RJ85 pilot — from Arctic Circle to Tambo Crossing

The Victoria Country Fire Authority in Australia has a story about Conair pilot Ray Horton, one of the pilots flying the company’s Avro RJ85 during the summer bushfire season.

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“Canadian pilot Ray Horton has travelled the long way around to fight bushfires in Victoria.

One of the world’s most respected aerial firefighters, Ray and the aircraft he flies – the Large Air Tanker ‘RJ’ – have become a welcome sight in Victoria’s skies over the past three summers.

So how did this one time “city slicker from Vancouver” find himself in Tambo Crossing [map], the Mallee and points in between?

His story begins in Canada’s Arctic North. The young pilot was building his hours in 40-below conditions, doing some “fantastic fun flying” as he puts it.

Then, one summer, he found himself flying supplies into the fire camps that are a base for summer firefighting in the Arctic summer.

Bomber 391
Bomber 391, an RJ85, at Avalon, Victoria. Photo by Avalon Airport.

It was the season that changed Ray’s life.

In quick time, he had a job with Conair, the Canadian aerial firefighting operator whose aircraft and pilots work fire seasons in North America, Europe and Australia.

He started in the Bird Dog – the observer aircraft that guides the larger air tankers to fires and coordinates aerial attack with ground crews. After that, it was 10 years flying the tankers themselves, many of them 1950’s US military aircraft repurposed for aerial firefighting.

Antsy for a change, Ray spent 10 years as an Air Canada captain. But civilian life was not for him.

“I had been spoiled fighting forest fires,” reflects Ray. “Once fire gets in your blood, there is always the challenge of trying to win. I had a tough time letting go of the challenge.”

Ray re-joined Conair and in 2014 arrived for his first fire season in Victoria. He’s returned every season since with RJ, the ‘next generation’ Large Air Tanker with which he’s been deeply involved since the aircraft’s infancy.

A veteran of fires seasons around the world, Ray had one word about the challenges of Victorian conditions – “Wind.”

“Most of the time when we are chasing fires in Victoria it is because of high winds and the high temperatures – they seem to come together,” says Ray.

“In North America, sure we get high winds. But then you’ll get a slew of thunderstorms come through. They may start 50 fires overnight. But then the wind will die down and you methodically get to as many fires as you can.

“Here in Victoria, that same storm will come through but with really high winds. Then you have your fuel types – the eucalyptus and others. The fires run much faster here – much, much faster.”

The other major difference, Ray believes, is the sheer number of volunteers working the fire ground in Victoria.

“That is something we just don’t see in North America. We don’t see the volunteer crews you have here. It’s amazing what Australia can do, particularly in Victoria with CFA and the number of volunteers.

“Here, we will typically see crews on the ground by the time we get to the fires. In North America, there are only so many crews to go around.”

Air crew and ground crew as one is a theme emphasised by Ray and his aerial crew colleagues.

“We know that we don’t put fires out,” stresses Ray. “We are here to allow the firies to get in and to support them. Hopefully we can make the difference that allows them to catch the fire.

“Our challenge – and the one we are called in for – is to put the water or retardant where the ground crews need it. When there are high winds and high heat, the challenge is really on us.

“Put it this way, it’s a long way to fly not to make any difference.”  “

An introduction to the large air tankers in Victoria, Australia

“Our job is to keep small fires small.”

During the Northern Hemisphere summer the Avro RJ85 and the C-130 work on fires in North America, but migrate to Victoria, Australia under contract with the Country Fire Authority during the down under summer. In the video Wayne Rigg, working in a position that in the U.S. we would call Air Tactical Group Supervisor, explains how he coordinates aircraft to assist the firefighters on the ground.

An introduction to Victoria’s aerial firefighting fleet

48 helicopters and fixed wing aircraft are on the roster during this down under summer in Victoria.

This summer in Victoria, Australia, the state has arranged for 48 firefighting aircraft to be available. In this video a spokesperson for Victoria Emergency lays out the details. Helpfully, there are subtitles to translate Australian to North American English. 😉

Air tankers at Avalon, Victoria

Above: Bomber 391 at Avalon, Victoria. Photo by Avalon Airport.

