Report of serious air tanker incident in Australia

Contact was lost with a large air tanker in New South Wales

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service is reporting that contact has been lost with a large air tanker that was working in the southern part of the state in the Snowy Monaro area.

@aus_forum
Posted at 7:22 PST January 22, 2019 (US time)

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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.

Australia’s Air Force assists with bushfire crisis

Their C-17A aircraft are transporting helicopters from New Zealand, retardant and spares from the U.S., and water tanks for an air tanker reload base

C-17a transports helicopter
C-17A Globemaster airplanes have transported three NH-90 helicopters from New Zealand.

The Royal Australian Air Force is providing assistance during the bushfire crisis on the continent in a number of ways:

  • A RAAF C-17A Globemaster collected the first 20-tonne load of fire retardant powder from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and delivered it to RAAF Base Richmond on January 18. It will be used to mix retardant for air tankers to slow the spread of bushfires in Australia in support of state and federal emergency authorities. A second load of retardant arrived on January 19 on an RAAF KC-30A multi-role tanker transport. A total of 117 tonnes will be delivered over four loads over the coming week as part of Operation Bushfire Assist.
  • C-17A Globemaster airplanes have transported NH-90 helicopters from New Zealand, water purification and desalination systems, and 80,000-liter and 40,000-liter water tanks for the Very Large Air Tanker reloading base. They also transported spares for the three DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers, including an engine, auxiliary power unit, and numerous tires.
  • Staged crash-rescue fire engines at helibases to support hot refueling.
  • Installed and staffed transportable air traffic control towers.
  • C-27J Spartan aircraft assisted in the evacuation of personnel from Mallacoota.
  • P-8A Poseidons conducted reconnaissance flights over fire-affected areas.
Retardant mix
Retardant mix the RAAF hauled from the U.S. to Australia.
RAAF Retardant air tanker
United States Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force personnel push a pallet of fire retardant up the ramp of an Australian C-17 Globemaster at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force.
C-17A water tanks
A C-17A Globemaster transported two water tanks to support a reloading base for Very Large Air Tankers.
Australia transportable Air Traffic Control tower
Transportable Air Traffic Control tower

The videos below illustrate some of the roles of the Royal Australian Air Force during the bushfire crisis.

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.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Deployment of two air tankers to Australia delayed by fog and a volcano

A C-17 from Australia hauled extra tires, an engine, and an APU from Arizona to Australia

DC-10 air tanker
Air Tankers 910, 911, and 914 at Albuquerque, May 3, 2019.

UPDATED at 1:30 p.m. MST January 17, 2020

As this is written, Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-102, an MD-87 (N292EA), just landed at Adelaide, Australia where it will be based. Their other MD-87 that will be working on a contract in Australia, Tanker 103 (N293EA), has left North America and is on a leg from Ketchikan, Alaska en route to refuel at Adak, Alaska. It is taking a slightly different route than its sister, T-102. T-103 will be based in Western Australia at Perth.

Tanker 912, a DC-10 (N522AX), departed from San Bernardino, California Thursday morning U.S. time and arrived in Honolulu that afternoon. It will be initially based either at Canberra or Sydney.


Originally published at 8:12 a.m. MST January 16, 2020

The departure of additional air tankers from the United States to assist with bushfires in Australia has been delayed for reasons not usually associated with firefighting.

The MD-87 air tanker that was scheduled to depart on January 13 had to be rescheduled due to the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines when the ash plume made a leg of the flight in the Western Pacific inadvisable. Erickson Aero Tanker went back to the drawing board to plan a different route and obtain permits but the delay allowed the ash to clear so they were able to use the original route for the first tanker to leave for Australia.

According to FlightAware, Tanker 102 (N292EA) departed from Portland, Washington on Tuesday January 14. The planned route for the MD-87 takes it through Alaska, Russia, Japan, Guam, and Papua New Guinea. It is expected to arrive in Australia at Cairns Friday afternoon U.S. time. As this is written Thursday morning U.S. time, the aircraft is in Narita, Japan.

