Aussies set the summer lineup for their firefighting aircraft

During the coming bushfire season they will have access to six large air tankers and scores of SEATs and helicopters

Air tanker 137, 737-300
Air tanker 137, a 737-300, is slated to make its world firefighting debut in Australia. This photo was taken at the grid test near Lancaster, California, September 3, 2018.  Coulson photo.

Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) has virtually settled on its lineup of the country’s firefighting aircraft for the 2018-2019 bushfire season which is getting underway. It was just a few years ago that they had no large air tankers, but this season they will have six privately owned large air tankers on contract, including three RJ85s, two C-130Qs, and one 737.

Large air tankers:

  • RJ85, T-165  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond)  –  already in place;
  • B-737,  T-137 (Coulson)  based in Sydney (Richmond) – subject to  regulatory approvals;
  • RJ85, T-166  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond)/Dubbo;
  • C-130Q, T-134 (Coulson) based in Sydney (Richmond) – already in place.  (This is an “extra” for the 2018-19 season only, considering the predicted above-normal potential of the fire season on the east coast of Australia);
  • RJ85, T-163  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Melbourne (Avalon);
  • C-130Q, T-131 (Coulson) based in Melbourne (Avalon)

Coulson’s recently converted 737 just went through its first flight tests for the U.S. Interagency Airtanker Board in September, dropping retardant into a grid of hundreds of cups on the ground. For it to be used in Australia it must first receive their regulatory approvals.

Single Engine Air Tankers

In addition, NAFC will have 51 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) on contract across the country,  including 2 amphibious water-scooping Fire Bosses. Another 8 SEATs have been contracted directly by State agencies. The SEATs can also be supplemented by other aircraft on Call When Needed (CWN) arrangements if required.

Helicopters

There will be 77 Helicopters of all types for a variety of roles across the country.  This includes six Erickson S-64E Aircranes, as well as five Type 2 /Type 3 helicopters that will be specially equipped for intelligence gathering, with gimbaled sensors and on-board image processing, mapping, and transmission gear.

Night flying helicopters

Near the end of the 2017-2018 bushfire season the Aussies experimented with dropping water from helicopters at night in Victoria.

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

This season one Type 1 helicopter (a Coulson S-61) based at Ballarat, Victoria and one Type 2  helicopter (a Kestrel Aviation Bell 412) based at Mangalore, Victoria will have a Night Vision Imaging Systems or Night Vision Goggles (NVIS/NVG) for water dropping. Several other Type 2 and Type 3  helicopters based in Victoria and New South Wales will be capable of NVIS mapping, reconnaissance, supervision and aerial ignition.

“We aim to continue and extend the helicopter NVIS firebombing trial in Victoria, operationalizing the learnings from the Victorian trial earlier this year, but it will be in small, careful steps” Richard Alder, General Manager of NAFC said. “At this stage”, he continued, “it is anticipated that night firebombing will only occur on fires where the aircraft crew has operated during the day – so at this stage there won’t be any initial attack at night.”

Night flying air tanker

Mr. Alder said they may experiment toward the end of the 2018/2019 bushfire season with a fixed wing large airtanker (the C-130Q, T-131) using NVIS/NVG, but there is much work still to be done to design the trial and obtain the necessary regulatory approvals.

Continue reading “Aussies set the summer lineup for their firefighting aircraft”

The future Tanker 134 on the move

These are photos of an air tanker that you don’t see every day. The C-130Q that Coulson recently acquired, was being moved from Tucson to another facility in Mesa, Arizona where it will be transformed into Coulson’s fourth C-130 air tanker, Tanker #134. Obviously it needs a little work.

It is the second C-130Q that they have acquired. The first was Tanker 131 that entered service about four years ago. The company also has two L-382G’s, which is the civilian version of the C-130.

Britt Coulson, who sent us these pictures, said they expect to have the conversion complete by the end of this summer.

air tanker 134 C-130Q

The photo below shows the aircraft before it was dismantled.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year.

Picture day for Coulson’s C-130’s

While Coulson’s three C-130-type air tankers were all together in Reno last month for carding by the U.S. Forest Service and pilot training the company took the opportunity to grab some photos of the aircraft while they were flying in formation.

They are all variants of Lockheed’s C-130 platform — Tanker 131 is a C-130Q while Tankers 132 and 133 are L-382G’s. Tanker 133, the newest addition to the fleet, just became operational a couple of weeks ago.

Scroll down to see how Dan Megna got the photos.

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tankers

Coulson C-130 air tanker

To take the photos Coulson rented an OV-10 that conveniently has a small compartment in the rear. Professional photographer Dan Megna sat in that tiny space to get the shots.

Coulson’s three C-130’s reporting for duty

Coulson Aviation distributed this photo today of their three C-130-type air tankers lined up at Reno for “USFS carding”. As we reported on April 10, they introduced their third tanker this month, another L-382G. They also have a C-130Q. The tanker numbers when used in the USA are 131, 132, and 133.

At the end of this month the company will be conducting their annual pilot training.

And, on another subject, can you find the two air tankers in the photo below that was taken by the RAAF at the Avalon Air Show in Australia around March 4?

Avalon Air Show
Avalon Air Show. RAAF photo.

Air Spray and Coulson to roll out additional air tankers

Both companies expect to introduce new air tankers in the next few months.

Coulson's "new" Tanker 133
Coulson’s “new” Tanker 133 just after the decorative wrap was applied. Coulson photo.

