Australia finalizing aerial firefighting assets as bushfire season approaches

The number of Air-Crane helicopters is being reduced from six to one

Australia Fires Air-Crane
An Air-Crane helicopter drops muddy water on one of the fires in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, December 30, 2019. Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

The Aussies are putting the finishing touches on their lineup of aerial firefighting aircraft as the country moves into the 2021-2022 summer bushfire season. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) expects to have contracts in place for five large privately owned large air tankers, one more than last year, in addition to the 737 owned by the government of New South Wales.

Fixed wing, large air tankers (LAT) for 2021-2022:

  • Two Avro 146-RJ85 LATs supplied by Field Air in partnership with Conair. These will be located in Avalon, Victoria (early-mid December for 84 days) and Dubbo, New South Wales (October 20 for 152 days).
  • One Q400 supplied by Field Air in partnership with Conair. This is a shared arrangement between Queensland and Victoria, with 84 days being served at Bundaberg, QLD from Sept. 1, after which it will move to Avalon, VIC for 84 days.
  • One LAT, either a 737 or a C-130 (still to be decided) supplied by Coulson Aviation (Australia), based at Richmond, VIC for 98 days. Commencement date uncertain, usually late November.
  • Arrangements are pending for an additional LAT on a national contract to start in mid- to late December, with a home base still to be decided.
  • One 737 owned by the NSW government.
Firefighters Victoria, Australia rappel training
Firefighters in Victoria, Australia conduct rappel training in 2021. Coulson photo.

Eleven large type 1 helicopters are on contract this year, which is two more than the previous bushfire season. The start dates listed below are approximate.

  • One Boeing CH47 at Bankstown, NSW from approximately November 1 for 120 days, supplied by Coulson Aviation (Australia).
  • One EH60 Blackhawk at Bankstown, NSW from approximately October 1 for 120 days, supplied by Touchdown Helicopters.
  • Two Blackhawks, an EH60 and a UH60, at Serpentine, Western Australia from early-mid December for 105 days – Aviation Utilities t/a United Aero Helicopters.
  • Two UH60 Blackhawks, at Claremont, South Australia from early-mid December for 84 days – Aerotech Helicopters.
  • One Bell 214 ST, Latrobe Valley, VIC — McDermott Aviation.
  • One Boeing CH-47D, Essendon, VIC — Coulson Aviation Australia.
  • One Sikorsky Air-Crane S64F, Moorabbin, VIC — Kestrel Aviation.
  • One Sikorsky S61N, Mansfield, VIC — Coulson Aviation Australia.
  • One Super Puma AS332, Ballarat, VIC — Kestrel Aviation.
Erickson Air-Cranes Melbourne
Six Erickson Air-Cranes in Melbourne in 2009.

For years there have been multiple Air-Crane helicopters on contract in Australia, often six each year, but this season there will be only one. Last year there were six, plus three S-61s.

Josephine Stirling, Deputy Director of NAFC told Fire Aviation the six Air-Cranes had been supplied by Kestrel Aviation, an Australian company which had a partnership with Erickson.

“The contract was for three guaranteed years and expired June 30, 2021, the fourth year option was not taken up – which is a matter for the states and territories, who decided to go to tender instead,” Ms. Stirling said. “However, Kestrel were successful in their tender to us for one aircrane in Essendon for the next three guaranteed years – alongside a Super Puma.”

NAFC is a business unit of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC). NAFC’s primary role is procurement of aircraft leases on behalf of the States and Territories and the administration of Australian Government (federal) funding to support the States and Territories.

In addition to the large air tankers and Type 1 helicopters, many other aircraft, more than 150, will also be on exclusive use or call when needed contracts. About 110 will be mostly used for firebombing, and others for air attack, winching, rappelling, reconnaissance, and specialist intelligence gathering. These numbers include 51 single engine air tankers (SEATs).

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10 thoughts on “Australia finalizing aerial firefighting assets as bushfire season approaches”

  1. Maghreb, from one down under, while the number of Aircranes are being reduced the Type 1 RW fleet is being increased by two from 9 to 11.

    This reflects that there are now more Type RW aircraft options and through a competitive tender process, Australia has opted to go with a broader range of aircraft types, all as, or more, capable as the Aircrane.

    My take is this reflects the changing dynamics of the market.

    PS we could argue that South is the new North and therefore we are the land on top!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Hey Andrew,

      I like the way the Aussies fight fire. I also think they’re absolutely awesomely fun people to be around! I wish them the absolute best!

    2. Before taking the helicopter type designations literally, note there are other important factors that come into play, one being the payload. The Aircrane and Chinook generally are capable of carrying about twice as much water or retardant as the Blackhawk, S-61, Puma, and 214ST. Also, the Aircrane is US Interagency Airtanker Board certified, meaning it meets standards for ground fill, self-filling (pond or sea snorkel), on-board mixing of foam, leakage, multiple drops, flow rate, ground pattern distribution, and ground offloading. (Note: The Airtanker Board no longer approves helicopter systems.) So while the “Type 1” numbers have gone up by two, the effectiveness of the chosen fleet has yet to be proven.

      1. another very important factor is also the degradation in performance (or payload capacity) when operating in very hot, dry conditions or at altitude.

        For me the most important factor doesnt always relate to performance/capacity, etc – that is litres (gallons) per hour delivered to the fire ground. For example, where local water sources are suitable give me 4 or 5 AT 802 Fire Bosses with a 5- 10 minute turn round than a single LAT with a 30 minute turn around. even better in tandem with 2 or 3 214Bs (3,000 litres all day all temps) dipping within 1 kilometre of the fireline.

        either way, courses for horses, so that you have the most effective aerial support to the crews on the ground doing the hard yards

  2. They should consider using MAFFS in Australia this season or next – don’t they have C-130’s there that could be converted to help during fire season and then put to other use during the year?

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