New South Wales to purchase a large air tanker

The state government also expects to buy two lead/aerial supervision aircraft

Recognizing that there is a year-round risk for damaging vegetation fires in parts of Australia like in the Western United States, the New South Wales state government has announced funding of $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft. Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), told us the intent of the NSW government is to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability.  This resident capability will continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.

air tanker tracking queensland australia
Tracking of six water bombing aircraft on December 1, 2018 at Agnes Water and Deepwater bushfires in Queensland, Australia, including one helicopter (green line) which dropped 190,000 litres (50,192 gallons). Image credit: Queensland fire and Emergency Services.

In recent years NSW and Victoria have hired large air tankers, primarily from Canada, for their summer bushfire season. During the 2018-2019 summer the two governments have six working, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They have also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters.

The NSW government purchase of the large air tanker and lead/supervision airplanes will be through an upcoming tender process. Likewise the maintenance and operation of these aircraft will be contracted out.

On December 5 the Australian federal government announced that they would contribute an extra $11.0 million to aerial firefighting for 2018-19 via NAFC.  This was part of a larger funding package ($26.1 million in total) that included a number of other initiatives to support bushfire response and community resilience.  (More details of the overall package here). The $11.0 million for aerial firefighting is a one-off extra contribution for 2018-19, recognizing that the Australian 2018-19 season is forecast to be above normal in key bushfire risk areas.  For 2018-19, it means that the total direct contribution to aerial firefighting from the federal government will be $25.8 million.

Mr. Alder said that in Australia the responsibility for land and forest management and bushfire prevention and suppression constitutionally rests mainly with state and territory (provincial) governments.  The federal government contributes funding and other resources to assist the states and territories.  With aerial firefighting, the state and territory governments and the federal government collaborate through the NAFC which handles contracting of aerial resources on behalf of the states and territories. This provides coordinated approaches to market, common standards and interoperability.

In addition to the six large air tankers and heavy helicopters, this summer NAFC has contracted for other aerial resources:

  • More than forty fixed wing firebombing aircraft, including two AT802 Fireboss (scooping) airplanes;
  • Five helicopters specially equipped for dedicated intelligence gathering with gimballed infrared sensors and mapping and communication systems;
  • Four  dedicated mapping/strategic intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft (three Lear 35/36 jets and one Kingair turboprop), equipped with infra-red line scanners, image processing and high bandwidth communications systems.
  • Two night vision equipped helicopters for suppressing fires at night (and several other NVIS helicopters for support tasks).

The current NAFC large air tanker contracts are for three years with options to extend to five years, Mr. Alder told us. Five of the six working in Australia this year have mandatory availability periods (they call them “minimum service periods”) ranging from 84 to 112 days; a sixth is for 152 days. The U.S. Forest Service MAPs are usually 133 to 160 days, and the USFS contract that is out for bid now is for one year with options to extend to five years.  Both the USFS and NAFC can, and often do, extend the days worked within a season beyond the minimum as needed.

National Aerial Firefighting Centre


To our readers: does anyone care to speculate which aircraft NSW will purchase in their goal to spend $26.3 million on a large air tanker (LAT) and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft? I don’t see how the LAT could be new. Even if the CL-415 were still being manufactured, it’s generally not considered a large air tanker since it can only carry 1,600 gallons. And the last ones produced sold for around $37 million. A new Q400 would be out of the price range, but the manufacturer, Bombardier, and Conair, which does the conversions, are both based in Canada, which appears to be a preferred source of NAFC. I have seen a used Q400 advertised for about $12 million.

A previously owned BAe-146 or RJ85 can be bought for $5 to $6 million, and adding a retardant delivery system might run around $3 to $5 million more. There are used 737-400s on the market for about $3.5 million. Coulson and Conair, both Canadian companies which are currently converting these models, would probably be happy to make a sale. Of course Neptune is also building BAe-146s. A new C-130 or LM-100J would be out of the question at their budget. Used C-130s are difficult to find and the cost can be higher than retired airliners.

Santa Barbara County hopes to purchase a used Blackhawk

The Fire Department may acquire it from the National Guard

LA County FD Firehawk
Santa Barbara County plans to purchase a used Blackhawk helicopter which could be retrofitted similar to the Firehawks operated by Los Angeles County. Photo by LA County FD.

