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.
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Victoria establishes new air tanker base at East Sale

An RJ85 will be based there January 11 and 12

air tanker rj85 australia victoria
On Friday January 11 an RJ85 known as Boomer south of the Equator worked to strengthen containment lines during hot and windy conditions – helping to protect a farm adjoining the bushfire in Holey Plains State Park, south of Rosedale. Screengrab from the video below.

Victoria’s ability to reload Large Air Tankers (LAT) has been bolstered by establishing the capability for the first time at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) military air base located in Sale, Victoria, Australia. (map)

An RJ85 nicknamed Boomer, is available in East Sale today (January 11) and Saturday, and could be deployed based on conditions and other requirements across the state.

To ensure Victoria has protection, a New South Wales-based LAT will move to Victoria during this period. This has been made possible with strong cross-border partnerships with NSW.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said East Gippsland had experienced very dry conditions following two record dry winters and in the last 24 hours experienced considerable lightning activity.

“Ground and air crews continue to work on the Rosedale fire, and while it is contained the underlying dryness and forecasted conditions, a LAT positioned at Sale would support the firefighting effort in the event of a flare up,” he said.

“If required this LAT will continue the work the other LATs and night helicopter firebombing operations have had on the Rosedale fire since Friday in support of ground crews.”

LATs can only operate at a limited number of Victorian airbases because of their size. They can operate from Avalon, Mildura and now Sale. Albury, in NSW can also accommodate the LATs if required.

Having the LAT based at East Sale will mean reducing the turnaround time for refueling and loading of retardant or water.

“The updated seasonal outlook confirmed the forecast of an above normal fire risk in East Gippsland. Given this, arrangements were put in place to be able to use the RAAF base if required,” he said.

“This was made possible due to the strong and ongoing partnership between the Australian Defense Force and Emergency Management Australia.”

Victoria’s Large Air Tankers are state strategic assets that are based at Avalon Airport but can be deployed across Victoria according to need and the identified risk.

They form part of Victoria’s core aerial fleet of 49 aircraft available for the summer season which includes a mix of water bombing aircraft, air supervision, and aerial intelligence gathering aircraft.

Victoria also has a surge capacity of up to 100 aircraft that can supplement the core fleet when needed.

NSW firefighters assist with wildfires in Tasmania

Gell River Fire Tasmania helicopter
Photo by Andrew MacDonald

Firefighters in New South Wales have traveled across the Bass Strait to assist their brothers and sisters in Tasmania. The five personnel will be working with the Tasmania Fire Service, specifically on the Gell River Fire in the southwest part of the state. The deployment of five arrived Sunday to assume specialist aviation roles operating out of Hobart and Strathgordon.

Map Gell River Fire in Tasmania, Australia
Map showing the location of the Gell River Fire in Tasmania, Australia.

The Gell River Fire has burned 50,600 acres (20,500 ha) primarily in Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Portions of the fire are burning in peat, which means the deep-seated blaze will likely persist for months and continue to produce smoke.

Below is an update on the fire from the Tasmania Fire Service:

The fire continues to burn in buttongrass and mixed forest vegetation in the Vale of Rasselas, approximately 10 kilometres northwest of Tim Shea and along the Denison Range and Gordon Range. A sprinkler line around the northern side of Lake Rhona was successful in protecting fire-sensitive vegetation communities. Fire fighters and aerial water-bombing also managed to protect these vegetation communities in other areas.

Specialist remote area fire fighters are working in rugged terrain to extinguish the fire. Although the fire is still uncontained, suppression operations conducted by fire fighters and water bombing aircraft have been successful to date, with many active fire edges minimised.
An increase in smoke may be visible in the Greater Hobart area, Derwent Valley and Huon Valley on Tuesday evening and Wednesday due to increased fire activity, particularly at the southern end of the fire.

Resources currently deployed to the Gell River bushfire include 60 personnel and eight aircraft.

