The National Park Service employs men and women in some unusual and occasionally dramatic jobs, and one of those—a helitak crew—celebrated a milestone anniversary this month at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
According to information from the park, the term "helitack, meaning 'helicopter initial attack of wildfires,' was first used in 1956 by the Los Angeles Times in an article describing operations involving helicopters transporting personnel to fight wildland fires." The helitack operations at Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been used for initial fire response, search and rescue, law enforcement operations, and many other backcountry services.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have one of the oldest helitak programs in the National Park Service, and the park's helitack crew hosted an event earlier this month to commemorate the program's 50th anniversary. The activity was attended by more than 30 alumni of the parks’ aviation program, dating back to the early 1960s. Residents and visitors were also invited to meet crewmembers (past and present) and receive guided tours of the parks' helicopter.
Some prominent leaders in NPS fire history have served on the park's helicopter and the program has helped to shape aviation policy and practices throughout the nation. The distinction as the most "senior" helitak alumni attending the anniversary event goes to Manuel Andrade, who served in 1960, and Dan Wilson, who served on the crew from 1961-1965.
The equipment and capabilities available for the helitak program have come a long way since it began with a Bell 47 helicopter. According to the Bell 47 Helicopter Association that aircraft pioneered the widespread use of helicopters for medical evacuations during the Korean War and was the first helicopter approved for civilian use in the U.S.
Over the years, the parks have safely flown countless search and rescue, wildland fire and backcountry and wilderness support missions, including numerous trips to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The park's program currently uses an A-Star AS 350 B2 helicopter, a model that is in wide use around the world for emergency services, civilian and military activities. It's especially well-suited for high altitude use, which makes it a good choice for these High Sierra parks.
You'll find more information about the fire management program at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks at this link on the park website.