Fire Season 2018-19 Overview
Aerial Fire Fighting in Australia
The 2018 fire season started a lot earlier than usual this season. With the first major fire occurring in the Southern New South Wales area of Nowra. It wasn’t long before one near Ulladulla and another in the Bega Valley burnt more than 4,600 hectares in August 2018. It was no surprise really, with 100 per cent of N.S.W in drought, forest fuels were extremely dry as that state transitioned into Spring.
As the season shifted into the summer proper it was Queensland and again N.S.W that saw fires of large sizes ignite just as the international aircraft and helicopters had started to arrive.
Two states that had an urgent call for aerial assets came from Tasmania and Victoria. As the fires continued to burn and spread, the call for additional support came from across the country.
Tasmanian fires were some of the largest in the state’s history. As the state only has a smaller aerial attack fleet, assets were called upon from N.S.W and Victoria to support the ground units.
The Victorian blazes in the high country and Grantville which saw all the local air attack assets put to work. Late in the season saw lots of fires which saw extension of contracts. The combination of all the LATS, SEATS, and rotary elements were all combined to minimise damage and destruction.
The highs for season 18/19
2018/19 is notable for several reasons this season. It was the first deployment of Coulson’s Boeing 737 Fireliner, and Lockheed C-130Q ‘Rat Rod’ after its conversion to a fire bomber. Both were on contract to the N.S.W Rural Fire Service. The New South Wales state government announced funding of some $26.3 million to purchase one large fixed-wing air tanker and two fixed-wing lead/supervision aircraft to maintain a resident near-year-round large airtanker capability. This resident capability will continue to be supplemented by contracted seasonal large airtankers.
Western Australia has seen the deployment of a single Dauphin helicopter FIREBIRD 661. This has been brought on to boost WA’s aerial surveillance and reconnaissance capability. It will fly for up to 306 days of the year compared to the previous 110-day fixed service.
Victoria completed their work up trials and subsequent operational deployment of a night time fire fighting capability. The work up phase was a conjunction between the aviation regulator CASA, Victoria’s Fire Agencies, Emergency Management Victoria and Coulson Aviation and Kestrel Aviation. As mentioned the work up phase was completed just prior to fires taking off in the state.
Night time water bombing of the Rosedale fires saw the capability put to use. It also included a world-first hover-filling, in which choppers could quickly fill their tanks from remote water locations instead of heading back to base to refill.
To further emphasise the significance of this Kestrel Aviation of Australia, Coulson Aviation of Canada and Emergency Management Victoria’s Wayne Rigg, has been awarded a prestigious international honour for its pioneering work.
The Walt Darran Award was jointly presented collaborative work in developing safe and effective practices for aerial firefighting at night at a ceremony this month in France. This sort of recognition shows the growing level of professionalism and scope of operations now in effect across the country.
Lows for season 18/19
As with all things in life with the highs there must be some lows. In August, while fighting the fires near Ulladulla, A BK-117 owned by Sydney Helicopters got its bucket cable caught in trees. Alan Tull the pilot, sadly didn’t survive the accident. Alan’s loss was a big blow to the industry, his professionalism and skills will be missed on the fire ground.
Another incident in January saw one of the Erickson/Kestrel operated AirCranes crash into the dam which it was drawing from. The three crew managed to escape as the AirCrane flipped over into the dam. All Aircranes were temporarily grounded until a clearance to resume flights was granted a day later. The cause of the incident is still under investigation. The crane was later sad when it was up righted and dissembled in situ and lifted out by land crane. The pieces were then trucked to the docks for return to the Erickson offices for rebuilding.
Changes for season 2019/20
On the 5th of December 2018 The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison announced that his government would contribute an extra $11.0 million to aerial fire fighting for 2018-19 via the NAFC.
This was part of a larger funding package that included a number of other initiatives to support bushfire response and community resilience. The $11.0 million for aerial fire fighting is a one-off extra contribution for 2018-19, recognising that the Australian 2018-19 season is forecast to be above normal in key bushfire risk areas.