The Santa Barbara County supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the submission of a competitive bid for the fire department to purchase a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard.

Currently the agency operates two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters used primarily for law enforcement operations.  These aircraft are equipped with multi-agency communications radios, Forward Looking InfraRed technology, powerful searchlights, LoJack stolen vehicle tracking equipment, photo and video equipment, and mapping technology.

The department also operates three Rescue/Firefighting aircraft: two Bell UH-1H Hueys and a Bell UH-1N twin-engine Huey.  All three Huey Aircraft are equipped with rescue hoists, capable of lowering rescue personnel into remote or otherwise inaccessible locations and extricating lost or injured persons who could not be rescued by conventional means.  All of the Huey aircraft are also capable of fire suppression missions using either fixed water tanks or removable long-line buckets.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Ynez Valley News:

Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the Blackhawk helicopter will cost less than $1.73 million, noting Cal Fire just purchased two new Black Hawks for between $20 million and $25 million each. He said there will be some additional costs to remove military-specific equipment from the Black Hawk and install the gear necessary to turn it into a Firehawk aerial firefighting unit. The annual operation and maintenance costs also will be higher than the choppers the county currently operates.

County Fire’s Hueys fly at 120 knots and carry 360 gallons of water, but the Firehawk will fly at 190 knots and carry 1,000 gallons of water, which can be released as a full load or in three separate loads. It can also carry twice as many personnel, Dyer said.

In addition to the $1.7 million purchase price of the Blackhawk, the additional costs of retrofitting and maintenance will bring the total up to about $4.7 million. The most costly task will be the installation of the 1,000-gallon water tank including extending the landing gear, which raises the aircraft to make room for the tank.

The helicopter they hope to purchase has been used as an air ambulance by the National Guard. It has about 3,200 hours on it and was built in 2002.

One of the Hueys now operated by the department flew in the Vietnam War and is 51 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find for the helicopter fleet, with all of them being previously owned and retired by the military.

Two of the district supervisors stated that the fire department needs to develop a long range strategic plan for managing and funding the helicopter fleet.

At least three other firefighting agencies in California have recently purchased new Blackhawk helicopters, CAL FIRELos Angeles County , and San Diego Fire Department.


The article was revised to show that San Diego city, rather than San Diego County, is acquiring a new Blackhawk.

Air Base Operator training in New South Wales

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service conducted an Air Base Operator joint training exercise last week for the new Large Air Tanker Base in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.

Photo credit: Adrian.

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

training Air Base Operator joint training Canberra Australia

Forest Service moving to one-year contracts for air tankers

This appears to be a result of inadequate funding for firefighting by the Administration and Congress

number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract
The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract by the U.S. federal government, 2000 through 2018, at the beginning of the wildfire season.

The U.S. federal government has taken steps over the last 16 years that have reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 44 in 2002 to 13 in 2018. After the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002 killing five crew members, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the program, began cancelling contracts for World War II and eventually Korean War vintage aircraft that had been converted to fight fire.

BAe-146 Devore Fire, air tanker,
Tanker 41, a BAe-146, drops retardant on the Devore Fire in Cajon Pass in southern California, November 5, 2012. Photo by Rick McClure

There was no substantial effort to rebuild the fleet until 11 years later when the USFS began awarding contracts for “next generation” air tankers. A few years after that the last of the 50-year old P2V tankers were retired. Following the half-hearted attempt at rebuilding the program, the total number of tankers on contract rose to 20 in 2016 and 2017, but by 2018 had dropped to 13.

The policies being implemented recently could further reduce the number in the coming years.

In 2016 the USFS awarded a one-year exclusive use contract for two water scoopers, with the option for adding four additional years. In 2017 at the end of the second year the USFS decided to not extend the contract for 2018. But during the 2018 fire season they hired the scoopers on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis. An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The practice of advertising one-year contracts is now metastasizing, with the solicitation issued by the USFS on December 3 for one-year contracts for “up to five” large air tankers. These potential contracts also have options for four additional years, but could, like the scoopers, be cancelled or not extended at the discretion of the USFS. If the agency decides to award contracts for five aircraft, it would bring the total up to 18.

