not been told, we have done it!

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