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.”  “

Report released about the 2014 crash of an AT-802 in British Columbia

On July 14, 2016 the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada released the Investigation Report about the crash of a Conair Air Tractor AT-802A that occurred August 14, 2014. The crash took place as the air tanker was attempting to lift off after scooping water on Chantslar Lake in British Columbia. The pilot incurred minor injuries and the aircraft sank.

AT-802F
File photo of an Air Tractor 802-F. Air Tractor photo.

The investigators concluded that a wing stalled either independently or in combination with an encounter with a wing-tip vortex generated by another aircraft.

Below is the TSB’s Summary of the incident:

An Air Tractor AT-802A on amphibious floats (registration C-GXNX, serial number AT- 802A-0530), operating as Tanker 685, was carrying out wildfire management operations during daylight near Chantslar Lake, British Columbia. Three similar aircraft were working as a group with Tanker 685, which was second in line on a touch-and-go to scoop water from Chantslar Lake. Upon liftoff, control was lost and the aircraft’s right wing struck the water. The aircraft water-looped, and the floats and their support structure separated from the fuselage. The aircraft remained upright and slowly sank.

The pilot received minor injuries, egressed from the cockpit, and inflated the personal flotation device being worn. The third aircraft in the formation jettisoned its hopper load as it continued its takeoff and remained in the circuit. The fourth aircraft jettisoned its hopper load, rejected its takeoff, and taxied to pick up the accident pilot. There was sufficient impact force to activate the on-board 406- megahertz emergency locator transmitter, but the search-and-rescue satellite system did not detect a signal from the emergency locator transmitter until the wreckage was being recovered 6 days later.

The TSB’s findings, in part:

1. A wing stalled either independently or in combination with an encounter with a wing-tip vortex generated by the lead aircraft. This caused a loss of control moments after liftoff, and resulted in the right-hand wing tip contacting the water and in a subsequent water-loop.

2. The operator’s standard takeoff procedures did not specify a liftoff speed for scooping operations. Lifting off below the published power-off stall speed contributed to a loss of control at an altitude insufficient to permit a recovery.

3. The takeoff condition, with the aircraft heavy, its speed below the published power-off stall speed, and a high angle-of-attack contributed to the loss of control.

4. An understaffed management structure during organizational changes likely led to excessive workload for existing managers. This contributed to risks, contained within the standard operating procedures, not being addressed through the operator’s safety management system, resulting in continued aircraft operations below published minimum airspeed limitations.

The report states that Conair hired a safety manager and a company check pilot for the Fire Boss fleet before the 2015 spring training season started. And, Conair adopted a risk mitigation plan for 2015–2016, applicable to the company’s AT-802 fleet. The plan addresses issues mentioned in the TSB report, plus an additional issue identified in-house.

The year following the August 14, 2014 crash on Chantslar Lake there were three incidents that we are aware of that involved Conair AT-802’s:

Air tanker slides off runway at Manning, Alberta

The crew of two was transported to a hospital for evaluation.

(UPDATED at 8:59 a.m. MDT, May 7, 2016)

The Whistler Question reports that the pilot of the air tanker that slid off the runway at Manning, Alberta “suffered a medical episode” and the co-pilot was forced to land the plane. This occurred while the aircraft was approaching to land.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…During the emergency landing at the airport strip, the plane veered off the runway and came to rest in the ditch, luckily without catching fire.

The co-pilot was not injured and walked away from the crash, but the pilot suffered a cut to the head, though he was conscious and breathing when first responders arrived.

His injuries are not considered life-threatening.

Global News had a similar report.

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(Originally published at 9:42 p.m. MDT May 5, 2016)

Above: Alberta premier Rachel Notley confirms the air tanker incident at Manning.

An air tanker slid off the runway Thursday at the Manning, Alberta airport. There were no fatalities but the two pilots were being evaluated at a hospital. The air tanker had been working a fire near Manning before the incident.

T 45 at Manning Alberta
An air tanker at Manning Alberta slid off the runway on Thursday. CTV news photo.

CBC news quoted Eleanor Miclette, the acting chief administrative officer for the County of Northern Lights, who said the air crew lost control of the plane’s steering and crash-landed at the end of the runway around 4 p.m. The aircraft, a Convair, leaked fuel following the crash but there was no fire.

The position of the aircraft in the photo above is similar to that in the 2010 off-runway excursion of Neptune’s Tanker 44, a P2V, when a hydraulic failure upon landing led to inadequate brakes. The position is reminiscent of Minden’s Tanker 48 in 2014 that had a hydraulic failure causing the nose wheel to collapse while landing.

Tanker 45 at JEFFCO
Conair’s Tanker 45 at JEFFCO airport near Denver, June 2012 during the High Park Fire. In the Canadian aircraft registry, it is listed as a Convair 340-32 manufactured in 1953. Photo by Shane Harvey.

Conair to train in local RJ85 simulator

Conair pilots will use an RJ85 flight simulator that will display forest fires on the ground.

