Above: a 47-second video showing the aircraft at the Redmond Tanker Base on June 13, 2016.
Clouds were hovering just above the ridges bordering the valley around the Redmond, Oregon airport when I was there on Monday, June 13. There was a chance of rain across the entire Pacific Northwest and there were no orders for the four large air tankers staged at the Redmond Air Tanker Base.
Eric Graff, who has been the base manager for the last 12 years, said they had been busy in recent days sending tankers to fires in Oregon and northern California. They had pumped 165,000 gallons of fire retardant into tankers so far this fire season.
Working with Mr. Graff on Monday was Cynthia Buehner, in her third season as timekeeper for the base, and summer seasonal, Marissa Kraweczak, whose previous experience before this year was on the Zigzag Hotshots.
Also at the base was the normal contingent of pilots and mechanics for the four tankers that were on the ramp — three Aeroflite RJ85s, and one Neptune Aviation P2V. One lead plane was also on scene.
I asked Mr. Graff if dispatchers proactively tried to group aircraft from the same company together at a tanker base, and he said no, it was not intentional. Aeroflite recognized that they had three of their tankers and crews at Redmond and called a meeting, with executives flying in on the company’s Pilatus PC12. The state of Colorado recently purchased two PC12s to use as intelligence gathering and communications platforms, calling them “multi-mission aircraft”.
Other fire-related operations at the Redmond Airport include the Redmond Smokejumpers, the Northwest Fire Training Center, the Redmond Hotshots, and the Regional Air Group which supplies pilots for the jumpers and lead planes.
Conair pilots will use an RJ85 flight simulator that will display forest fires on the ground.
Conair has converted several Avro RJ85 airlines into air tankers by adding an external fire retardant tank holding 3,000 gallons. In order to train in a flight simulator the pilots went to Switzerland.
The RJ85 is a variant of the BAe-146, with an 8-foot longer fuselage and more efficient engines. Until air tanker companies in the United States and Canada started converting the two models a few years ago, none have been operated in North America for quite some time, so there was no need for simulators.
On February 19, Conair announced that they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with CAE to develop a Wildfire Training and Simulation Centre in Abbotsford.
Under the terms of the MOU, CAE will build an Avro RJ85 full-flight simulator qualified to Level D, the highest qualification for flight simulators. Conair will procure long-term pilot training services from CAE to train their pilots who fly the RJ85.
In addition to the training program for RJ85 aerial firefighting pilots, CAE expects the Wildfire Training and Simulation Centre to be part of a distributed simulation network that connects wildfire training and coordination centers throughout Canada for purposes of conducting simulation-based mission rehearsal for wildfire response.
“Conair is pleased to be partnering with CAE to establish a world-class training centre, which will be another great example of the aerospace and wildfire innovations being developed here in British Columbia,” said Barry Marsden, Chief Executive Officer of Conair. “We are a leading provider of aerial fire control products and services, and as a leader we need our people to be highly skilled and trained. The new Wildfire Training and Simulation Centre will contribute to the preparation and readiness of our pilots and other professionals.”
As the bushfire season winds down in Australia the large and very large air tankers are beginning to migrate back north to North America to prepare for the fire season back home. The DC-10, Tanker 910, arrived at Albuquerque at 8 p.m. Friday night after flying over 8,500 miles from Melbourne, stopping in Pago Pago and Honolulu on the way.
Two of the DC-10s will be on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service this summer; one starts in late April and another in early May.
Conair’s Tanker 162 (an RJ85) and Coulson’s two C-130s (T-131 and T-132) are expected to depart around March 1. Britt Coulson said their two S-61 helicopters (photos) have both been extended for another week and a half and may get extensions beyond that if it continues to be hot.
One of our readers alerted us to the photo below that was taken February 28 when Tanker 910 stopped in Hawaii on the way back from Melbourne.
Above: a Q400 drops retardant. The image is from the Conair video below.
