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.

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10 thoughts on “New South Wales to purchase a large air tanker”

  1. Bill,
    It will be interesting to see if Neptune will be able to weather the storm with respect to the one year contracts. As for building the BAe-146, I think it may be too late for Neptune to look for another platform. They should have been researching this years ago. We’ll see

  2. Have alternative suggestion why not consider the Boeing Chinook helicopter been operated by Columbia helicopters/Billngs flying service both are using a self filling Bambi bucket that holds approximately 10,000 Australian litres?, The turnaround time for these helicopters in most cases would be a lot shorter than a plane after dropping its load it would then have to fly back to an airport could be at least 20 to 30 minutes away where Chinook good be a lot shorter that’s providing there is a water source nearby the Bambi bucket as for pumps in the bottom allowing it to full up from extremely shallow water sources, also these chinooks could be used commercially for heavy lift jobs when not needed for firefighting duty that’s one of the things missing in Australia.

  3. Lake Awonga (20 kms North West of this Fire in Question in Queensland), 1 x Be200 would be able to deliver 220 000 litres of fire retardant in 4 and a half hours including 1/2 refuelling requirement at Gladstone Airport. This equates to 30 000 litres more than the 6 aircraft mentioned (that took all day). Imagine the contribution the Beriev Be-200 would have made on this fire.

    This purpose built aircraft is the aircraft NSW should be looking at.

  4. Australian P-3’s are due to be replaced by P-8’s by the end of 2019. P-3 conversion would fit the bill as would conversion of a BAe-146.

  5. having the P3 not a bad idea at all certainly in the past have proven themselves to be effective and I know the Australian Air Force look after them well. but finding suitable airfields within reasonable flying distance from the fire may prove difficult at times that’s why I suggested the Boeing Chinook it can quite easily operate out of a local parkor farmers paddock any reasonable space for it needs is a fuel truck and maybe a maintenance vehicle as well.

  6. I think that the decision has been made.
    The aircraft is sitting there now.
    The tender process will just be a formality.

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