New South Wales to purchase a large air tanker

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.

air tanker tracking queensland australia
Tracking of six water bombing aircraft on December 1, 2018 at Agnes Water and Deepwater bushfires in Queensland, Australia, including one helicopter (green line) which dropped 190,000 litres (50,192 gallons). Image credit: Queensland fire and Emergency Services.

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.

National Aerial Firefighting Centre


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.

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.

A fourth large air tanker arrives in Australia

This will be the first time a 737 air tanker has been used on a wildfire

737, an RJ85, C-130 air tanker Sydney Australia
A 737, RJ85, and a C-130 are introduced to the media at Sydney, Australia.

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).

air tanker 137 737 fire australia
Air tanker 137, a Boeing 737, after arriving in Sydney, Australia November 11, 2018. Coulson photo.

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.

Another RJ85 arrives in Australia

air tanker 166 new south wales
Tanker 166 is officially welcomed in New South Wales, November 5, 2018. NSWRFS photo.

Another Avro RJ85 air tanker has arrived in Australia for their summer bushfire season. Conair’s Tanker 166, named Hunter, was officially greeted by Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and others on November 5 a few days after it began assisting firefighters on a fire near Tamworth.

There will be six large air tankers from North America working in New South Wales and Victoria this summer. Not all have arrived yet — T-137 and T-131 should be there soon. Here is the list:

  • RJ85, T-165  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Sydney (Richmond);
  • 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);
  • RJ85, T-163  (Aeroflite/Conair via FieldAir) based in Melbourne (Avalon);
  • C-130Q, T-131 (Coulson) based in Melbourne (Avalon)

Pilot killed in crash of firefighting helicopter in Australia

The crash occurred on the New South Wales South Coast, August 17

The pilot was killed when the helicopter he was flying crashed while fighting a wildfire in New South Wales on the South Coast.  Reportedly the aircraft hit a tree while conducting water dropping operations on the Kingiman Fire west of Ulladulla. Video from local TV stations showed the wreckage near a structure.

The pilot, Allan Tull (Tully) died at the scene. His employer, Sydney Helicopters, wrote in a release:

Tully had a wealth of aerial firefighting experience and his aviation knowledge and skills were of the highest standard. He was regarded as one of the most experienced fire bombing pilots in the industry.

He will be sadly missed and our thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues at this difficult time.

Sydney Helicopters is the longest running commercial helicopter operator in Sydney, with aircraft housed at Parramatta Heliport.

helicopter that crashed
This is the helicopter that crashed, operated by Sydney Helicopters.

The helicopter, a 1994 Kawasaki BK117, was under contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service to fight fires.

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

Videos of a DC-10 working a fire in New South Wales

Above: A DC-10 drops on the Masonite Road Fire in New South Wales. Screengrab from video by Raymond Terrace Fire & Rescue.

Check out these videos of a DC-10 dropping on the Masonite Road Fire near the Newcastle Airport in New South Wales. The fire burned 2,300 hectares (5,683 acres). The airport was closed at times due to degraded visibility caused by the smoke.

***

UPDATE January 20, 2018: I found another video, of the DC-10 working the Pilliga fire.

A tour of Air Tanker 912

Also known in Australia as Bomber 912, or “Nancy Bird”.

Above: File photo of Air Tanker 912, a DC-10, making a quick orbit over the Indian Canyon Fire to check out the last of two drops the aircraft had just made just after sunset near Edgemont, South Dakota July 17, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Air Tanker 912 is beginning its contract with New South Wales in Australia, working out of Richmond. The NSW Rural Fire Service produced this video featuring pilot Captain R. K. Smithley giving us a tour of the huge 11,600-gallon capacity aircraft. (If you are having trouble seeing the video you can view it at YouTube.

10 Tanker Air Carrier recently renamed the aircraft “Nancy Bird”, honoring a renowned aviatrix in Australia.