Advancement in Effective Firefighting: Can Firefighting Planes Fly at Night?

Extinguishing wildfires at night is possible with NVGs.

More and more fire service agencies utilize aviation night vision goggles to improve their aerial firefighting efforts. Wildfire blazes are becoming more ferocious and prevalent – that’s the unfortunate reality.

One of the best approaches to diminish fires is at night. During nighttime, humidity increases, temperatures drop, and the winds die. These are ideal conditions to mitigate the severity of the blaze. However, it begs the question, “Can firefighting planes fly at night?” Yes, they actually can with the help of Night Vision Goggles (NVGs).

Thus, more and more fire agencies have instructed their aerial firefighters to become familiar with aviation night vision goggles for firefighters.

In today’s post, we’ll look into this night vision innovation and how it improves the aerial firefighting efforts of fire agencies worldwide.

Aviation Night Vision Goggles: Where It Began

Can firefighting planes fly at night? With NVGs, yes they can.

The origin of night vision goggles can be traced back to the Second World War. This was when the United States and Germany deployed several night vision systems toward the end of that tumultuous era.

Now, those night vision systems are called “Generation 0.” However, it wasn’t until the United States engaged in the Vietnam War that the night vision systems – now classified as “Generation 1” systems – were utilized more.

These Generation 1 systems, which required a small amount of illumination, such as moonlight or city lights, to function, eventually paved the way for Generation 2 units.

Generation 2 goggles were first used during the Gulf War. These night vision units were more advanced and robust than their predecessor. These aviation night vision goggles were a definitive improved version of the earlier types. At the start of the 21st century, when night vision technology continued to advance, Generation 3 aviation night vision goggles became available.

Today, Generation 3 goggles are still the best on the market. However, there are versions of it superseded by military-grade models. These are called “Generation 3+ goggles” or “Generation 4” systems.

These advanced versions have improved optical features, are lighter to carry, and have more optimal longevity than the earlier generations.

Firefighting with Aviation Night Vision Goggles

In conjunction with the military’s utilization of night vision goggles in defense and war, firefighting agencies in the United States have also started to embrace night vision technology.

NVGs are helpful in aerial firefighting at night.

Fire agencies started utilizing aviation goggles for firefighters in their firefighting strategies. This effort started in 1974 when the US Congress allowed the USDA Forest Service to use special funds to improve their wildfire defense efforts.

The USDA Forest Service used special funds to investigate new strategies and techniques to reduce the severity of wildfires.

However, the USDA Forest Service was one of many agencies trying night vision technologies. The Los Angeles County Fire Department, in particular, also conducted their experiments.

The first recorded use of aerial firefighting efforts during nighttime by the Los Angeles County Department was in June 1974. The department used a Bell 204 helicopter furnished with a fixed tank. They dropped water on a wildfire happening at the Angeles National Forest during that time.

In 1976, the USDA Forest Service procured its first NVG-ready helicopter. It was a Bell 212 on the Los Padres National Forest’s Rose Valley Helibase.

The following year, a second NVG-ready Bell 212 was placed at the Angeles National Forest’s Tanbark Heliport.

The Resurgence of Aviation Night Vision Goggles in Aerial Firefighting

The 21st century paved the way for the resurgence of aviation night vision goggles. The LA County Fire Department went back into using night vision goggles – but they did so carefully. They restarted the program in 2001 but only with limited usage. It did transition eventually into regular use in 2005. Fire agencies from other cities and counties eventually followed suit.

There had been issues with NVGs before.

On the other hand, the US Forest Service did not resume its NVG program. On top of that, they imposed strict night flying rules over areas managed by their organization.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has not pursued NVG-assisted flights. This is despite their state’s attempt to fund several NVG-equipped helicopters for their organization.

Night Vision Goggle Rules And Regulations

Night vision imaging system or NVIS technology has been known for a while but has largely been used in military applications until recently. NVIS is already gaining traction in several specialized aviation fields, including helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) and aerial law enforcement. Although police enforcement and emergency medical services are the most frequent civil users of NVIS in the United States, they are not the only ones.

Recently, firefighting and crop sprayers have become more involved – it is more economical to spray once the wind is minimal – university flying programs and airborne reporters. The added safety of NVIS benefits a vast range of users.

However, more than NVIS technology is required to ensure secure NVIS operations. Civilian operators who want to reap the benefits of NVIS adoption must adhere to a slew of regulations and be conversant with such standards for NVIS technology deployment to be a smooth and profitable experience.

The NVIS Crew

In the US, for the most part, EMS and law enforcement aircraft are single pilots. In the EMS world, a Bell 206/407 will be outfitted with a single pilot, a nurse, and a paramedic, all of whom will be wearing NVGs. When landing in an unimproved region, the nurse or paramedic supports the pilot as needed. In the law enforcement community, many missions will only have one pilot.

In contrast, urban area airborne law enforcement may employ a pilot and tactical officer who works with moving maps and addresses and communicates with ground officers. EMS usually operates under Part 135, although law enforcement may operate under Part 91, Part 135, or public service, depending on the purpose. The authority is obtained from their precise operational specifications.

Improving Visibility At Night

There are rules when using NVIS for firefighting.

NVGs improve nighttime safety margins without decreasing the minimum of night visual flight rules (VFR). They are a significant safety feature but should never be used to lower the minimum. After utilizing NVGs, most pilots/crews may feel uneasy returning to unaided night flight.

NVG activities are only permitted for night VFR. Operators must adhere to the appropriate rules’ ceiling and visibility standards and their operational approval/operations criteria. They cannot modify the type of weather they are permitted to fly in (for example, from night VFR to IFR (instrument flight regulations).

According to FAA regulations, part 135 operators must comply with Part 91 but additionally have VFR ceiling and visibility criteria disclosed in their operations specifications. NVGs boost situational awareness significantly by allowing the crew to see the landscape, obstructions, and changing weather patterns. Because of the improved situational awareness, they also minimize stress and workload.

Why Do Firefighters Use Night Vision, and How Can It Benefit Them?

The technology allows firefighters to see the safest way out of the fire by avoiding the hottest regions. In the most challenging scenarios, rescuers armed with the device can locate a person in a low-visibility region. Firefighters frequently use thermal imaging cameras to detect hot spots and look for people in smoke so that thermal radiation from a conventional fire with a temperature of around 1000 degrees does not destroy the instrument. Even direct exposure to solar radiation will result in irreversible damage to the receiver after a long period, at around 6000 degrees.

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