The nine flight legs on FlightAware range from 783 to 1,565 miles. It is likely that they are taking the route along the western Pacific because the distance from California to Hawaii is about 2,450 miles, beyond the range of the MD-87s operated by Erickson Aero Tanker.

In 2015 a single-engine air tanker, an Air Tractor 802, flew from California to Australia via Honolulu, the Marshall Islands, Guadalcanal, and perhaps other refueling locations.  It is likely that it had a ferry kit that enables 800 gallons of fuel to be carried in the hopper (retardant tank).

The two DC-10s, Tankers 912 and 914, were expected to arrive in Australia on January 15 and 25 respectively, but weather in the southern U.S. required a change in the schedule for the first one. Both of the aircraft were at Mobile, Alabama undergoing C-Checks, which can take days or weeks depending on the age of the aircraft and the number of unexpected issues discovered that require maintenance.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said the work on T-912 was nearly complete when it needed a test flight during VFR conditions, but it was delayed for two days due to fog.

Tanker 912 (N522AX) departed from San Bernardino, California Thursday morning U.S. time, en route to a fuel stop in Honolulu.

The planned arrivals of the other DC-10 (T-914, N603AX) and MD-87 (T-103, N293EA) are next week, Mr. Alder said.

These four air tankers will be based initially at Canberra (DC-10), Sydney/Richmond (DC-10), Adelaide (MD-87), and Perth (MD-87) but they will continually review locations according to the bushfire risk across the country, Mr. Alder said.

While large air tankers have dropped on bushfires in Western Australia before, this will be the first time that one will be based there — Perth in this case.

These additional large air tankers will bring the Aussie fleet up to 11. In addition to the 737 they purchased in 2010, the contracted ships they will have available the rest of this bushfire season are: two MD-87s, three DC-10s, two RJ85s, two C-130Qs, and one more 737.

In 2018 and 2019 the United States Forest Service had 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.

Mr. Alder explained that the four additional tankers have been contracted for a minimum Mandatory Availability Period (MAP) of 50 days with options to extend.  They will monitor the conditions continually and manage the numbers according to prevailing bushfire risk.

On Tuesday and Wednesday 10 Tanker Air Carrier posted photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the text:

“Huge thanks to the Royal Australian Air force For sending out crew and a C17 and our own United States Air Force for coming out! This has become a joint operation.”

Mr. Alder explained why the RAAF C-17 was sent to the U.S. to pick up equipment for the three DC-10s that will be operating in Australia:

“It was opportunistic” he said. “The RAAF was in a position to be able to shift some spares to Australia.  This meant that the first DC-10 didn’t have to go back to Albuquerque after the maintenance in Alabama and could head straight for Australia.  We understand that the spares included wheels and tires, as well as a spare engine and APU.”

The RAAF C-17 arrived in Albuquerque Tuesday night U.S. time.

DC-10 equipment Australia bushfires Albuquerque
Tires and other equipment being staged at Albuquerque for loading onto a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 to support the three DC-10 air tankers working on bushfires in Australia. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.
DC-10 equipment Australia bushfires Albuquerque
Tires and other equipment being staged at Albuquerque for loading onto a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 to support the three DC-10 air tankers working on bushfires in Australia. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.
DC-10 equipment Australia bushfires Albuquerque
Tires and other equipment being staged at Albuquerque for loading onto a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 to support the three DC-10 air tankers working on bushfires in Australia. 10 Tanker Air Carrier photo.

Australian Navy recovers helicopter from reservoir

The UH-1H helicopter ditched while working on a bushfire

helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
An Australian Army Heavy Recovery Vehicle is used to successfully recover a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.

On Sunday members of the Australian Army and Navy successfully recovered a UH-1H helicopter that had ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, New South Wales on January 9, 2020.

UH-1H helicopter submerged Ben Boyd Reservoir
A UH-1H helicopter partially submerged in Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, New South Wales January 9, 2020. Photo by Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service.

