Purchasing air tankers and helicopters is part of the political debate in Australia

The proposal would commit $101 million to boost aerial firefighting capability

tanker 137 Boeing 737 drop first wildfire bushfire
On November 22, 2018 Air Tanker 137 made the first drop by a Boeing 737 on an active fire. It occurred on a bushfire in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia. Screenshot from NSW RFS video.

The Labor Party in Australia is pushing for a large increase in the aerial firefighting capability of the country. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said if the party wins the federal election the government would infuse $101 million into the country’s aerial firefighting capacity.

Australia does not own any large or very large fixed wing air tankers and had little or no history of using them on bushfires until 2010 when they began a trial with a DC-10. After that first drop on a fire on January 31, 2010 the air tanker program, called “water bombers” down under, grew very slowly until a few years ago when they began contracting for multiple air tankers from North America, including the DC-10, RJ-85, C-130, and most recently, a 737. During the 2018-2019 bushfire season which just concluded, the country had six air tankers on contract — one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in helicopters including S-61s and Erickson Aircranes.

In December, 2018 the New South Wales government 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 was to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability.  This would continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.

But the proposed new funding initiative recently disclosed by the Labor Party would allow the federal government to purchase up to six large or very large air tankers and up to twelve helicopters, such as retrofitted Blackhawks from the military or Erickson Aircranes.

The proposal also calls for creating the country’s first “Smokejumper” units. However, they describe “Smokejumper” as a firefighter who rappels from a helicopter. In Canada and the United States a smokejumper jumps out of a fixed wing aircraft with a parachute and then fights the fire from the ground. Rappellers in the U.S. are delivered to a fire via a rope below a helicopter.

Of the total of $101 million the party wants to use to boost aerial firefighting capability, $80 million would go toward acquiring air tankers and helicopters, with $21 million being committed to the National Aerial Firefighter Centre to restore recently reduced funding.

6 thoughts on “Purchasing air tankers and helicopters is part of the political debate in Australia”

  1. Well this is a very interesting proposal, the growing problem of wildfires is the season is gonna get longer and longer and one of the problems our officials are facing the tankers may not be available when needed so it makes sense for Australia to have its own tankers. The question is which tankers/helicopters.

    Aircraft, the Boeing 737 is an obvious choice, because it can respond from one end of the country to another in a few hours. And there is plenty available in the boneyard Coulson aviation would also be the best choice to outfit the tanker.

    Now helicopters, a bit more difficult there is several choices.The problem with the helicopter tanker is its much slower responding to fires and other parts of the country the best option locate them at fire prone areas.

    CH-47 would be a very good choice. The US Army are selling off quite a number of their D versions and as well they can handle up to 11,000 litres of water, they’re selling for approximately 3 to $6 million each plus quite a bit of refurbishing as well needed.

    The Erickson S64 sky crane is also a good choice but takes approximately 12 months to build these machines and cost roundabout $30 million each?,

    The file Hawk, is also a good option but the tank only holds 3850 leaders?. My understanding is the US government is selling off quite a few Blackhawks that could be converted five Hawks.

  2. Perhaps Australia could do a follow-on report to this one. It is the best study to date on air tanker effectiveness. The US hasn’t produced anything comparable. The AFUE program has been a couple of years away for several years.

    The Effectiveness and Efficiency of Aerial Firefighting in Australia

    This report was done before Australia started contracting for large and very large air tankers so a comparison between SEATs, helos, LATs, and VLATs would be very useful in informing agencies on what kind of mix to procure.

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