A Canadian RJ85 spent the winter in Australia

Air Tanker 165/391 is one of nine RJ85s converted by Conair

Air Tanker 165 391 RJ86
Air Tanker 165/391 undergoing scheduled heavy maintenance at Avalon, Victoria. Conair/Field Air photo.

After being on contract with Emergency Management Victoria during the 2018-2019 summer bushfire season, Conair and Field Air decided to keep one of their RJ85 air tankers in Australia during their winter.

The aircraft was due for scheduled heavy maintenance and will be on contract again during the upcoming 2019-2020 season. So rather than fly it to Canada and back again, which requires several carefully planned refueling stops each way, they kept it at Avalon, Victoria.

A company representative said:

The maintenance has to be done regardless, so the decision was made to do it here in Australia. This allowed some Aussie engineers to work alongside the Canadians – and as an added bonus supported the Geelong economy and some other local business.

While working for the Victorian government it had to be identified as Bomber 391. But this coming fire season it will work in New South Wales and will be allowed to use its original number, 165.

Tanker 165/391 is one of nine RJ85s that Conair has converted into air tankers that can carry up to 3,100 gallons of water or retardant at 431 mph. At least one has been under contract in Australia since the 2014-2015 season. In the 2018-2019 season Conair/Field Air had three working in the country.

Air Tanker 165 391 RJ86
Air Tanker 165/391 after scheduled heavy maintenance at Avalon, Victoria. Conair/Field Air photo.

New South Wales’ new 737 makes its first drop on a fire

This is the second 737 to be fully converted into an air tanker by Coulson Aviation

(Above: Tanker 138, a 737, in New South Wales, August 8, 2019 U.S. time. Coulson Photo.)

Tanker 138, the 737 air tanker that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) purchased from Coulson Aviation, was delivered a couple of weeks ago and it just made its first ever drop on a wildfire.

The NSW government first announced the acquisition May 15, 2019 saying it was part of a $26.3 million investment to enhance the aerial firefighting capacity in the Australian State.

“This type of aircraft can deliver 15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of fire suppressants, transport about 70 firefighters and operate from a number of regional airports,” Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said.

NSW RFS Acting Commissioner Rob Rogers said the Service had evaluated a number of different Large and Very Large Air Tankers over recent fire seasons and had settled on the 737 as the preferred option, operated by Canadian company Coulson Aviation.

NSW will purchase one Boeing 737 Fireliner and two Lead/Intelligence Aircraft. They are accompanied by a ten-year operational contract where Coulson will provide all flight and maintenance personal. The 737 is scheduled to be delivered in July of this year.

Britt Coulson, Vice President of Coulson Aircrane, said the company will supply two Cessna Citation V/560s to serve as lead/intelligence aircraft for NSW RFS.

This was the second 737-300 air tanker converted by Coulson Aviation. The company purchased six in 2017 in order to modify them into 4,000-gallon “Fireliners” that can also carry up to 70 passengers when it’s not hauling retardant. Mr. Coulson said they saw an opportunity when Southwest Airlines made a decision to replace their 737-300’s with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two of the 737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they have a relatively low number of hours in the sky. (I wonder if Southwest is regretting getting rid of the 737-300s now that their new 737-Max airliners are all grounded.)

New South Wales purchases 737 air tanker

NSW will also buy two Cessna Citation Lead/Intelligence Aircraft

tanker 137 Boeing 737 drop first wildfire bushfire
On November 22, 2018 Air Tanker 137 made the first drop by a Boeing 737 on an active fire. It occurred on a bushfire in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia. Screenshot from NSW RFS video.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service obviously was satisfied with the performance of a Boeing 737-300 that was under contract during their 2018-2019 summer fire season since they just signed a contract to purchase one of the converted airliners.

The NSW government announced the acquisition May 15, 2019 saying it is part of a $26.3 million investment to enhance the aerial firefighting capacity in the Australian State.

“This type of aircraft can deliver 15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of fire suppressants, transport about 70 firefighters and operate from a number of regional airports,” Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said.

NSW RFS Acting Commissioner Rob Rogers said the Service had evaluated a number of different Large and Very Large Air Tankers over recent fire seasons and had settled on the 737 as the preferred option, operated by Canadian company Coulson Aviation.

NSW will purchase one Boeing 737 Fireliner and two Cessna Citation V Lead/Intelligence Aircraft. They are accompanied by a ten-year operational contract where Coulson will provide all flight and maintenance personal. The 737 is scheduled to be delivered in July of this year.

Britt Coulson, Vice President of Coulson Aircrane, said the company is acquiring two Cessna Citation V/560 aircraft now.

“They will be equipped with brand new Garmin EFIS cockpits complete with Synthetic Vision and linescan/gimbal systems designed and integrated by us”, Mr. Coulson said. “These aircraft are required to be multi-role so like the B737 Fireliner, we will integrate the tech package to not limit the airplane’s performance or ability to move passengers. We saw great success with the Citation Jet/525 that was operated in the USA and wanted to build on that program with a slightly larger, more capable airframe. With the B737 Fireliner being the fastest Large Airtanker, it really needs the fastest support platform.”

Britt said a technician in the back of the Citation will operate the video equipment and other sensors. Their goal is to retain seven passenger seats.

The NSW contracting office works much more quickly than what we have been seeing in recent years from their U.S. Forest Service counterparts. The initiative to purchase a large air tanker was announced in mid-December 2018 and now five months later the procurement has been consummated, with delivery of the air tankers expected in another two months. It has taken multiple years in some cases to contract for air tanker services in the Forest Service that are guaranteed for only one year. The NSW contract for operation and maintenance is for ten years. The Canadian province of Manitoba awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

Coulson Aviation CEO Wayne Coulson said he looked forward to being able to work with the RFS on this new venture and would be expanding its NSW base in the coming months. The company will be looking to hire Australian pilots and ground crew.

In recent years NSW and Victoria have hired large air tankers, primarily from Canada, for their summer bushfire season. During the 2018-2019 summer the two governments employed six, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters. The last of the contracted Large Air Tankers left NSW to return to the United States late last week.

Coulson Aviation began their 737 project in 2017 when they purchased six 737-300’s from Southwest Airlines which had decided to replace them with the new 737-Max. Since the FAA only allows Southwest pilots to fly two  737’s with the same rating, the airline opted to sell the 737-300’s even though they had a relatively low number of hours in the sky. With the 737-MAX being grounded after two crashes, Southwest may be regretting the decision to part with the aircraft.

The 737 air tanker was designed as a multi-use aircraft with the ability to haul passengers. In 2017 Britt Coulson said “With a full retardant load and 4.5 hours of fuel we are so far under max gross weight we are going to leave the full interior and galleys in even when just in airtanker mode.”

air tanker 137 737 wildfire
This is not a video, but a screengrab from a video of Air Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia, February, 2019. Usually it is not obvious when an air tankers drops simultaneously from more than one tank, but on the 737 the two tanks are not adjacent to each other, making it possible to see the separation when the drop begins. The video can be seen here.

The 737 made its first drop on an active fire November 22, 2018 on a bushfire in New South Wales.

737 air tanker T-137 grid test retardant
Air tanker 137, a 737-300, at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018. Coulson photo.

Air-Crane extracted after crashing into lake in Australia

It impacted the water while assigned to a wildfire in Victoria on January 28, 2019

Air-Crane extracted from lake crashThe Sikorsky S-64E Air-Crane helicopter that crashed into a lake near Jericho, Victoria, Australia has been extracted. It impacted the water while assigned to a wildfire on January 28, 2019, then sank and came to rest inverted resulting in minor injuries to the three crewmembers.

Air-Crane extracted from lake crash

Below is an excerpt from a report by Emergency Management Victoria:

The specialist salvage operation has involved the use of underwater divers surveying helicopter and undertaking initial disassembly work, including the water tank and hoses while Christine is submerged.

The complexity and scale of the operation has required months of careful planning and design. Due to the limited space, remote location of the dam and the size of the aircraft, a purpose-built lifting device has been designed to remove the Air-Crane from the dam.

The main components of the Air-Crane have been removed from the remote location by truck to a decontamination site to be sent back to America. The salvage operator will begin working on the environmental rehabilitation of the work site.

Photos and video courtesy of Australian Aviation Salvage & Recovery.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating but has not yet released a report.

Purchasing air tankers and helicopters is part of the political debate in Australia

The proposal would commit $101 million to boost aerial firefighting capability

tanker 137 Boeing 737 drop first wildfire bushfire
On November 22, 2018 Air Tanker 137 made the first drop by a Boeing 737 on an active fire. It occurred on a bushfire in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia. Screenshot from NSW RFS video.

The Labor Party in Australia is pushing for a large increase in the aerial firefighting capability of the country. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said if the party wins the federal election the government would infuse $101 million into the country’s aerial firefighting capacity.

Australia does not own any large or very large fixed wing air tankers and had little or no history of using them on bushfires until 2010 when they began a trial with a DC-10. After that first drop on a fire on January 31, 2010 the air tanker program, called “water bombers” down under, grew very slowly until a few years ago when they began contracting for multiple air tankers from North America, including the DC-10, RJ-85, C-130, and most recently, a 737. During the 2018-2019 bushfire season which just concluded, the country had six air tankers on contract — one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They also brought in helicopters including S-61s and Erickson Aircranes.

In December, 2018 the New South Wales government announced funding of $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft. Richard Alder, General Manager of Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), told us the intent of the NSW government was to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability.  This would continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.

But the proposed new funding initiative recently disclosed by the Labor Party would allow the federal government to purchase up to six large or very large air tankers and up to twelve helicopters, such as retrofitted Blackhawks from the military or Erickson Aircranes.

The proposal also calls for creating the country’s first “Smokejumper” units. However, they describe “Smokejumper” as a firefighter who rappels from a helicopter. In Canada and the United States a smokejumper jumps out of a fixed wing aircraft with a parachute and then fights the fire from the ground. Rappellers in the U.S. are delivered to a fire via a rope below a helicopter.

