Volunteer who established air tanker base in Victoria, Australia earns prestigious award

The base is staffed completely by volunteers

Leighton Wraith
Leighton Wraith – second from the left. Photo credit – Weekly Times.

Country Fire Authority volunteer Leighton Wraith said he is thrilled to be awarded the prestigious Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM) as part of the 2021 Australia Day honors for his long and outstanding service to CFA and his local community.

Leighton has protected and served the communities of South West Victoria for 40 years through volunteering with CFA.

While he has accomplished many roles during his time at Bochara and Dunkeld Fire Brigades, over recent years his greatest accomplishment was the establishment of the Hamilton CFA-EMV Air Base and its facilities.

As a licensed pilot himself, Leighton was passionate about aviation and the 2013 Grampians fires highlighted the need for better ground support and arrangements for deployment. Leighton was adamant there should be a permanently established airbase to service and support firebombing aircraft at Hamilton Aerodrome.

“It took me 7 years to complete – with several trips to Parliament and Local MPs offices,” Leighton said.

“It’s the largest CFA operated airbase in Victoria which is run by a great group of volunteers.”

Leighton has been vital to the recruitment, training and management of the members that operate the airbase.

Leighton recruited around 40 volunteers to perform various key roles and then managed them into six loading crews, which enables him to manage fatigue during major periods of operation by scheduling the rotation of the highly proficient teams.

Leighton said he often positioned the volunteers at the base full-time during high risk fire days to ensure they have the best possible aerial firefighting operations and the greatest chance at protecting Victorians.

Leighton is a well-respected leader whose hard work, dedication and ongoing management of the airbase means it is now recognised as the primary aerial fire support facility across western Victoria.

While Leighton has attended many and various incidents across his 40 years with CFA, he said last summer stands out the most.

“The 2019/20 summer was a long one. We were on duty ready to go every day,” he said.

“On some of the busiest days, the airbase crews reloaded 52 aircraft in one day.”

Over a six-week period during those devastating fires, the Hamilton Air Base carried out 330 reloads.

The effective deployment and efficient reloading of firebombers from Hamilton prevented the need to obtain resources from elsewhere in Victoria.

CFA District 5 Assistant Chief Fire Officer (ACFO) Richard Bourke said the contribution Leighton has made to aviation in advocacy of senior management, EMV and Government has been pivotal in where and how the airbase turned out.

“The facilities that are there are the jewel in CFA’s aviation crown and that is directly attributed to Leighton’s work.”

ACFO Bourke said the prestigious AFSM is such a deserving recognition for Leighton.

“We are all very proud of what he has achieved over the last 40 years. He is a credit to CFA and a credit to his community,” ACFO Bourke said.

From the Country Fire Authority

Air tankers in Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum

Grumman AF-2S
Grumman AF-2S in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.

Steve Stenkamp sent us these photos he took at the Pima Air & Space Museum last March. “It’s an excellent way to spend 3-4 hours,” he said.

Thanks Steve!

C-123 in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.
P2V-7 in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.
DC-7B in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.
C-119C in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.

Over 400 historic aircraft are on display at the museum that encompasses 80 acres of exhibits.

We grabbed this photo of the museum from Google Earth:

Pima Air and Space Museum
Pima Air and Space Museum. Google Earth, August 18, 2018.

If you go:

Location: 6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ 85756
Tickets: $10 to $16
Website: pimaair.org

It is just south of Davis-Monthan AFB AMARG Facility and the military aircraft “boneyard” with over 4,400 planes in storage. From the Pima Museum you can board a bus to tour the boneyard but you have to apply for a security clearance at least 10 business days in advance of the desired tour date. You can apply for the clearance up to 90 days in advance.

Conair to replace all of their L-188 and CV-580 air tankers with Q400s

The company has purchased 11 De Havilland Dash 8 Q400 aircraft which will be converted to air tankers

Conair Q400
Conair Q400. Photo Credit Damien Fournier.

The Conair Group plans to retire all of their legacy L-188 and CV-580 air tankers and over the next two to three years replace them with De Havilland Canada DHC-8 Q400s.

