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.”

Slow motion video of air tanker drops

This video has excellent footage of air tanker 131, a C-130Q (Bomber 390 in Australia) and Bomber 391, an RJ85, dropping water during the air show at Avalon, Victoria in Australia during the weekend of March 4. Both of Coulson’s C-130’s have since returned to North America.

It appears from the Facebook post below that the RJ85’s contract down under may also be drawing to a close.

RJ85 pilot — from Arctic Circle to Tambo Crossing

The Victoria Country Fire Authority in Australia has a story about Conair pilot Ray Horton, one of the pilots flying the company’s Avro RJ85 during the summer bushfire season.

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“Canadian pilot Ray Horton has travelled the long way around to fight bushfires in Victoria.

One of the world’s most respected aerial firefighters, Ray and the aircraft he flies – the Large Air Tanker ‘RJ’ – have become a welcome sight in Victoria’s skies over the past three summers.

So how did this one time “city slicker from Vancouver” find himself in Tambo Crossing [map], the Mallee and points in between?

His story begins in Canada’s Arctic North. The young pilot was building his hours in 40-below conditions, doing some “fantastic fun flying” as he puts it.

Then, one summer, he found himself flying supplies into the fire camps that are a base for summer firefighting in the Arctic summer.

Bomber 391
Bomber 391, an RJ85, at Avalon, Victoria. Photo by Avalon Airport.

It was the season that changed Ray’s life.

In quick time, he had a job with Conair, the Canadian aerial firefighting operator whose aircraft and pilots work fire seasons in North America, Europe and Australia.

He started in the Bird Dog – the observer aircraft that guides the larger air tankers to fires and coordinates aerial attack with ground crews. After that, it was 10 years flying the tankers themselves, many of them 1950’s US military aircraft repurposed for aerial firefighting.

Antsy for a change, Ray spent 10 years as an Air Canada captain. But civilian life was not for him.

“I had been spoiled fighting forest fires,” reflects Ray. “Once fire gets in your blood, there is always the challenge of trying to win. I had a tough time letting go of the challenge.”

Ray re-joined Conair and in 2014 arrived for his first fire season in Victoria. He’s returned every season since with RJ, the ‘next generation’ Large Air Tanker with which he’s been deeply involved since the aircraft’s infancy.

A veteran of fires seasons around the world, Ray had one word about the challenges of Victorian conditions – “Wind.”

“Most of the time when we are chasing fires in Victoria it is because of high winds and the high temperatures – they seem to come together,” says Ray.

“In North America, sure we get high winds. But then you’ll get a slew of thunderstorms come through. They may start 50 fires overnight. But then the wind will die down and you methodically get to as many fires as you can.

“Here in Victoria, that same storm will come through but with really high winds. Then you have your fuel types – the eucalyptus and others. The fires run much faster here – much, much faster.”

The other major difference, Ray believes, is the sheer number of volunteers working the fire ground in Victoria.

“That is something we just don’t see in North America. We don’t see the volunteer crews you have here. It’s amazing what Australia can do, particularly in Victoria with CFA and the number of volunteers.

“Here, we will typically see crews on the ground by the time we get to the fires. In North America, there are only so many crews to go around.”

Air crew and ground crew as one is a theme emphasised by Ray and his aerial crew colleagues.

“We know that we don’t put fires out,” stresses Ray. “We are here to allow the firies to get in and to support them. Hopefully we can make the difference that allows them to catch the fire.

“Our challenge – and the one we are called in for – is to put the water or retardant where the ground crews need it. When there are high winds and high heat, the challenge is really on us.

“Put it this way, it’s a long way to fly not to make any difference.”  “

An introduction to the large air tankers in Victoria, Australia

“Our job is to keep small fires small.”

During the Northern Hemisphere summer the Avro RJ85 and the C-130 work on fires in North America, but migrate to Victoria, Australia under contract with the Country Fire Authority during the down under summer. In the video Wayne Rigg, working in a position that in the U.S. we would call Air Tactical Group Supervisor, explains how he coordinates aircraft to assist the firefighters on the ground.