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. 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 two Air-Cranes under contract in Victoria can carry more than 2,500 gallons of water or retardant. The state 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).

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

Trial of dropping water on a wildfire at night begins in Australia

If successful, night-flying helicopters could be incorporated into the 2018/2019 summer bushfire season — then they will consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Above: The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase two of the night-flying trial. Photo by Coulson.

(UPDATED at 8:40 a.m. MT February 28, 2018)

The test of firefighting helicopters dropping water at night has started in Victoria, Australia. If after the test the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approves hover-filling and dropping at night, the next step will be to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

“Fighting fires in the dark hours, in the cooler part of the night or in the early parts of the morning would enable us to get on top of fires quicker, particularly those in remote parts of Victoria where access may be difficult,” Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said Monday.

“While the use of night vision goggles and infrared technology isn’t new, these have not been used together in Australia. We are very keen to trial this capability, and understand how it would work in a system, and make it safe to do so.”

CASA has approved the trial which will involve controlled conditions at all times.

The first of its kind in Australia, the test will be based at Ballarat Airport. Emergency Management Victoria is the lead with Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Country Fire Authority, and the National Aerial Firefighting Centre.

The trial will test the ability to hover-fill helicopters at night and the efficiency of night vision technology, including infrared systems and night vision goggles.

Several agencies in Southern California have been conducting night helicopter operations for years, but their SOPs require that they land to refill with water, rather than hover-fill. One of the reasons is that the B-212’s and B-412’s create too much mist for the pilots to see with night vision goggles.

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 drops water during the night-flying trial in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Coulson.

The results of the trial will guide the future use of night-time aerial firebombing operations in Victoria as well as other states and territories.

Two firefighting helicopters operated by Coulson Aviation are participating in the trial. A Sikorsky S-61 will drop water while a Sikorsky S-76 will provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator.

In the trial the S-76 Firewatch helicopter orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 water dropping operation. It used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the fire bombing 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.

In the video below an australian official says the next step is to consider using fixed wing air tankers at night.

Australia to experiment with night-flying helicopters

This will be the first trial of helicopters dropping water on fires at night in the country.

Mesa Fire Cajon Pass
U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter 531 dropping on the Mesa Fire in Cajon Pass in Southern California, November 8, 2014. Photo by San Bernardino County Fire Department.

Fire management authorities in Australia are planning a trial of night-flying helicopters later this year. Emergency Management Victoria is leading the effort which could begin toward the end of the current bushfire season in March or April.

“There is still a lot of planning and due diligence to complete, and regulatory approvals to work through”, Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre said.  “We are just in the process of selecting the helicopters that are planned to be used, and should be able to release this information shortly. We currently have helicopters on contract that use Night Vision Goggles for reconnaissance, m​apping, and incendiary dropping, so the planned trial is really about having the capability to  extend firebombing into the night.”

Mr. Alder said fixed wing air tankers will not be part of this trial, but they are examining the possibilities for future phases of the project.

The video below is an example of a night-flying helicopter dropping on a structure fire in Los Angeles (at 1:08).

Around half a dozen or so agencies in Southern California have been using night-flying helicopters for a number of years.

The Australians have 42 Single Engine Air Tankers working this bushfire season — 40 AT802’s and 2 Hubler Turbine M18’s. Two of the AT802’s are Firebosses on floats.

They have also had four large air tankers from North America working in the country during their summer.

  • DC-10 (-912 contracted from Agair who work with Ten Tanker) based at Richmond near Sydney;
  • L-100 (T-132, Coulson Aviation based at Richmond) – the Mandatory Availability Period is already completed for this one;
  • C-130Q (T-131, Coulson Aviation) based at Avalon near Melbourne;
  • RJ85 (FieldAir with AeroFlite) based at Avalon.

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre is in the process of issuing contract solicitations for the 2018-2019 bushfire season. They expect to have about the same number of SEATS, large air tankers, and Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters.

“Overall we would expect generally similar total numbers, but these solicitations could potentially see some changes in providers or fleet mix”, Mr. Alder wrote in an email. “Our multi-agency evaluation groups are currently working through all the options (and budgets!) and we hope to have a better idea of how the future fleet will look in a few months.”