The Taskmaster

Bell’s Slick 407 is a Nimble, Quick Firefighting Tool
Matt Nicholls
January 15, 2014
By
Savvy operators realize that having a variety of aircraft in their fleets for myriad clients and missions is sound business acumen – and that’s precisely the perspective of three Canadian firms operating out of Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland. One of the aircraft common to each of these fleets, the Bell 407, proved to be invaluable this season for each operator, particularly in its role of fire fighting and suppression.

the Bell 407  
With a seating capacity for six crew members, the Bell 407 offers operators several crew configuration options.
 
The fire season in Canada this year was particularly harsh in some areas with more than 5,790 wildfires burning more than 3.6 million hectares of land. In the late summer, significant fires had spread across more than 350,000 hectares in northern Quebec (150,000 more than the 10-year average for Canada) and several helicopters were commissioned for rescue and to help contain the outbreaks.

 Jimmy Emond, general manager of Alma, Que.-based Panorama Helicopters, commissioned crews to battle several unprecedented wildfires in northern Quebec. His fire teams operated the 407 successfully for a number of these missions, making the aircraft the first of its type to perform utility in this region. Two of the most significant fires were located some 100 miles northeast of Alma, and Emond says the aircraft’s nimble manoeuvrability, speed and versatility made it an ideal fit for the mission.

“Last year, we used the 407 almost exclusively for VIP purposes – mining and government,” notes Emond. “But we started using the machine for fire patrol because of its capabilities, such as high visibility windows on the doors, for example. And because of its speed, we soon adapted it for other aspects as well such as bucketing and initial attack. It proved to be very capable with all aspects of fire suppression and fire fighting.”

Canada’s firefighting season  
Canada’s firefighting season was quite vibrant in 2013,
particularly in Quebec and Labrador. Up to 70 helicopters were
fighting fires in Quebec at one point. 


 
Panorama purchased its 407 in the spring of 2011 and quickly adapted the four-blade, single-engine civil utility machine for VIP use in the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t long before Emond figured out new ways to utilize the 206-L4 Long Ranger derivative. “The advantages the 407 can bring for fighting fires and fire suppression are actually quite significant,” he says. “The speed, extra passenger capability and fuel consumption are all great advantages over some other aircraft. The fuel consumption for us is about 15 litres less per hour than other aircraft types and when you are in the north, fuel is often hard to find – and prices can be astronomical. It’s very expensive. If the market comes back this year, we will definitely be offering this one up for clients and thinking seriously about getting another one.”

Emond says that perhaps the only problem with the 407 in his fleet is its popularity – everyone on the team wants to fly it. To alleviate the problem, he notes, Panorama carefully coordinates its training procedures to give everyone a shot at flying the aircraft. “We have to choose who will be trained on this machine because there is such a demand,” Emond says. “When someone has 100 hours, we put another low time pilot a chance. We want all of the crew checked on this machine because we want them to have the experience.”

Denis Simard, vice-president of operations at Héli-Inter (as well as vice-president of marketing for sister company Héli-Excel), says the 407 was used last season by Héli Excel and other sister firm, Mustang Helicopters, during the peak period of the fire season. It is a fairly new tool in the fire suppression and firefighting arsenal but it performed very well.

The 407 had to perform considering the amount of activity in the province. The fire season in Quebec was particularly active in 2013, with some 70 helicopters fighting fires at one point. “Between Quebec and Labrador, which have common boundaries, the Wabush area was extremely intense for a large period of time,” Simard says. “Héli-Excel has a base in Shefferville and in Goose Bay, Labrador, so we covered both sides of the border. And both areas had increased fire activity this year.”

Like Emond, Simard maintains the key advantages of the 407 in the firefighting mix are its speed and manoeuvrability. A fairly new aircraft to the company’s group in the east, it has quickly shown its value, especially given the extra capacity up front and its efficiency in bucketing procedures.

“The main advantage of the aircraft is the fact it is a nimble aircraft – both fast and rapid,” Simard says. “It has a very quick turning ability as compared to some of our competitors aircraft which are a bit slower to react. The payloads are also good and the range is great. Bell has supported us on it – we are a Bell Service Centre with the group, so overall, the machine was kept on fires as long it could, and we had a very experienced crew on them.

“Overall, the service of the aircraft and its performance, particularly when it comes to bucketing, is outstanding,” Simard continued. “The flight crew figured out by the number of litres they were putting on the fire per hour was very good, the best if you compare categories. This is why we kept them at the beginning of the season and we held on to one for five weeks – we kept using it from fire to fire to fire.”

The other important aspect is the extra seat. It makes all the difference when you are allocating crew members. “If you have a crew of three you can fit two crews to a site per trip, so at the end of the day, you can plan more efficiently,” he says. In addition to its firefighting attributes, the extra seat is very helpful when it comes to mining support. Notes Simard: “If you have a crew of three you can fit two crews per trip, so overall at the end of the day you can reduce the number of people allocated . . . when added to the speed of the aircraft, it’s just another plus.”