Earlier this year the USFS shut down the program that was focused on converting seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. Now they are being moved to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona until the planes can be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as required in legislation in August. From 2016 to the summer of 2018 one of the HC-130H’s was used occasionally on fires with a borrowed retardant tank temporarily installed.

Air tankers are very expensive to purchase and retrofit. Most of the jet-powered tankers being used today before being converted were retired from their original mission and are decades old, but two models of scooper or large air tankers can be purchased new. The CL-415 amphibious scooper cost about $37 million in 2014 but Bombardier stopped building them in 2015, and the new owner of the business, Viking, has not resumed manufacturing the aircraft. A new Q400 can be ordered from Bombardier with an external retardant tank for around $34 million.

Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146,  DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.

Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:

“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”

Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.

The province of Manitoba just awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.

Annual wildfire acres burned United States
The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract by the U.S. federal government at the beginning of the wildfire seasons, 2000 through 2018.

In the 1970s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 20 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 117 acres.

Average size wildfires decade 1970-2018

More acres are burning and the fires are growing much larger while the Administration and Congress reduce the capability of the federal agencies to fight fires.

For the last several years Congress has appropriated the same amount of funds for the U.S. Forest Service, for example. But meanwhile, it costs more to pay for wages, fire trucks, office expenses, travel, and more expensive but safer more reliable air tankers. This leaves less money for everything including vegetation management, prescribed burning, fire prevention, salaries, and firefighting aircraft.

In addition to the reduction in air tankers, the largest and most efficient helicopters, Type 1’s such as the Air Crane, were cut two years ago by 18 percent, from 34 to 28.

In 2017 the number of requests for Type 1 helicopters on fires was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017, 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled
Aircraft can’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and put them out.

It might be easy to blame the USFS for the cutbacks in fire suppression capability, but a person in the agency’s Washington headquarters who prefers to not have their name mentioned said it is a result of a shortage of funds appropriated by Congress. The Administration’s request for firefighting in the FY 2019 budget calls for 18 large air tankers and intends to maintain the 18 percent reduction in Type 1 helicopters, keeping that number at only 28 for the third year in a row.

What can be done?

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The only way this will happen is if the President and Congress realize the urgency and pass and sign the legislation. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

wildfires climate change
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

John Buehler named Aviation Chief for National Park Service

John Buehler
John Buehler. NPS photo by C. Boehle

John Buehler has been named as the new branch chief for the National Park Service Aviation Program, succeeding Margaret “Meg” Gallagher, who is retiring in January 2019 after spending about nine months in the position.

Mr. Buehler has served in a variety of jobs in his professional career:

  • U.S. Army (beginning in 1994), tank platoon leader, headquarters company executive officer, a graduate of the Aviation Officer Advanced Course
  • General Electric, Six Sigma program
  • General Accountability Office, auditor
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission, special agent
  • Bureau of Land Management, internal affairs special agent (his present job).

Mr. Buehler is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, with a degree in civil engineering, math, and law. He received a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management where he completed a dual concentration in finance and operations.

Mr. Buehler is a private pilot and continues to serve in the Army Reserves. He was activated as the Department of Defense Liaison to the National Interagency Fire Center in 2014, 2015, and 2017.

He will begin his new position January 6, 2019.

Air tankers assisting Queensland firefighters during unprecedented fire conditions

Before this year large air tankers had never been used in Queensland

Air tankers positioned Rockhampton Queensland
Air tankers positioned at Rockhampton in Queensland. NSW RFS photo.

The very unusual hot, dry, windy weather that has brought about large wildfires in Queensland, Australia during what is normally their wet season is requiring firefighters to adapt to the new unprecedented conditions. For the first time the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service is using large air tankers to assist firefighters on the ground. In recent days there have been at least three helping out, two RJ85’s and one 737  moved north from New South Wales to Rockhampton, Queensland.

Large air tankers from North America have been working in the states farther south for months, and a third RJ85 has recently arrived to bring the total to six.

Tanker 165 has been in NSW but is moving to a new contract in Victoria.  T-165/391 will take its place at Richmond. This is requiring a call sign change and it will become T-391 while in Victoria.

