A proposal for countries to share air tankers resurfaces

Water scooping air tankers would travel between hemispheres on a repurposed or custom designed ship

Canadian Australian Strategic Firefighting Initiative vessel
An artist’s rendering of the proposed Canadian Australian Strategic Firefighting Initiative vessel. (Davie Shipyard)

A concept for sharing firefighting air tankers between the northern and southern hemispheres proposed in 2016 has resurfaced. The wildfire seasons in opposite times of the year could provide windows for the same aircraft to travel back and forth annually between North America and Australia or South America.

In 2016 Quebec-based Davie Shipyard suggested that the water scooping air tankers in Canada could be transported on a custom designed or converted ship and delivered to Australia at the end of the northern hemisphere fire season. Then the aircraft could be shipped back north before the Canadian fire season began.

For decades Canada has had success with CL-215/415 water-scooping air tankers first made by Bombardier. British Columbia based Viking Air Ltd presently owns the rights to Bombardier’s CL-415 air tanker. The company is now taking orders and deposits for its new-production CL-515 “First Responder” air tanker.

Below are excerpts from a January 14 article at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

“I think when we initially proposed the idea, it was too soon,” said Spencer Fraser, chief executive officer of Federal Fleet Service, the Davie Shipyard’s sister company. “There were still people within Canada and society that were denying extreme weather events and climate change. What’s important today is — look, it’s real. So let’s do something about it.”

No one from the Liberal government was willing to comment Monday — but there was word last week that officials in two federal departments had dusted off the proposal and had asked questions of Viking Air Ltd., the B.C. company which now owns the rights to Bombardier’s CL-415 water bomber.

Greg Mullins, the former fire commissioner of the state of New South Wales, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Jan. 3 that the country should tap into Canadian expertise and assets.

“Our prime minister should be on the phone with Justin Trudeau from Canada, right now, saying, ‘Justin, we need 20 or more of your water-scooping, purpose-built water bombers that are in mothballs during your winter,'” he said.

Fraser said the companies originally involved in the pitch in 2016 studied the logistics of flying water bombers between Canada and Australia and concluded it would be complicated, even perilous, to refuel the aircraft along the way in less-than-friendly nations.

In November, 2019 a group of 23 former fire and emergency services leaders and other former fire chiefs said they were concerned that with longer fire seasons now being experienced the current air tanker fleet in Australia is not adequate for keeping up with the increasing bushfire activity.

The acquisition and contracting of large air tankers in Australia is coordinated by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC). They recently purchased a Boeing 737 air tanker, but like the federal government in the United States, the country depends on contractors to supply most of their large air tankers.

NAFC had planned on having five large air tankers available during the 2019/2020 bushfire season (including the government-owned 737), but as wildfire activity grew exponentially the agency kept adding more. By the end of next week they will have 10 large air tankers on contract plus the government-owned 737.

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13 thoughts on “A proposal for countries to share air tankers resurfaces”

  1. Sharing Tankers? Too late. Looking at the next fire seasons to come, I believe MORE Tankers would be better than SHARE Tankers.

    1. Something like this is really good. With opposing fire seasons between Australia and Canada, it’s an efficient use of resources and makes for good allies/neighbours/friends.

  2. Who is going to build a single deck seaplane carrier? What do you do with it between sailings?

    CL-415/515 wings don’t fold so the ship’s minimum beam has to be approx 100′ and length close to 1000′. It would be a PANAMAX size ship. A single hangar deck version [as shown] could only carry 10 or so CL-515 aircraft. A new construction ship might cost ~$130-140M USD. Crew plus operating costs over $5M/yr.

    A dual hangar deck version that is still Panama Canal capable would be very very much more expensive [a national budget sort of thing] and the vertical stab and wings on the aircraft would have to fold. At that point just punt and build a 25,000 ton Essex or Audacious class aircraft carrier carrying modified CL-515’s.

    Agree with Jerome. If sharing is the objective, it would be far less expensive and far more practical to buy more aircraft with a common purchase agreement to reduce procurement costs and then preposition them or ship them as conventional crated commercial ship deck cargo to move them between hemispheres.

    1. The CL-415 is only 67ft long. You should easily be able to fit 11 if not 12 end to end on a single level converted panamax cargo ship. Clapped out panamax container ships today are going for an absolute song as they have been made redundant by Neo-Panamax ships following the canal expansion (5000 TEU max vs. 12,000 TEU max).

      E.g: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38653546. Seven year old 4650 TEU ship sold for US$5.5m!

      At 9 metres high (for a CL-415) I also don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to build a double decker storey ship without any modification to the aircraft. You have 58m max height on a Panamax ship from the waterline. More to the point the ship doesn’t need to comply with max height restrictions (or width) of the Panama canal as it will never need to sail the panama canal (it will go from western Canada to east coast Australia).