Two air tankers from North America have recently started their contracts in Victoria during the Australian summer. Known as Tanker 131 when working in the United States, Coulson’s C-130Q is designated as Bomber 390 while working for Emergency Management Victoria. One of Conair’s RJ85s is known down under as Bomber 391.

The aircraft will be based at the Avalon Airport in southeast Australia, southwest of Melbourne.

Bomber 390
Bomber 390 at Avalon, Victoria, with Bomber 391 in the background. Photo by Avalon Airport.

Air-Cranes in Victoria

Above: Unloading and reassembling the “Ichabod” Air-Crane after it was shipped from Greece to Australia. EMV photo.

The Aussies like to identify their aerial firefighting assets by nickname. In previous years the Air-Crane “Elvis” delighted residents whose homes were being saved. This year in Victoria “Malcolm” and “Ichabod” are on contract.

The information below is provided by Emergency Management Victoria.

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Victoria’s orange Aircranes Ichabod and Malcolm are two of the stars in Victoria’s aircraft fleet this summer.

The monster helicopters are integral to firefighting operations and are often on the front-line protecting Victorian communities from fire.

emergency management victoriaTo get the aircranes to Victoria each year is quite a journey. Aircrane Ichabod was shipped over from Greece in November after spending the Australian winter fighting fires on the islands and central areas.

Aircrane Malcolm also arrived in November after travelling from the United States where it was used to complete several construction jobs including a complex lift at Crater Lake National Park.

Before they can travel, the aircranes are dismantled so they can be shipped to their next destination where they are then reassembled. It took a team of aviation experts a couple of days to put Malcolm and Ichabod back together after arriving in Geelong. They then underwent maintenance and a general spruce-up, ready for the season ahead.

So they can undertake fire work with the Victorian firefighting fleet, belly tanks and snorkels are added to their armour. Depending on the conditions and water sources available, they can either suck up water or use a bucket on a string to help extinguish fires.

Australia has a contract for six aircranes that come across annually to operate as part of a national fleet jointly funded by the Commonwealth and State Governments.

The air cranes are named Georgia Peach, Incredible Hulk, Delilah, Elsie, Ichabod and Malcolm.

Aircrane Malcolm was named after Malcolm Burgess who was one of the three main design engineers for the military aircrane, while Ichabod was named after the popular cartoon character “Ichabod Crane” in the United States.

Malcolm and Ichabod are part of Victoria’s fleet of 48 firefighting aircraft that has immediate response, air attack and intelligence gathering capability.

Infrared video of DC-10 drop

The fire was just a few miles from the DC-10’s base at Richmond, northwest of Sydney, New South Wales.

This infrared video, shot from a New South Wales Rural Fire Service aircraft, shows a DC-10 air tanker dropping on a wildfire in Australia. In the normal video the aircraft disappears in the smoke, but after switching to IR it can be seen again. The water or retardant it drops shows up as black, much cooler than the fire which is white.

In addition to the drop, there is fascinating IR footage of thousands of burning embers being blown downwind. A spot fire can be easily seen thanks to the IR soon after it starts. It later grows very large.

Tanker 131, now known as Bomber 390, arrives in Australia

Above: Tanker 131 reunites with its sister aircraft, Tanker 132, in Avalon, Victoria. Coulson photo.

Coulson’s Tanker 131 arrived safely in Avalon, Victoria (map) on Sunday U.S. time after an uneventful flight. Its sister ship, Tanker 132, happened to be at Avalon when it landed.

The planned route for the C-130Q to Australia was for 27 flight hours, more than 7,000 miles, and four stops en route for fuel. When its 85-day contract with Emergency Management Victoria begins on December 15 the aircraft will be known as Bomber 390.

Tanker 132, a C-130H, has been in Australia since September 6, 2016. It just had its contract extended for another month and will continue to be based at Richmond RAAF base in New South Wales until mid-January. But like in the United States, the tankers are moved around as needed and shared between states.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 stopped at Norfolk Island to refuel. Coulson photo.
tanker 131 route
The route Tanker 131 took from Phoenix, AZ to Avalon, Victoria. Coulson image.