When the Queensland fire situation subsides, the primary basing for the aircraft will be:

  • Richmond RAFF in New South Wales: a 737 (T-137), a C-130Q (T-134), and two RJ85’s (T-163 & T-166).
  • Avalon airport in Victoria: an RJ-85 (T-165/391) and a C-130Q (T-131).

Most if not all of the North American large air tankers and helicopters working in Australia have adopted names, like Thor, Gaia, Boomer, Hunter, and Rocky — for reasons that are not clear.

National Park Service helicopters played vital role on 9/11

U.S. Park Police helicopter
File photo. A U.S. Park Police helicopter patrols downtown Washington, DC. Credit: USPP

The two helicopters of the U.S. Park Police, a division within the National Park Service, played a vital role after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Established in 1973, the missions of the USPP Aviation Unit include aviation support for law enforcement, medevac, search and rescue, high-risk prisoner transport, and Presidential and dignitary security. The unit has provided accident-free, professional aviation services for over 28 years.

Their base at the “Eagle’s Nest” in Anacostia Park is two to three air miles from the Capitol building, the White House, and the Pentagon.

When a hijacked 757 airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on 9/11 shortly after two others were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, the two USPP Bell 412 helicopters, Eagle I and Eagle II, responded to the Pentagon immediately. The crews transported injured personnel to hospitals, served as a command and control platform, used their Forward Looking Infrared equipment to provide firefighters with intelligence about the scope and spread of the fire through the five rings of the structure, and took over air traffic control for the Washington, D.C. airspace after the controllers at Washington National Airport had to evacuate due to thick smoke.

In an effort to document the events of 9/11 and how the National Park Service responded that day and the months that followed, Park Service historians and ethnographers conducted more than a hundred oral history interviews with Service employees in parks, regional offices, and the Washington headquarters. Janet McDonnell, a Historian for the NPS, started with those interviews and adding her own research wrote the 132-page report, “The National Park Service: Responding to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks.” It is very well written and comprehensive, broken down by geographic area, Washington and New York City. It also covers the use of multiple incident management teams that helped to mitigate the wide-ranging effects across the country.

One of the sections concentrates on the Aviation Unit of the USPP. It is below:


Lieutenant Wallace and Sergeant Beck [of the USPP Motorcycle Unit] were not the only Park Police officers to respond at the Pentagon in those first devastating minutes. Officers in the aviation section also played an important role at the scene. At the aviation hangar in southeast Washington along the Anacostia River, some of the crew were taking advantage of the warm weather and bright sunshine by washing the floor out in the aviation hangar with the door open. Meanwhile, in an open field next to the hangar, one of the helicopter pilots, Sgt. Kenneth Burchell, was conducting riot training for the Defense department’s uniformed health services unit in preparation for the upcoming World Bank/International Monetary Fund protest demonstrations.

One crew member saw the news account of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and called in the others. Sergeant Burchell, his fellow pilot Sgt. Ron Galey, and a few others went inside to watch the television coverage. After seeing the second plane strike and noting the clear blue sky, they quickly concluded that the crash was not an accident. Burchell and Galey headed back out to the hangar. They heard a loud thud and looked up to see a column of smoke rising from the vicinity of the Pentagon. Burchell immediately ran back inside, yelling for his crew.

Minutes later, the “aircraft crash phone” rang, setting off a distinctive horn alarm. The crash phone was a direct communications line from the control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to the hangar so that the aviation unit can respond quickly to incidents at the airport. Sergeant Galey took the call. On the other end of the line, the air traffic controller indicated that a 757 commercial airplane had crashed in the vicinity of the Pentagon. Meanwhile, a call had also come in on the police radio indicating that the Pentagon had been attacked.

Sergeant Keith Bohn
Sergeant Keith Bohn retired in November, 2018. From the NPS: “Congratulations to Sergeant Keith Bohn, who retires from the USPP after 35 years. His work in Patrol, SWAT, and Aviation was invaluable to the Force. A hero pilot of the Eagle on 9/11, but may be known best for his straightforwardness.” NPS photo.

