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.

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Air tankers at Rapid City

An MD-87 and an RJ85 were at Rapid City for the Legion Lake Fire in the Black Hills

Above: Air Tanker 163, an RJ85, at Rapid City December 12, 2017.

(Originally published at 12:15 p.m. MST December 13, 2017)

When the Legion Lake Fire broke out in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota December 11 it grew quickly in strong winds. The Incident Commander didn’t hesitate to order additional resources, including two large air tankers. Tankers 101, an MD-87, and 163, an RJ85, responded from Southern California, arriving late in the afternoon. They were not used that day since the lead plane did not arrive until much later. The tankers also were not used the following day. But the fire blew up the night of the 12th, expanding from 4,000 acres to over 40, 000 acres. As this is written around noon on December 13, the Incident Management Team said they will be used if needed.

On December 12 we visited the Rapid City Air Tanker base while the tankers were parked there. We talked with MD-87 pilot Brent Connor who told us Erickson Aero Tanker expects to have their fifth MD-87 in service by the 2018 fire season. Tanker 101 was the first they built; the others are 102, 103, 105, and 107.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

Each of the recently developed jet-powered air tankers have unique retardant delivery systems, and the MD-87 is no exception. As you can see in the photo gallery (click on the photos to see larger versions) it has two imposing tubes (for lack of a better term) in addition to a tank under the cabin floor and a pod under the plane’s belly. Those three reservoirs hold 3,000, 1,000, and 700 gallons, respectively, for a total of 4,700 gallons.

To mitigate the issue of retardant dispersing over the wing, which introduced the possibility of it being ingested into the engines, they had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, lowering the release point by 46 inches.

Mr. Connor said that at this time they are limited to dropping 3,100 gallons, and they never have to download due to density altitude. After modifications are made to the system, they expect to be cleared to carry 4,000 gallons. He said that to get to the present stage of development the FAA required 80 hours of  flight testing.

Introduction to the Redmond Tanker Base

Above: a 47-second video showing the aircraft at the Redmond Tanker Base on June 13, 2016.

Clouds were hovering just above the ridges bordering the valley around the Redmond, Oregon airport when I was there on Monday, June 13. There was a chance of rain across the entire Pacific Northwest and there were no orders for the four large air tankers staged at the Redmond Air Tanker Base.

Eric Graff, who has been the base manager for the last 12 years, said they had been busy in recent days sending tankers to fires in Oregon and northern California. They had pumped 165,000 gallons of fire retardant into tankers so far this fire season.

Eric Graff
Base Manager Eric Graff (left) and timekeeper Cynthia Buehner at the Redmond Air Tanker Base.

Working with Mr. Graff on Monday was Cynthia Buehner, in her third season as timekeeper for the base, and summer seasonal, Marissa Kraweczak, whose previous experience before this year was on the Zigzag Hotshots.

Also at the base was the normal contingent of pilots and mechanics for the four tankers that were on the ramp — three Aeroflite RJ85s, and one Neptune Aviation P2V. One lead plane was also on scene.

Pilatus PC12 lead plane
Aeroflite’s Pilatus PC12 (right) and a lead plane (left) at Redmond, Oregon. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I asked Mr. Graff if dispatchers proactively tried to group aircraft from the same company together at a tanker base, and he said no, it was not intentional. Aeroflite recognized that they had three of their tankers and crews at Redmond and called a meeting, with executives flying in on the company’s Pilatus PC12. The state of Colorado recently purchased two PC12s to use as intelligence gathering and communications platforms, calling them “multi-mission aircraft”.

Other fire-related operations at the Redmond Airport include the Redmond Smokejumpers, the Northwest Fire Training Center, the Redmond Hotshots, and the Regional Air Group which supplies pilots for the jumpers and lead planes.

Tanker 163
Tanker 163 at Redmond, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
tanker 44
Tanker 44 at Redmond, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
tanker 162
Tanker 162 at Redmond, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
tanker 161
Tanker 161 at Redmond, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
tanker 44 tanker 161
Tanker 44, in the foreground, and Tanker 161 at Redmond, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Photos of air tankers departing from Medford

Above: Tanker 163 departing from Medford, Oregon. 

We have been honored recently with a wealth of information and photos from Medford, Oregon. Tim Crippin took these between June 7th and 9th of air tankers departing from the air tanker base for the Pony Fire in Northern California.

tanker 162 Medford
Tanker 162 departing from Medford.
tanker 85 Medford
Tanker 85 departing from Medford.

Air tanker activity at Medford

Above: Tanker 162 at Medford, Oregon. Photo by Kristin Biechler.

Kristin Biechler sent us these photos of air tankers at Medford, Oregon. She said Tankers 62, 162, and 163 have busy there for the last few days.

Medford T-62
T-62 at Medford, OR. Photo by Kristin Biechler.
Medford T-163
T-163 at Medford, OR. Photo by Kristin Biechler.