In a statement, the company gave their rationale for making the change:

“Planes used to fight wildfires as airtankers are often older models and are flown into demanding environments, inevitably resulting in metal fatigue over time. In addition, aircraft designed to obsolete standards leads to increased risk of incidents, costly repairs, limited replacement parts, and ultimately time grounded from fighting fires. Conair’s strategic move towards a long-term vision includes replacing the company’s fleet of heavy legacy airtankers with the new Q400ATs.

“We evaluated 29 aircraft before selecting the Q400 for modification into an aerial firefighting tool. The unanimous opinion of our flight operations experts was that the Q400 exceeds all the Next Generation performance criteria within a maneuverable and stable platform.” says Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development at Conair. “The Q400AT is fast, fuel efficient, and tactically flexible, operating both initial attack as well as sustained support actions. The Q400 is still in production and has strong Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) support from De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (De Havilland Canada), guaranteeing availability of parts and servicing for years.”

The eleven Q400s, formerly owned by Flybe and now in Europe, will be delivered to Conair beginning this month.

In 2017 the Conair Group secured a deal to sell six Q400 Multi-Role aircraft converted to air tankers to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness). These were new aircraft that Conair purchased from Bombardier which can be reconfigured in a few hours to carry passengers, hence the Multi-Role (MR) designation. The new aircraft are replacing France’s old S-2 air tankers.

One of Conair’s Q400s, a Q400AT not configured to carry passengers, was on contract in Queensland, Australia during the 2020/2021 summer bushfire season through December. This was the first time the state has had regular access to a large air tanker, rather than borrowing from New South Wales or Victoria. Tanker 141/Bomber 141 (C-FFQE) arrived in Bundaberg in August after departing from Abbotsford British Columbia and making fuel stops at Oakland, Honolulu, Majuro (Marshall Islands), Honiara (Solomon Islands), and Brisbane where it cleared customs.

Air Tanker 141, C-FFQEQ, Q400
T-141 (C-FFQEQ) Q400AT – Refueling at Majuro, Marshall Islands in August , 2020 while en route to Bundaberg, Queensland for the 2020-2021 bushfire season in Australia. Photo Credit Brendon Sutton.

In September, 2020, Jeff Berry, Manager of Business Development at Conair, said, “[The Q400AT] is a pure air tanker STC [supplemental type certificate], so we don’t have any of the residual plumbing, wiring, attachment points inside, or heavy duty flooring that you need for an MR, so it’s stripped down to be a pure tanker. And it gives us the maximum fuel load and the maximum retardant tank capacity. You get the full 10,000 liters [2,642 gallons]. The Q400AT is truly a ‘Green’ airtanker — it is incredibly fuel efficient burning only 58 percent of the fuel per hour while carrying 85 percent of the load of a typical type 1 airtanker.”

According to Wikipedia the Q400’s maximum cruise speed is 345 to 414 mph. It seems likely that the bolted-on external retardant tank would have a negative effect on the air speed and range. Out of the factory it is rated to haul up to 90 passengers.

conair tanker 42
File photo of Conair Air Tanker 42, a Convair 580, taxiing for takeoff at Whitehorse International Airport at Yukon, Canada. The aircraft was built in 1958. Photo by D. Cote, Yukon Fire Management.

Conair has been fighting fires for 51 years. In addition to the CV-580, Q400, and L-188, their fleet currently is comprised of air attack and bird dog aircraft (Cessna  Caravan C208B and Turbo Commander TC-690A), amphibious scooping air tankers (CL215T and Air Tractor AT802A), and land-based air tankers (Avro RJ85 and Air Tractor AT 802).

The manufacture date of the Convair 580 in the photo was corrected to show it was 1958, not 1981.

CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.


The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

Neptune receives $2M state loan to acquire two hangars

Neptune's air tanker 15 hangar
File photo. Neptune’s T-15 in the hangar, May 15, 2018.

Neptune Aviation has received a $2 million state loan to purchase two aircraft hangars at Missoula International Airport in Montana. This will add nearly 300,000 square of aircraft storage plus office space.

