Emergency managers in Australia will be using night flying helicopters operationally this summer for the first time, following a trial a year ago
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.
Two aircraft conducted 40 missions with infrared line-scanning equipment
Queensland 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before this year large air tankers had never been used in Queensland
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.
Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) has updated the graphic showing their aerial firefighting resources. The text is hard to read in this image, but you can download a higher-res version and a booklet.
On November 22 Air Tanker 137 dropped on a bushfire in New South Wales
On November 22 Air Tanker 137 made the first drop by a Boeing 737 on an active fire. It occurred in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Australia.
In these photos the aircraft was dropping gel, which clings to the vegetation and retains the moisture.
Coulson completed the conversion of the 737 a few months ago and it is now working on a contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service during their summer. Nicknamed “Gaia”, it arrived at Richmond RAAF Base near Sydney November 11 after a multi-day trip across the equator. It will be primarily based at the RAAF Base along with three other large air tankers from North America — a C-130Q (T-134), and two RJ85s (T-165 and T-166). Two other large air tankers will be based in Victoria at Avalon Airport in Melbourne, a C-130Q (T-131), and an RJ85 (T-163).
The 737 Large Air Tanker ‘Gaia’ has been in action in the Hunter this afternoon – the first time this kind of plane has been used to fight a fire anywhere in the world. It’s provided valuable support to firefighters on the ground. #NSWRFS#nswfires#avgeekpic.twitter.com/qHnbcddFpe
Going by the coordinates on the images, the fire T-137 dropped on was very close to the Kurri Kurri Hospital southwest of Heddon Greta. The NSW RFS reported at 8:14 p.m. local time on November 22 that firefighters assisted by aircraft had slowed the spread of the fire. They estimated it had burned 61 hectares (151 acres).
This will be the first time a 737 air tanker has been used on a wildfire
Today the New South Wales Rural Fire Service introduced to the media the fourth large air tanker that will be assisting ground-based firefighters in NSW and other Australian states during their bushfire season that is well underway.
The conversion of the Boeing 737 airliner into what Coulson calls a “Fireliner” was just completed a few months ago and has not yet dropped on a live fire. Tanker 137, nicknamed “Gaia”, arrived at Richmond RAAF Base near Sydney November 11 after a multi-day trip across the equator. It will be primarily based at the RAAF Base along with three other large air tankers from North America — a C-130Q (T-134), and two RJ85s (T-165 and T-166). Two other large air tankers will be based in Victoria at Avalon Airport in Melbourne, a C-130Q (T-131), and an RJ85 (T-163).
One of the speakers at the welcoming ceremony said one feature that separates the 737 from the other air tankers is that when it is not carrying 4,000 gallons of fire retardant, it can transport up to 70 firefighters or other passengers.
The NSW Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Troy Grant, announced that $23.6 million will be available for a large air tanker to be permanently based in NWS. This will be a first for the state and the country.