Of the total of $101 million the party wants to use to boost aerial firefighting capability, $80 million would go toward acquiring air tankers and helicopters, with $21 million being committed to the National Aerial Firefighter Centre to restore recently reduced funding.

Videos of firefighting aircraft in action

air tanker 137 737 wildfire
This is not a video, but it is a screengrab from the video below of Air Tanker 137, a 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia. Usually it is not obvious when an air tanker drops simultaneously from more than one tank, but on the 737 the tanks are not adjacent to each other, making it possible to see the separation when the drop begins.

The video below shows Air Tanker 137, a Boeing 737, dropping on the Bruxner Highway Fire (Tenterfield LGA) in New South Wales, Australia.

A Blackhawk and an Air-Crane can be seen in the video below working on a wildfire in New South Wales, Australia.

Next, a Blackhawk in New South Wales.

Below, two helicopters work a fire north of Canadian, Texas.

Below, CAL FIRE helicopter 301 makes a swift water rescue.

Helicopter crashes into lake while fighting wildfire in Australia

The crew of three swam to shore

Christine 341 Air-Crane crash
File photo of Air-Crane 341, known as “Christine”. Photo taken in November, 2018 by Uniform Photography.

(UPDATED at 8:49 p.m. MT [USA] January 28, 2019)

9 News has an update on the crash of an Erickson Air-Crane in Victoria, Australia on January 28, 2019. Video shows the Air-Crane on its side with a portion of the tail boom and main landing gear protruding above the water. Also the white skimming tube is visible which can be lowered as the helicopter flies near the surface of a body of water, using the same principle to refill the tank as the Be-200, Fire Boss, and CL-215/415. Drafting or skimming with the Air-Crane takes 45 seconds. It is unlikely that the aircraft was skimming when the accident occurred due to the lack of sufficient space. The Air-Crane also has a snorkel or drafting hose that is more often used for refilling while hovering over water.

Below is an excerpt from an article at ABC News Australia that was updated Monday evening, US time:

Five similar Air-Cranes — in NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria — were grounded while the crash was investigated.

Kestrel Aviation managing director Ray Cronin, whose company manages the fleet, said the ground was a “precautionary measure” while the company interviewed the crew and determined a probable cause.

He said after an initial investigation, the company and authorities had agreed that the grounding of the Aircrane fleet would be lifted.

“The Aircranes will return to service almost immediately,” Mr Cronin said.

“The crews are with the aircraft ready to rejoin the fire fight in Victoria.”

He said while he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) investigation, he understood “the serviceability of the Aircrane” was good at the time of the crash.

Air-Crane crash Australia
Parts of the Air-Crane can be seen above the water in this screengrab from the 9 News video.
Air-Crane crash Australia helicopter
The Air-Crane crashed in a valley surrounded by rising terrain. Image from ABC Australia video. Arrow added by Fire Aviation.

(Originally published at 12:47 MT [USA] January 28, 2019)

A helicopter crashed into a lake while fighting a wildfire Monday in Victoria, Australia. The Erickson Air-Crane had a crew of three, two pilots and an engineer, while it was working on the Thomson Complex Catchment fires in Gippsland. The personnel are safe after swimming to shore. Ambulance Victoria will assess the crew members. Emergency Management Victoria said the helicopter was Air-Crane HT 341, known as “Christine”.

The aircraft was one of ten aircraft working on the fire. The site of the crash, in the Yarra Ranges National Park, is about 50km (31 miles) south of Benalla.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said that he was grateful that the crew are safe.

The Flight Safety Foundation reports the helicopter is “damaged beyond repair”.

The six Air-Cranes under contract in Australia can carry more than 2,500 gallons of water or retardant. This one was N173AC, named “Christine”. Victoria also has 47 other aircraft on contract.

A total of six large fixed wing air tankers from North America have been working in Australia during their 2018-2019 summer.  Tankers with their primary base at Richmond, New South Wales include a RJ85, (Tanker 166); a  737 (T-137); a C-130Q (T-134); and another RJ85 (T-165). Based at Avalon in Victoria are a C-130Q (T-131); and an RJ85 (T-163).

The accident is being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. The agency expects to complete their report during the third quarter of 2019.

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

Portable air tanker base at Canberra used for the first time

It is the first time a portable retardant base has been used at Canberra

Air tanker 166 RJ-85 reloading Canberra Airport
Air tanker 166, an RJ-85, reloading retardant at Canberra Airport. Photo provided by the airport.

A portable air tanker reloading base at Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory was used recently for the first time. Christening the new facility was Conair’s Tanker 166, an RJ85 from Canada that is spending the Northern Hemisphere winter down under. T-166’s main base this summer is Richmond (near Sydney).

The aircraft was working on a wildfire near Michelago, New South Wales (map).

A total of six large air tankers from North America have been working in Australia during their 2018-2019 summer.  Three other tankers with their primary base at Richmond include a 737 (T-137), a C-130Q (T-134), and another RJ85 (T-165). And based at Avalon airport in Melbourne, a C-130Q (T-131), and an RJ85 (T-163).

Air tanker 166 RJ-85 reloading Canberra Airport
Air tanker 166, an RJ-85, reloading retardant at Canberra Airport. Photo provided by the airport.

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