Australia to have six large air tankers during the 2020-2021 bushfire season

The list includes: B737, Q400, RJ 85, and C-130

Air Tanker 141, C-FFQEQ, Q400
T-141 (C-FFQEQ) Q400AT – Refueling at Majuro, Marshall Islands in August , 2020 while en route to Bundaberg, Queensland for the 2020-2021 bushfire season in Australia. Photo Credit Brendon Sutton.

Wildland fire authorities in Australia expect to have at least six large air tankers working on exclusive use arrangements during the 2020-2021 fire season which is already underway down under. Five will be under contract and one, a B737, is owned by the New South Wales government.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) said on October 13, “We will continue to monitor how the season develops and consider the need for additional large airtankers if required.”

A year ago Australia started the 2019-2020 fire season with a plan to have five large air tankers, but when the fire activity grew to unprecedented levels, NAFC added two in November, 2019 (a DC-10 and a C-130Q) then in January, 2020 added four more (two DC-10s and two MD-87s).

Currently active:

  • B737, Bomber 210  (formerly Tanker 138), N138CG, purchased from Coulson and now owned by New South Wales Rural Fire Service, at Richmond, NSW. Year round.
  • Q400AT, Bomber 141, C-FFQE, supplied by  FieldAir/Conair, at Bundaberg, Queensland. Started September 1, 2020.
  • RJ85, Bomber 166 (Tanker 166), C-GVFT, supplied by FieldAir/Conair, at Dubbo, New South Wales. Started October 1, 2020.

Due to start November 1, 2020:

  • B737, Tanker 137, N137CG, supplied by Coulson, at Richmond, NSW. The contract allows Coulson to substitute another aircraft, their “new” Tanker 132, a C130H, depending on the status of the overlapping fire seasons in Australia and the US.

Due to start December 2, 2020.

  • RJ 85, Bomber 391, C-GVFK (?), supplied by FieldAir/Conair, at Avalon Victoria.

Due to start December 16, 2020

  • C130Q, Bomber 390 (Tanker 131), N130FF, supplied by Coulson, at Avalon Victoria.

According according to a September through November outlook from the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre much of Australia may be looking at a slower than average fire season for the next two months.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) was formed by the Australian States and Territories in July, 2003 to provide a cooperative national arrangement for combating bushfires. It facilitates the coordination and procurement of a fleet of firefighting aircraft that are readily available for use by State and Territory emergency service and land management agencies across Australia.

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.

RJ85 pilot — from Arctic Circle to Tambo Crossing

The Victoria Country Fire Authority in Australia has a story about Conair pilot Ray Horton, one of the pilots flying the company’s Avro RJ85 during the summer bushfire season.

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“Canadian pilot Ray Horton has travelled the long way around to fight bushfires in Victoria.

One of the world’s most respected aerial firefighters, Ray and the aircraft he flies – the Large Air Tanker ‘RJ’ – have become a welcome sight in Victoria’s skies over the past three summers.

So how did this one time “city slicker from Vancouver” find himself in Tambo Crossing [map], the Mallee and points in between?

His story begins in Canada’s Arctic North. The young pilot was building his hours in 40-below conditions, doing some “fantastic fun flying” as he puts it.

Then, one summer, he found himself flying supplies into the fire camps that are a base for summer firefighting in the Arctic summer.

Bomber 391
Bomber 391, an RJ85, at Avalon, Victoria. Photo by Avalon Airport.

It was the season that changed Ray’s life.

In quick time, he had a job with Conair, the Canadian aerial firefighting operator whose aircraft and pilots work fire seasons in North America, Europe and Australia.

He started in the Bird Dog – the observer aircraft that guides the larger air tankers to fires and coordinates aerial attack with ground crews. After that, it was 10 years flying the tankers themselves, many of them 1950’s US military aircraft repurposed for aerial firefighting.

Antsy for a change, Ray spent 10 years as an Air Canada captain. But civilian life was not for him.

“I had been spoiled fighting forest fires,” reflects Ray. “Once fire gets in your blood, there is always the challenge of trying to win. I had a tough time letting go of the challenge.”

Ray re-joined Conair and in 2014 arrived for his first fire season in Victoria. He’s returned every season since with RJ, the ‘next generation’ Large Air Tanker with which he’s been deeply involved since the aircraft’s infancy.

A veteran of fires seasons around the world, Ray had one word about the challenges of Victorian conditions – “Wind.”

“Most of the time when we are chasing fires in Victoria it is because of high winds and the high temperatures – they seem to come together,” says Ray.

“In North America, sure we get high winds. But then you’ll get a slew of thunderstorms come through. They may start 50 fires overnight. But then the wind will die down and you methodically get to as many fires as you can.

“Here in Victoria, that same storm will come through but with really high winds. Then you have your fuel types – the eucalyptus and others. The fires run much faster here – much, much faster.”

The other major difference, Ray believes, is the sheer number of volunteers working the fire ground in Victoria.

“That is something we just don’t see in North America. We don’t see the volunteer crews you have here. It’s amazing what Australia can do, particularly in Victoria with CFA and the number of volunteers.

“Here, we will typically see crews on the ground by the time we get to the fires. In North America, there are only so many crews to go around.”

Air crew and ground crew as one is a theme emphasised by Ray and his aerial crew colleagues.

“We know that we don’t put fires out,” stresses Ray. “We are here to allow the firies to get in and to support them. Hopefully we can make the difference that allows them to catch the fire.

“Our challenge – and the one we are called in for – is to put the water or retardant where the ground crews need it. When there are high winds and high heat, the challenge is really on us.

“Put it this way, it’s a long way to fly not to make any difference.”  “