With fire contracts in Manitoba with the Department of Forestry, the Ministry of Natural Resources in Ontario and the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) in Quebec, the Héli-Inter, Héli-Excel and Mustang Helicopters team must use just the right resources under the directives of a specific firefighting body. Light and medium helicopters are used in tandem with other aircraft in different strategic configurations depending on the fire, topography and jurisdiction’s firefighting philosophy. In the end, staying adaptable and flexible is what counts, Simard says.

“Mediums are used on a very small scale in Quebec because, here, the main focus is on using water bombers,” he says. “They have a large fleet of CL-415 bombers which are primarily used for a heavy shell attack; then they like to follow up with intermediates – the B2s, B3s, and 407s. In Ontario, they don’t have as many water bombers so they have about 10 mediums as their dedicated firefighting aircraft. These are scattered across the province, with different companies and different contracts. We have three out of those 10. In Manitoba, it’s also a different approach.

“The bottom line is, it’s very much indicative of the equipment you have in place, including the topography and the accessibility of open large lakes or water sources. This is why if there are enough big fires in Quebec, they will add one or two or three mediums because they need to carry more people. After that when the situation is under control, they will have maybe three smaller aircraft assigned to a specific fire. This is their approach. In Ontario, they will stay with the mediums for a longer period of time over and above their 10. They can easily add 10 to them so, that’s their preferred aircraft. The mediums they primarily use are 205s and 212s. These are the two they like.

Adding the 407 to the mix enabled the team to expand its firefighting footprint. “Although it was new to us, it gave us an opportunity to test the performance of the aircraft with SOPFEU. The feedback we received from them was very positive, so we are very happy with the outcome.”

Versatility to the Max
At Goose Bay, Labrador-based Universal Helicopters, the Bell 407 is used in a variety of firefighting tasks including infrared scanning on the perimeter of a fire, moving crews to and from remote areas within the fire footprint, bird-dogging, and water bucketing.

Fast and highly manouevrable  
Fast and highly manouevrable, the Bell 407 is a very flexible tool for fighting forest fires. (Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter)

 
“It’s only limited by horsepower and imagination,” notes Universal president and CEO Geoff Goodyear. Universal has five 407s in its fleet and was one of the world’s first operators of the aircraft when they rolled off the assembly line at Bell’s Mirabel, Que. facility in 1996.

“We were one of the first operators in the world to have purchased the 407,” Goodyear says. “We had a long and happy history with the 206L and our missions and our clients missions had evolved to the point that though it’s a venerable aircraft, it just didn’t have the horsepower to carry six people all the time of work in a hot environment or carry that much water. So, when there was an option that historically is an effective configuration what with literally twice the carrying capacity obviously, we were enthusiastic right out of the gate. We initially bought two and have added three since.”

And while fire fighting is a key mission for the 407, the aircraft is equally useful in construction and infrastructure development, wildlife management, sling work, diamond drilling and more. Universal also has a dedicated 407 for medevac work. In the future, should the market dictate aircraft acquisition, the 407 will be a strong consideration, he says.

“It’s versatility tends to evolve within our company and within our local marketplace,” Goodyear says. “Any pilot, yours truly included, agrees that when the conversation includes more manoeuvrability and more horsepower, it’s a good situation. When you get a chance to use the aircraft over time, you realize it is such a reliable and stable platform that the feedback is invariably positive. And to be able to have that horsepower when you aren’t riding on the edge of the limits all the time, and the performance to be able to conduct wildlife management duties, firefighting . . . even something as basic as personnel transport. . . it’s a very good feeling.”

With client demands on the rise, choosing the right machine for the job is paramount, and Universal is constantly seeking ways to raise the bar. Goodyear, a strong advocate for safety and exceeding industry standards, embraces the new approach. “Our client base these days is far more educated then they were even a decade ago – to the point where they actually drive industry standards more so than the regulator,” he notes. “Another real pleasant pattern I see is clients are actually involved in the generation of those best practices, so it’s very much a cooperative and consensus process which, at the end of the day, doesn’t require any more input from the client because they were actually involved in the process.”

Working to put out fires with the right equipment for the task at hand, while exceeding industry standards in the process. It’s an excellent recipe for success, and the 407 is but one capable tool in a successful operator’s toolbox.

Fast Facts About the Bell 407
  • Engine: Rolls-Royce 250-C47B turbine FADEC
  • Crusing speed: 140 knots (259 km/hr)
  • Range: 324 nm
  • Seating: Five passengers in main cabin plus pilot and
  • additional passenger
  • Rotor diameter: 35 ft. (10.67 m)
  • Length: 41 ft. 8 in. (12.7 m)
  • Height: 11 ft. 8 in. (3.56 m)
  • Useful load: 2,347 lb. (internal) (1,065 kg)

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