Undergraduate Responsive Aerial Firefighting Aircraft; The Effects of Outdated Wildfire Suppression in California

Wheatley, Andrew, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Quinlan, Jesse, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia

As urbanization and climate change continue to accelerate at alarming rates throughout
the developed world, society will need to evolve to survive in an increasingly harsh environment.
While it is easy for lots of people to live in blissful ignorance of our impact on nature, increasing
frequency and severity of natural disasters is forcing a reevaluation of how society can mitigate
damage. In the arid regions of the United States and abroad a recent uptick in wildfires has
shown how ineffective our current technology is at protecting human lives and property, and
moreover how easily wildfires can be triggered by human activity.
The technical portion of this project deals with development of a new state of the art
firefighting aircraft to replace current outdated technology. Due to common practice of
retrofitting aircraft for usage in firefighting roles, there is a serious concern about a lack of
efficiency and efficacy in the future as wildfires become even more common. The sociotechnical
portion of this project analyzes the impact on an affected community and the survivors, and how
new practices and laws may help to further mitigate damage after a disaster. This portion will
focus largely on how ineffective disaster reporting methods do not address the full concerns of a
natural disaster and how technology and behavioral changes can help communities recover
The majority of the technical portion of this project was developed in conjunction with
the Aircraft Design Course taught by Dr. Jesse Quinlan. The objective of this course is for teams
of senior aerospace engineering students to design an aircraft to compete in an annual
competition sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The AIAA
releases a document containing all the technical requirements each team most meet in their
design and includes potential objectives for teams to further design around for additional points
in the competition. The 2021-2022 design focused on replacing the outdated aerial firefighting
fleet used in the American Southwest and featured design objectives such as fire retardant
capacities and minimum flight speeds for accurate fire fighting missions. The class was divided
into three different teams and each team member chose different aspects of the aircraft to
optimize. The design of this aircraft went through several iterations based on research and
simulations conducted over the year, but ultimately a medium sized aircraft was developed to
meet all the requirements of the competition at the minimum cost possible.
To accompany the technical portion of this project, the sociotechnical report focuses on
how firefighting methods are not enough to prevent future devastation. Particular importance
was placed on examining the existing methods of crisis reporting and relief systems currently
utilized. The first portion of the report walks through the different aspects of wildfire impacts
including housing losses, pressure on health care systems, long term mental trauma, ecological
impacts, and economic consequences. In addition to the immediate impacts of a wildfire, there
exists a very long domino effect that impacts the entire economy and wellbeing of a community
for years to come. These long term consequences are rarely reported due to the difficulty of
keeping track of so many statistics, but considerations must still be taken into account when
developing appropriate relief systems. The second half of the report focuses more on how aid
programs utilize technology and resources to help survivors currently and what improvements
could be made. This section walks through some of the proposed relief technologies such as
replacement housing solutions and federal aid reformations. In particular, California is used as a
model to analyze to narrow down the research and avoid discrepancies in aid programs. Some of
the solutions analyzed in this section include affordable temporary housing for survivors and the
development of increased fire camera coverage surrounding rich regions. The final portion of the
essay discusses the culture of fire prevention in the United States and the need to hold large
corporations responsible for their involvement in natural disasters.
This project could not have been accomplished without the amazing assistance from my
teammates and peers throughout the aerospace department and my professors and advisors. A
special thanks to Dr. Joshua Earle for assisting with the development of my thesis and Dr. Jesse
Quinlan for his assistance with the technical aspects of this project.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Firefighting, Aircraft, Wildfire

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering

Technical Advisor: Jesse Quinlan

STS Advisor: Joshua Earle

Technical Project Team Members: Del Irving, Aaron Huynh, Christopher Kwon, Andy Damm, Jason Le, Leeyung Chang, Matteo Harris, Andrew Wheatley

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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