Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, known as Bomber 390 in Australia, was present last weekend at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Victoria. Britt Coulson sent us these photos.
Their company has had two of their C-130 type air tankers working in Australia during their down under summer. I asked Mr. Coulson when they were going to return and he said both of them need maintenance before being carded by the U.S. Forest Service.
T-132 will be departing March 11th; at that time it will have been on contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service for a total of 186 Days.
T-131 will leave Australia on March 14th and will have been on contract with Victoria’s Country Fire Authority for a total of 91 Days. It will be on exclusive use contract with the USFS.
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.
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):
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.
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.
“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.
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.” “
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.
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. 😉