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.

A Canadian RJ85 spent the winter in Australia

Air Tanker 165/391 is one of nine RJ85s converted by Conair

Air Tanker 165 391 RJ86
Air Tanker 165/391 undergoing scheduled heavy maintenance at Avalon, Victoria. Conair/Field Air photo.

After being on contract with Emergency Management Victoria during the 2018-2019 summer bushfire season, Conair and Field Air decided to keep one of their RJ85 air tankers in Australia during their winter.

The aircraft was due for scheduled heavy maintenance and will be on contract again during the upcoming 2019-2020 season. So rather than fly it to Canada and back again, which requires several carefully planned refueling stops each way, they kept it at Avalon, Victoria.

A company representative said:

The maintenance has to be done regardless, so the decision was made to do it here in Australia. This allowed some Aussie engineers to work alongside the Canadians – and as an added bonus supported the Geelong economy and some other local business.

While working for the Victorian government it had to be identified as Bomber 391. But this coming fire season it will work in New South Wales and will be allowed to use its original number, 165.

Tanker 165/391 is one of nine RJ85s that Conair has converted into air tankers that can carry up to 3,100 gallons of water or retardant at 431 mph. At least one has been under contract in Australia since the 2014-2015 season. In the 2018-2019 season Conair/Field Air had three working in the country.

Air Tanker 165 391 RJ86
Air Tanker 165/391 after scheduled heavy maintenance at Avalon, Victoria. Conair/Field Air photo.

Helicopter crashes into lake while fighting wildfire in Australia

The crew of three swam to shore

Christine 341 Air-Crane crash
File photo of Air-Crane 341, known as “Christine”. Photo taken in November, 2018 by Uniform Photography.

(UPDATED at 8:49 p.m. MT [USA] January 28, 2019)

9 News has an update on the crash of an Erickson Air-Crane in Victoria, Australia on January 28, 2019. Video shows the Air-Crane on its side with a portion of the tail boom and main landing gear protruding above the water. Also the white skimming tube is visible which can be lowered as the helicopter flies near the surface of a body of water, using the same principle to refill the tank as the Be-200, Fire Boss, and CL-215/415. Drafting or skimming with the Air-Crane takes 45 seconds. It is unlikely that the aircraft was skimming when the accident occurred due to the lack of sufficient space. The Air-Crane also has a snorkel or drafting hose that is more often used for refilling while hovering over water.

Below is an excerpt from an article at ABC News Australia that was updated Monday evening, US time:

Five similar Air-Cranes — in NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria — were grounded while the crash was investigated.

Kestrel Aviation managing director Ray Cronin, whose company manages the fleet, said the ground was a “precautionary measure” while the company interviewed the crew and determined a probable cause.

He said after an initial investigation, the company and authorities had agreed that the grounding of the Aircrane fleet would be lifted.

“The Aircranes will return to service almost immediately,” Mr Cronin said.

“The crews are with the aircraft ready to rejoin the fire fight in Victoria.”

He said while he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) investigation, he understood “the serviceability of the Aircrane” was good at the time of the crash.

Air-Crane crash Australia
Parts of the Air-Crane can be seen above the water in this screengrab from the 9 News video.
Air-Crane crash Australia helicopter
The Air-Crane crashed in a valley surrounded by rising terrain. Image from ABC Australia video. Arrow added by Fire Aviation.

(Originally published at 12:47 MT [USA] January 28, 2019)

A helicopter crashed into a lake while fighting a wildfire Monday in Victoria, Australia. The Erickson Air-Crane had a crew of three, two pilots and an engineer, while it was working on the Thomson Complex Catchment fires in Gippsland. The personnel are safe after swimming to shore. Ambulance Victoria will assess the crew members. Emergency Management Victoria said the helicopter was Air-Crane HT 341, known as “Christine”.

The aircraft was one of ten aircraft working on the fire. The site of the crash, in the Yarra Ranges National Park, is about 50km (31 miles) south of Benalla.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said that he was grateful that the crew are safe.

