Australian public television reports on the country’s air tanker situation

The DC-10 delayed by a tropical storm and a maintenance issue is expected to arrive in Australia the evening of January 23 local time

Greg] Mullins [former head of Fire and Rescue in New South Wales

Greg Mullins, former head of New South Wales Rural Fire Service, was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Greg Mullins, former head of New South Wales Rural Fire Service, was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a public broadcasting service. Since November Mr. Mullins has been serving as a volunteer firefighter in NSW. Most of the wildland firefighters in Australia are volunteers.

The ABC video below is a fairly deep dive (for national media) into the current state of the air tanker fleet in Australia.

Only one month into the summer, Australia’s bushfire season is already one for the record books. The federal government said that as of January 14 approximately 10 million hectares (24 million acres) had burned. If the fires in the Northern Territory which had not been previously reported are included, 6.8 million hectares (16.8 million acres), that brings the total across the continent to 16.8 million hectares (40.8 million acres).

When massive wildfires are burning homes and lives are lost — 27 people have perished so far in Australia this summer — there is always pressure to deploy more firefighting air tankers. They do not put out fires, but under ideal conditions dropping thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant can slow the spread in an area which can allow firefighters on the ground to safely move in and suppress it. If firefighters are not available to quickly take advantage, the temporarily slowed fire continues to spread. Under extreme conditions, especially strong winds, air tankers can’t safely fly low and slow as they have to do, and  even if they could, the retardant can be blown away from the target.

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 bushfire season the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) planned on having five large air tankers available (including four that are leased and the government-owned 737), but added two more in November after large devastating fires began burning in New South Wales.

Then on January 4 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said $20 million would be provided for leasing four more large air tankers as supplementary to the normal fleet for the current season only, bringing the total up to 11. Those four include two MD-87s and two DC-10s leased from Erickson Aero Tanker and 10 Tanker. The MD-87s have both arrived in the country, in spite of one of them being stuck for a while in Adak, Alaska due to an ash plume from a volcano in the Philippines developing on its anticipated route.

The two DC-10s were both in the midst of their C-Check maintenance in Mobile, Alabama when they were requested. As this is written on January 21 one of them, Tanker 912, has made it as far as Hawaii where it was grounded January 16 by a massive tropical storm along its planned route. John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said that after being topped off with fuel and sitting on the hot tarmac, a fuel leak was discovered. The company’s fuel team is on it, Mr. Gould said. He expects the aircraft will depart from Hawaii Wednesday morning U.S. time heading toward a refueling stop at the Marshall Islands, then arriving in Australia Thursday evening local time. (UPDATE at 5:30 p.m. PDT Jan. 22, 2020. T-912 arrived in Canberra this afternoon, U.S. time.)

The next DC-10, Tanker 914, is expected to depart later this week. It will be the third DC-10 air tanker in Australia.

One thought on “Australian public television reports on the country’s air tanker situation”

  1. It is absolutely crystal clear that Australia should invest in its own substantial fleet of purchased aircraft. Given the head of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre is now saying we are going to need to lease aircraft from September right through to March it is ridiculous to continue to rely overwhelmingly on a leased fleet. The aircraft will need to be leased for 6 months and need to do maintenance and major overhauls. This will leave very little time for these aircraft to serve in the Northern Hemisphere.

    Given the MASSIVELY higher cost of capital of private companies than the Federal Govt (it is currently able to borrow at just north of 1% for 10 years!!!) it makes zero sense to rely on aircraft owned by private corporations. The best model would appear to be the Federal Government owning the aircraft outright and then contracting using a public tender model for the operation, maintenance and regular overhaul of the aircraft. Where it makes sense some could then be leased to North America, Europe etc during the ‘off-season’ to help defray expenses. Given the Northern Territory, Far North Queensland and Northern WA burn during winter however (and aircraft will increasingly be needed to standby for hazard reduction burns getting out of control) I suspect that window will become a very small one indeed.

    The fact Morrison hasn’t grasped both the economic and political opportunity this increasing threat presents though really makes one question his competence as both a leader and a politician. I would imagine Viking Aircraft (CL515). Air Tractor/Wipaire (AT802 / Fireboss), Kaman (Kmax), Columbia (Vertol 234 / Vertol 107), Erickson (S64E) etc would be over the moon for the opportunity to bid for a local Australian production/maintenance base for their aircraft types to be a major part of an Australian owned fleet.

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