The helicopter crews scrambled to gather their equipment, get to the helicopters, and launch. The duty crew that day, which included Sergeant Galey, rescue technician Sgt. John Marsh, and Officer John Dillon, ran out to Eagle I, a Bell 412 helicopter, and took off within two or three minutes. Sergeant Burchell grabbed Sgt. Keith Bohn and two Defense department medics with Uniformed Services University and Health Sciences who were there for the training. They began installing a mass casualty kit on Eagle II, another Bell 412 helicopter, which allowed them to carry four patients instead of two. The installation took a few minutes. Then Eagle II took off with pilots Burchell and Bohn, the two medics, aviation unit commander Lt. Philip Cholak, and assistant commander Sgt. Bernie Stasulli.

Shortly after launching, Eagle II received its first report that there was an unauthorized aircraft inbound. Eagle I directed Eagle II to land at the Pentagon to conduct medical evacuations. Eagle II quickly landed on a paved roadway 150 to 200 yards from the area of impact. Some of the crew grabbed their emergency medical equipment and ran toward the Pentagon building. At this point, with the reports of an unauthorized inbound plane, Sergeant Burchell realized they needed not only to evacuate the casualties but also to be ready to get as many people as possible away from the site before there was another attack.

Park Police helicopter 9/11
Two casualties are loaded on Eagle II.

Sergeant Bohn kept the helicopter engine running and Sergeant Stasulli stood outside to secure the landing zone. Stasulli was particularly concerned that people moving away from the building, particularly those who seemed somewhat dazed, would inadvertently step too close to the aircraft’s tail rotor blades and be seriously injured. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cholak, Sergeant Burchell, and the two medics moved closer to assess the situation. They initially anticipated ferrying hundreds of patients to hospitals all day long so they wanted to set up an orderly process for this first. They checked in with the triage officer who indicated that there were only eleven casualties in need of medical evacuation. Cholak and one of the medics went to the triage area to assist. Burchell headed back to get Sergeant Bohn to move the aircraft closer, which he did.

Continue reading “National Park Service helicopters played vital role on 9/11”

Manitoba converts to contractors for operating the Province’s air tankers

A contract was awarded to Babcock and Air Spray

Manitoba CL-415 air tanker
An employee polishes one of the Manitoba CL-415 air tankers in Manitoba that was delivered around 2012. (screen grab from ChrisD204 video)

The Canadian Province of Manitoba has decided to turn over the operation of its air tankers to a private company. The process began in June of this year when the province issued a request for proposals (RFP) which has resulted in a 10-year contract with Babcock who will work with Air Spray to operate the aircraft.

The deployment of the tankers will remain under the direction of Manitoba Wildfire Program staff.

The Wildfire Suppression Services contract includes the management, maintenance, and operation of Manitoba’s fleet of seven Canadair water-scooping amphibious aircraft (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft. Manitoba will retain ownership of the air tankers, parts, inventory, special tools, and equipment but will transfer care and custody to the contractors.

In 2017, Babcock aircraft and crews carried out over 5,500 firefighting missions, dropped 174 million liters of water and logged over 20,000 hours in support of wildfire suppression.

The Manitoba government purchased four CL-415 scooping air tankers for $126 million that were delivered between 2010 and 2012, replacing some of the much older CL-215 tankers built between 1969 and 1990.

Based on operations in prior years, the Wildfire Suppression Service will provide approximately 1,400 flying hours and 3,750 water drops per year. Operations will cover the entire Province of Manitoba and will help to protect communities in a population of 1.3 million people.

“Our government is committed to protecting Manitobans from wildfires and that’s what this agreement delivers,” said Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler. “It will ensure faster response times, enhanced safety and a superior aircraft maintenance program.  It will make Manitoba’s wildfire suppression system even better.”

Lynn Hamilton, owner and President of Air Spray Ltd., said “the Province of Manitoba can be assured that our years as a leader in the air tanker industry and experience fighting wildfires throughout Western Canada can be relied on to provide outstanding service to the Province.”

Representatives of Babcock will be meeting with affected government employees in the very near future to discuss employment opportunities under the new operating structure, Mr. Schuler said.

A government employee’s union issued a statement in July a month after the RFP was announced.

“Our skilled members at Manitoba Government Air Services provide an essential, life-saving public service to Manitobans, getting critically ill patients to hospitals and protecting communities from forest fires,” said Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky at a press conference Friday. “These essential services should not be auctioned off as profit opportunities for private airline corporations.”

Manitoba still has a RFP out for both general transportation air services and for air ambulance services.