Contract possibilities for U.S. air tankers in the southern hemisphere

Above: Neptune’s Tanker 03 parked near several portable water tanks at Concepción, Chile February 4, 2017. Neptune Aviation photo.

Air tankers in the United States and Canada usually spend four to seven months each year parked, not turning a wheel, prop, or turbine. While they sit idle, there can be wildfires raging in South America and Australia, where their fire seasons are opposite of the those in the northern hemisphere. Of course the air tanker operators know this and in some cases are pursuing those opportunities.

Three companies have a total of four air tankers on the second year of a two-year “trial” contract in Australia — Conair, 10 Tanker, and Coulson. Word on the street ramp is that Victoria and New South Wales will issue more contracts for large air tankers before the 2017-2018 summer fire season arrives in September or October.

The first time use of large and very large air tankers in Chile over the last 30 days may have opened another market, as the 747, BAe-146, and a Russian IL-76 all demonstrated that they can be effective even without a supporting air tanker infrastructure in the country.

When we saw an article on a Chilean website inferring that their government had reached an agreement with Global Supertanker to facilitate the use of the 747 Supertanker in the country, it got our attention. Wondering if it was fake news, we checked with Jim Wheeler the CEO and President of the company, who told us that while they have been in talks with government officials, nothing yet is final or signed, and used the term “pending contract”. One of the objectives of an agreement, if reached, would be to ensure a fairly fast arrival after being mobilized. Following wheels up at Colorado Springs, the home base of the aircraft, it can fly non-stop to Santiago in 10 hours.

Clouding the issue in Chile is the contracting and political climate. In recent weeks high-ranking government officials there have issued conflicting statements about the effectiveness of the air tankers, at times saying they are valuable and at other times the opposite. All of this has to be analyzed knowing some background information about aerial firefighting in Chile.

Most of the firefighting aircraft that have been used for years in Chile, the single engine air tankers (SEATs) and helicopters, have been made available through contracts with private companies based in Europe. Officials from two of the companies were accused in Spain of contract collusion and international bribery among other crimes, according to a report by Ahora Noticias, a Chilean publication. In light of those problems, there has been pressure in Chile to investigate their contracting procedures for aircraft.

The publication interviewed a consultant in disaster management, Rodrigo Reveco, who implied that a cozy relationship between the companies and the Chilean non-profit organization that has a hand in managing emergency operations, may help explain why there was a reluctance to bring in aerial firefighting assets from other companies evan as the disastrous wildfire conditions worsened in December.

With this issue fermenting in the background, it can be difficult to predict the future of large, expensive firefighting aircraft in the country.

 

Firefighters are still busy in Chile

Above: Tanker 03, a BAe-146, in Chile. Neptune photo.

(This article first appeared on WildfireToday.com)

The number of active wildfires in Chile has varied from week to week depending on the weather, but the drought-driven situation that has plagued Chile since December is still of great concern to the residents of the country —  especially since more than 1,000 homes burned in Santa Olga on January 25.

The tweet below refers to a fire in the Maule Region.

The 747 Supertanker returned to Colorado Springs on February 13 after being in Chile for three weeks. The Russian IL-76 is still there but is expected to depart on February 25.

Neptune’s Tanker 03, a BAe-146, arrived in the country February 4. It has completed 20 missions dropping on fires, but a spokesperson for the company told us today it has not flown since February 14. It is committed to remain in Chile through the end of this month.

IL-76 747 Supertanker air tanker chile
The Russian IL-76 (in the foreground) taxis past the 747, January 30, ,2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
IL-76 air tanker chile Santiago
The Russian IL-76 at Santiago, Chile January 30 shortly after it arrived in the country. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Drone used to burn debris on power line

drone power line fire debris
A drone uses fire to remove debris from a power line in China. Screen grab from the video below.

Drones are slowly, very slowly, becoming firefighting (and fire-starting) tools. A company in China is using one to burn debris on power lines.

In this video a flame-throwing drone uses fire to remove what appears to be plastic on a high-voltage line.

Earlier we have written about an experimental drone that drops plastic spheres which ignite a prescribed fire after hitting the ground. And the Lockheed Martin and K-Max Corporations have modified a Type 1 helicopter that can be remotely-piloted to drop water on a fire and haul cargo in an external load.

Retardant stops wildfire in New South Wales

Above: The Carwoola Fire in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by NSW Rural Fire Service.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service sent out this Tweet February 17 (U.S. time):

NSW RFS Carwoola Fire

The photo at the top of this article is an enlargement of the one in the tweet. It is interesting to see how the fire in some areas apparently burned into the retardant and stopped. However when this photo was taken it may have been creeping through a gap in the retardant. But since the RFS wrote that the fire was effectively stopped, the aircraft probably continued working on the fire after this photo was taken.

Four large and very large air tankers from North America have been on contract in New South Wales and Victoria during their down under summer — two C-130’s, an RJ85, and a DC-10. Australia also has numerous helicopters and single engine air tankers.

The map below shows lightning strikes and fires in NSW.

Video from the 747 as it drops on wildfires in Chile

Above: A screen capture from a video shot from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker.