For 2018-19, it means that the total direct contribution to aerial fire fighting from the federal government will be $25.8 million. The NSW Rural Fire Service also announced that they will be acquiring two ex Australian Army S-70A Blackhawks for use in the 2019/20 Fire season. These will be used for a variety of duties including to fly emergency service personnel to bushfires, floods and other disasters across the state.
Both Victoria and Tasmania were pushed to their limits this season. The combination of low rain fall and longer seasons making the states tinder dry. The call for back up from interstate was answered with aircraft and helicopters flying in to help contain the huge fires in both states.
On March 5th the entire Victorian air fleet was dispatched to fires within the state. Something never seen before, and hopefully not again in the near future. Although with the seasons now being longer and longer each year it will likely more common.
With fires still igniting in the exceptionally dry period in April, the 2019-20 season saw some contracts extended by an extra couple of weeks.
The NAFC issued tenders to suit the various types of fixed wing aircraft it can mobilise. Fixed wing aircraft used for fire bombing will be assigned a type number based on their water carrying capacity and design features, as specified below:
|Water carrying capacity
|Greater than 11,356 litres
|Between 11,356 and 6,813 litres inclusive
|Less than 6,813 litres
|Greater than 2,270 litres
|Less than or equal to 2,270 litres
Rotary wing aircraft are also broken down into four distinct types, based on their varying capacities.
|Water Carrying capacity
|2,268 kg or greater
|2,650 litres or greater
|Between 1,134 kg and 2,267 kg inclusive
|Between 1,135 litres and 2,649 litres inclusive
|Between 544 kg and 1,133 kg inclusive
|Between 380 litres and 1,134 litres inclusive
|Less than 544 kg
|Less than 380 litres
For a comprehensive overview of the various types and their respective specifications please click on the following link from last seasons review here: http://aviationspottersonline.com/australian-fire-season-2017-18-overview/
Fixed Wing Fleet
This season six large air tankers from North America worked across the country during the summer. Three of those tankers were based at RAAF Richmond in New South Wales. These included 737 (T-137), a C-130Q (T-134), and RJ85 (T-165). Two LATs were based again at Avalon Airport which were C-130Q (B-390) and RJ85 (B-391). T-166 also an RJ85 was based at Dubbo. These were joined by forty four Air Tractor AT-802s (including Fireboss versions) two PZL Dromaders, three Learjets, one King Air, three Turbo Commanders, two Cessna Caravans, three Cessna 337s and two Cessna 182s.
All the aircraft were on contract to the various fire agencies across the country. A total of 68 fixed wing aircraft are on contract this season. These are also backed up by significant number on call as required and contracted through government agencies.
As with previous years, there are a number of aircraft not on direct contract through the NAFC which were on call as required basis.
Boeing 737 Fireliner
A first for Australia and a first for an operational deployment in the world was, Coulson Aviation’s Boeing 737 Fireliner. The company has purchased six 737-300’s with GAIA being the first converted into a 15,000 litre “Fireliner” air tanker. After conversion and work up trials including drop pattern testing the aircraft N137CG was soon on its way to Australia. It wasn’t long after the aircrafts arrival it was soon deployed.
It was used operationally for the first time providing support to ground crews at the Richardson Road, Campvale and Hospital Road, Weston fire in New South Wales in Late November. This season has been a very busy one with the aircraft deployed to assist in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania in support of the local fire services.
From the periods of the 26/11/2018 until the 05/12/2018 in forty three drops by the 737 it dropped 533,961 litres over twenty seven flight hours
On the 14th of May the NSW Government signed a contract for the purchase of a new aircraft along with and two Citation V, Lead/Intelligence Aircraft. The government’s $26.3 million investment will see the ‘737’ operated by the aircrafts fire bomber conversion company Coulson Aviation. The purchases are accompanied by a ten-year operational contract where Coulson will provide all flight and maintenance personal.
Coulson Aviation CEO Wayne Coulson said he looked forward to being able to work with the RFS on this new venture and would be expanding its NSW base in the coming months and will be looking to hire Australian pilots and ground crew.
The new 737 is due to at RAAF Richmond in July this year.
Air Tractors are certainly the backbone of the fixed wing aerial attack in Australia with eleven operators here flying the type on contract through the NAFC to the respective fire agencies across the country.
