By Dion Makowski
Media were invited to attend Avalon Airport, where Victorian Deputy Premier and Emergency Services Minister, Mr James Merlino and Emergency Services Commissioner, Mr Craig Lapsley, addressed the media on the unveiling of the 2016/2017 fire season aviation assets with assorted firebombers providing the backdrop. The current fire bombing fleet is being built up from past experiences in Victoria and more so nationally across Australia. What isn’t generally realised is that by the time of the disastrous and deadly 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, Australia already had a nascent but established response to more effectively share aerial fire fighting resources where they were needed most. National Aerial Firefighting Centre, a commonwealth and state government initiative, is the body thus entrusted, and a significant part of what they do is to facilitate the co-ordination and procurement of a specialised fleet of aerial assets for use by the states and territories of Australia during the fire season.
One of the recommendations of the Bushfire Royal Commission, 2010, was to have aircraft in the sky while fires were being reported. The extension of that is that new forward bases are being developed at regional centres like Ballarat, Bendigo and in parts of Gippsland. The fleet must cover the state which is why its built up this way.The Victorian aerial firefighting fleet this year comprises 48 aircraft (last year it was 47) in a diverse fleet comprising large and small fixed wing and helicopter assets. These are operated, almost in a military sense, as bombers, reconnaissance, intelligence and communications platforms. While 60% can drop water or retardant, the other 40% of the fleet are the “eyes in the sky”, providing fire scanning, also air traffic control to ensure safety.The fleet is spread around over twenty locations such as Colac, Ballarat, Bendigo, Mangalore etc. Victoria’s 4 unique rappel fire-attack teams, utilise medium or heavy helicopters.
The fleet in Victoria this year includes the Large Air Tankers “LATS”- the Coulson Aviation Lockheed EC-130Q (N130FF “Hercules“) and British Aerospace (Avro), Woodford-built RJ-85 Airtanker (Conair/Fieldair C-GVFK) (Woodford was an important factory and airfield producing Lancaster bombers for the RAF in WWII).
These conversions of military and civilian airframes boast large-capacity water or retardant tankage. The LATS have been trialled since 2014 in southern Australia – Victoria and New South Wales, the results have shown their ability to transit quickly to fire fronts throughout Victoria and deliver substantial loads where needed, in a timely manner-reaching fires across Victoria within the hour. They are proving to have the biggest impact on fires that ‘run’. Both are based at Avalon for the duration of their contract.Very Large Aerial Tankers, (VLATs such as the DC-10 of Ten-Tanker from the United States) have also been employed from the NSW contract during difficult fire conditions in Victoria.
The EC-130Q, a L-382C-44M-05, was built in 1981 for the US Navy, as Bu.Aer.161495. Once resplendent in a scheme not unlike that in which RAAF C-130Es flew in the 1970s, this Hercules was assigned to one of two US Navy squadrons of Hercs converted to perform the US Navy TACAMO role. Take Charge And Move Out meant maintaining links with the US Navy’s ballistic missile submarine force, should the unthinkable happen and a war begin. Known while in Australia as Bomber 390, she can carry up to 15,000litres with RADS-XXL tank fitted (a palletised option utilising the Herc’s legendary roll-on/roll-off capabilities).
The RJ-82, first flew with German airline Lufthansa CityLine (appropriately as D-AVRH!). As Bomber 391, carrying 12,000Lts, the RJ is converted exactly as was the previous Bomber 391, N355AC, and flies exactly like any other passenger-version of a BAe.146, thanks to cleverly designed fairings which cover the externally-mounted tank.
Always seen by the public as the jewels in the fleet, the well-known, orange-painted Erickson (Sikorsky) S-64 Aircrane – made famous by “Elvis“, were seen daily on news reports, saving homes during successive Australian bushfire seasons. With 10,000 litres capacity for retardant or water and the ability to replenish from any water source, these large helicopters have the ability to place significant loads onto strategic positions in a fire front, providing real up-front protection to homeowners and fire crews on the ground. Helitak 341, N217AC “Malcolm” is the Victoria-based resident this fire season…
Other Helitak helicopters such as the Bell 212 and S-61, are also part of this response, providing the heavy hitting-power to compliment the Aircranes. All of this equipment is used to “hit hard and fast”. Along with appliances, aircraft are in the air immediately they are required. Mr James Merlino: ” we’ve had a huge amount of rain across the state, followed by significant growth … an above average fire season.. we are particularly concerned with grass fires this fire season“.
Lighter types of aircraft provide the “eyes” of the fleet, Firebird 300 for example, an Airbus helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) As 350B3 ‘Squirrel”; VH-XXW from Microflite P/L, is fitted with a forward-looking, infrared radar (FLIR) – the Wescam MX-10. “providing mapping, stills and web-based video streaming capabilities” according to Emergency Management Victoria, Firebird 300 sends real-time information back to incident controllers on the ground. Proving that authorities are trying out every permutation, the use of Night Vision in fire bombing is also being trialled.
Rockwell International Supreme Commander 690A, VH-CLT, the current Bomber 376 was present as a representative of the Birddog support types which may lead the LATS into the target, as was demonstrated at the 2015 Australian International Airshow. Bomber 376 may act as a “forward Air control” to the larger LATs.Another little-understood capability being developed for fire services is drone technology. The technology is mature and understood, what Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) are about is working with CASA to operate these over fires including night fire-fighting operations. Announcing the development, Craig Lapsley said: “We have a small number of drones – including during environmental safety plan burns, we can safely assess the impact of fire in the aftermath and how fires impact crews. We use video and infrared to find hot spots and prioritise. It’s about how we use that technology, that type of camera technology and the decision making we conduct with the information provided.”Victoria’s is now considered one of the largest and best-balanced aerial firefighting fleets in the world, in terms of numbers, types and dynamics of aircraft. Getting the set of procedures in place took 2-3 years to organise and now it is maturing nicely.The policy of leasing aircraft, complete with crews who have highly specialised training, has paid dividends over many years. We just hope their skills are not required at all this season.