While the rest of the U.S. was celebrating a man walking on the Moon, I was sitting in a movie theater surrounded by an audience that has been walking on their own for less than ten years. Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue opens with a dedication to firefighters. In true Disney form, there are plenty of things for the little ones to enjoy as well as the adults. Where else can you find a soundtrack that includes music by AC/DC, a classic line from Seinfeld and a parody of a popular 70’s television show?
Aside from fabulous animation and some good-natured laughs, the movie illustrates the story of the challenges faced with fire and rescue missions. In an effort to get the details right, research crews from Disney visited air attack stations and smoke jumper bases. Vertical Magazine featured an article on their discoveries. “Almost everything, from aircraft to support equipment, was second hand. Helicopters and airplanes had former lives — from cargo planes in Alaska to Hueys in Vietnam. Even the equipment and buildings were in many cases recycled, from former military hangars to an old vending machine now used as shelves in one base they visited.”
The Cast of Characters
In the latest movie, Dusty, the crop duster turned high speed racer, finds new life as a firefighting SEAT — single-engine air tanker. Passing his certification requirements proves to be a challenge with his damaged gear box that is no longer in production. Dusty’s new friends have had former lives before their firefighting assignments. Windlifter, a heavy-lift helicopter that worked as a lumberjack bears a resemblance to Sikorksy’s S-64 Skycrane. The commercial variant of the S-64, which is owned by Erickson Aircrane, can be fitted with a fixed retardant tank to assist in the control of bush fires. Dipper, a fixed-wing former cargo hauler in Alaska, can scoop up more than 1,600 gallons of water from surrounding lakes and rivers to douse fires. A transport carrier that spent time dropping equipment behind enemy lines in Korea, Cabbie may have been inspired by the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar used by the United States Air Force. And Blade Ranger, the team’s leader, represents search and rescue aircraft that hints at an Agusta Westland AW109 or AW139.
The first U.S. firefighting teams were Vietnam era pilots who combined their passion for flying with experience on military aircraft. Military surplus aircraft transitioned to firefighting operations. Today there has been a shift to private firms managing operations but the military aircraft are still flying. There are approximately 505 active firefighting helicopters in operation today with military surplus/military lineage helicopters making up 21% of the total worldwide fleet. The United States has 65 of those flying:
Bell UH-1 (Huey)
Sikorsky S70 (Blackhawk)
Bell AH-1 (Cobra)
Bell OH-58 (Kiowa)
The top flying fire fighting helicopter in the world is a military surplus helicopter, the Bell UH-1 (Huey), with a total of 88 in service at an average age of 44.8 years. Not coincidentally, the average age of the Huey’s places them in Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War. The fuselages for these aircraft may be standing the test of time, but their interiors, including avionics and safety equipment, are new.
To Keep Them Flying
The fire team depends on a talented and resourceful mechanic to help them stay flight ready. They also rely on the support of suppliers to get the right product delivered quickly. It’s up to companies, such as Honeywell, to continue to offer products which are designed to keep these old military surplus/military lineage helicopters flying…safely. We owe it to this mission segment to help keep these aircraft protecting the land and its people. Retrofits, modifications and upgrades (RMUs) enable these operators to install modern avionics and replace older engines with the latest technology to reduce operating costs. Products such as EGPWS, HTAWS, HUMS and Sky Connect enable these great pilots to continue operating great helicopter platforms which serve a greater purpose. As the team at Disney found out first-hand, wildfire firefighting is about the possibilities of second chances and the aircraft, pilots and mechanics are some of the best in the world.