      Having said that it would be a lot easier if somebody just figured out how to store fuel in the CL-415s water tank for extended ferry operation (like the Fireboss stores fuel in its hopper for ferry operation). The plane is fuel volume not MTOW constrained and could probably carry another 3 tonnes of fuel if it had more tankage. That should give you at least 1000km of extra range which would mean you could easily hop from Canada-Anchorage-Aleutian Islands-Hokkaido-Guam-Australia. No need to rely on the Russians letting you stop by beautiful Kamchatka.

      1. OC,

        Stuff to think about.

        A naval architect has to redesign the ship to meet IMO standards. Yard overhauls, modifies, and certifies with IMO. Not cheap even if the ship is a surplused Panamax.
        Weather deck stowage / transport is not advisable so covered deck / decks.
        May not be enough business to make the design commercially profitable. Might have to be be a national asset especially if it is limited to the west coast.
        Aircraft handling and stowage: ATA-9 towing gear is a long bar. Very tough to use in confined spaces. Won’t allow “close spot” stowage even with a naval design “tug”.
        Unique tie down gear and strengthened aircraft “picket” rings and aircraft structure are probably required.
        Lots of extra training required for ship’s crews to crane aboard, handle, spot, tie down, and offload aircraft . Add to that, shipboard enclosed space aircraft firefighting is a complex skill. Not an average stevedore or deck hand skill.
        Shipboard fire hazard of standard aviation turbine fuels may require aircraft conversion to JP-5 fuel.

        Pretty soon, all the small considerations add up to significant money. I just don’t think it’s a good idea based on my carrier aviation and commercial aviation experience. If that kind of money is available, it is probably better spent on procuring more aircraft.

  3. Canadian owned aircraft have been migrating between North America and Australia fire seasons since the early 1980s and previously included Conair DC-6Bs, Convair 580s and Air Tractor AT-802’s and more recently Coulson Aviation’s US-registered C-130s and 737-300 and Conair-Aeroflite RJ85s. There were many gaps between fixed-wing contracts but the contacts for helicopters have spanned almost 40 years (since the first Conair/Frontier Helicopters partnership with the National Safety Council of Australia in about 1980) and in the past couple decades the Canadian owned fleet has included Tasman, East-West, Vahalla and Wildcat Helicopters Bell 212s, 412s, 214B-1s and Coulson (and previously VIH) Sikorsky S-61Ns.

    I don’t see much value in building a special ship to transfer CL215Ts and CL415s between Canada and Australia. The cost of one ship would probably pay for a decades of ferry flights between the two countries … and the ship would only be required for about two-to-three round trips sailings a year (depending on the number of aircraft being moved).

  4. If you haven’t read the article on Wildfire Today front page by Dick Mangan, bush fires down unda do so. It is an excellent overview of Australia’s bush fire service and history. It appears that global air tanker services are becoming part of the future. Last two years, rain forest of South America, Israel, eastern United States, Gatlinburg. The emphasis needs to be placed on negotiated contracts that can be activated in hours. Of course the best time to utilize air tankers if weather dictates is as soon as possible. A play book out of the Cal Fire aviation resource dispatching. Is that a sun deck on the top of the converted air tanker carrier?

  5. Excllent idea that should move forward. It’s only going to get worse, so it’s time to pull out the stops. Methinks a consortium needs to form to pay for this initiative. I volunteer to do the weather support.support.

  6. Asset sharing is a great idea, but this seems like a costly and far fetched proposal. Why spend the money and incur the development risk of creating a first of its kind transport ship? Would be much easier to transport a modular system like MAFFS II that is interchangeable and can be fitted on to the twelve C-130’s Australia already has. Each unit could fit into a regular cargo container and for probably a quarter of the price of developing this single purpose floating beast, Australia could have 12 systems of their own to use season after season. Australia could also share those systems with their neighbors like New Zealand, Indonesia, and Malaysia who all have C-130’s as well.

    Why risk sending aircraft back and forth by boat over that kind of a distance every season? Lot’s of things could go wrong and, what happens if the ship has a problem in the middle of the ocean and the planes are delayed, or worse still, what if they are lost? It could take years to replace them. Better to share resources regionally and in a way where you aren’t putting all of your eggs into one basket.

  7. If a country is interested in using MAFF maybe it is time for MAFF III. Non pressurized system with a coverage level of over eight gallons per 100 square feet for about a quarter of a mile. The Russian Il76 aircraft converted to a water bomber is a proven but simple system. The C 17 Globe Master would be a fit.

  8. The water bombers can be flown between the continents. A specialized ship only increases government expense (the proposal was by a Canadian shipyard that lives and breaths government contacts) that could buy more operational aircraft. de Havilland Dash 8s (with the same PW123 engines) have been ferried for decades between Canada and Australians and an amphibian has the advantage of landing on water!

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