Trial of dropping water on a wildfire at night begins in Australia

If successful, night-flying helicopters could be incorporated into the 2018/2019 summer bushfire season — then they will consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Above: The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase two of the night-flying trial. Photo by Coulson.

(UPDATED at 8:40 a.m. MT February 28, 2018)

The test of firefighting helicopters dropping water at night has started in Victoria, Australia. If after the test the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approves hover-filling and dropping at night, the next step will be to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

“Fighting fires in the dark hours, in the cooler part of the night or in the early parts of the morning would enable us to get on top of fires quicker, particularly those in remote parts of Victoria where access may be difficult,” Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said Monday.

“While the use of night vision goggles and infrared technology isn’t new, these have not been used together in Australia. We are very keen to trial this capability, and understand how it would work in a system, and make it safe to do so.”

CASA has approved the trial which will involve controlled conditions at all times.

The first of its kind in Australia, the test will be based at Ballarat Airport. Emergency Management Victoria is the lead with Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Country Fire Authority, and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

The trial will test the ability to hover-fill helicopters at night and the efficiency of night vision technology, including infrared systems and night vision goggles.

Several agencies in Southern California have been conducting night helicopter operations for years, but their SOPs require that they land to refill with water, rather than hover-fill. One of the reasons is that the B-212’s and B-412’s create too much mist for the pilots to see with night vision goggles.

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 drops water during the night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Coulson.

The results of the trial will guide the future use of night-time aerial firebombing operations in Victoria as well as other states and territories.

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation are participating in the trial. A Sikorsky S-61 will drop water while a Sikorsky S-76 will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator.

In the trial the S-76 Firewatch helicopter orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 water dropping operation. It used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the fire bombing helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles, but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

In the video below an australian official says the next step is to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Coulson helicopters to participate in Australian night-flying trial

The project will begin February 23 with two Sikorsky helicopters, an S-61 and an S-76.

Above: Coulson night-flying helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61. Coulson photo.

(Originally published at 11:10 MT February 21, 2018)

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation will be participating in a night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. When we first reported on this project, Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre said, “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use night vision goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to extend firebombing into the night.”

One of Coulson’s Sikorsky S-61’s, Helicopter 347, that was already working on a firefighting contract in Australia will be dropping water during the trial. It will be working with another of the company’s helicopters, a Sikorsky S-76, which will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The S-76 was not in the country but was transported there from Canada in a 747 on February 14.

The video below includes a September trial of the two aircraft working with night vision goggles showcasing how the two aircraft interact with each other.

The trial will begin February 23 in the state of Victoria.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Australia to experiment with night-flying helicopters

This will be the first trial of helicopters dropping water on fires at night in the country.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass in Southern California, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Fire management authorities in Australia are planning a trial of night-flying helicopters later this year. Emergency Management Victoria is leading the effort which could begin toward the end of the current bushfire season in March or April.

“There is still a lot of planning and due diligence to complete, and regulatory approvals to work through”, Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre said.  “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use Night Vision Goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to  extend firebombing into the night.”

Mr. Alder said fixed wing air tankers will not be part of this trial, but they are examining the possibilities for future phases of the project.

The video below is an example of a night-flying helicopter dropping on a structure fire in Los Angeles (at 1:08).

Around half a dozen or so agencies in Southern California have been using night-flying helicopters for a number of years.

The Australians have 42 Single Engine Air Tankers working this bushfire season — 40 AT802’s and 2 Hubler Turbine M18’s. Two of the AT802’s are Firebosses on floats.

They have also had four large air tankers from North America working in the country during their summer.

  • DC-10 (-912 contracted from Agair who work with Ten Tanker) based at Richmond near Sydney;
  • L-100 (T-132, Coulson Aviation based at Richmond) – the Mandatory Availability Period is already completed for this one;
  • C-130Q (T-131, Coulson Aviation) based at Avalon near Melbourne;
  • RJ85 (FieldAir with AeroFlite) based at Avalon.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre is in the process of issuing contract solicitations for the 2018-2019 bushfire season. They expect to have about the same number of SEATS, large air tankers, and Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters.

“Overall we would expect generally similar total numbers, but these solicitations could potentially see some changes in providers or fleet mix”, Mr. Alder wrote in an email. “Our multi-agency evaluation groups are currently working through all the options (and budgets!) and we hope to have a better idea of how the future fleet will look in a few months.”

Photographer captures DC-10 assisting firefighters in NSW

A post shared by Charlton Durie (@charltondurie) on

Click on the image above to start the video. Then, to see a second video, click on the arrow on the right side of the image.

Instagram user “charltondurie” grabbed this photo and video of Air Tanker 912, a DC-10, dropping retardant on a fire about 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia that has burned 1,880 ha (4,645 acres) northeast of Taralga,  between Bannaby and Wombeyan Caves. The aircraft is named “Nancy Bird” after an Australian aviatrix.

A huge fire in the Pilliga Forest between Coonabarabran and Narrabri has blackened over 57,880 hectares (143,000 acres).

Lightning ignited multiple fires across the Blue Mountains and Yengo National Parks in NSW Monday evening. There are two fires burning in remote areas to the north of the Great Western Highway in the Grose Valley, Blue Mountains National Park and an additional six fires south of the Great Western Highway and north of Warragamba Dam in the Blue Labyrinth, Blue Mountains National Park.

There is also one fire in the Yengo National Park, east of the Putty Road in the Hawkesbury.

These lightning fires are burning in remote areas. NSW  Rural Fire Service and  National Parks and Wildlife Remote Area Firefighters have worked to establish and consolidate containment lines with the support of air tankers.

Videos of a DC-10 working a fire in New South Wales

Above: A DC-10 drops on the Masonite Road Fire in New South Wales. Screengrab from video by Raymond Terrace Fire & Rescue.

Check out these videos of a DC-10 dropping on the Masonite Road Fire near the Newcastle Airport in New South Wales. The fire burned 2,300 hectares (5,683 acres). The airport was closed at times due to degraded visibility caused by the smoke.

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UPDATE January 20, 2018: I found another video, of the DC-10 working the Pilliga fire.

Helimax CH-47D begins its bushfire season in Australia

Above:  Before it was repainted and shipped to Australia, Helimax’s N948CH, seen in the background here, was photographed in Sacramento March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 11:05 a.m. MST November 16, 2017)

One of Helimax’s CH-47D’s has been shipped to Australia and will be working for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service during their summer bushfire season.

According to the Wollondilly Advertiser, which has photos and more information, it will be working out of Camden, NSW southwest of Sydney (map) using an external water bucket carrying about 2,000 gallons.

An aircraft resembling the Chinook was spotted in a shipping box it shared with one of Coulson’s S-61’s in a photo posted November 3, 2017 by Coulson.

The video below from the Wollondilly Advertiser, shows the Chinook taking off near Camden, NSW.

Helimax CH-47D helicopter
Another one of Helimax’s CH-47D’s photographed by Bill Gabbert March 23, 2016 in Sacramento, Calif.