The Conair Group is currently converting at least one additional RJ85 airliner into an air tanker at their facility in Abbotsford, British Columbia and also plans to make enhancements to the Q400. The company already operates approximately four RJ85s, and two Q400s have been used in France for over 10 years.
The Q400 can carry up to 2,642 US gallons and can be reconfigured into a cargo role in a few hours.
Conair Group Inc. is currently producing its fifth and sixth next-generation RJ85 air-tanker, supplementing the five it currently has in operation in the U.S. and Australia.
The next-generation RJ85 will supplement B.C.’s current fleet of air-tankers on a pilot basis this summer. The addition of the aircraft ahead of the 2016 wildfire season will allow the BC Wildfire Service to evaluate its cost and effectiveness and help inform future procurement decisions.
Conair Group Inc. has also signed a memorandum of understanding with CAE to build a Level D simulator training program for RJ85 pilots in B.C. Companies like Conair Group Inc. currently have to send pilots to Zurich, Switzerland to receive similar training, and this facility will reduce costs and increase access to more world-class, mission-based rehearsal scenarios.
In addition to the various initiatives with the RJ85, Conair Group Inc. has started to make enhancements to the Bombardier Q400 cargo combination aircraft. Two Q400s have been built for the Government of France and the planned conversions will increase the aircraft’s versatility for the global market.
Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations –
“Wildfire management will always rely on a fleet of dependable aircraft to assist the men and women on the ground who extinguish the fires. The pilot program with Conair will provide us meaningful information as we look ahead to future procurement decisions.”
The video below shows water and retardant drops by the RJ85 and the Q400.
Above: Conair’s Tanker 162, an RJ85 at Avalon Airport, Victoria, Australia.
The Country Fire Authority currently has one very large and three large air tankers on contract during their summer bushfire season working out of Avalon Airport near Melbourne, Australia (map). The down under fire season will likely be winding down soon and the aircraft will migrate back to North America.
In recent weeks the air tankers were deployed across the Bass Strait to Tasmania. This may have been the first time large aerial firefighting assets were used in the state. The Fire Service felt it was necessary to warn the residents to “not be alarmed” when they saw the air tankers “flying a bit low over the coast”.
Photos provided by the Country Fire Authority, Victoria.
It must have been a slow day at the air tanker base at the Avalon Airport (map) near Melbourne, New South Wales, Australia. Yes, in the screen grab above that is Phos-Chek loader Henry Ring playing a bagpipe while standing in the door of Conair’s RJ85.
Several large air tankers from North America have been on contract with the states of New South Wales and Victoria during their 2015/2016 summer bushfire season and have been staged at Avalon recently. In the video, uploaded to YouTube by Steve Forbes, you’ll see the inside and outside of the RJ85, one of 10 Tanker’s DC-10s, and at least one of the two Coulson C-130s, plus some bird dogs or lead planes.
The RJ-85 has a unique way of waving at the camera.
Mr. Forbes described the video:
In 2015/16 many air and ground personnel including aviation industry professionals, fire agency staff & volunteers and contract ground crews worked hard everyday of the Australian summer making sure the Large (and very large) Air tankers could be at the ready to protect the Australian communities. This is a tribute to these crews.
Bushfires that have been raging across northwest Tasmania for several weeks are still causing great concern in the island state south of Australia.
Three air tankers from North America that have been working in Australia during their summer bushfire season have been recently deployed to Tasmania, including a DC-10, Avro RJ85, and a C-130. This may be the first time large aerial firefighting assets have been used in the state. The Fire Service felt it was necessary to warn the residents to “not be alarmed” when they saw the air tankers “flying a bit low over the coast”.
The video shows an Avro RJ85 air tanker taking off from Avalon, Victoria, flying along the Great Ocean Road, over Lorne, dropping retardant on the Lorne-Jamieson Track Bushfire in Victoria, and flying out over the coast at Wye River. Video courtesy RJ85 Australia.