Operators of the type include Field Air from Ballarat, AGAIR in Stawell, Pay’s Air Service from Scone, Kennedy Air Ag from Gunnedah, Precision Aerial from Meandarra, Aerotech from Kent Town, Aircair from Moree, Sky Croppers in Griffith, Fred Fahey Aerial Services from Cowra, Dunn Aviation from Jandakot, and Aerotech NT from Bachelor all have Air Tractors on contract or working this season.
The benefits of a versatile machine such as the Air Tractor where it can be adapted to various roles is the main reason for their popularity. In the Fire Season the machines are converted from their crop spraying/dusting roles used in the winter and spring months see the spray bars and spreaders taken off and the belly tanks refitted for their fire fighting bombing roles.
It is worth noting that nearly all the Air Tractors have different styled tanks and door designs amongst other operational features. Some operators have infra-red cameras installed, electronically controlled drop doors and a host of features all designed to get the water and or phos-check on target.
Airtractor AT-802 Fireboss
An interesting type which is not all that prolific in numbers is the AT-504. Dunn Aviation has a single example VH-FEC or Bomber 614 based at Jandacot. This machine is capable of carrying some 1836 Litres of water or mixed tank for dropping on a fire. It does have one other very unique feature, its a two seater. Not like its bigger AT-802 which seats two people in tandem. The AT-504 seats two people side by side, a perfect training platform for an upcoming fire bomber pilot. This is exactly what Dunn Aviation uses the type for, training pilots on drops and fire bombing techniques.
For this season three Cessna 337’s are contracted through the Victorian Government. Ballarat operator Aerovision provided them for use across the state. The type is extremely well suited to the roles of fire detection, reconnaissance and fire supervision, hence the Birddog call sign. The aircraft can loiter on scene for up to 7 hours on a single tank of fuel. The speed of the Cessna 337 is well matched to the Air Tractor AT-802 firebombing aircraft.
For season 2018/19 the Victorian and NSW Governments have contracted three Learjet 35/36 fire scanning aircraft. Operating at high flight levels, the aircraft are equipped with a pod which features infrared and mulitspectrial line scanning instrument and data processing equipment. The imaging is processed on board with GPS coordinates and terrain elevation data.
This processing geo-rectifies the image to make it usable in mapping software and geospatial information systems. The combination of thermal and visual sensors used and the geo-rectification process creates images that are easy for fire fighters to interpret and for them to understand where the fire is and what it is doing.
A broadband satellite data communication system enables rapid transfer of processed and raw data from the aircraft to users on the ground regardless of the aircraft’s location.
Rockwell Turbo Commander
The NSW, Victorian and Queensland Governments have all contracted an example of the Commander for use within their respective states this season. A fourth piston engine Commander is also on contract. The type is used to supervise Airtanker operations.
Seating five people, one of the passengers is an Air Attack Supervisor will direct air tankers on where and how to drop their loads on a fire. Another role for the ‘Birddog’ is as a lead in aircraft where the Commander flies the drop profile for the larger tankers where to drop and what to be aware of on a drop. This role is done using a smoke trail for the tankers to follow in.
The Victorian and NSW Governments both contracted through NAFC, one Beechcraft King scanning aircraft. The aircraft is operated by Nowra based company Air Affairs and was kept busy this season. The aircraft is used to photograph and produce real time imagery for the fire agencies which are used to draft the plans to fight the fire both on the ground and in the air.
Cessna C-208 Caravan
Cessna’s C-208 Grand Caravan is contracted through the South Australian and Victoria State Governments. Four are on contract this season. The type flies mainly in the air supervision role and also acts as transport for fire officials and other crews to quickly get on scene as required.
This season was the first time that three of the Conair/Field Air operated RJ85s went into action across New South Wales and Victoria.
C-GVFK was the first to arrive and commenced standby at RAAF Richmond in late August 2018 with the callsign Bomber 165. It was joined just over two months later when C-GVFT Bomber 166 arrived into New South Wales and commenced standby at Dubbo Regional Airport.
