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.