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.

C-130Q en route to Australia

The air tanker will begin an 84-day contract in Victoria on December 15.

Above: Tanker 131’s route from Santa Maria, California to Hawaii.

Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, a C-130Q, is en route to Australia to begin a firefighting contract for the state of Victoria. It departed from Phoenix on December 8 and is expected to arrive in Avalon, Victoria on December 12 after flying for a total of 27 hours. These dates and the ones below are U.S. time.

Tanker 131 itinerary
Tanker 131’s itinerary. From Coulson.

In Australia it is designated as Tanker 390 and is named “Hercules”. On the way to Avalon it scheduled stops at Santa Maria (California), Kahului (Hawaii), Pago Pago, and Norfolk Island. Britt Coulson said Friday night that it had just landed at Pago Pago (NSTU).

The 84-day contract for T-131 begins December 15th.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 in Maui, Thursday December 8 US time. Coulson photo.
Tanker 131
Tanker 131 over Maui, Thursday December 8 US time. Coulson photo.

Tanker 131 concluded its 2016 fire season in the United States on November 30, accumulating 350 hours of flight time and 520 drops for a total of 1.77 million gallons delivered over wildfires — an average of 3,404 gallons per drop.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 at Pago Pago Friday December 9 US time. Coulson photo.

Coulson’s other C-130 type air tanker, T-132, a C-130H, has been in New South Wales since September 6, 2016. Known as “Thor” down under, it just had its contract extended for another month and will continue to be based at Richmond RAAF base until mid-January.

Victoria’s aerial firefighting fleet gears up for the down-under summer

Like New South Wales, Victoria is getting their firefighting aircraft lined up for the 2016-2017 Australian bushfire season which is getting underway now.

A year ago between Victoria and New South Wales the two states had four large air tankers from North America on contract during their summer; two C-130’s, a DC-10, and an RJ85. It appears the arrangements will be very similar this summer.

From Victoria’s Country Fire Service:

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“This year, Victoria will have 48 aircraft available, including five aircraft that have been strategically positioned to support harvesting operations in the Mallee.

Forest Fire Management Victoria Chief Fire Officer Stephanie Rotarangi said: “The first aircraft to come on board this year are the Helitack fire-fighting helicopter at Sea Lake and two single engine air tanker fixed-wing planes at Ouyen, which start today.”

“Another two single engine air tankers will be based at Nhill from November 23. This is the first time this service has been provided at Ouyen and Nhill to support cropping in the north west and west of the state.

“The Bushfire Natural Hazards CRC Seasonal Outlook has predicted an above average fire season for Victoria in 2016-17. The recent rainfall means we can expect increased grass growth and high-yielding crops, particularly in areas like the Mallee.”

The five aircraft will be on pre-determined dispatch which means they are able to respond to fires at the same time as fire trucks do.

CFA Chief Officer Steve Warrington said rapid response in the early stages helps to keep small fires small.

“This summer, we are expanding predetermined dispatch to include another five aircraft to cover Ballarat, Mornington Peninsula, Olinda, Heyfield and Ovens. This means for the 2016-17 season Victoria will have 27 aircraft at 19 locations on immediate response,” he said.

“Victoria’s specialised aircraft fleet is strategically positioned across the state so it is available for a range of different types of fires and terrain to provide the best support possible to our firefighters.”

Tankers 131 132 fire Victoria
Tankers 131 and 132, both on contract in Victoria, February, 2016. T-132 had been on contract earlier with New South Wales; when the contract ended, Victoria picked up the aircraft for the remainder of the Australian summer.  Coulson photo.

Victoria’s aircraft fleet this season will include: 2 Large Air Tankers, 2 Air-Cranes, 27 aircraft on pre-determined dispatch including 2 Sikorsky helicopters and 1 water scooping aircraft,  14 aircraft to provide air attack supervision and reconnaissance, 1 dedicated air intelligence helicopter and 2 infrared line-scanning aircraft.

Major fire operations will be supported by the two Large Air Tankers (LATs), Hercules and RJ which will be based at Avalon Airport and the two air-cranes, Malcolm and Ichabod

The LATs are some of the biggest firefighting aircraft in the world and can hold between 12,000 and 15,000 litres of water, retardant or foam.”

Air tankers in Victoria

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”.

air tanker 910 DC-10
10 Tanker’s T-910, a DC-10, at Avalon, Victoria.
air tanker 131 at Avalon
Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130 (known as T-390 in Victoria) at Avalon, Victoria.
air tanker 132 at Avalon
Coulson’s Tanker 132, a C-130, at Avalon, Victoria.
Bird Dogs Avalon
Bird Dogs at Avalon Airport, Victoria.
fire Retardant plant Avalon
The fire retardant mixing plant at Avalon, Victoria.

Photos provided by the Country Fire Authority, Victoria.