The Flight Safety Foundation reports the helicopter is “damaged beyond repair”.

The six Air-Cranes under contract in Australia can carry more than 2,500 gallons of water or retardant. This one was N173AC, named “Christine”. Victoria also has 47 other aircraft on contract.

A total of six large fixed wing air tankers from North America have been working in Australia during their 2018-2019 summer.  Tankers with their primary base at Richmond, New South Wales include a RJ85, (Tanker 166); a  737 (T-137); a C-130Q (T-134); and another RJ85 (T-165). Based at Avalon in Victoria are a C-130Q (T-131); and an RJ85 (T-163).

The accident is being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. The agency expects to complete their report during the third quarter of 2019.

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

Victoria establishes new air tanker base at East Sale

An RJ85 will be based there January 11 and 12

air tanker rj85 australia victoria
On Friday January 11 an RJ85 known as Boomer south of the Equator worked to strengthen containment lines during hot and windy conditions – helping to protect a farm adjoining the bushfire in Holey Plains State Park, south of Rosedale. Screengrab from the video below.

Victoria’s ability to reload Large Air Tankers (LAT) has been bolstered by establishing the capability for the first time at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) military air base located in Sale, Victoria, Australia. (map)

An RJ85 nicknamed Boomer, is available in East Sale today (January 11) and Saturday, and could be deployed based on conditions and other requirements across the state.

To ensure Victoria has protection, a New South Wales-based LAT will move to Victoria during this period. This has been made possible with strong cross-border partnerships with NSW.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said East Gippsland had experienced very dry conditions following two record dry winters and in the last 24 hours experienced considerable lightning activity.

“Ground and air crews continue to work on the Rosedale fire, and while it is contained the underlying dryness and forecasted conditions, a LAT positioned at Sale would support the firefighting effort in the event of a flare up,” he said.

“If required this LAT will continue the work the other LATs and night helicopter firebombing operations have had on the Rosedale fire since Friday in support of ground crews.”

LATs can only operate at a limited number of Victorian airbases because of their size. They can operate from Avalon, Mildura and now Sale. Albury, in NSW can also accommodate the LATs if required.

Having the LAT based at East Sale will mean reducing the turnaround time for refueling and loading of retardant or water.

“The updated seasonal outlook confirmed the forecast of an above normal fire risk in East Gippsland. Given this, arrangements were put in place to be able to use the RAAF base if required,” he said.

“This was made possible due to the strong and ongoing partnership between the Australian Defense Force and Emergency Management Australia.”

Victoria’s Large Air Tankers are state strategic assets that are based at Avalon Airport but can be deployed across Victoria according to need and the identified risk.

They form part of Victoria’s core aerial fleet of 49 aircraft available for the summer season which includes a mix of water bombing aircraft, air supervision, and aerial intelligence gathering aircraft.

Victoria also has a surge capacity of up to 100 aircraft that can supplement the core fleet when needed.

Two bases in Victoria are providing night-flying helicopters for bushfire suppression

Emergency managers in Australia will be using night flying helicopters operationally this summer for the first time, following a trial a year ago

Kestrel helicopter night fying
The Directors and Crew of Kestrel. EMV photo.

Victoria’s second night vision equipped firefighting helicopter was deployed yesterday in Mangalore.

For the first time Kestrel Aviation’s helicopter was double-crewed to ensure it had day and night personnel available for firebombing, if it was required.

They join another certified operator, Coulson Aviation, who can also provide a night firebombing service to Victoria with helicopters based at Ballarat.

Ballarat and Mangalore are the two locations where night firebombing helicopters are located, however the aircraft can potentially respond to any area across the state – but only in the right circumstances.

This summer the focus of the night firebombing trial is to test procedures and operations on real fires.

Night operations will be used as an extension of day operations, meaning aircraft will be able to assist ground crews on fires for a longer period of time. Night firebombing will only occur on actual fires where it can add value to fire operations, or in circumstances where the experience can help build or improve the night firebombing capability.

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.

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