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).

Photos of large air tankers working the Alisal Fire in SoCal

Tanker 101 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 101, an MD-87, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD

Since the Alisal Fire started west of Santa Barbara, California on October 11 there have not been many opportunities for firefighting aircraft to work the fire due to the very strong winds. Helicopters have been able to sneak in a few times, but until yesterday and today, October 12 and 13, they have rarely been seen at the fire.

Thanks to a decrease in wind speed, today on FlightRadar24 I saw six large air tankers and two very large air tankers (DC-10s) either over the fire, flying to or from, or taxiing at the Santa Maria airport which is 31 miles northwest of the fire.

Tanker 12 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 12, a BAe-146, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD

These photos are courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Tanker 137 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD

Wednesday morning the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said the Alisal Fire has burned 14,500 acres, an increase of 1,100 acres over the figure released Tuesday evening. The growth over the last 24 hours has been on all sides, with the exception, of course, where the fire was stopped by the Pacific Ocean on the south. Wildfire Today has more information about the fire.

Tanker 910 dropping Alisal Fire
Tanker 910, a DC-10, dropping on the northwest side of the Alisal Fire, Oct. 13, 2021. Photo by SBCFD
Alisal Fire map
Alisal Fire map 9:45 p.m. Oct. 12, 2021. The red line was the perimeter at 9:45 p.m. PDT Oct. 12, 2021. The white line was the perimeter at 4:12 a.m. Oct. 12. The red dots represent heat detected by satellites at 2:56 a.m. PDT Oct. 13.

Super Scoopers migrate to Southern California for the 28th time

To be available during the Santa Ana wind season

Two Super Scoopers arrive in LA County
Two Super Scoopers arrive in LA County

The migration of the Super Scooper air tankers occurred for the 28th time when two CL-415s arrived this week at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles County.

The aircraft owned by the Province of Quebec are brought in for the Santa Ana east wind season that typically begins in the fall. Strong, dry, hot winds can lead to large, disastrous fires in densely populated areas of southern California.

The scoopers can load up to 1,600 gallons of water while skimming across the surface of a lake. If the water source is within ten miles, typically working in pairs they can drop a great deal of water on a fire.

Initial deployment typically lasts for approximately 90 days, but may be extended if a need for their assistance continues.

This year in a program paid for by Southern California Edison three counties will each have an additional large helicopter. Los Angeles and Orange Counties will have 3,000-gallon Boeing CH-47D Chinooks, and Ventura County will get a 1,000-gallon S-61. The program has been given a catchy name, Quick Reaction Force.

747 Supertanker expected to return to service in 2022

The retardant delivery system to be reinstalled in a different aircraft

5:11 p.m. PDT Sept. 3, 2021

Global Supertanker Retardant Delivery System
Global Supertanker Retardant Delivery System. Image by Global Supertanker.

A company that provides aircraft for lease has purchased the retardant delivery system (RDS) formerly in the 747 Supertanker. Logistic Air is now the owner of the tanking system that for years had interim approval by the federal government’s Interagency Airtanker Board (IAB) to be used in an air tanker.

Global Supertanker’s recently modified  website proudly proclaims “Returning to Service in 2022.”

Global Supertanker
Screengrab from Sept. 3, 2021.

Many of the photos of aircraft on Logistic Air’s website are 747s, but they provide wide-body and narrow-body passenger and cargo aircraft for world-wide operations.

Fluid tanks 747 supertanker
The eight fluid tanks were inspected, tested, painted, and mounted to cargo pallets before being installed in the last version of the Supertanker in 2016. Photo by Global Supertanker.

The SuperTanker’s RDS is comprised of approximately 20 tanks that hold retardant and enough compressed air to pump the retardant out of the four nozzles that were in the belly of the huge aircraft. At various times the air tanker had interim certification by the IAB to carry 20,000, 19,200 and 17,500 gallons of retardant. The IAB and the US Forest Service appeared to bend over backwards to find reasons to not issue full approval to the aircraft and the RDS.

