National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Helicopter Performance

Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Nov 2020


Certain helicopter missions push the limits of the aircraft’s performance capabilities. Items that could reduce the effectiveness and increase the risk of the mission include weight, temperature, altitude, and visibility. Below are some points to remember when evaluating missions.

  • Helicopter missions that transport external loads increase risk.
  • A helicopter’s performance/lift capabilities decrease as temperature and/or altitude increase. Be watchful of conditions that are “High, Hot, and Heavy.”
  • All helicopters have different maximum performance capabilities. Be aware of the capabilities of the specific helicopter that you are working with.
  • Low-level helicopter operations often occur in heavy smoke where hazards (e.g., trees, snags, antennas, visibility, turbulence, and other aircraft) increase the risk significantly.
  • Determine the risk level for every mission. Is the risk level acceptable? Can the risk be mitigated? If the risk is not acceptable or it cannot be mitigated, then the mission should not be flown.
  • A large part of the success of a helicopter mission is the result of clear and effective communication between the pilot and the user on the ground.
  • Accurate target and hazard descriptions are essential to a safe mission. Gather this information and relay it to the pilot. Things to consider in the description include:
    • What would the target look like from the air?
    • Are you located where the pilot can see you?
    • Do you have a signal mirror?
    • Are you using cardinal directions or clock directions in relation to the track of the aircraft?
    • What is the wind direction? Provide this information to the pilot.
    • Are all firefighters clear of the drop area?
    • Is there a safer way to accomplish the suppression action?


If available, have a pilot explain how to complete a load calculation and the effects of density altitude on aircraft capability and allowable payload.


Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
10 Standard Firefighting Orders, PMS 110 
18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118
10 & 18 Poster, PMS 110-18
NWCG Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center


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