Australia gearing up air assets for bushfire season

T162 arriving Avalon
Tanker 162, an RJ-85, arrives at Avalon, Victoria, Australia December 7, 2014. Photo by Mike Austin.

Contracted aerial firefighting assets are arriving in Victoria for the Australian bushfire season. Conair’s Tanker 162, an RJ-85, arrived on December 7. Coulson’s C-130Q is expected to be there by Monday night local time, December 8. They will be based at the Avalon Airport in Victoria.

As usual, two of Coulson’s S61 helicopters will be on contract, beginning December 17 this year. One of them was in storage over the winter at Essendon Airport. The other was seen December 8 being trucked from Port Melbourne to Essendon.

Two Erickson Air-Crane helicopters are being contracted through Kestrel Aviation in Victoria for service in the state.

New South Wales had two Air-Cranes delivered by an Antonov cargo aircraft on October 4. Those two helicopters are “Gypsy Lady” and “Ichabod”; their contract started on October 6.

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MST December 7, to provide more detailed information about the helicopters, and the ETA of the C-130Q.)

More details about the aviation assets to be available for the 2014/2015 bushfire season in Victoria.

More details about the fire aviation assets in Victoria, Australia this summer

RJ-85, tanker 161
One of two RJ-85s converted by Conair and operated by Aero Flite. There is a report that Conair produced three of these, keeping one for themselves. Calls to Conair to confirm the report and that one will be used in Victoria were not returned. Photo provided by NIFC.

On October 10 we wrote about the plans for the fire aviation program for the coming 2014/2015 summer fire season in Victoria, Australia. Now, thanks to Bryan Rees, who is in charge of fire aviation capability for the Department of Environment and Primary Industries in the state, we have more details.

As we reported before, the aircraft fleet will include:

  • 2 large fixed wing airtankers;
  • 1 firebombing helicopter to be based in the Latrobe Valley;
  • 2 Erickson Aircranes capable of dropping 7,500 litres (1,980 gallons) of water;
  • 2 large Sikorsky helicopters capable of dropping 3,500 litres (924 gallons) of water or transporting up to 17 firefighters;
  • 5 medium sized firebombing helicopters;
  • 15 light helicopters;
  • 12 single engine airtankers;
  • 2 infrared line-scanning fixed wing aircraft;
  • 4 fixed wing firespotting aircraft; and
  • 1 fixed wing aircraft to support the large air tankers.

Mr. Rees said the two large air tankers will be Coulson’s C-130Q and an RJ-85 from Conair. They can carry 4,000 and 3,000 gallons, respectively, and will work out of the Avalon airport beginning around December 10.

We asked Mr. Rees by email about the helicopters that would be on contract this summer:

Victoria has operated Erickson Aircranes since 1997. This season we will have 2 x S64 E models based in Melbourne and at Ballarat. In addition we have contracts for 2 x S61 from Coulson for firebombing, fire crew transport and rappel operations based at Mansfield and Ballarat. A number of companies provide Type 2 helicopters for firebombing and rappel operations in Victoria. Kestrel aviation operates 2 x B212’s and a B412, McDermott aviation a B214B, and Jayrow helicopters a B212 — we are currently tendering for an additional T2 for the Latrobe Valley area.

And, we asked about Victoria’s past use of large air tankers:

Victoria has operated large air tankers on a number of occasions over the years. We operated a RAAF Hercules fitted with a USFS MAFFS unit for the 1981/82 and 1982/83 fire season – this included operations during the disastrous Ash Wednesday fires. Victoria hosted the trial by CSIRO called Project Aquarios in 1983/84 using a Conair DC6. The DC10 was operated from Avalon here in Victoria during the 2009/10 fire season and 2 x Conair Convairs operated here in 2010/11.

Victoria to contract for two large airtankers

Tanker 131 C-130Q
Coulson’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q, at McClellan, March 31, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

For the first time, two 3,000-gallon Type 1 air tankers will be put to regular use in Australia during their upcoming 2014/2015 summer bushfire season. Other than a brief trial of a DC-10 several years ago, Australia has rarely used large air tankers but instead has relied on single engine air tankers and helicopters for aerial support of firefighters on the ground. In 2010 they had the use of two 2,000-gallon Convair 580s, a Type 2 air tanker.

