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Staff writer Steve Geissinger and his son, Michael, 9, pilot a P-3 Orion air tanker in the U.S. Forest Service's prototype simulation center aimed at thwarting more deadly crashes. (U.S. Forest Service)
DENNIS BROWN thunders through blinding smoke over the Bay Area in an Army Cobra gunship attack helicopter, the first just converted to battle wildfires.

Using the Cobra's high-tech gear, the U.S. Forest Service aviator sees the raging flames of blazes to come with the official statewide fire-season declaration Monday. He radios data from smoke-piercing infrared gear to tankers and helicopters, ready for drops to save homes.

It all looks real — but the Cobra is parked outside. Brown's playing one of several roles in a huge, complex government video game of sorts, which wasunveiled Friday.

The facility at the former McClellan Air Force Base is the first aerial firefighting simulator where flight controllers and six pilots in different aircraft together attack a wildfire, like in the real world.

A series of deadly crashes have prompted moves such as creation of the simulator, part of an aviation safety center under development at McClellan to help the Forest Service's troubled aerial fleet.

"This world-class mission simulator will allow the Forest Service to do a better job on training, maintenance and aging aircraft issues," said Brown, the aviation safety officer for the region that includes California.

Brown and Dennis Hulbert, the regional aviation manager, acknowledged the agency is "struggling with those issues."

Inspired by commercial video games, Brown and Hulbert, said they managed to get the simulator, connected by 25 miles of wire, operational with $300,000 instead of the millions of dollars it could have cost.


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The rest of the new Aviation Center of Excellence at McClellan — run jointly with NASA, the University of California and defense contractors — includes a small nuclear reactor capable of producing neutron beams to reveal flaws in planes or parts, unlike any other existing technology.

Fire season mode

Two large, retired military planes, converted to air tankers and under contract to the Forest Service, recently broke up in mid-flight. An always dangerous public-safety force was plunged into crisis, triggering creation of a blue-ribbon panel that essentially declared an emergency.

Another deadly federal air tanker crash in April in Northern California during a training mission is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators said they have not ruled out any causes in the tragedy, including another structural failure.

Roughly two-thirds of a once-mighty but aging air-tanker fleet remains grounded over safety issues, with just 16 in the air this summer nationwide. Forest Service officials said they will rely on additional helicopters and small air tankers.

In addition, eight Air National Guard planes scattered across the nation can be quickly converted to limited air-tanker duty.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has bolstered California Department of Forestry funding by $7 million, despite deficit woes, so the agency can field its entire fleet of 23 medium-sized air tankers this fire season.

As of Monday, all of CDF's units statewide will have moved into fire-season mode, augmenting their regular firefighters with seasonal hires and staffing stations around the clock.

"We're once again preparing to battle wildfires," said CDF Director Dale Geldert. "Temperatures are beginning to rise, and vegetation is drying out.

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In other words, all it will take is wind and a spark to ignite the tinderbox that is California, from the Bay Area and the record death toll of the devastating Oakland hills fire, to Southern California, where the state had its worst fire season in 2003-04 in terms of burned homes and acres.

On Friday, as the Forest Service unveiled its new simulation center, politicians, TV cameras and the public got a look at the Cobra, which is assigned to California. Next year, the Forest Service will convert another Cobra so one can be stationed at each end of the state.

Known more from images of its awesome firepower blasting America's enemies, the Army gunship piqued the interest of the Forest Service for other reasons. 

The prototype firefighting Cobra's gear includes high-resolution cameras capable of reading a license plate at more than a half-mile and using infrared to see through smoke, all while delivering the images in real time to fire bosses on the ground.

In the conversion process, the Cobra's armaments are stripped by the military.

'A war game for pilots'

The public also got its first glance at the new simulation center, which is not meant to teach flying.

"It's like a war game for pilots and controllers," said Hulbert. "You let it evolve."

"Six stations create a mix of air tankers and helicopters that operate together in complex firefighting situations and communicate with each other and aerial supervisors directing the overall effort," Brown said.

"Programming simulates the flying characteristics of different types of aircraft and creates small, medium or large fires burning on hillsides or in canyons with selected burn rates, wind speed and direction," Brown said.

"Panel gauges and controls simulate retardant use, altitude and other real-life factors," he said. "Smoke density and drift, as well as the presence of equipment and firefighters on the ground, add to the complexity."

Those complexities of fighting fire from the air contributed to the recent deadly collision and crash of two state S-2 air tankers at a Northern California blaze.

"Our center is all about communications and coordination in the first safe mission-training environment," Hulbert said.

The simulation center, said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes, "should certainly make a difference in firefighting in California, as well as the western United States."

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.