Night-flying helicopter program to continue this season in Australia

NAFC is also looking toward developing a night-flying fixed wing air tanker program

night-flying helicopter Australia
An S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

During the 2017-2018 bushfire season in Australia two helicopters were approved for dropping water at night with the use of night vision goggles (NVG) by the pilots.  At least one of the ships, an S-61, was approved for hover refilling which was the first time this had been done anywhere.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), said the program will continue during the 2019-2020 fire season that is just beginning. This summer there will be a Coulson S-61 based initially  at Ballarat, Victoria and a Bell 412 operated by Kestrel out of Mangalore, Victoria.

“Both machines are tank-equipped and capable of hover filling at night,” Mr. Alder explained. “Supervision and support will again be provided by a Coulson NVG equipped S-76 [helicopter] and a number of other locally based NVG equipped Type 3 helicopters. It is hoped that the night program will be able to move into initial attack over the course of the 2019/2020 season, but this still requires some work to establish appropriate systems of work and procedures for initial attack.”

Last summer NAFC started thinking seriously about fixed wing air tankers working at night. They are still interested in having that capability but are taking a “crawl, walk, run approach”, Mr. Alder said. The agency is working with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and vendors on parameters for a trial, and hope to make some progress over the 2019-2020 fire season.

Australia sets their firefighting aircraft lineup for the bushfire season

Above: A second large air tanker is now operational in New South Wales. On September 24 an RJ85, Tanker 165 known as “Boomer”, completed final testing and became available joining Tanker 138, a B-737. NSW RFS photo.

As Australia moves into their summer and enters the traditional beginning of their bushfire season the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) in finalizing the lineup of firefighting aircraft for the 2019-2020 season. Contracts are in place for four large privately owned large air tankers and nine large Type 1 helicopters. In addition they will have the 737 that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service purchased earlier this year.

Large Air Tankers on exclusive use contracts

Already in place and available are the NSW RFS 737 (Tanker 138) and a FieldAir/Conair Avro RJ85 (Tanker 165) both based for now on the outskirts of Sydney at Richmond, New South Wales.

In early November the mandatory availability period (MAP) begins for what will be either another 737 or a  C-130Q at Richmond, provided by Coulson.

Richard Alder, the General Manager of NAFC, said, “The contract with Coulson allows for either a 737 or C-130Q. The final decision on which type will be made shortly, according to how the season is developing.”

In early to mid-December the MAPs for two other large airtankers will begin for another C-130Q and a RJ85 from Coulson and FieldAir/Conair, respectively. The scheduled base for the two aircraft is Avalon, Victoria.

The five large air tankers available is one less than in 2018/2019.

Like the United States and other fire-prone areas, Australia has been experiencing wildfires during times of the year when traditionally they did not occur in large numbers. The 737 air tanker that was delivered to the NSW RFS two months ago has been busy during much of the Australian winter, completing 60 missions and delivering 237,000 gallons of water and retardant.

Helicopters

The nine Type 1 helicopters under exclusive use contract will include six S-64E Air-Cranes (Kestrel/Erickson) and three S-61s (Coulson). Two of the Air-Cranes will be at Bankstown, and one each at Melbourne (Essendon), Melbourne (Moorabbin), Adelaide, and Perth.

The three S-61s are to be based in Victoria at Colac, Mansfield,  and Ballarat.

 Erickson Air-Cranes Melbourne
Six Erickson Air-Cranes in Melbourne in 2009.

The base locations for all of the aircraft could change throughout the summer as the bushfire season progresses.

Single Engine Air Tankers 

The recent tender process for SEATs has not yet been signed off, but Mr. Alder expects there will be about 45 on national exclusive use contracts plus another six contracted directly to state government agencies. This is 8 less than in 2018/2019.

Aerial ignition from a fixed wing aircraft in Australia

A 1971 film documented the process

Aussie Aerial Ignition fire prescribed fire controlled wildfire
The incendiary devices were stored and transported to the aircraft in trays. Screenshot from CSIRO film.

Some fire managers in the United States may assume that aerial ignition of a prescribed fire by using plastic spheres began a few decades ago and has only been carried out with helicopters, and more recently with drones. But a film produced by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research, documented the routine practice of aerial ignition from a fixed wing aircraft in 1971.

The concept is similar to the plastic spheres used today which are manufactured containing a chemical. The injection of a second chemical just before the capsule is jettisoned begins a reaction that results in flaming combustion 30 to 45 seconds later. By then the sphere is on the ground.

Aussie Aerial Ignition fire prescribed fire controlled wildfire
The machinery inside the aircraft that processed and dropped the incendiary devices. Screenshot from the CSIRO film.
Aussie Aerial Ignition fire prescribed fire controlled wildfire
Inside the aircraft the aerial ignition capsules were loaded by hand into machinery that injected the second chemical before it was jettisoned. This screenshot from the video shows a test of the machinery using empty capsules.

The film below explains the rationale and history of large scale prescribed burning in Australia and how aerial ignition was planned, organized, and executed. Navigation and planning the flight lines was far more complex before GPS became available.

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.