According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, “While conducting aerial fire control operations, [the helicopter] lost power and collided with water.” The aircraft submerged but the pilot, the only person on board, was able to self-extricate and swim to shore. The helicopter is registered to Garlick Helicopters and was working on the Clyde Mountain Fire under contract with the government.

The Canberrra Times reported that the 47-year old pilot was treated at the scene by paramedics for shoulder, back, and ankle injuries before being taken to the South East Regional Hospital.

The ATSB is investigating the incident.

The reservoir is a drinking water source and there was concern that fuel could contaminate the water.

helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
Royal Australian Navy clearance divers examine a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.

Using floats secured by Navy Clearance Diving Team One, the helicopter was floated approximately 400 meters to a boat launching ramp while being held within containment and absorbent booms to alleviate potential water contamination.

The Bell UH-1H was then brought onto the shore by an Australian Army Heavy Recovery Vehicle.

helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
Royal Australian Navy clearance divers prepare to recover a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.
helicopter recovery fire Ben Boyd Reservoir Eden New South Wales
Australian Army soldiers and Royal Australian Navy clearance divers work together to recover a NSW RFS-contracted helicopter that ditched into the Ben Boyd Reservoir near Eden, NSW. Image by Royal Australian Navy SGT Bill Solomou.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Helicopter ditches in lake while fighting bushfire in Australia

The pilot swam to shore and was taken to a hospital

UH-1H helicopter submerged Ben Boyd Reservoir
A UH-1H helicopter partially submerged in Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, New South Wales. Photo by Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service.

Thursday afternoon January 9 at about 4 p.m. local time a helicopter under contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia ditched into a lake on the far south coast of NSW. After impacting the water the UH-1H helicopter submerged but the pilot was able to self-extricate and swim to shore. The pilot was the only person on board.

The Canberrra Times reported that the 47-year old pilot was treated at the scene by paramedics for shoulder, back, and ankle injuries before being taken to the South East Regional Hospital.

The helicopter was refilling with water at Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, in the Bega Valley Shire.

The aircraft had been moved from the Clyde Mountain Fire to work on the Border Fire in Eden which has crossed from NSW into Victoria. It merged with another fire creating a massive 150,000 hectare (370,000 acres).

Two MD-87 firefighting air tankers will deploy to Australia

This will bring Australia’s fleet of large air tankers up to 11 for the 2019/2020 bushfire season

Air tankers 101 and 105
Air tankers 101 and 105. Erickson Aero Tanker photo.

The companies supplying the four additional large air tankers that will be mobilizing to help the firefighters in Australia have been identified. On January 4 we wrote about the two DC-10s that 10 Tanker Air Carrier will be sending down.

Today we learned that two MD-87s will also be deploying. Matt Isley of Erickson Aero Tanker said Tankers 102 and 103 will be under contract with the Australian federal government. T-102 will be leaving January 13 and T-103 is scheduled for January 16.

One of the DC-10s, T-912 is expected to arrive in Australia on January 15 to be followed by Tanker 914 around January 25 after their heavy maintenance is wrapped up. They will join another DC-10, Tanker 911 that arrived in November.

This additional surge capacity was announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on January 4, saying $20 million would be provided for leasing four more large air tankers as supplementary to the normal fleet for the current season only. Mr. Morrison also said 3,000 Australian Defense Force reservists would be brought in to help with bushfire recovery efforts.

Contracts were already in place in Australia for four large privately owned large air tankers and nine large Type 1 helicopters. In addition they have the 737 that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service purchased earlier this year. A C-130Q and a DC-10 were added in November when it became painfully obvious that the 2019/2020 bushfire season was going to be much busier than average. The DC-10s and the MD-87s that will be there in a matter of days will bring the Aussie large air tanker fleet up to 11 for this fire season.

Before 2010 Australia’s air tanker fleet consisted almost entirely of single engine air tankers. That year they began trials of large and very large air tankers, including a DC-10.

In 2018 and 2019 the United States Forest Service had 13 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts.