Aerospace America June 1 2016 Article (Original Article Link)
by Michael Peck - This article edited/updated*
William Cleary was struck by an inspiration one day 17 years ago*. “My son was on a third floor balcony and nailed me with a water balloon,” recalls the veteran Boeing aircraft engineer. “And I thought, why can’t you do this with a fire?”
Like the apple landing on Isaac Newton’s head, the prank spurred Cleary to come up with a new way to combat forest fires, one that would use military transport aircraft to douse flames with giant water balloons in the same way that planes drop cargo to troops or food and water to refugees.
More than a decade after Cleary’s eureka moment, supporters believe they’re at last close to securing the approval from the U.S. Forest Service, the final arbiter in most locales, to enlist the technology in the U.S. firefighting arsenal.
Smoky the Bear can certainly use the help. A record 68,151 wildfires scorched the U.S. last year, burning almost 41,000 square kilometers. That’s akin to obliterating all of Denmark or Switzerland. Forecasters say this year won’t be quite as intense. But even so, the Forest Service will field only 21 aerial tankers, some of them ex-Navy patrol planes dating back to the 1950s. The Pentagon will join the fight, but with eight U.S. military C-130 transports fitted with retardant-spraying systems, it’s not much of a reinforcement.
However, what if firefighters had potential access to hundreds of U.S. military transports, similar to the C-130s that the Forest Service is already using to fight fires? That’s the strikingly simple concept behind Cleary’s Precision Container Aerial Delivery Systems, or PCADS: Extinguish or cordon off flames by mimicking how military transports drop boxes of cargo by parachute.
Each PCAD consists of a triple-walled corrugated cardboard container housing a 275 USG* biodegradable polyurethane bladder that can be filled with water or fire retardant gel. The container has pyrotechnics timed to burst at least 300 feet above the ground.
“A one-ton water balloon,” says Ty Bonnar, president of California-based Flexible Attack Innovations, (now Saint Industries Inc.*) which is marketing the product to the Pentagon, state Air National Guards and internationally. Last September, Bonnar and Boeing secured a patent for PCADS, though the aerospace giant is no longer actively involved with the project.
PCADS can be dropped from any aircraft that has a rear ramp or cargo rollers, and that uses a cargo-dropping system like the Container Delivery System, or CDS, which the U.S. military has used as far back as the Korean War to parachute supplies. That qualifies many military transports, including C-130s, C-17s, C-27s, V-22 Ospreys, CH-53 helicopters and even Russian IL-76 and IL-78 transports.
As far as the transport pilots and loadmasters are concerned, PCADS is no different from the bullets and rations they’ve dropped over battlefields and disaster zones since the 1940s. Rather than conventional airtankers that are permanently fitted with tanks of fire retardant, “PCADS is an opportunity to separate the firefighting equipment from the delivery platform,” Cleary says.
PCADS offers several advantages, according to its proponents. One, it vastly expands the number of potential airtankers. The Forest Service currently relies on a small number of retired airliners or military aircraft permanently converted into airtankers by fitting them with tanks of fire retardant. The agency this year will deploy a polyglot collection of privately contracted aircraft, including five converted BAE-146 and four RJ85 regional jets; two converted DC-10s and two MD87s; a C-130Q and six 1950s-era P-2V maritime patrol aircraft. These will be joined by an HC-130H that will be flown by the Forest Service itself as the first of seven HC-130Hs transferred from the Coast Guard.
The Pentagon also will contribute eight Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, or MAFFS, tanks of fire retardant temporarily fitted to C-130H and J aircraft, which spray the chemicals from nozzles. The MAFFS are carried, two per wing, on Air National Guard C-130s in California, Wyoming and North Carolina, and on those flown by the Air Force Reserve in Colorado.
Even backed by the MAFFS-equipped aircraft, the Forest Service can muster only a tiny airtanker squadron compared to the 222 C-17s and 346 C-130s available to the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. If even a fraction could be spared from military duties to carry PCADS, that would be a considerable force. Military transports equipped with computerized and GPS-enabled navigation systems such as the Air Force’s Precision Airdrop System can also accurately drop PCADS containers.
PCADS also offers a more direct way of putting out fires, proponents say. Conventional firefighting aircraft drop retardant around a wildfire to keep the flames from spreading. However, Bonnar believes that PCADS is accurate enough for “direct attack,” in which water or fire-extinguishing gel is dropped directly on the fire to extinguish it or prevent its spread. Or, it can be used to create “wet lines” on unburned vegetation to keep fires from spreading.
PCADS may also be safer for flight crews than conventional airtankers that must spray retardant from low altitudes. Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Harold Reed, a former Wyoming Air National Guard chief of staff and a former commander of a MAFFS-equipped C-130 unit, says that some runs are at 75- to 100-feet altitude in rough terrain.
“It is the closest thing to combat,” says Reed, an independent expert who notes that weather or smoke often preclude low-altitude flights.
Because PCADS is dropping boxes that are timed to airburst above the fire, they can be dropped from much higher altitudes. “No more dive bombing,” Bonnar says. “Most of our missions will probably be at 1,000 feet during daytime.” Reed would like to see drops tested from 5,000 feet. Drops also can be made at night and in bad weather, conditions military airlift units are also trained to fly in.
Bonnar sees PCADS as complementing conventional airtankers, which don’t usually fly at night. PCADS can be used for night firefighting, when lower temperatures and calmer winds make fires easier to manage. To Bonnar, PCADS is best for carpet-bombing young fires, dropping a deluge of tens of thousands of liters of water or gel to extinguish a blaze before it gets bigger.
“There’s a place for PCADS, and a place for the airtankers,” he says.
Nonetheless, PCADS is currently not being used by any agency to fight fires. It has been approved by the U.S. Air Force, Air Mobility Command and the Air Transportability Test Loading Agency for use on Department of Defense aircraft. Later this year, PCADS will also undergo Operational Test & Evaluation to determine whether it can be loaded on Air National Guard C-130s. This solves the problem of what platforms can carry PCADS, but it doesn’t amount to approving the technology to fight fires.
The Forest Service says it is aware of U.S. Air Force U.S. Air Force the technology, but is not saying much more than that.
“The agency has been tracking the development of the PCADS system for several years,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Jones by email. “The last time that the U.S. Forest Service conducted tests of the PCADS system was more than eight years ago – the agency understands that a number of changes have been made to the PCADS system since that time and consequently believes that it would not be relevant or appropriate to discuss the testing that the U.S. Forest Service was involved in at the present time.”
PCADS supporters like Reed suggest that what’s blocking the Forest Service from adopting PCADS is a turf battle between states and the federal government over who owns firefighting resources. States control the C-130s in their respective state Air National Guards, which in theory should allow governors to commit MAFFS equipped aircraft to putting out wildfires.
However, the MAFFs gear itself is owned by the Forest Service, which must authorize states to use it. Reed says Wyoming once had to wait three days to get Forest Service approval to install MAFFS to quell a fire, which let the fire spread. The attraction of PCADS, as states-rights supporters see it, is that controlling both the C-130s and the PCADS equipment offers more flexibility and quicker response times, especially for fires on state- or privately-owned lands.
Still, the Forest Service may have reason for caution. While conventional air tankers and MAFFS gently spray retardant, PCADS involves dropping 900-kilogram boxes from the sky. Though the containers are now set to burst above the ground (the original design had the boxes hit the ground like a bomb), a malfunction could pose a danger to people and property below, which has occurred during regular military cargo drops. *The current PCADS system includes fail safes that have been tested and proven to deploy in the air with zero failures to date.
Even so, Cleary expects PCADS to ultimately emerge as the cavalry riding to the rescue, as in the movies. Bonnar shares that sentiment.
“It’s when you’ve thrown everything at the fire, and it still gets out of control, and we can’t see any other way to stop this thing,” he says.