Coulson

Britt Coulson told us today that their most recently converted air tanker, Tanker 133 will be complete by the end of this week (see above photo). It will be the third in the C-130 series that the company has converted and is their second L-382G, which is a civilian version of the C-130. Their first L-382G, Tanker 132, was first grid tested in 2015 and in recent months was on contract in Australia. T-133 should be complete before the company begins pilot training at the end of this month.

Coulson is also working on a fourth air tanker. The “new” Tanker 134 is the second C-130Q that they have acquired and should be ready to go about four years after their first C-130Q, Tanker 131 reported for duty. The aircraft needs heavy maintenance, and to get it done they will remove the tail and wings and truck it down the highway from Tucson to another facility in Mesa. Britt Coulson said they expect to have it complete by the end of this summer.

Coulson's L-130Q
Coulson’s C-130Q which will become Tanker 134 later this year. Coulson photo.

The C-130Q’s began as strategic communications links for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and as a backup communications link for the U. S. Air Force manned strategic bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile forces. They are similar to the C-130H, but the 12 “Q” models that were made were outfitted with complex electronics systems, including a six-mile long trailing wire antenna, for communicating with submarines and bombers. Tanker 131 still has the remains of a vent for cooling the winch that was used to reel in the long antenna.

Privately owned C-130’s are extremely hard to find, and it is likely that very few more, if any, will be converted to air tankers in the near future.

Air Spray

Meanwhile Air Spray expects to roll their first converted BAe-146 out of the hangar in a week or so to begin static tests of the retardant system while the aircraft is parked on the ground. After that is complete they will start flight tests and work towards the grid test, dropping retardant into a matrix of cups on the ground at Fox Field. Ravi Saip, the company’s Director of Maintenance/General Manager, told us today that he expects the tanker will be ready to fight fire sometime this summer.  They are also working on a second BAe-146, which, so far, has the interior stripped out. Air Spray has been working on the first one since at least 2013, when the estimated completion date was fire season 2014.

Air Spray's BAe-146
Air Spray’s BAe-146s as seen in a 2013 Air Spray photo. Ravi Saip said when they roll the nearly completed aircraft out of the hangar he will send us a better picture.

Mr. Saip told us that the recent contracts for federal air tankers require that instead of being certified in the “restricted” category, they must comply with the requirements of a “standard” aircraft. The Forest Service, and especially the FAA, have been pushing for this change for jet-powered air tankers for a while.While it complicates the conversion and approval process, it also opens the  possibility of air tankers being allowed to carry passengers if the Forest Service wanted to plug that into the contracts.

Air Spray also has eight Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) — three on wheels, and five on floats. They are on contract with Alaska, Oregon, the Forest Service, and one is on Call When Needed.

Mr. Saip said the one with the Forest Service at John Day, Oregon is the only SEAT the agency has on contract and is instrumented with strain gauges like the large air tankers.

The Bureau of Land Management usually does all of the contracting for the federal SEATs. Randall Eardley, a spokesperson for the BLM, told us in March that the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts was expected to be the same as in 2016 — 33 aircraft.

Slow motion video of air tanker drops

This video has excellent footage of air tanker 131, a C-130Q (Bomber 390 in Australia) and Bomber 391, an RJ85, dropping water during the air show at Avalon, Victoria in Australia during the weekend of March 4. Both of Coulson’s C-130’s have since returned to North America.

It appears from the Facebook post below that the RJ85’s contract down under may also be drawing to a close.

Air tankers at Avalon, Victoria

Above: Bomber 391 at Avalon, Victoria. Photo by Avalon Airport.

Two air tankers from North America have recently started their contracts in Victoria during the Australian summer. Known as Tanker 131 when working in the United States, Coulson’s C-130Q is designated as Bomber 390 while working for Emergency Management Victoria. One of Conair’s RJ85s is known down under as Bomber 391.

The aircraft will be based at the Avalon Airport in southeast Australia, southwest of Melbourne.

Bomber 390
Bomber 390 at Avalon, Victoria, with Bomber 391 in the background. Photo by Avalon Airport.

C-130Q en route to Australia

The air tanker will begin an 84-day contract in Victoria on December 15.

Above: Tanker 131’s route from Santa Maria, California to Hawaii.

Coulson’s Air Tanker 131, a C-130Q, is en route to Australia to begin a firefighting contract for the state of Victoria. It departed from Phoenix on December 8 and is expected to arrive in Avalon, Victoria on December 12 after flying for a total of 27 hours. These dates and the ones below are U.S. time.

Tanker 131 itinerary
Tanker 131’s itinerary. From Coulson.

In Australia it is designated as Tanker 390 and is named “Hercules”. On the way to Avalon it scheduled stops at Santa Maria (California), Kahului (Hawaii), Pago Pago, and Norfolk Island. Britt Coulson said Friday night that it had just landed at Pago Pago (NSTU).

The 84-day contract for T-131 begins December 15th.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 in Maui, Thursday December 8 US time. Coulson photo.
Tanker 131
Tanker 131 over Maui, Thursday December 8 US time. Coulson photo.

Tanker 131 concluded its 2016 fire season in the United States on November 30, accumulating 350 hours of flight time and 520 drops for a total of 1.77 million gallons delivered over wildfires — an average of 3,404 gallons per drop.

Tanker 131
Tanker 131 at Pago Pago Friday December 9 US time. Coulson photo.

Coulson’s other C-130 type air tanker, T-132, a C-130H, has been in New South Wales since September 6, 2016. Known as “Thor” down under, it just had its contract extended for another month and will continue to be based at Richmond RAAF base until mid-January.