Air tanker en route to Australia turns back due to radio problem

A DC-10 has been activated to assist with bushfires in Australia

Air Tanker 911 returned San Bernardino
Air Tanker 911 returned to San Bernardino after discovering a problem with a radio.

Late Wednesday night Air Tanker 911, a DC-10, was over the Pacific Ocean on the way to Australia when it had to return to its base in Albuquerque due to a problem with a radio. About 50 minutes after departing from San Bernardino the pilots discovered that the High Frequency radio used on long range international flights was not working, even though it appeared to have passed earlier tests on the ground. There had been no need for the HF radio on T-911 since its last international assignment approximately seven years ago.

The Very Large Air Tanker, which can carry up to 9,400 gallons of water or retardant, has been ordered by Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) on an Enhanced Call When Needed (EWCN) contract to assist firefighters in the country who are dealing with large numbers of devastating bushfires which have destroyed over 100 homes.

After the flight crew turned the huge aircraft around they landed in San Bernardino and then flew to 10 Tanker’s base in Albuquerque. John Gould, President of 10 Tanker, said technicians found the coaxial cable that connects the radio to the antenna on the tail was not attached. It was just laying by the radio. After connecting it the radio worked fine.  Mr. Gould said that even if an antenna is not connected to a radio, if testing equipment is close enough it can receive a signal from the radio.

Mr. Gould said that after resting, the crew will depart again from Albuquerque, with planned stops in Santa Maria (Calif.), Honolulu, Pago Pago, and should arrive at RAAF Richmond, New South Wales (map) Saturday morning Australia time.

Normally the DC-10 operates with a three-person crew, two pilots and a flight engineer. On this flight they will carry a total of five, with an additional pilot and flight engineer to allow resting and crew changes while en route.

Two additional air tankers added to Australia’s firefighting fleet

Australia is experiencing an unusually high level of bushfire activity

Tanker 911 on the Corner Creek Fire i
Tanker 911 on the Corner Creek Fire in Central Oregon, June 30, 2015. Photo by Todd McKinley.

Due to an unusually high level of bushfire activity Australia has contracted for two additional air tankers to assist firefighters on the ground. Richard Alder, the General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), said the aircraft were added using the NAFC’s system of Enhanced Call When Needed (EWCN) contracts.

On November 12, U.S. time, Tanker 911, a DC-10, was loading spare parts onto the aircraft and is expected to be fire-ready in Richmond, New South Wales on November 16. It is supplied by Agair/10 Tanker. The DC-10 is considered a Very Large Air Tanker and can carry up to 9,400 gallons (35,582 liters).

The other EWCN air tanker added to the fleet is a Coulson C-130Q with an enter on duty date of November 16, also at Richmond. It usually carries around 3,500 gallons (13,248 liters).

Australia's large and very large air tanker fleet
Australia’s fleet of large and very large air tankers, updated November 13, 2019. The dates are DD/MM. Information provided by NAFC.

There are also changes on the rotor wing side. One of the most significant additions is a ECWN contract for a Blackhawk with long line bucket based at Toowoomba in Queensland.  The helicopter is suppled through Kestrel Aviation (who are partnered with BHI2/Brainerd).

Recent additions bring the total number of firebombing aircraft in Australia to 63 fixed wing and 45 rotor wing. There are an additional 51 aircraft used for other fire-related missions.

Firefighting helicopter goes down in Queensland, Australia

Helicopter Down crash Queensland Australia
Photo by 9News

A helicopter that was assisting firefighters on a bushfire in Queensland, Australia had a hard landing near Pechey north of Toowoomba. The pilot, believed to be in his 70s, was injured and flown to a hospital by another helicopter.

9News reported that the incident occurred as the pilot attempted to perform an emergency landing in strong winds.

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

Infrared video of helicopters attacking fire in New South Wales

infrared video helicopter dropping water fire
Screenshot from the infrared video showing a helicopter dropping water on a fire in New South Wales.

This infrared video shows the effects of helicopters dropping water on a fire at Backwater in New South Wales, Australia. In the video colder objects, such as water, show up black or darker than warmer objects.

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.