This video is a compilation of scenes recorded from the cockpit of the 747 SuperTanker as it dropped on fires in Chile between February 5 and 12, 2017. It was shot from a camera set up by Tom Parsons, one of the pilots on the air tanker.

If you enlarge the video to full screen you might be able to see the lead plane in the first two of the three shots.

Firefighting pilot killed in New Zealand helicopter crash

A helicopter pilot was killed February 14 while working on a fire in New Zealand. David Steven Askin was flying the aircraft at a wildfire when it went down in Christchurch’s Port Hills.

Mr. Askin was a pilot and instructor for Way To Go Heliservices, a company based in Rangiora, New Zealand.

Steve Askin
Steve Askin. Way To Go Heliservices photo.

Previously he had been a member of New Zealand’s Special Air Service, a special forces unit of the Army.  He served in Afghanistan and was wounded in a firefight with the Taliban after his unit came to the aid of Afghan police when they were attacked at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul in a five-hour battle.

Police, the Civil Aviation Authority, and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission are investigating the crash.

There are reports that 15 helicopters were fighting the recent wildfires near Christchurch that have burned 600 hectares (1,483 acres).

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Askin’s family, friends, and coworkers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Interview with lead plane pilot Jamie Tackman about the 747 air tanker

On January 24, 2017 the 747 SuperTanker left its base in Colorado Springs, Colorado for an assignment in Chile. It returned on February 13 after dropping on many wildfires in the South American country, making as many as seven sorties in a day each with 19,200 gallons of water enhanced with an additive to help make the water more effective, since long term retardant was not available.

After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie Tackman transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.

Companies providing aerial firefighting resources in Chile accused of collusion in Spain

At least two companies that have received contracts for providing firefighting air tankers and helicopters in Chile have been accused in Spain of collusion and international bribery among other crimes, according to a report by Ahora Noticias. Below is an excerpt from their article; it is very roughly automatically translated by Google:

Collusion, influence peddling, bribery and international bribery, among other crimes, have led to the investigation of the companies of Faasa, Inaer and Martínez Vidau in order to discover how they managed to win several public competitions.

The publication interviewed a consultant in disaster management, Rodrigo Reveco, who implied that a cozy relationship between the companies and the Chilean non-profit organization that has a hand in managing emergency operations, may help explain why there was a reluctance to bring in other aerial firefighting assets as the disastrous wildfire conditions worsened in December.

Chile has wildland fire suppression organizations and procedures that are very different from those in, for instance, the United States. There is no one governmental agency that has the authority, responsibility, and resources to manage wildfires. Recently the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, said via Twitter that she would recommend legislation to create a national forest agency.

The organization that deals most closely with fires in Chile is CONAF.

From Wikipedia:

The National Forest Corporation or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) is a Chilean private, non-profit organization, through which the Chilean state contributes to the development and sustainable management of the country’s forest resources. CONAF is overseen and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture of Chile.

It administers the forest policies of Chile and promotes the development of the sector with sustainable forest management.

CONAF and ONEMI, the National Office of Emergency of the Interior Ministry, according to Ahora Noticias have awarded contracts to the private companies for helicopters and Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) used on fires in Chile. From Ahora Noticias (again, a very rough auto-translation by Google):

These companies have been operating in Chile for years and have won millions of tenders from Conaf, Onemi and major national private companies. In Spain and after a long investigation of justice, its managers were arrested and the modus operandis of these firms were established, which, according to the judicial investigation, were coordinated among themselves to distribute the state tenders, agree prices and conditions Of presentation and also mechanisms of bribery to public officials to adjudicate the licitations, by means of payments, gifts and favors.

Among the antecedents seized, the Spanish justice system found a series of e-mails that report similar practices on the part of these companies, in Spain, as well as in Italy, Portugal and Chile. Correos between executives who speak of agreeing prices, sharing the market and conditions of presentation to the tenders, among others.

Neither the government or CONAF committed any funds for the use of the 747 SuperTanker. Up to now it has been completely funded by private organizations, Ben Walton and his wife Lucy Ana (of WalMart) and Luksic, a Chilean business consortium.

A Chilean Senator, Manuel Jose Ossandón, called for the resignation of the director of CONAF. From Ahora Noticias (translated):

Asked about his expectations after the news broadcast in Ahora Noticias, the former RN said that ” I hope that a deep investigation is made of what is happening and that it is clarified because we are already accustomed to acts of corruption.”

In that sense, he deepened that “the director of the Conaf has to step aside and also the previous director, Mr. (Eduardo) Vial, has to explain in this regard, ” referring to the first contracts between the State and These companies that date of the year 2011, that is to say, during the government of Sebastián Piñera.

ISSUU has an article about FAASA, a Spain-based company that provides under contract firefighting helicopters and SEATs to Chile. The company employs over 300 personnel including 100 pilots and operates 65 aircraft. During the South American summer they move five AT-802s and 21 helicopters to Chile.

One of FAASA’s SEATs crashed in Chile on December 28, 2016 killing the pilot, Ricardo García-Verde Osuna, 47.