Trial of dropping water on a wildfire at night begins in Australia

If successful, night-flying helicopters could be incorporated into the 2018/2019 summer bushfire season — then they will consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

night-flying helicopter Australia

Above: The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase two of the night-flying trial. Photo by Coulson.

(UPDATED at 8:40 a.m. MT February 28, 2018)

The test of firefighting helicopters dropping water at night has started in Victoria, Australia. If after the test the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approves hover-filling and dropping at night, the next step will be to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

“Fighting fires in the dark hours, in the cooler part of the night or in the early parts of the morning would enable us to get on top of fires quicker, particularly those in remote parts of Victoria where access may be difficult,” Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said Monday.

“While the use of night vision goggles and infrared technology isn’t new, these have not been used together in Australia. We are very keen to trial this capability, and understand how it would work in a system, and make it safe to do so.”

CASA has approved the trial which will involve controlled conditions at all times.

The first of its kind in Australia, the test will be based at Ballarat Airport. Emergency Management Victoria is the lead with Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Country Fire Authority, and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

The trial will test the ability to hover-fill helicopters at night and the efficiency of night vision technology, including infrared systems and night vision goggles.

Several agencies in Southern California have been conducting night helicopter operations for years, but their SOPs require that they land to refill with water, rather than hover-fill. One of the reasons is that the B-212’s and B-412’s create too much mist for the pilots to see with night vision goggles.

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 drops water during the night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Coulson.

The results of the trial will guide the future use of night-time aerial firebombing operations in Victoria as well as other states and territories.

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation are participating in the trial. A Sikorsky S-61 will drop water while a Sikorsky S-76 will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator.

In the trial the S-76 Firewatch helicopter orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 water dropping operation. It used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the fire bombing helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles, but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

In the video below an australian official says the next step is to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

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8 thoughts on “Trial of dropping water on a wildfire at night begins in Australia”

    1. Matthew,

      How does an aircrew acquire a set of coordinates to designate a drop point in the system you have developed?

      1. I would use UAV’s to both acquire targets and to fly the survey runs. A UAV would get a high altitude picture of the hotspots, then another UAV [or the same] with a laser altimeter would fly a survey run and get the radio altitude script. This is an idea that Insitu has expressed some interest in. Then a VLAT would fly the instrument approach.

        1. So the UAV(s) would have the capability to identify start and stop points on the ground for a retardant drop, say on a ridge adjacent to hotspots/active fire where their is no fire? Also, would cameras on a UAV be able to detect where retardant landed from previous retardant runs (I’m thinking mainly about the effect of winds on an incident and how retardant may drift away from the intended target area)?

          1. Tactically, decisions are made by someone on the ground.

            In the videos (sorry that they aren’t edited well), I show how the drops are aggregated on a map automatically. I also have an algorithm that uses winds aloft to automatically compensation for winds. It compensates for aircraft speed and altitude above terrain as well. Also, there is a predictive algorithm that gives the crew terrain awareness. It can safely drop at night.

  1. I think (and this is my opinion only-I don’t want to stifle your idea) that fire weather conditions and operational limitations of ground and aerial personnel working at night may have not been factored into your model for night delivery of retardant. Have you presented your data and proposed system to anyone in the USFS or BLM aviation management for comment?

  2. Having spent a few hours flying an A-6 at 200′ AGL IFR and at night all I can say is it isn’t easy. How do you manage to ensure adequate clearance for climb out after the drop when there are terrain obstruction concerns? Every instrument approach airport has associated missed approach and departure procedures. Do you map a climb corridor? Take a look at KASE airport here in Colorado for an idea of the problems associated with mountainous terrain. Concept looks interesting for areas with minimal obstructions.

    I think your competition is a dipping Type 1 helo.

  3. I am a bit confused as to how the night vision technology helps?

    According to several articles on the web bright lights ( I assume fire gives off a significant amount of light or infared!) is just about blinding so how does it help?

    This night vision article-

    Touches on the technology a little bit. Please do explain

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