Nearly a Century of History
With beginnings dating back to 1929, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Beaver Program, based at the Superior National Forest Seaplane Base in Ely, Minnesota, has a long and rich history that precedes even Smokey Bear. Local seaplane pilots began flying fire detection flights and hauling fire crews for the Forest Service in 1929, and, in 1935, the first contract was issued for seaplane usage. The Forest Service acquired its first dedicated aircraft to support the Superior in 1938, a four-seat Stinson SR6A floatplane, and the program has been in continuous operation ever since. Construction of a hangar, dock, and ramp on Shagawa Lake in Ely was started in 1941 and expanded in 1961 to accommodate a growing fleet of aircraft.
Over the years, the program has utilized a variety of aircraft, including the original Stinson, as well as two other Stinson 108 Station Wagons, a Piper J-4 Cub Coupe, a Norseman, a Seabee, and several Cessna 180 and 185 Skywagons. The current fleet of three de Havilland Beavers was acquired in 1957, 1959 and 1967. Two of the three Beavers were purchased directly from de Havilland and have spent their entire lives operating out of Shagawa Lake. The third Beaver is a military model that served for several years in the U.S. Army before being acquired by the Forest Service. Any time the ice is out in northern Minnesota, all three aircraft are on Edo 4930 straight floats with a 125-gallon water bombing tank installed. In winter, the aircraft are pulled off floats and put on 8.50×10 wheels with de Havilland hydraulic wheel skis attached.
Modifications to the aircraft include the Wipaire 5600-pound gross weight increase kit, a ventral fin on the underside of the aft fuselage, and Kenmore Sea Fins on the ends of the horizontal stabilizer to improve directional stability. The aircraft are also equipped with Garmin G500 glass panel instrumentation along with two independent GTN 650 GPS/COM/Navigator units. Two VHF and two FM radios, in addition to an 800 MHz input for fire and law enforcement handheld radios, provide extensive communication capabilities. A camera port on the underside of the fuselage allows installation and use of a tree-seeding hopper as well as a fish stocking tank, both of which, along with the water bombing tank, were custom fabricated at the hangar in Ely.
The program is staffed with three full-time Beaver pilots and, occasionally, contract pilots are hired during the summer. A full-time Airframe and Powerplant mechanic with Inspection Authority privileges and a Facility Manager are both employed year-round. The hangar/maintenance facility on Shagawa Lake in Ely is fully equipped to conduct aircraft configuration changes and 100-hour and annual inspections in addition to most service bulletin and airframe directives that apply to the three 60+ year-old Beavers.
The program’s primary area of responsibility is the 3 million-acre Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota. Included entirely within the forest is the 1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Three separate Prohibited Areas (P-204, P-205 and P-206) overly the BWCAW and prohibit aircraft from flying below 4,000 feet MSL. USFS Beavers routinely receive permission from the Superior’s forest supervisor to fly inside the prohibited areas, and to take off and land when conducting fire, search and rescue, or law enforcement missions. Flight permissions are also granted for Department of Natural Resources fisheries support and wildlife and forest survey flights.
The Beaver’s impressive load-hauling capabilities, short takeoff and landing performance, and reliability make it the perfect aircraft for an operating area short on roads and runways, but long on water and ice.
During fire season, which generally runs from April through October in northern Minnesota, the pilots focus on wildland fire support. Prescribed burns undertaken by Forest Service firefighters lower the potential for high-intensity wildland fire by reducing hazardous fuels. Prescribed burns also restore fire as an ecosystem process. The Beavers support prescribed burns by observing smoke dispersion, burn progression and the potential threat for the fire to compromise planned boundaries. Beavers also deliver ground personnel and supplies to either directly support prescribed fire operation or to monitor fire behavior.
When fire indices reach certain levels, routine fire patrols are flown, usually in the afternoons when relative humidity is at its lowest daily level. Pilots fly standard routes over the Chippewa National Forest in early spring, and then on the Superior National Forest from May through September or October. Any previously unreported smoke or fire is reported to the Forest Service operations desk in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which coordinates further action.
The Beavers can provide a fire size-up – a detailed report on incident location, size, characteristics, spread potential and threatened structures. For fires in locations that are easily accessible by ground forces, the pilots can help direct firefighters on the quickest approach and report winds and progression.
For remote fires that are more difficult for ground forces to access, or any fire that threatens structures or has limited water sources, ground forces or dispatch can direct the Beaver to conduct initial attack via scooping and dropping water with the water bombing tank. The tank is permanently installed; however, the pickup tube is carried inside the aircraft until initial attack is requested. Depending on the proximity of the water source, the pilot can drop water on the fire every three to four minutes.
