Recently, the Georgia Forestry Commission advanced its aerial firefighting program with the purchase of two new 510G Switchback Thrushes. The aircraft were introduced to Georgia Forestry Commission’s Air Operations Supervisor, Clay Chatham, during a Thrush Summer Tour in 2015 by the late Frankie Williams of Souther Field Aviation in Americus, Georgia.
With a background in aviation as a pilot, Chatham flew patrol for the Georgia Forestry Commission for six years before becoming the Air Operations Supervisor. “The Commission selected the Switchback primarily for its local support infrastructure. It was impressed with the longevity of the maintenance cycles. Frankie sat down with me to go over the pros and cons of the aircraft. He was certainly a big part in our decision to go with the Georgia-based company Thrush Aircraft. We were going to need the close-by maintenance support that Souther Field could provide if needed and also, we were going to need the extensive training program offered in Albany [Georgia] by Thrush Aircraft,” explained Chatham.
The Georgia Forestry Commission’s Air Operations use an aggressive approach by outfitting the Switchbacks with the latest technology. Each aircraft is well-equipped with a Garmin G5 electronic flight instrument and Max-Viz Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS) that use infrared cameras. This aid allows the pilot to see better in smoky conditions, including light fog and smog. The fire’s signature of infrared rays are displayed on the DynaNav GPS screen in the cockpit.
Other equipment includes FM and VHF avionics, dual cockpit with full dual controls and a Transland/DynaNav controller for the unique Switchback fire gate. One of the advantages of the Switchback is its ability to convert in a matter of hours from a firefighting configuration to ag spraying. Although the Commission will not use the aircraft for spraying, it is outfitted as such to improve resale value. The DynaNav controller has the capability to make successive drops between aircraft by transmitting data inflight.
The two Switchbacks were bought with a OneGeorgia grant (an economic development, growth and expansion effort) that includes aircraft and training, both transition and Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) operations. Thrush Aircraft is providing the training through its educational programs (see page XXX).
Georgia Forestry Commission Switchback pilots’ training starts with the aircraft’s airframe familiarization and turbine transition to proficiency, typically taking about four weeks with 5-6 hours in the Thrush simulator, 12 hours of classroom time and 5-7 hours of flight time in the Switchback.
The SEAT training program is 40 hours minimum and mirrored after the federal SEAT training program. Eventually, says Chatham, the Commission’s SEAT program will qualify for federal carding. This will allow the aircraft to participate in federal fires on Georgia land. An example of this is the large fires in the 483,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp in years past.
Including two Switchbacks, Air Operations utilizes 20 aircraft and up to 35 pilots, many working part-time during the fire season. These are 16 Cessna C-182s, one Super Decathlon, two Thrush Switchbacks and one Bell 407. The Super Decathlon is used for patrol, currency and tailwheel training. The Bell 407 is outfitted with a Bambi bucket and is hangared at the main base in Macon. With this many aircraft in the fleet, the Commission follows a general aircraft replacement policy for aircraft with more than 10,000 hours and/or 30 years old.
The Georgia Forestry Commission Air Operations Program operates from seven hangars strategically positioned throughout the state with one based in Macon, Georgia (KMAC) for its base of operations. Other locations include airports at Fulton County, Athens, Eastman, Waycross, Camilla and Statesboro. Although fires are fought throughout the state, the most numerous are in the northwestern area with its forests and southeastern area with its pine plantations.
Initially, Air Operations’ Switchbacks will depend on local fire departments for ground support. Eventually, Air Operations will have designated support equipment. Depending on the need, both water and fire suppressor/retardant will be used to extinguish fires. Retardant/suppressor products will be applied through the 20-gallon hopper rinse tank of the Switchbacks or through a ground based mixing system for products that won’t work with the aircraft’s rinse tank.
The Switchbacks will be based as needed from any one of the seven bases. This will allow the aircraft be on a fire anywhere in Georgia in less than an hour. Beginning in the fall of 2018, they aircraft will be in full operational mode, on-call seven days a week. Two pilots will be assigned, one for each aircraft. Eight pilots will be trained to fly the Switchbacks, with all coming from the patrol division with 9-12 years of flying experience with Air Operations.
The pilots will follow FAA Part 135 flight crew duty time requirements. Per Chatham, “Flight crew time should normally not exceed eight hours total flight time or five hours Night Vision Goggle (NVG) time in a helicopter or seven hours NVG time in a fixed wing airplane with operable autopilot in any 24-hour period. However, in a time of extreme operational circumstance, such as a natural disaster or emergency, a forestry pilot may exceed these 24-hour restrictions. The pilot’s will not exceed 10 flight hours or be in a flight duty status more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period without the prior approval.
“It will be the responsibility of the pilot-in-command to determine if he and his crew have reached an unsafe fatigue level even prior to attaining the maximum eight flight hours within a 24-hour period. With the exception of emergencies, no flights shall be scheduled for a period of 12 hours following a flight terminating after 24 hours.
“The safety of the missions shall be the first consideration and final criteria for any flight operations. We also will provide each crew member shall be provided the opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted rest in any 24-hour period.”
The Georgia Forestry Commission’s Air Operations Switchback pilots will experience a high degree of training from Thrush Aircraft between now and when the fall fire season starts. This will include simulator time, practice drops and actual small fire suppression. Although a SEAT operation is new to the Commission, its pilots and Air Operations Supervisor are well-positioned to conduct a safe and successful program. For all its efforts, Georgians will rest easier knowing aerial firefighting is readily available.