Australian aviation fleet prepares for bushfire season

Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire
Air-Crane Camille drops on the Badgerys Lookout Fire in New South Wales. Photo: Kerry Lawrence, NWS RFS

As the bushfire season begins in Australia the firefighting agencies in their States and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre are ramping up the fleet of aerial resources to be ready for the fires which got a much earlier start than normal in October when the “worst wildfire conditions in more than 40 years” destroyed more than 200 homes. During that siege two two fixed wing aircraft crashed killing both pilots.

The bushfire season has historically started in late November or early December and lasted through February, but now that we have warmer and more extreme weather across the globe fire managers in Australia and around the world are having to adapt.

Most of the firefighting aircraft in Australia are privately owned and work under contracts for the government. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) coordinates the procurement of the aircraft on behalf of the States and Territories.

 National Aerial Firefighting Centre Richard Alder, the General Manager of the NAFC, told Fire Aviation that about one third of the 75 contracted aircraft have started work already and the majority will be on by early to mid-December, depending how the fire season develops in the south part of the country. As the summer temperatures increase, the down under fire season moves from north to south. The 75 aircraft includes helicopters, Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), and fixed wing aircraft that are used for reconnaissance and other purposes.

During last year’s 2012-2013 fire season, NAFC had the following on contract:

  • 14 SEATs (Air Tractor AT 802 and AT 602)
  • 3 Bell 206-L
  • 2 Bell 205
  • 5 Bell 212
  • 2 Bell 214-B
  • 5 Erickson S 64 Air-Crane
  • 12 Eurocopter AS 350, 355, and 365
  • 2 Kawasaki BK 117-B2
  • 4 Sikorsky S 61-N

This season, 2013-2014, in addition to the smaller helicopters, Mr. Alder said they will have:

  • 23 SEATs, which includes one water-scooping FireBoss. (All are on exclusive use, three-year contracts with options to extend to five years.)
  • 6 Erickson S 64 Air-Cranes (from Kestral Aviation via Erickson)
  • 2 Sikorsky S 61-N (from Coulson Aircrane Australia, a subsidiary of Coulson Aircrane in Canada)
  • 10 Bell 214-B, which the NAFC considers a Type 1 helicopter (from McDermontt Aviation)
  • Other aircraft, including 30 SEATs, are available on call when needed contracts.

There are no air tankers larger than SEATs working in Australia, in spite of a request for proposals that NAFC issued in November, 2012. They advertised it at the time via Twitter:

That RFP indicated their intention to contract not only for various types of helicopters, but also for water-scooping, large, and very large air tankers. We asked Mr. Alder what became of the effort to procure the larger aircraft. He responded:

The RFP is a component of a major project we have running to closely examine the applicability of larger fixed wing airtankers in the Australian situation. The project is ongoing and we are continuing to (actively!) gather and analyse data and related information on these capabilities (and are particularly grateful to our colleagues in the US for sharing their experiences over the recent season).

 

New CL-415 seen at Winnipeg

Aero Flite CL-415 at Winnipeg
Aero Flite CL-415 at Winnipeg, November 5, 2013. Photo by Bokovay.

We have received two reports about a new CL-415 that has been at Winnipeg (CYWG) for the last several days. It is sporting an Aero-Flite logo and a registration number of C-GUZF. This is apparently the aircraft purchased by TENAX Aerospace which will be leased to Aero-Flite, the company that recently received a five-year contract from the U.S. Forest Service for a CL-415 water-scooping air tanker. We think this is designated Tanker 260.

 

Thanks go out to Mike and Barry

After crash, Dromaders grounded in Australia

Six days after the crash of a Dromader single engine air tanker that killed pilot David Black, government investigators have reached the crash site. Firefighters built a helispot in the steep, rugged terrain, but strong winds prevented helicopters from flying the investigators into the area.

Below is an excerpt from the Guardian:

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“…Seven other models of the same fixed-wing aircraft were grounded on Wednesday by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority as a precaution.

David Black, 43, died when his Dromader aircraft crashed in Budawang national park, 40 kilometres west of Ulladulla, about 10am on Thursday.

A witness saw one of the plane’s wings fall off before the aircraft plummeted.

Fire risks and rough terrain meant investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found it difficult to reach the crash site but on Wednesday a team of four got there.

“Rural fire service teams had completed clearing a helicopter landing site nearby. However, the site has not been accessible until today due to ongoing high winds,” a bureau spokesman said.

On the same day a Casa spokesman, Peter Gibson, announced that seven Dromaders had been grounded.

“It’s a precaution to make sure there aren’t any problems with the wings or other structures on the aircraft,” he said.

The aircraft were used for crop dusting in NSW and Queensland, Gibson said, and could be contracted for water bombing.

In April the bureau released a report after investigations into three fatal incidents involving Dromader aircraft.

On each occasion the aircraft were carrying increased weight and the bureau found associated safety risks, despite approval being granted for operation at takeoff weights of more than 4200kg.

The report outlined operating limitations under higher loads and recommended increased awareness among pilots.”

USFS awards scooper contract to Aero-Flite

The U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract today to Aero-Flite of Kingman, Arizona for one scooper air tanker.

CL-415. Photo by LA County Fire Department.
File photo of CL-415, courtesy of LA County Fire Department.

The U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract today to Aero-Flite of Kingman, Arizona for one scooper air tanker, an aircraft that can refill its tank by skimming along the surface of a lake. As Fire Aviation reported at the time, the solicitation was posted August 5, 2013 and closed August 19. In spite of the two week federal government shutdown it was awarded about 5 weeks after closing, a remarkably quick turnaround for USFS aircraft contracting. It took over 500 days to award the “next-gen” air tanker contracts.

The solicitation required the following: amphibious and scooping capability, turbine engines, 180-knot cruise speed, 1,600-gallon capacity, and 7 days a week coverage. It also has to have previous approval by the Interagency Airtanker Board. The specs appear to limit the qualifying aircraft to only the CL-415. The Be-200 could possibly meet the operational specs, but it does not have FAA or IAB approvals.

According to FedBizOpps.gov the dollar amount of the contract is $57 million. It is a five year deal with a provision to add a second aircraft if both parties agree.

Aero-Flite’s website says they have five Canadair CL-215 aircraft, and does not list a CL-415 in its inventory. Calls to company President Matthew Ziomek to obtain more details about the contract were not returned.

The CL-415 will be leased from TENAX Aerospace by Aero-Flite. It is a brand new aircraft and will be the only CL-415 in the United States.

In June Aero-Flite also received a contract from the U.S. Forest Service for two Avro RJ85 “next generation” air tankers but Conair has not yet completed the conversions for TENAX who will lease them to Areo-Flite. One of them, Tanker 160, has been seen in Canada undergoing flight tests in recent weeks.

UPDATE May 5, 2014: Aero-Flite’s CL-415 was designated Tanker 260.

MV-22 Osprey as a firefighting aircraft

V-22 OspreyEric, one of our loyal readers, sent us a link to an article that explores the use of the military MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft as a firefighting machine. The Osprey can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, and then tilts the rotors to fly horizontally at 277 mph.

The article dismisses the use of the Osprey as a direct attack, water-dropping aircraft, primarily for the reasons we outlined in an article we wrote in 2010 (scroll down to see a reprint of that post). But it suggests the Osprey could be useful in other ways to support a firefighting operation.

Here is an excerpt from the piece at medium.com, published October 27, 2013:

“It takes forever to get to a rural wildfire. Let’s use the Osprey to shrink distance and get critical equipment to the front,” he says. “Expensive command and control gear could be quickly transferred from central depots to forward fire bases, and from there other transport would carry them the ‘last half-mile’ to the fire line.”

“The Osprey can reduce the response time for elite wild-fire fighters — smokejumpers or hotshot teams — getting ‘boots on the ground’ faster, with more gear, reducing the time it takes to initially attack wildfires,” Hooper says. “And there’s also the possibility of reducing the cost of initial attacks: more firefighters can qualify for descending a rope-drop than for jump school, at less cost per person.”

Specialized critical assets — too expensive to distribute widely — are another potential cargo. “Air traffic control can get very tricky over a disaster area. Deploying an air traffic control team or a ‘control tower in a box’ would be a perfect example of how the range and speed of an Osprey could … make a big difference.”

But an Osprey with its twin 22-foot rotors creates ferocious downwash, blowing debris around like shotgun blasts. “They need to go into a relatively clean landing zone and then get out—so they may be a better fit moving equipment [near] an impacted zone than, say, doing gritty work inside the disaster area,” Hooper proposes.

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(Below is the article we wrote January 3, 2010 at Wildfire Today)

Osprey. USAF photo
MV-22 Osprey. USAF photo

The MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor, vertical take-off and landing aircraft, is replacing some of the Vietnam era CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters used by the Marine Corps. Since the disastrous wildfires in southern California in 2007, the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps have had an agreement with Cal Fire making it possible to use their military helicopters on fires if Cal Fire is unable to handle the fires with their own aerial assets.

In July of 2008, CH-46E and CH-53E military helicopters made at least 574 drops on fires in California, delivering 217,000 gallons of water.

At first glance, the Osprey might seem like an excellent firefighting tool. It is fast (cruises at 277 mph), could haul 24-32 firefighters, and could carry 1,800 gallons of water externally. But it has never dropped a gallon of water on a fire and it is possible that it never will due to at least two potential problem areas.

Rotor Wash

As you can see in the photo above, the rotor wash or downdraft from an Osprey is extremely strong–far stronger than a conventional helicopter. Rotor wash from a helicopter can cause, and has caused, serious problems when the wind from the rotors spreads the fire in unexpected directions, sometimes doing more harm than good. Marines even worry that Osprey rotor wash may damage or destroy unrecorded archaeological sites in training areas.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the rotor wash creates enough force to knock sailors and aircraft off a flight deck on a ship.

