Helicopter lineup for Australia this fire season

The helicopters will be phased in over the next several weeks.

 Updated October 16, 2020   |    8:17 a.m. MDT

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. Chris Matei photo.

The first of six Erickson Air-Crane helicopters that will assist firefighters in Australia arrived at the Sydney airport October 12. “Gypsy Lady” was unloaded from an Antonov 124-100 after spending the summer fighting fires in Greece. It has since been reassembled and flown to Bankstown, New South Wales where it will begin its mandatory availability period on November 1.

The other five are also coming from Greece, but will be receiving less deluxe treatment lashed down inside the holds of ocean-going freighters like they were in April on the way from Australia to Greece.

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. NSW RFS photo.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said on October 15 the positioning of the Air-Cranes will be the same as last year:

  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT730, N189AC, Gypsy Lady, starts 11/1/2020
  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT739, N247AC , Jerry, 12/1/2020
  • Essendon, Victoria, HT341,  N154AC, Georgia Peach, 12/2/2020
  • Moorabbin, Victoria, HT342, N194AC, Delilah, 12/23/2020
  • Brukunga (Adelaide Hills), So. Australia, HT743, N218AC, Elsie, 12/17/2020
  • Serpentine (Perth), Western Australia, HT740, N243AC, Marty, 12/20/2020

There will also be three Sikorsky S-61N ships and a Sikorsky S-76B owned and operated by Coulson:

  • Colac, Victoria
  • Mansfield, Victoria
  • Ballarat, Victoria; night-flying capable, along with the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter for night supervision and intelligence gathering.
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady being reassembled  at Sydney. Kestrel-Erickson photo.

In addition to the lineup for the Type 1 helicopters, there is news about a couple of smaller Type 2 helicopters in Australia. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) has purchased two new Bell 412 helicopters. One of them, like Gypsy Lady, received deluxe transportation (compared to a cargo ship) when a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A hauled it from Vancouver International Airport, Canada, to Richmond, NSW on September 15.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.

Bell Helicopter Textron Canada, based in Mirabel, Quebec since 1986 has manufactured more than 5,000 aircraft.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
NSW Rural Fire Service’s new Bell 412 helicopter after arriving at Richmond, NSW. RAAF photo.

Photos of helicopters refilling at the Saddle Ridge Fire

CH-54B, N722HT

Above: CH-54B, N722HT, at the Saddle Ridge Fire. Stonebrookphotography.

These photos of helicopters refilling at the Chatsworth Lake helispot during the Saddle Ridge Fire were taken by Stonebrookphotography October 11, 2019.

The fire has burned 7,965 acres and 21 structures on the north side of Los Angeles. Strong north to northeast Santa Ana winds caused the fire to spread seven miles across Southern California, from Sylmar to Granda Hills and almost to Chatsworth. More information is at Wildfire Today.

Sikorsdy S-61A
Sikorsky S-61A, N1043T, at the Saddle Ridge Fire. Stonebrookphotography.
Erickson Air-Crane, N164AC
Erickson Air-Crane, N164AC, at the Saddle Ridge Fire. Stonebrookphotography.
Bell 204A-1, N386HQ
Bell 204A-1, N386HQ, at the Saddle Ridge Fire. Stonebrookphotography.

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

Tanker 165, "Boomer"

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.


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.

Coulson helicopters en route to assist with wildfires in Bolivia

Coulson helicopters fire Bolivia
Coulson’s S-61 helicopters, N161CG and C-FXEC, in Los Leones, Chihuahua, Mexico August 31, 2019. Coulson photo.

Coulson Aviation announced Saturday night that the company has  secured a contract with the Bolivian Ministry of Defense to provide three Type 1 helicopters to assist the firefighters that are battling wildfires.

After a few flight legs in the Western United States, two of the company’s S-61 helicopters departed from Tucson on Saturday August 31 and shortly thereafter crossed the border into Mexico.

An update appeared on Coulson’s Facebook page Sunday afternoon:


The first two helicopters, S-61’s N161CG and C-FXEC are en Route to Bolivia and have just departed Saltillo, Mexico.

The crews have a long few days ahead of them, XEC started its journey in Yakima, WA while 161CG was in Elko, NV when we signed the agreement. Immediately both aircraft flew to San Bernardino, CA to load up and begin the long 4,900 NM journey to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

The third aircraft will be leaving shortly, although taking a very different route!

They did not specify which aircraft the company will send as the third helicopter. In addition to S-61s, Coulson has recently been converting CH-47s and Blackhawks into firefighting machines. But they also have at least one more S-61, registered as C-FIRX. Having three of the same model in South America would simplify maintenance, spare parts inventory, and repairs.

Coulson-Unical CU-47 CU-60
Coulson-Unical CU-47 and CU-60 in Atlanta March 5, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Coulson helicopter personnel, with N161CG in La Esmeralda, Coahuila De Zaragoza, Mexico. Coulson photo.
Coulson helicopters fire Bolivia
Coulson’s S-61 helicopters, N161CGD and C-FXEC,In Los Leones, Chihuahua, Mexico August 31, 2019. Coulson photo.
travel route Coulson helicopters fire Bolivia
Part of the route for the Coulson S-61 helicopters to Bolivia. Coulson data.

Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

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

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

Coulson helicopters arrive in Australia, after long ocean voyage

Coulson helicopters firefighting Australia

Two of Coulson’s helicopters have completed their trip on board a ship and have arrived in Australia. The company is in the midst of putting them back together in a hangar in Avalon. The S-61 due to its size had to be broken down more than the S-76, but the mechanics have done this several times before.

The two ships will be used in the Aussie’s night vision goggle firefighting program, with training beginning November 7. The S-61 will be double crewed, providing assistance to firefighters well into the night. It will be capable of filling while hovering, something the North American firefighting agencies have not done.

Photos by Coulson

Coulson helicopters firefighting Australia
Coulson helicopters firefighting Australia

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.


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.

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