National Wildfire Coordinating Group

First Use of a Helicopter for Firefighting – June 26th, 1946


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?


The helicopter has proven to be a valuable tool in wildland fire operations and support for many years, transporting firefighters, moving cargo and equipment, dropping water and retardant, flying reconnaissance and observation missions,  aerial ignition work, long lining, and simply providing eyes-in-the-sky fire  information to the incident commander or burn boss. There are few fires where this aviation resource is not utilized in some capacity.

You would think that the value of the helicopter would have been recognized from the outset but on the contrary. Helicopters were considered “far from perfect” and at the time (WWII) almost impossible to obtain. Nearing the end of WWII Sikorsky was delivering many models of helicopter to several branches of the military and receiving orders for more; all other orders were low priority. Forest managers continued to watch the development of helicopters and contemplated how they might be used post-war.

1943 – Ontario Canada’s Department of Lands and Forests (DLF) makes inquiries about the purchase of a helicopter for experimental purposes on wildland fires. They were denied due to lack of availability. British Columbia Forest Service continues to look at the practicality of using helicopters for moving firefighters and gear into the mountains for lightning fires.

1945 – Canada’s DLF contacts Sikorsky and is told that there will be modified versions of the military R5 available very soon and that they will be suitable for the forestry missions needed.

April 1946 – the US Forest Service and several other agencies in California view an Army Sikorsky R5 perform firefighting operations. Having limited capacity and range as well as being expensive, it was not considered to be developed enough for firefighting use.

May 1946 – Bell Helicopters certifies the world’s first commercial helicopter, the Bell 47, and continues to look at using helicopters for forest fire suppression.

June 1946 – A Bell 47 is flown for DLF on a geophysics survey and is seen by a Fire Protection Supervisor while on the fireline. Instantly recognizing the benefit of seeing the fire from above he drives to the landing zone to find out if he could use it for his fire. The pilot Gerald (Jay) Demming in the Bell 47 flies the Forest Supervisor on a fire perimeter recon and lands near a problem area making the flight the first use of a helicopter for wildland fire operations.

Summer 1946 – Alaska Fire Service uses helicopters for fire recons and Military helicopters are used on Southern California fires for mapping and gear transport.

1947 – Angeles National Forest is the first to contract helicopters for comprehensive firefighting duties.

A Bell helicopter

The Bell Helicopter 1947

Discussion Points:

The summer of 1946 marked the beginning of a long relationship between wildland fire and helicopters, one that would be marked by many tragic events. Everything was new and lessons were often learned the hard way. The SAFECOM system today helps get the word out to aviation users about many lessons learned. You can query by Agency/location and find out what lessons have been learned in your area and much more.

  • What other sources of information are available to us today to help us learn what has already been learned by someone else?

It is not uncommon for firefighters not trained in helicopter operations to assume their safety in and around the aircraft is being well managed by the aviation specialists, and it is BUT remember that your safety is also your responsibility. 

  • Reference the Aviation Watch Out Situations in your IRPG page 52. Discuss the meaning of the watch outs and how they may apply specifically to you and your crew/unit.


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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