At the beginning of December, Bomber 165 moved down to Victoria and took up its usual position operating from Firebase Avalon Airport (with a change of tail number and callsign to the familiar Bomber 391). During its contract it was also deployed to a temporary base at RAAF East Sale working on the large Rosedale fire in South Eastern Victoria.
Bomber 166 remained based at Dubbo Airport on a NSW Rural Fire Service contract for the balance of the seasons The aircraft at one point joined the fight helping out in Tasmania as well as a number of short deployments in Victoria.
The third RJ85 that operated this season was N366AC callsign Bomber 163. It completed one of the NSW contracts and unfortunately could stay no longer due to crew/aircraft commitments back in USA.
During the season, the RJ85’s conducted operations in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, delivering over three million litres of fire suppressants. Both C-GVFT and C-GVFK returned to their home base in Abbotsford BC in April 2019.
Lockheed C-130 Hercules
Coulson again brought two of their Lockheed C-130 Hercules on contract this season. Once again Victoria contracted N130FF, Bomber 390. The NSW Rural Fire Service contracted a second aircraft N130CG or Bomber 134. This aircraft had only recently left the conversion facility at its home base Mesa, Arizona where it was transformed into Coulson’s fourth C-130 air tanker.
Bomber 134 wasn’t in the country long when it was called to assist on a fire near NASA’s Deep Space Network of satellite antennas near Canberra. This was the aircraft first usage on a going fire anywhere in the world. Bomber 134 has been seen and operated out of NSW, ACT, Victoria and Tasmania this season. It was called into to supplement Bomber 390 in Victoria this season when the aircraft was off line for some maintenance. Both were kept exceptionally busy working the fires burning in Victoria late in the season. The two returned back to the United States in mid March in preparation for taking up working contracts for the start of the Northern fire season.
American Champion 8GCBC Scout
Western Australia has again contracted six Scout aircraft for the season. Owned and operated by the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions. Operated in the Firespotter role which supervise waterbombing operations in the south-west, relaying information on fire behaviour to fire controllers. The aircraft are based at Albany, Manjimup, Jandacot and Bunbury.
VH-KTG returns from another patrol to its Jandacot base.
The Ayres Thrush is also in use in the fire fighting role within Australia. Central Highlands Aerial Services based in Emerald, Queensland. The company deployed two of their Thrush S2R aircraft on fires in the state.
Rotary fleet for the season
This year was another growth year for the rotary fleet. Both in terms of numbers, types and capabilities. Starting with the larger Type 1 fleet which is a machine able to carry or hold more then 2,650 litres of water. Six Erickson S-64’s, three Sikorsky S-61’s, three UH-60 Blackhawks from Firehawk/TOuchdown and Timberline/Pay’s and fourteen Bell 214B Big lifters make up this large array of machines. The operators like, Erickson, Kestrel, Timberline, Pay’s and McDermott’s coupled with very experienced and well seasoned crews make for a formidable lineup. Additional smaller types like the AS-350, BK-117, Bell 204, Bell 206 are part of the varied mix required by the NAFC fleet.
Airbus helicopters AS350
One of the more numerous types in service across the country is the Squirrel. With some twenty five of the single and twin engined versions. The number of operators is just as long.
Eurocopter AS365N2 Dauphin
The Dauphin, is deployed with two examples by DFES in Western Australia this season. Firebird 661 and 662 with 1000 and 1200 litre tanks fitted respectively. Firebird 661 is also fitted out for surveillance and reconnisannce as well.
Airbus Helicopters EC-120
The Victorian Government through the NAFC has three EC-120 Helicopters on contract this season. Operated by Jayrow and Microflight Helicopters from Moorabbin Airport. The type is a very suitable platform for the Firebird role in which it is employed. The large windows allow for great air observation of fire fighting activities by Helitaks. Its high speed makes it ideal to get quickly on scene in preparation for fire bombing. The information from the Firebird is then passed onto the incident control team.
A type seen regularly in New South Wales is the the MBB/Kawasaki BK-117. The helicopter is extremely versatile and can be used for a variety of tasks, including water bombing, reconnaissance, mapping and aerial incendiary work. When used for water bombing operations a tank with up to 1,000 litres of water and retardant is fitted. It can also be used to winch Remote Area Firefighting Teams and Rapid Aerial Response Teams into difficult to reach areas.