RJ85 at La Grande
An RJ85 at La Grande, OR, July, 2015. Photo by Josh Annas.

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.

Neptune has sent their BAe-146 pilots to train with simulators in the United Kingdom while Minden, when they were working on a BAe-146, had their personnel travel to Australia. But starting in 2017 Conair pilots will be able to train near their own facilities in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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.”

Conair to convert more RJ85s and improve the Q400 air tankers

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.

Below is an excerpt from an article at TMTV:

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.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to JM.

Victoria to again have two large air tankers under contract this summer

Emergency Management Victoria will have two large air tankers from North America under firefighting contract again during their down-under summer.

Tanker 161 RJ85.
Tanker 161, an RJ85. Photo supplied by RJ85 Australia.

Beginning December 1 they expect to have the same types of aircraft that they employed in the 2014/2015 bushfire season — one of Conair’s RJ85s, and Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q (known in Australia as Bomber 390).

The RJ85, N355AC, is en route now island hopping across the Pacific after departing Abbotsford, British Columbia at 2:04 p.m. MST on November 14. When heard from last, it left Guadalcanal Nov. 17 at 3:03 p.m. MST on its final leg and was due in Australia Nov. 17 at 8:52 p.m. MST, a six-hour flight.  Last year because of the limited range of the RJ85, they used fuel bladders for the multi-day trip.

Coulson’s Tanker 131 (N130FF) is getting a new 4,000 USG tank and Smart Controller upgrade and is expected to depart for Australia by the end of next week.

During the 2014/2015 fire season the two air tankers completed 81 drops of fire retardant on fires in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

New South Wales already has two air tankers on duty, T-910 (N612AX) a DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and Coulson’s Tanker 132, an L-382G (N405LC) which is a civilian stretched version of a C-130.

Air tanker crashes in British Columbia lake

A single engine air tanker crashed in a lake in British Columbia Friday afternoon, July 10. The Air Tractor 802-F Fire Boss amphibious air tanker was scooping water from Puntzi Lake (map) at about 2:15 p.m. when the Conair plane had some sort of difficulty and sank. The pilot was not injured, according to Bill Yearwood with Transportation Safety Board.

Mr. Yearwood said,“We are quite familiar with the aircraft and its operation and there is no information to suggest there’s been any problems in advance of this.”

The fire that the aircraft was working on is on the west side of Puntzi Lake, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) west of Williams Lake. At the last report it had burned about 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres).

Puntzi Lake air tanker crash
The pointer marks the location of Puntzi Lake, the site of the air tanker crash in British Columbia.

This was the 4th crash or serious incident involving a Conair single engine air tanker in the last 13 months.

On May 22, 2015 another Conair 802-F Fire Boss crashed in Alberta, killing the pilot.

An engine failure on Conair’s Air Tanker 699, an Air Tractor AT-802A, during training resulted in damage to a float upon landing. The incident occurred April 11, 2015 on Harrison Lake, BC, 33 nm NNE of Abbotsford.

A Conair Air Tractor 802-F Fireboss crashed and and sank August 14, 2014 while scooping water on Chantslar Lake in British Columbia, Canada about 30 kilometers west of Puntzi Mountain. Jeff Berry of Conair said the pilot was able to exit the Single Engine Air Tanker, but was held overnight in a hospital in William’s Lake and released Friday morning.

AT-802F Fire Boss
File photo of one of Conair’s AT-802F Fire Boss air tankers. Photo by Peter Unmuth.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Pilot killed in Alberta air tanker crash

From the Toronto Sun:

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“The lone occupant of a firefighting plane that crashed Friday afternoon [May 22, 2015] in northern Alberta has died, a company spokesman confirmed.

Jeff Berry of Conair Aerial Firefighting told Postmedia Network that the plane, an AT-802 Fireboss amphibious water bomber, crashed just after 4:30 p.m. MDT, about 40 km north of Cold Lake near the Saskatchewan border.

Crews are fighting an out-of-control 300 ha wildfire in the area, in the vicinity of Burnt Lake, Alta., near the CFB Cold Lake’s weapons range and an Imperial Oil facility.

Berry said the 37-year old pilot was no stranger to fighting wildfires.

“This was his fourth season, so he was well-experienced,” Berry said.

Berry said the single-seater plane was relatively new, built in 2009.

AT-802F Fire Boss
File photo of one of Conair’s AT-802F Fire Boss air tankers. Photo by Peter Unmuth.

He expressed his condolences to the friends and family of the pilot, and expressed his gratitude to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and Cold Lake Search and Rescue for their quick response.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada was sending an investigation team, expected to arrive Saturday morning, TSB spokesman Julie Leroux confirmed.

Cold Lake is about 230 km northeast of Edmonton.”

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Our sincere condolences go out to the the pilot’s family, friends, and to Conair.

The fire is in the Cold Lake Weapons Range, 40 km (25 miles) north of Cold Lake near Burnt Lake, and has burned approximately 3000 hectares (7400 acres).