Supertanker's nozzels
Retardant comes out of four nozzles on the belly of the Supertanker. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Earlier this year the SuperTanker’s drop controlling system and other components were significantly modified to improve the delivery of retardant, including metering the volume dispersed based on the ground speed of the aircraft. It then went through dozens of tests on the ground. The operators were waiting for it to be scheduled for the IAB’s grid or cup test which measures the amount of retardant that hits the ground over a large grid. But before that took place, the owner, Alterna Capital, shut down the company and sold the aircraft and the RDS to two companies. The 747 was purchased by National Airlines to be used as a freighter, and Logistic Air bought the RDS.

747 SuperTanker makes demonstration water drop
747 SuperTanker makes demonstration water drop in Colorado Springs, May 14, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A person at Alterna Capital who was not authorized to speak for the company told Fire Aviation that Global Supertanker had approximately two dozen employees and contractors when the doors closed and none of them are working for the new owners at this time. The person said Alterna “will support Logistic Air in any way we can.”

Calls to Logistic Air were not immediately returned.

UPDATE at 6:27 p.m. PDT Sept. 3, 2021

After this was published we received a call from a person at Logistic Air who asked to remain anonymous. They confirmed that the company plans to install the RDS in a nose-loading 747-200 when the aircraft completes maintenance after the first of the year. The aircraft itself will have to be modified, of course, to enable loading retardant and compressed air, and the plumbing and belly nozzles need to be installed. Then they will schedule a grid test, which they are confident it will pass. The final and most important step is applying for and receiving a new contract from the US Forest Service, no easy feat. We were told that some of the former employees of GlobalSupertanker are expected to work with the new organization.

747 Palmer Fire supertanker
Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

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

Slate magazine writes about the number of air tankers

Tries to explain “why we don’t have enough”

Air Tanker 914 DC-10 drops retardant Central Fire Arizona Phoenix
Air Tanker 914, a DC-10, drops retardant on the Central Fire, June 20, 2020. Photo by JDH Images.

Slate online magazine just published an article by Aaron Mak about air tankers and the size of the fleet. Most of the piece is about DC-10s and why there are not more of them. When I was interviewed by Mr. Mak most of his questions were about the DC-10. I explained that it is a great air tanker but the fleet needs a variety in the tool box.

You can read the entire article, but here is the section where I was quoted:

“Commissioning more DC-10s isn’t the only way to expand the country’s fleet of air tankers. Bill Gabbert, who runs the Fire Aviation and Wildfire Today blogs, contends that it might be a mistake to focus solely on the massive jets, since other smaller crafts tend to be more useful for different terrains, like narrow canyons, and it’s never a good idea to rely on only one model due to potential mechanical defects. He points out that there’s an overall shortage of air tankers in the U.S. There used to be a fleet of 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts in 2002, which were mostly constructed out of World War II bombers. However, two of those tankers crashed that year, which resulted in many others being taken out of commission. Since then, private companies like 10 Tanker have been trying to retrofit newer planes to build the nation’s fleet back up, but there are still only 18 under exclusive use contracts as of this year.

“But no matter what type of air tankers it chooses, Gabbert said, the government will probably have to rethink its approach to contracting if it wants a bigger fleet. He thinks the solution is for Congress to appropriate funds for 10-year exclusive use contracts, which would allow manufacturers to more easily get the millions of dollars in loans they need from a bank to build more tankers and the associated support systems. “If they can get a guaranteed 10-year contract, they can see in advance that they can make the investment pay off, and the bank will be happy to lend them money,” Gabbert said. “Congress just does not understand the severity of the issue.” ”

The eighth MAFFS air tanker activated

First time since 2012

MAFFS 8 McClellan
MAFFS 8 at Sacramento McClellan Airport August 8, 2021. Photo by Mike McKeig.

It looked like it was not going to happen, but the eighth military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) has been activated. On August 9 five were working. The last three were added (approximate dates) on August 10 (Colorado Air Force Reserve), August 23 (Wyoming Air National Guard), and August 26 (California Air National Guard). For now they are all based at Sacramento McClellan Airport. It is the first time all eight aircraft in the MAFFS program have been activated since a series of large wildfires in Colorado in 2012.