Britt Coulson said that their company, Coulson, will be be providing one of the large air tankers, their 4,000-gallon C-130Q known as Tanker 131. The other will be a 3,000-gallon RJ-85. The only company that currently operates RJ-85 air tankers is Aero Flite. Their two RJ-85s, Tankers 160 and 161, were first certified this summer. However, Judy Ziomek, the Vice President of the company, said Thursday that she was unaware that of one of their aircraft was destined to be used in Australia. Calls to Convair, the company that converted the RJ-85s into air tankers, were not returned. (Check out this unusual photo of Tanker 160.)

Kim Payne of Emergency Management Victoria, said the air tankers will be based at Avalon Airport in the south part of the state beginning in mid-December.

Victoria is also contracting for two Erickson Aircrane helicopters from the United States, and Coulson will, as usual, send two of their Sikorski S61s down under.

The state has appropriated $7.15 million in additional funding this year to bolster the state’s aerial firefighting fleet and increase the number of aircraft for the upcoming fire season.

Minister for Bushfire Response Kim Wells said this fire season, 46 specialist aircraft will help to support firefighters, which is four more aircraft than the previous fire season.

“Targeted aviation resources based in the Latrobe Valley will ensure rapid response to incidents across the whole Gippsland region and increase community safety,” Mr Wells said.

“In addition, Victoria will be the first Australian state to use the two large air tankers, which are some of the biggest firefighting aircraft available, and were most recently used to support firefighters in California.

The aircraft fleet will include:

  • 2 large fixed wing airtankers;
  • 1 firebombing helicopter to be based in the Latrobe Valley;
  • 2 Erickson Aircranes capable of dropping 7,500 litres (1,980 gallons) of water;
  • 2 large Sikorsky helicopters capable of dropping 3,500 litres (924 gallons) of water or transporting up to 17 firefighters;
  • 5 medium sized firebombing helicopters;
  • 15 light helicopters;
  • 12 single engine airtankers;
  • 2 infrared line-scanning fixed wing aircraft;
  • 4 fixed wing firespotting aircraft; and
  • 1 fixed wing aircraft to support the large air tankers.

The Aircrane helicopters and the large air tankers will be available for use in December, with the remaining fleet available later in October.

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

Victoria testing new method of dispatching aircraft to bushfires

Firefighting aircraft in Victoria, Australia could be dispatched to bushfires much more quickly if a new system being tested works out the way the state government hopes.

The final report on the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires recommended that a better system be developed for dispatching aircraft. Here is an excerpt from an article at Itnews:

…The Commission discovered a three-layered approvals process was required in the request-based dispatch system before an aircraft was able to launch.

It meant the average dispatch time for aircraft was around 34 minutes, due to approval needing to pass three layers in what amounted to a “cumbersome system”, the Commission found.

A trial of “enhanced dispatch” was undertaken in the 2012-13 fire season at Bendigo airport over 106 days and 44 fires, and found that aircraft were dispatched and in position over the fire “significantly more quickly” than those dispatched via the existing system. The trial reported an average dispatch time of eight minutes, compared to the previous 34 minutes.

“Ground crews consistently reported that the early arrival of aircraft was a significant factor in enabling them to control fires,” the Commission reported in its annual report for 2014.

Australians gear up for bushfire season

"Elvis", an Erickson Air-Crane
“Elvis”, an Erickson Air-Crane. Credit: Erickson

At the beginning of the bushfire season in Australia, Peter Ryan, the Deputy Premier of Victoria, held a press conference to announce that “Elvis is back in the building”. The Premier was referring to an Erickson Air-Crane, a Type 1 helicopter which can carry 2,650 gallons of water. The Australians have a special fondness for the Air-Cranes, and especially for the one named “Elvis”, which is credited for helping to protect almost 300 homes near Sydney in 2001 and also for helping save the lives of 14 firefighters in the Burragorang Valley in New South Wales.

CFA air resources 2012-2013
Country Fire Authority air resources to be available beginning December 26 in Victoria for the  2012-2013 bushfire season. Credit: The Age

In addition to “Elvis” (N179AC), Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has contracted for a second Air-Crane, “Gypsy Lady” (N189AC).

Through contracts with various state and territory governments in Australia, Air-Cranes and Skycranes have been helping the Australians during their fire seasons since  “Millie” (N223AC) was deployed there in 1997. One of the more notable missions was the 2001-2002 bushfire season when “Georgia Peach” (N154AC) and “Incredible Hulk” (N164AC), were rushed out from the U.S.A on board a Russian Antonov An-124 air freighter to assist with bushfires near Sydney, working with “Elvis” which was already “in the building”.