Working wildfires over the North American summer corrals pilots and engineers into small-town bars nightly to consume a bucket of wings on beer-soaked bench tops. It’s the most wonderful time of the year (a working pilot has less time to complain…) and with the coagulation of talented minds, chicken parts (where do they get that many little legs & wings?) and fluids in a confined operating space, you soon have some pressing world issues sorted.
Nothing useful like how to end world poverty or what to do now there are no more plastic bags at the supermarket but instead the toughest questions of our business; “Where’s the smart money in the utility helicopter game right now?”
It turns out the answer is as complicated as the different roles our helicopters occupy and depends on where we are in the cycle. If I open my logbook and review the halcyon summers of 2005 to 2007 I see exploration and drill moving dominating history. Fires were something we did in the few spare days between contracts. Then the burning ambition was a seat in a Bell 204’s or 205’s and Bell 212’s started to emerge as the OEG sector demanded composite fuselages, magenta lines and Italian designed leather for their rig workers. Fleets of Bell 212’s were repurposed as utility operators worldwide shrugged off despair over the fuel burn and reduction in useful load (versus a Bell 205) to embrace twin-engine redundancy. As the decade evolved, Honeywell helped to solidify the relevance of the Bell 212 pushing the Bell 205’s T53 Engine overhaul price past seven figures. In 2012 you could buy a Bell 212 for the price of the T53 engine and that reminded operators that it was a sensible place to spend a day bucketing fires. Forestry paid the fuel bill anyway.
Come 2008, the Global Financial Crisis strangled the industry in a rear naked choke and by 2012 many pilots had tapped out to become plumbers, engineers found project work and companies treaded water waiting for the future. The future arrived in the form of UAV’s and drones which killed off the photography work as times of peace crushed gold prices and the need to explore. Cleaner means of combustion made Oil and Gas (OEG) unpopular and very quickly the business of “chasing fires” shifted from low priority (unless it was your town burning in 2006) to become the big idea for summer.
Until 2016, the business of chasing fires was still unpredictable but the world changed after the Fort McMurray Fire made world headlines and the 2017 Elephant Hill Fire blocked out the sun to exacerbate Antarctic melting in spectacular fashion. According to Fire Ecologists the behaviour since 2016 was not predicted until 2050 (who would even admit to that mistake) but since then a burnt 24,000 square kilometres of British Columbia alone, has cost the local government more than $1000,000,000 (that’s a BILLION for you engineers out there) and proved you can’t fight fires with UAV’s yet. Every helicopter operator from Portugal to Sydney is hoping that 2019 will be a trifecta year.
With Fires the focus, the contract your bank manager really wants you to have is an Initial Attack [IA] Contract. It comes with not so much flying but copious amounts of stability and regular income and it was during the bidding of IA contracts in the mid-2000’s that the Bell 412 first shook up the status quo. Bell 412’s seductively won a host of contracts in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. Until then the only 412’s seen in Canada were camouflage green and hover taxied everywhere but since have proven to be better than good and a model that has been replicated across Canada. Those four blades, two engines, and single pilot are an absolute game changer.
An Initial Attack configuration is one helicopter with a means of collecting and dropping water plus a 4-5 person firefighter team equipped with days of food, shelter, tools, hose, and pumps. The mission is reactive - prevent little problems becoming big problems. In the firefighting world, few of the tools have changed since Moses had a conversation with the burning bush.
You need copious rain or a mix of shovels, picks, water, and muscle. The sooner you can deliver those resources, the more likely you will prevent escalation.
The Bell 412 with the high cruise speed (thanks to the composite Main Rotor and fancy Blades) delivers that response over 25% faster than the 205/212. Once on scene, the compact BH412 Main Rotor offers better options for confined landings and when freed from the transportation role, a tanked aircraft quickly moves into suppression work delivering 304 US Gallons a shot. A significant feature of a tanked aircraft is you don’t need a highly qualified vertical reference pilot with 1000’s of hours on a bucket and 100ft line. You don’t even need to land to configure to longline. Just punch off the snorkel, start sucking and off to work. Anyone who can hover and manage a couple of tasks concurrently can be quickly trained on the tanked Bell 412.
As you now realize I know the Bell 412 market intimately from the Classic to the EP, so if you are interested to continue the conversation I encourage you to register your interest. There is plenty more to share and I’ll support your enquiry with expectations around W&B, aircraft configuration, airspeed and weight limits, operational considerations with tanked helicopters and our best numbers around operating costs.
Call or write today.