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.

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.