Helitreck owns and operates five Kawasaki BK117B2 helicopters which can be used for water bombing operations with up to 1,000L of water and retardant. Since 1999, the company has operated as a contractor to NSW Rural Fire Service.
Last year we spoke about the important role of the Sikorsky S-76 in the Night Fire Bombing role. This season at the culmination of the work up phase the S-76 operated by Coulson Aviation was put to work. The S-76 which acts as the Supervision aircraft has an air attack office on board. The role he conducts is too safely guide the helitak aircraft to their field of operations and conduct the fire bombing drops based on the reconnaissance of the area that was done prior to working the fire ground. Once water bombing has begun the infrared camera on the single example of the Sikorsky S-76A in operation records and also monitors hot spots which will need further dousing. The Coulson Aviation team who were operating the machine are extremely skilled, with some of the crew with over 20 years of fire bombing operation experience.
A small fleet of the ubiquitous Bell 205 or the civilian version of the UH-1 Huey are in use in Australia this season. Valhalla Helicopters returned again this season with three machines from their fleet. This included Bell 205 C-GRUV. As seen in the photos the Valhalla machines are some of the cleanest looking examples of the type in operation I have seen. Originally built for the use by United Arab Emirates Air Force Silāḥ al-Jaww as-Sulṭāniy ‘Umān (Royal Air Force of Oman), this particular machine was built in 1975.
Bell UH-1 Huey
Touchdown Helicopters operate several examples of the UH-1 Huey in the fire suppression role. All are equiped with Bambi Max multi drop aerial fire fighting buckets which are also configured with foam-injection capabilities. The buckets have a 1230 litre capacity. VH-OXE and OXI were both noted flying into Rockhampton Airport in support of the fire which was very active at the airport during December 2018.
Bell 206 Longranger
Another type from the Bell factory is the smaller Bell 206 Longranger. Several examples are tasked for operation during the fire season. It is particularly well suited to the supervision of firebombing operations with its high speed enabling it to keep up with the largest of firebombing helicopters and the ability to slow down and loiter in the fire area. When working as a ‘firebird’ the primary responsibility for the crew is to supervise aerial fire fighting operations and to collect intelligence information about a fire and pass it on to the incident management team.
For an airframe built in 1979 Paton Air’s Bell 206L-1 certainly doesn’t look its age.
A well seasoned campaigner here and abroad for fire fighting is the Bell 212. Six of the type are on contract for the season. When fitted with the 1477 litre belly tank, the versatile Helitak is frequently on task. Victorian operators like Microflight, Jayrow and Kestrel all operate the type. Some of the 212s on contract can be fitted with a rappel line system to insert specialist smoke jumpers into areas that require a back burn where transport by vehicle is inaccessible or safe.
The bigger version of the 212 is the Bell 214 ‘Big Lifter’. It is one of the more numerous rotary types on contract this season again. Some twelve are deployed across the country with Tasmanian, New South Wales, Victorian, and Western Australia fire agencies. Fitted with a 2,650 litre belly tank or Tsunami tank which is able to be filled within 35 seconds. The 214 is the most powerful single engined helicopter in the world.
The twin engined Bell 412 is a popular type in the fire frightening role across the world. Commonly fitted with a 1400+ litre belly tank, the type is able to get into areas where the larger machines can’t. The tank is also able to have a foam concentrate injected to further increase the effectiveness of the tank during a drop. Both the NSW and Victorian Governments have contracted five 412’s this season.
A unique aircraft in the aerial fire fighting fleet and even more so as a type on the Australian VH register. Rotor lift Aviation from Hobart in Tasmania operate Firebird 700, VH-XCW. The aircraft was previously in aeromedical configuration with Careflight in Queensland.
Now operating in the Firebird role the aircraft was very active in the firefight around Southern Tasmania this season. With a light passenger loading and full fuel tanks the aircraft has approximately fours endurance which is extremely useful in the fire observation and control role.