The water tank was designed around an F-87 fuel drop tank and modified with six spring-loaded doors underneath, several openings on top, and mounting brackets that fit over and attach to the float struts. An over-center handle, which runs from inside the tank through the lower fuselage and up next to the front right of the pilot’s seat, controls the position of the doors. With the handle up and over-center, the doors are closed; when slapped down, the six-doors simultaneously open and release the 125-gallons of water inside. The scooping technique, once the tube is installed, is somewhat complicated and can be very uncomfortable when first learning the procedure.
The tube is installed either at the dock or once the Beaver is shut down in the middle of a lake, and is mounted on a bracket on the inside chine of the right float. It is secured with a lock nut on the chine and then a 180-degree bracket near where the tube empties into the tank. Once installed, the doors are normally left open for takeoff and then closed once airborne. A normal approach and landing is then made, at which point the fun begins. After touchdown, the attitude must be reduced by releasing back pressure on the yoke until the tube begins to scoop. At this point, the attitude must be reset and held while power is brought up enough to stay on step.
Not enough power and the aircraft will fall off the step; too much power and the tube will stop scooping. After approximately seven to eight seconds of scooping, the pilot references a round mirror mounted on the left strut which is aimed at an opening on the top left side of the tank. Once water is observed gushing out of the opening, the tank is full. Power is immediately brought up to 36.5 inches. Full left aileron is applied to get the scoop out of the water and the pilot simultaneously places the yoke full aft. As the right float begins to lift, the hydrodynamic drag on the left float begins to pull the nose to the left, so full right rudder is applied and held. When the aircraft is heavy, the aircraft is basically pulled into ground effect and then leveled off to increase airspeed. The entire scooping procedure is very sensitive to center-of-gravity and becomes easier once the aircraft weight is reduced by burning fuel from the front-to-rear tanks.
When fires become too large for the Beaver to effectively drop water, the pilots and aircraft instead begin to transport firefighter crews and gear to the incident. Typical loads include two firefighters with various gear, pumps, hoses, Pulaskis, axes, chainsaws, fuel, food, etc. An aluminum canoe is strapped onto the left float, and the pilot drops off the crew as close as safely possible to the fire. Sandy beaches are not common in the BWCAW, so most times the pilot shuts down in the middle of the lake and drifts while loading the crew and their gear into the canoe to paddle the rest of the way. Often, crews will paddle home after the fire, but the Beavers can also bring the crews out. Whenever firefighters are in the field, the Beavers are on standby to transport injured individuals.
With its long loiter time, excellent visibility and slow flight characteristics, the aircraft can carry an air tactical group supervisor along and serve as an air attack platform to provide positive air control and coordination between air and ground forces on larger fires.
The Beaver program has a standing agreement with the Minnesota counties of St. Louis, Lake and Cook to provide year-round aerial support for search and rescue, medevac, body recovery and law enforcement missions. Most of these flights are within the BWCAW, as there are no roads and mechanical access is generally not permitted. Usually occurring from May to September, common scenarios involve dehydration, broken bones or sprains, axe wounds, heart attack or stroke symptoms, overdue parties or individuals, or a SPOT or InReach device being activated inadvertently. The Beavers average one to two body recoveries per year for drownings or heart attacks. An EMT is carried for any medevac situation, and a law enforcement officer for any search or non-medical incident.
Wildlife surveys make up a good portion of the annual flying. The program has provided over 35 years of continuous support to the U.S. Geological Survey by flying year-round survey flights with wildlife biologists tracking radio- and GPS-collared wolves and deer as well as conducting beaver survey flights in the fall. Forest Service surveys for bald eagles are also flown in the spring. Surveys typically start at 1,000 ft AGL and can then descend to 500 ft AGL to for closer observation.
The program also supports the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with fish-stocking operations and surveys of remote lakes. Fish stocking involves landing in the lake, shutting down and slowly releasing the fish from the internal fish tank through the camera hatch. If the lake is too small to land and the fry are the correct size, aerial release is possible. For lake surveys, the planes carry two biologists along with six to eight 250-foot experimental gill nets, camping gear, outboard motor and gas, and a 19-foot square stern canoe strapped on the float.
Springtime flights include installing a hopper to broadcast tree seed to restock previously harvested areas. The Beaver flies 40-foot-wide strips at approximately 80 miles per hour and 50 feet above ground level to spread the seeds, primarily spruce or jack pine. A 40-acre plot can typically be completed in 10-15 minutes, and multiple plots with different seed types can be completed during a single flight.
Annual aerial pest detection survey flights map insect, disease and weather event disturbances on federal forestlands for forest health monitoring and to facilitate local forest management activities. These flights involve flying gridlines over the entire Superior and Chippewa National Forests as well as Isle Royal National Park off the northeast tip of Minnesota.
The future of the USFS Beaver program remains as bright as ever. Under Forest Service Eastern Region Fire and Aviation Management, plans are underway to expand the use of these aircraft and pilots beyond northern Minnesota to better serve Forest Service aviation needs in surrounding states and potentially throughout the region.
- The U.S. Forest Service Beaver Program in Ely, Minnesota - May 24, 2023