At the Aerial Firefighting North America 2020 Conference in March of this year in Sacramento, California, international firefighting agency attendees assessed the damage, intensity, and scale of Australia’s January bushfires. More than 15.6 million acres (6.3 million hectares) burned, mainly in the southeast of the country. Entire towns were engulfed, residents across several states were evacuated, more than 2,100 lost their homes and at least 34 people lost their lives. 

An air tanker and two helicopters crashed with 3 lives lost while fighting the fires in Australia during this year’s season. Thousands of hectares of wilderness areas, gum trees and commercial forests burned. Untold numbers of livestock and wildlife were lost. Agricultural land comprised 14% of the total area scorched. Thousands of firefighters battled the small and large blazes across Australia.

The firefighting effort was a massive undertaking on the ground and in the air. While large airtankers (LATs) did much of the heavy lifting for the recent fires, it is estimated that 65 of the existing 81 Air Tractor AT-802 airplanes in Australia also saw action over the blazes. 

“Over the past 20 years, and across Australasia, the Mediterranean region, South America and here in the United States and Canada, I have watched the AT-802F steadily take on a bigger role in wildfire emergency operations. More and more agencies are recognizing it is a versatile firefighting tool that can play a crucial role in saving lives and property from these destructive fires,” said Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch. 

The Air Tractor AT-802 firefighting fleet in Australia consists of agricultural airplanes pressed into firefighting service as well as dedicated AT-802F firefighting air tankers. The majority are AT-802F land-based air tankers with the Gen II Fire Response Dispersal System (FRDS). One or two are equipped with Gen I fire gates.

The Australian National Aerial Fire Council (NAFC), which oversees the contracting on behalf of the various states, reported they contracted 54 AT-802s. Four of seven Australia-based AT- 802F Fire Boss amphibious scooper air tankers were also under NAFC contracts. Additionally, some states engaged AT-802 firefighting airplanes on “as-needed” contracts. Sources estimated this accounted for as many as ten additional AT-802s put into service. 

Four AT-802F airtankers working the Australia bushfires were equipped with Air Tractor’s new Gen III FRDS fire gate. The all-electric, constant flow fire gate reduces the airplane’s overall weight and increases its power-to-weight capability. Pilots report they were very pleased with its performance. This latest FRDS upgrade is the result of an ongoing program of continuous product improvement at Air Tractor. 

The Gen III FRDS fire gate is integrated with the DataVault telemetry and data acquisition system. Designed specifically for the aerial firefighting community, the system meets or exceeds all NAFC and US Forest Service “proof of delivery” requirements. The DataVault sends near real-time location and operational data telemetry from the FRDS fire gate to emergency operations managers via the Iridium satellite constellation.

Air Tractor AT-802F and the amphibious 802F Fire Boss airplanes often are used for initial attack, but they also provide extended attack and “close air support” with pinpoint accuracy for ground crews and for structure protection within a wildland/urban interface. Agile maneuvering, speedy climb rates, and their relatively compact size make these air tankers ideal for mountainous terrain, narrow flight corridors, and areas where other firefighting aircraft can’t go.

Most of the contracted AT-802F aircraft are equipped with the Pratt & Whitney 1,600 SHP PT6A-67F turboprop engine. It powers the airplane at speeds approaching 200 m.p.h. (174 knots.) while ferrying between the fire and its airtanker base or mobile retardant base. The -67F engine is legendary for its reliability and power-to-weight performance, making these air tankers well suited for firefighting operations in mountainous terrain and takeoffs from short airstrips. 

In most cases, NAFC-contracted AT-802 air tankers operate in pairs. This tactic multiplies the amount of retardant or suppressant delivered to the incident and reduces the time between deliveries. Once over the fire, the AT-802F and Fire Boss deliver their retardant, gel or water with computer-controlled precision to knock down grass and brush fires or suppress fires in heavier canopies. Low operating cost, fuel efficiency, and extended operating range also make the AT-802F an ideal asset for aerial patrol and initial response on days when wildfire risk is high.

Australia’s devastating fires kept Air Tractors and the Australian aerial firefighting community working hard this season. Many Air Tractor operators had a slow agricultural spray season as a consequence of the very dry conditions leading up to the fires. And now that heavy rains have quelled the wildfires, AT-802 airplanes may be put into service for habitat restoration. Their 800-gallon capacity hopper, speed, and maneuverability make quick work of hydro-mulch application or reseeding for erosion control.

To read this story in the magazine, click the magazine cover below to visit the online version of the May/June edition of AerialFire Magazine