Tasmania Fire Service
Gell River Fire Tasmania
Gell River Fire. Photo by Andrew MacDonald
Gell River Fire Tasmania helicopter
Photo by Andrew MacDonald
Gell River Fire Tasmania
Gell River Fire. Photo by Andrew MacDonald
This image of smoke from the Gell River Fire was captured by a satellite on January 4, 2019. Since then the activity has decreased due to a change in the weather. The red dots indicate heat detected by the satellite.

Two bases in Victoria are providing night-flying helicopters for bushfire suppression

Emergency managers in Australia will be using night flying helicopters operationally this summer for the first time, following a trial a year ago

Kestrel helicopter night fying
The Directors and Crew of Kestrel. EMV photo.

Victoria’s second night vision equipped firefighting helicopter was deployed yesterday in Mangalore.

For the first time Kestrel Aviation’s helicopter was double-crewed to ensure it had day and night personnel available for firebombing, if it was required.

They join another certified operator, Coulson Aviation, who can also provide a night firebombing service to Victoria with helicopters based at Ballarat.

Ballarat and Mangalore are the two locations where night firebombing helicopters are located, however the aircraft can potentially respond to any area across the state – but only in the right circumstances.

This summer the focus of the night firebombing trial is to test procedures and operations on real fires.

Night operations will be used as an extension of day operations, meaning aircraft will be able to assist ground crews on fires for a longer period of time. Night firebombing will only occur on actual fires where it can add value to fire operations, or in circumstances where the experience can help build or improve the night firebombing capability.

Aviation contractor helped map bushfires during Queensland fire siege

Two aircraft conducted 40 missions with infrared line-scanning equipment

Infrared wildfire mapping aircraftQueensland does not normally experience scores of large bushfires burning simultaneously, especially during what is supposed to be their wet season. During their recent fire siege the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) brought in many resources from New South Wales, Victoria, and other areas including personnel and large air tankers. They also used two contracted intelligence gathering aircraft, a Learjet and Kingair from Air Affairs Australia, which were outfitted with infrared line scanners to detect new fires and map existing blazes.

The imagery delivered during both day and night-time flight operations provided imaging of the ground, defining active fire and burnt terrain through dense smoke.

Infrared wildfire mapping aircraft

A total of 40 flight missions were flown, delivering a total of 192 detailed fire images. Through transmission of image data from the aircraft via satellite, the imagery was delivered to the QFES State Operations Centre for near real-time utilization in Geographic Information Systems. The data was then made available through the QFES state-wide emergency mapping system for immediate regional usage.

Infrared wildfire mapping aircraft
The white lines represent the paths of two infrared mapping aircraft during the bushfire siege in Queensland, Australia. All three images are from Air Affairs Australia.

New South Wales to purchase a large air tanker

The state government also expects to buy two lead/aerial supervision aircraft

Recognizing that there is a year-round risk for damaging vegetation fires in parts of Australia like in the Western United States, the New South Wales state government has 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 is to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability.  This resident capability will continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.

air tanker tracking queensland australia
Tracking of six water bombing aircraft on December 1, 2018 at Agnes Water and Deepwater bushfires in Queensland, Australia, including one helicopter (green line) which dropped 190,000 litres (50,192 gallons). Image credit: Queensland fire and Emergency Services.

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 have six working, including one 737, two C-130s, and three RJ85s. They have also brought in six Erickson Aircranes, as well as other heavy helicopters.

The NSW government purchase of the large air tanker and lead/supervision airplanes will be through an upcoming tender process. Likewise the maintenance and operation of these aircraft will be contracted out.

On December 5 the Australian federal government announced that they would contribute an extra $11.0 million to aerial firefighting for 2018-19 via NAFC.  This was part of a larger funding package ($26.1 million in total) that included a number of other initiatives to support bushfire response and community resilience.  (More details of the overall package here). The $11.0 million for aerial firefighting is a one-off extra contribution for 2018-19, recognizing that the Australian 2018-19 season is forecast to be above normal in key bushfire risk areas.  For 2018-19, it means that the total direct contribution to aerial firefighting from the federal government will be $25.8 million.

