NightWatch: The Forest Service Eye in the Sky

NightWatch Dynamic Aviation King Air 200 aircraft – Photo Credit Dynamic Aviation

By Susan A. Neufeld

Mountain Communities – On the Holcomb Fire near Big Bear, the US Forest Service has been utilizing firefighting aircraft both during the day and at night.


The public is most familiar with helicopters and airtankers, but the unsung workhorse in the sky, that often is overlooked, is the Air Attack plane circling high overhead and, in Southern California, US Forest Service has the capacity to fly this aircraft both night and day.

While this aircraft can be rather unassuming from the outside, it is loaded with high tech tools on the inside. This gives the Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) sitting next to the pilot the capability to provide incident commanders on the ground with a real-time tactical assessment and coordinating fire suppression actions visually, and, with forward-looking infrared cameras, in addition to supervising multiple helicopters, airtankers and lead planes over the fire.


The NightWatch ATGS and pilot are flying in a twin engine Beechcraft King Air 200 (Contracted through Dynamic Aviation) is equipped with six radios, and integrated 3D moving map system, which displays and records aircraft positions, fire perimeters, measurements — such as distance, elevation and latitude/longitude. The integrated system includes an infrared imager, short wave infrared cameras, an HD color camera low light electron multiplying device, an eye-safe laser rangefinder and an automatic video tracker to accomplish the mission.

The NightWatch Air Attack has been used on the San Bernardino National Forest numerous times since the 2013 mountain fire near Idyllwild, and has become an innovative a highly effective tool to battle wildfires.

The NightWatch Air Attack and night flying helicopter worked the CALFIRE Manzanita Fire, near Beaumont. Both aircraft are based out of Fox Field, in the Angeles National Forest, and respond to fires 24/7 during fire season in the Sequoia, Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino National Forests.