Eric Schwab is the Forest Service’s battalion chief for the Mendocino National Forest. He’s sitting in a simulated cockpit and instead of looking out through windows, he’s looking at three computer screens that replicate a computer-generated fire scenario: “Basically, I’m just coming around, watching for the fire and getting lined up, slowing the air speed…and then come in and drop the retardant about 250 feet above the ground and then clear out in a safe direction.."
Aerial firefighting simulation is a major part of the training program at McClellan put together by the Forest Service, UC Davis and NASA. Schwab says the simulator uses low-cost computer game technology to train pilots in techniques that will save lives. "It does look a lot like a video game but it’s a very realistic video game in the fact that I’m interacting with all the other aircraft….just like I would in real life..."
Panel gauges and controls simulate retardant use, altitude and other real-life factors and smoke density and drift as well as firefighters on the ground add to the complexity. Bob Coward is a fire service supervisor that works out of Redding. "I fly lead plane and smoke jumpers…this is a good simulation and if you haven’t flown in the winter….next fire season."
While many wild land fires are fought on the ground, large air tankers and other aircraft are still important tools. But after several deadly accidents, the forest service grounded the entire air tanker fleet last year. They’ve been gradually adding aircraft deemed safe back into service and officials say they have a sufficient mix of aerial resources to meet this fire season, but just two months ago another air tanker crash near Chico killed two pilots.
Dennis Hulbert is the regional aviation officer at the Forest Service’s Wildfire Training Center at McClellan. He helped develop the program and says their objective is to prevent deaths. "The accident rate is always our driving force….underlying this whole thing is to make it safer. We want them to be able to interact and….not training them to be pilots..."
Other facilities at McClellan Park will be used for the program including a nuclear reactor that will help scientists look for hidden defects in aircraft parts and to take x-ray images of whole aircraft to make sure the planes are in good working order.