From the Missoula Current:

“The loan stems from the state’s Infrastructure Loan Program and was awarded by the Montana Board of Investments. Under the program, the airport serves as the loan administrator and Neptune receives tax benefits in exchange for creating new jobs. Doug Hill, director of State Loan Funds at the Montana Department of Commerce, said Neptune’s $2 million application was based on the creation of 120 new jobs.

“They need to be considered full time when I do my review,” said Hill. “For each job that’s created, Neptune is able to borrow $16,666. That’s how we came up with the $2 million amount.”

“The Infrastructure Loan Program helps Montana businesses finance the acquisition of publicly owned buildings and related improvements. It also looks to boost economic development and create jobs in the basic sector of the economy.

“The loans are awarded to companies that employ at least 15 people. The new jobs that are created must pay the private annual wage in Montana, which is currently $44,100, according to Hill.”

M&M Air Services to liquidate their aviation assets

Three single engine air tankers and ground equipment will be sold at auction

The Texas company that operated the two Single Engine Air Tankers that crashed in southeast Nevada July 30, 2020 plans a “complete liquidation” of their assets on January 9. A live and online auction will sell, among other items, three Air Tractor AT-802As, a fuel truck, and several other trucks and trailers.

Auction information M&M Air Services

A mid-air collision of the two Air Tractor AT-801A SEATs occurred as they were assisting firefighters on the Bishop Fire. Investigators found that the tankers were working in tandem with one close behind the other. The following aircraft made a rapid climb then suddenly turned left and collided with the other.

Killed in the crash were pilots David Blake Haynes and Scott Thomas. May they rest in peace.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tim.

Viking Air delays rollout of CL-515 water-scooping air tanker

Effects of the pandemic are blamed

CL-515. Viking Air photo.

Viking Air has delaying manufacturing its water scooping CL-515 air tanker which was scheduled to become available earlier in 2020.

“Unfortunately, due to the effect of Covid-19 on Viking’s operations and the pandemic’s impact on governments, their citizens and budgets globally, we have elected to slide the formal launch of the CL-515 until we see a stabilization in the global economic situation and a return to normal daily activities,” Viking executive vice-president of sales and marketing Robert Mauracher told FlightGlobal.

The British Columbia company designed the CL-515 to incorporate new technology and materials that expand the operating envelope compared to the CL-415 water scooper. Enhancements include increasing the water tank from 1,600 to 1,850 gallons, higher landing weights, and the ability to refill in 14 seconds. A modernized flight deck addresses current and future regulatory requirements and will include dual GPS, TCAS II, TAWS, ADS-B out, Synthetic Vision Technology, FMS, and Flight Director.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Isaac.

Photos of firefighting helicopters from Chicago, Sacramento, Kern County, and Santa Barbara County

Updated December 29, 2020

Bell 412EP helicopter, Chicago Fire Department. N682FD
Bell 412EP helicopter, Chicago Fire Department. N682FD. Photo by Jon Goldin, July 31, 2018.

At Fire Aviation we always like to receive photos of fire service aircraft, but we look forward to receiving shots of helicopters that are not often seen over wildland fires. Here are a couple of examples of ships from the Chicago Fire Department and the Sacramento Fire District.

Bell Uh-1H helicopter, Sacramento Fire District
Bell Uh-1H helicopter, Sacramento Fire District. N114FD. Photo by Jon Goldin, Sept. 29, 2018.

Kern County and Santa Barbara UH-1H helicopters are often used on fires in Southern California. These are good shots taken by Jon Goldin, who also took the ones above. Thank Jon!

Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department
Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department. N408KC. Photo by Jon Goldin, Jan. 1, 2018
Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department
Bell UH-1H helicopter, Kern County Fire Department. N407KC. Photo by Jon Goldin, Jan. 1, 2018
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 308
Santa Barbara County Helicopter 308. N205KS. Photo by John Goldin

Updated December 29, 2020 to add photo of Santa Barbara County helicopter.