Only eight MAFFS roll-in systems exist in the United States. They can enable an only slightly modified military C-130 to spray up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant using equipment powered by compressed air. Their role is to assist with fighting wildland fires when needed to supplement the privately owned large air tankers under contract to the federal government.

The multi-year drought has led to very low fuel moistures in the west, and even in Minnesota. Historically low in some areas. Very low fuel moistures can result in extreme fire behavior at times even when the weather is not necessarily extreme. The resistance to control is greatly elevated when fuels ignite so easily.

On July 14 the National Interagency Fire Center upgraded the Preparedness Level to 5, which was the earliest date in 10 years. Today 15 Type 2 Incident Management Teams and all but two of the available Type 1 Incident Management Teams are committed. An Area Command Team has been activated, something that rarely happens, and nearly 27,000 personnel are assigned to wildfires. The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) decreed on July 18 that all requests for Area Command, National Incident Management Organization (NIMO), Type 1, and Type 2 IMTs must be approved by them, an action that has not occurred in recent memory. There are 76 large uncontained fires being fully suppressed in the United States, and another 31 are being managed rather than suppressed.

In May the Forest Service, the agency responsible for contracting for large air tankers (LAT), said they would have 34 if needed — 18 on Exclusive Use Contracts guaranteed to work,  plus 8 “surge” LATs guaranteed to work for a shorter period of time, and another 8 on Call When Needed (CWN) status. Of those 16 surge and CWN aircraft, only 5 could be produced in July. One LAT, a 737 owned by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia, has flown across the Pacific to lend a hand. No more are available.

The issue of a shortage of air tankers came up when President Biden met virtually with the Western Governors July 30 to talk about the wildfire situation. Several of them asked the President for aerial assets, firefighters, help in obtaining aviation fuel, and aggressive initial attack. California Governor Gavin Newsom was adamant about needing more air tankers.

“We have four DC-10s, Mr. President, four,” Governor Newsom said.  “Now, DC-10s aren’t the answer to every problem …They have restrictions; there are legendary restrictions. But the reality is there is four for the country, and we’re competing. They’re all contracted. We compete with you. We compete with other states. We don’t even have access right now to DC-10s. We lost that 747 — that iconic 747 — that now has been converted to a cargo plane.”

California had the 747 on a CWN contract when the company went out of business. If they had activated it, the aircraft would be flying fires today.

On August 4 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Governors’ request for additional aviation resources, “… Came to my desk. One of the challenges we’re working on right now is making sure we get the Defense Department personnel necessary to fly the planes. So sometimes it’s not even the planes, it’s the pilots, the people who know how to fly these planes…I was given instructions to… make sure we have the people in the planes to fly them.”

The Secretary was most likely referring to the MAFFS.

Here is a tweet we sent August 23 soon after the seventh MAFFS was activated. It featured a file photo of MAFFS 4 from the California Air National Guard that was still parked at that time.

Greece to boost numbers of firefighting aircraft

Evacuation ferry Greece
Evacuees fleeing a wildfire in Greece board a ferry August 9, 2021  under smoky skies. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The government of Greece has plans to increase the number of aircraft that can be used to assist firefighters battling wildfires.

In the wake of devastating fires earlier this month Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reiterated plans Wednesday to purchase and lease additional wildland firefighting aircraft.

From Ekathimerini, August 25, 2021:

Mitsotakis also announced plans to create a special unit made up of forestry experts and firefighters “that will be able to operate more effectively in the forests.”

The conservative leader added that responsibility for firefighting and prevention was passed on from the forest service to the fire department under the socialist PASOK government in 1998.

“It took many years for the fire service to adapt,” he said.

Critics say the decision has undermined fire prevention in the country.

After the fire siege earlier this month, Mr Mitsotakis said there were plans to modernize the aerial firefighting fleet by investing 1.7 billion euro ($2 billion).