Mr. Alder said that in Australia the responsibility for land and forest management and bushfire prevention and suppression constitutionally rests mainly with state and territory (provincial) governments.  The federal government contributes funding and other resources to assist the states and territories.  With aerial firefighting, the state and territory governments and the federal government collaborate through the NAFC which handles contracting of aerial resources on behalf of the states and territories. This provides coordinated approaches to market, common standards and interoperability.

In addition to the six large air tankers and heavy helicopters, this summer NAFC has contracted for other aerial resources:

  • More than forty fixed wing firebombing aircraft, including two AT802 Fireboss (scooping) airplanes;
  • Five helicopters specially equipped for dedicated intelligence gathering with gimballed infrared sensors and mapping and communication systems;
  • Four  dedicated mapping/strategic intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft (three Lear 35/36 jets and one Kingair turboprop), equipped with infra-red line scanners, image processing and high bandwidth communications systems.
  • Two night vision equipped helicopters for suppressing fires at night (and several other NVIS helicopters for support tasks).

The current NAFC large air tanker contracts are for three years with options to extend to five years, Mr. Alder told us. Five of the six working in Australia this year have mandatory availability periods (they call them “minimum service periods”) ranging from 84 to 112 days; a sixth is for 152 days. The U.S. Forest Service MAPs are usually 133 to 160 days, and the USFS contract that is out for bid now is for one year with options to extend to five years.  Both the USFS and NAFC can, and often do, extend the days worked within a season beyond the minimum as needed.

National Aerial Firefighting Centre


To our readers: does anyone care to speculate which aircraft NSW will purchase in their goal to spend $26.3 million on a large air tanker (LAT) and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft? I don’t see how the LAT could be new. Even if the CL-415 were still being manufactured, it’s generally not considered a large air tanker since it can only carry 1,600 gallons. And the last ones produced sold for around $37 million. A new Q400 would be out of the price range, but the manufacturer, Bombardier, and Conair, which does the conversions, are both based in Canada, which appears to be a preferred source of NAFC. I have seen a used Q400 advertised for about $12 million.

A previously owned BAe-146 or RJ85 can be bought for $5 to $6 million, and adding a retardant delivery system might run around $3 to $5 million more. There are used 737-400s on the market for about $3.5 million. Coulson and Conair, both Canadian companies which are currently converting these models, would probably be happy to make a sale. Of course Neptune is also building BAe-146s. A new C-130 or LM-100J would be out of the question at their budget. Used C-130s are difficult to find and the cost can be higher than retired airliners.

Air tankers assisting Queensland firefighters during unprecedented fire conditions

Before this year large air tankers had never been used in Queensland

Air tankers positioned Rockhampton Queensland
Air tankers positioned at Rockhampton in Queensland. NSW RFS photo.

The very unusual hot, dry, windy weather that has brought about large wildfires in Queensland, Australia during what is normally their wet season is requiring firefighters to adapt to the new unprecedented conditions. For the first time the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service is using large air tankers to assist firefighters on the ground. In recent days there have been at least three helping out, two RJ85’s and one 737  moved north from New South Wales to Rockhampton, Queensland.

Large air tankers from North America have been working in the states farther south for months, and a third RJ85 has recently arrived to bring the total to six.

Tanker 165 has been in NSW but is moving to a new contract in Victoria.  T-165/391 will take its place at Richmond. This is requiring a call sign change and it will become T-391 while in Victoria.

When the Queensland fire situation subsides, the primary basing for the aircraft will be:

  • Richmond RAFF in New South Wales: a 737 (T-137), a C-130Q (T-134), and two RJ85’s (T-163 & T-166).
  • Avalon airport in Victoria: an RJ-85 (T-165/391) and a C-130Q (T-131).

Most if not all of the North American large air tankers and helicopters working in Australia have adopted names, like Thor, Gaia, Boomer, Hunter, and Rocky — for reasons that are not clear.