May CAUSE fires

The Osprey’s engines run extremely hot, so hot that the Navy is taking special precautions to prevent the engine exhaust from melting or buckling the aluminum decks of warships. A report from DARPA states:

The deployment of the MV-22 Osprey has resulted in ship flight deck buckling that has been attributed to the excessive heat impact from engine exhaust plumes… Navy studies have indicated that repeated deck buckling will likely cause deck failure before planned ship life.

DARPA has designed a “flight deck thermal management system” which would liquid-cool the deck from below or above while the aircraft are idling or launching. The military has put out a request for proposals for other permanent deck-cooling systems that could be retro-fitted or designed into new ships still on the drawing board.

Wildfire Today reported on May 30, 2009, that an Osprey made an unscheduled precautionary landing in North Carolina and started a 5-acre fire in a wet marsh. We wrote then:

Marines refueled the Osprey but according to WECT.com, upon taking off it “smashed into swamp mud, nose first”. During that takeoff attempt, heat from the engine exhaust started a vegetation fire which did some damage to the exterior of the aircraft.

A news release from the Marine Corp claims:

The grass fire was quickly extinguished by the crew chief, but caused an undetermined amount of heat damage to the aircraft exterior.

But Emergency Management Director Eddie King said the local fire department had to work through the night to extinguish a 5-acre fire, in an area infested with snakes and alligators, that was caused by the incident.

Osprey hauling a Humvee. U.S. Navy photo.
Osprey hauling a Humvee. U.S. Navy photo.

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(UPDATE October 28, 2013)

On May 31, 2010 an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft being demonstrated by the U. S. Marine Corp at a Staten Island park near New York City injured 10 spectators when the rotor wash sent debris flying. More information.

Slow-motion video of Lockheed Electra L-188 retardant drops

A Lockheed Electra L-188 air tanker, #489, dropping in slow motion on a wildfire. The date, location, and videographer (other than the logo at bottom-right) are unknown.

The wake turbulence as the aircraft passes through the smoke at 2:45 is very interesting, as is the precision drop at 1:45, keeping the retardant off the rocks in an area that is highly visible to recreationists on the nearby lake.

In August of 2012 Wildfire Today ran a photo of Tanker 489 dropping on the Taylor Bridge Fire.

Thanks go out to Chris

10 Tanker Air Carrier moves to Albuquerque, begins converting a third DC-10

Tanker 910 Rapid City
Tanker 910 landing at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that operates the two DC-10 air tankers, has moved their corporate headquarters from Victorville, California to the airport at Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Rick Hatton, the CEO of the company, said yesterday about the relocation that occurred in September:

We surveyed a number of sites in the Rocky Mountain West, wanting to have more of a national presence versus being perceived as a “California Only” or Region 5 resource. Albuquerque topped the list due to a combination of off-season weather, business environment, and airport facilities.

The company moved into on-airport space with additional nearby offices and a warehouse. One of the facilities is a 7,600-square-foot building previously owned by Eclipse Aviation Corp, who’s business plan was to produce and sell small jets for $1 million each, a concept that failed.

In May Mr. Hatton announced that they were moving to Casper, Wyoming but by July cancelled those plans.

10 Tanker has evaluated airports that could serve as air tanker bases for their DC-10s and identified 30 that could handle the jumbo jets either with the existing infrastructure or with the addition of a temporary mobile retardant base.

DC-10 potential reload bases
DC-10 actual and potential retardant reload bases, as determined by 10 Tanker Air Carrier. The red circles represent permanent air tanker bases at which they could reload. The blue circles are airports at which they could reload from a mobile retardant base. (click to enlarge)

Mr. Hatton said their two DC-10s, Tankers 910 and 911, so far in 2013 have delivered 4.4 million gallons of retardant on 386 flights.

They have started converting a third DC-10, speculating that it will be used in 2014.

 

Thanks go out to Jared.

Two aircraft crashes in Australia connected to bushfires

Dromader M-18 air tanker
File photo of Dromader M-18 in Prineville, Oregon. Photo by Ted Quackenbush.

Two pilots were killed in Australia Wednesday and Thursday in separate crashes while they were fighting or supporting bushfires in New South Wales.

On Wednesday Peter Brereton, 60, was killed when his light plane crashed on his way back from dropping off spare parts for a helicopter used in the fire fighting efforts on the south coast of NSW October 23, 2013. After he did not return as expected a search located the wreckage Thursday morning in rugged terrain near Mt Hotham in Victoria. Eight helicopters and two fixed wing planes were involved in the search for the Cessna. He had recently retired from the Country Fire Authority as an Operations Officer for District 22 that covers Shepparton.

David Black, 43, died when his Dromader single engine air tanker crashed while fighting a fire at Wirritin in Budawang National Park, 40 kilometers west of Ulladulla, around 10 a.m. on October 24, 2013.  The Australian network ABC reported that a wing snapped off the aircraft before it went down. The crash started another bushfire which, along with high winds, was hampering efforts to reach the pilot. Other firefighting aircraft were called to the area and were attempting to slow the spread of the fire.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families and coworkers of both pilots.