“This plan was approved by the cabinet of ministers, and it includes very important support of our air firefighting fleet with the acquisition of new Canadair [water scooping air tankers], small Air Tractor planes [single engine air tankers], and firefighting helicopters,” the Prime Minister said at a press conference August 12.

From ANI:

Along with the modernization of the aerial firefighting fleet, the 1.7 billion euro plan dubbed “Aigis” is seeking to expand the capabilities of the Civll Protection Authority with the procurement of fire detection devices, drones, and other equipment.The funds for this plan have already been secured and come from three sources, the National Strategic Reference Framework funds, the European Investment Bank, and the recovery fund, according to the prime minister.

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

Boxes of water dropped on a fire in Israel

2 p.m. EDT August 18, 2021

C-130 drops boxes of water on a wildfire
A C-130 drops boxes of water on a wildfire in Jerusalem, Israel Aug. 17, 2021. Photo by Kobi Richter, Israel Fire & Rescue Authority.

Firefighters in Israel used a C-130 to drop boxes of water on a large fire Jerusalem this week.

The fire was very large, compared to other fires in the country, and burned 6,000 acres. More than 1,500 firefighters assisted for three days before they stopped the spread.

We are working on getting confirmation, but the photo at the top of this article shows what appears to be either PCADS or Caylym/Guardian water boxes being dropped on the fire by a C-130.

UPDATE at 7:52 p.m. EDT August 18, 2021. We heard from Rick Goddard of Caylym who told us the boxes were their products. He said 16 of the Guardians holding a total of about 4,200 gallons were loaded into the C-130, but the crew of the aircraft decided to drop them in two passes of 8 boxes each. The containers all had a "foam additive" and some had blue dye.

Mr Goddard said, "The Guardian has been employed over wildfires every year starting in 2017 in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, then Attica fire in Greece, and last year in the Peruvian Andes and Amazon basin. This year so far on fires in Macedonia, Peru and Israel."
PCADS. Walt Dorn, Flex Attack. Sacramento, March 22, 2016.


Caylym/Guardian. Michael Seaward & Rick Goddard, L to R. Sacramento. March 22, 2016.

We wrote about the Caylym/Guardian boxes in 2013 on Wildfire Today.

The system consists of containers constructed of cardboard, plywood, a plastic bladder, and dozens of yards of straps. They hold 264 gallons each and are designed to be carried in military aircraft such as the C-130 or C-27 using the standard cargo system. The containers when empty weigh 100 pounds. After they leave the aircraft the container lids, attached by four straps, separate, and act like a parachute. The straps then put pressure on the plastic bladders, ripping them open, allowing the liquid to be dispersed. The 100 pounds of the other components, the plywood, and cardboard, fall to the ground tethered by the nylon straps. The plastic bladder, hopefully empty, falls separately.

If these were ever actually used on a wildfire, there would have to be an even greater emphasis than usual on removing firefighters and other personnel from the target area than there is now when only liquids fall from the sky. If a box failed to disperse the liquid, it would be deadly, as could be the plywood if the box was empty. In addition, the owner of the land would either have to be OK with leaving the debris from the containers in place after the drop in perpetuity, or crews would have to search the area and carry it out for disposal in a landfill. Debris removal would need to be included in the estimated costs of using a system like this, which could be difficult or even impossible in some areas, complicated by topography and vegetation. Depending on the climate, it could take many years or decades for the plastic bladder, plywood, cardboard, and straps to decompose if it were not removed.

Caylym boxes fire
Caylym system containers exiting an aircraft. Screen grab from Caylym video.

Here is an eight-second video showing a box drop in Israel. It was uploaded to YouTube August 17, 2021.

In addition to dropping water, the Caylym system delivers the plastic bladder, plywood, cardboard, and straps.

In addition to the boxes, Israel has a fleet of 14 AT-802Fs managed by the Israeli National Police. We have a report that after the fire broke out the fire fighting agency contracted for six additional aircraft from Chim Nir to work with the Air Tractors. They were PT6-powered Turbo Thrush aircraft that are normally used for aerial spraying but had a fire fighting role before they were replaced by the Air Tractors.