Erickson S-64 Air-Crane
As was noted previously, Eriskson and Kestrel again teamed up to bring in and operate the Air-Crane this season. This long standing operation see the merging of two well experienced companies who deploy six of the Air-Cranes across the country. The pilots and maintainers are very seasoned campaigners, with some having over twenty plus years of experience with the type. Pilots from New Zealand, Canada, United States are among some of the countries that the experience is drawn from.
These large Type 1 helicopters are well known in Australia now having been deployed continuously for over 20 years now. This season saw the machines working fires across the country with high utilisation. The high tempo was made more so with the incident of N173AC crashing into a dam in South Eastern Victoria. Thankfully the three crew were uninjured and the Air-Crane was recovered and will be rebuilt to fly again. Being one machine down put a large workload on the remaining five machines which saw them being moved to where they were required and being deployed into other states.
The six machines on contract this season were:
- N176AC ‘Lucille’
- N173AC ‘Christine’
- N194AC ‘Delilah’
- N218AC ‘Elsie’
- N189AC ‘Gypsy Lady’
- N154AC ‘Georgia Peach’
Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk
Australia was host to its largest fleet of Blackhawks fighting fires ever this season. Timberline again in cooperation with local operator Pay’s from Scone NSW brought two UH-60A Blackhawks to work on call as required contracts. These two machines were in operation across NSW, Victoria and Tasmania blazes. Another UH-60 operator in Australia this season is Touchdown Helicopters. Working in a partnership with the owner of the helicopter, Firehawk Helicopters from Leesburg Florida. The partnership has brought another ex US Army UH-60A Blackhawk modified for the fire fighting role. All three Blackhawks were flown in operations with the Bambi bucket on a long line.
Life in the airframe thanks to Australian involvement.
As the Blackhawk and Seahawks enter the civilian market from military stocks, the use of the machines for firefighting works sees companies develop new technologies for these airframes as the retire from military service. One such company is Queensland based Helitak Fire Fighting Equipment. The company has developed a underslung belly tank for the Blackhawk with the design on show at this years Australian International Airshow at Avalon. Paul Blundell the Operation Manager at Helitak and Jason Schellaars took time to show ASO over the tank and its features during the show.
With a capacity of 4500 Litres and electric control of the drop distribution the tank has been designed so it can be fitted in as little as 25 minutes. The tank is fitted with a 6000 litres per minute fill pump which enables it to be filled in 46 seconds. The impressive design has been ordered by several overseas companies. Some of the unique features of the design also include:
- The Helitak designed bomb doors are over 2m in length providing an unequalled delivery of controllable water to the fire ground.
- Next generation Programmable Logic Controller that provides complete reporting of tank operations and telemetry analysis via the cloud to the operators operations centre.
- A proven fire suppression tank with operators enjoying over 1000 hours of operations
The company is also currently in discussions with hopes of supplying the tanks to a new Australian Blackhawk/Seahawk operator,Skyline Aviation Group. A helicopter operator out of the Newcastle and the Hunter Valley region’s who announced the acquisition of eleven former Royal Australian Navy S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters. All of which are now at the companies headquarters awaiting conversion.
This season Coulson Aviation Australia has supplied three Sikorsky S-61N Type 1 helicopters based across Victoria. Helitak 347 C-FXEC in its striking black and white livery was deployed from Colac most of this season. Helitak 348 N161CG, was based most of the season from the fire-base at Mansfield in Victoria’s high country. The third S-61, Helitak 349 C-FIRX operated from Ballarat providing both a daytime and night time fire-bombing services.
Helitak 349 was part of the fleet involved in the Night Fire Fighting trial and fire deployments. Helitak 349 operated at night at various locations in the rugged eastern part of Victoria and the south eastern interface areas of metropolitan Melbourne during the season. An Australian connection to the two Canadian registered S-61s is their tanks, which were built in Australia.
Aviation Spotters Online, wishes to thank all the pilots, crew and companies who have taken the time to work with us on this article again. It is dedicated to all the fire Fighting personal, both paid and volunteer who go above and beyond to protect Australian’s from fire. I hope this article does you proud for the vitally important work done on the fire ground.
Thanks to the ASO team in helping out with photos and also to Brenden Scott for the use of his images.