As the nightmare fire season of 2019/2020 was still very fresh in the minds of all Australians, the world was soon to face the next big challenge. As the COVID-19 virus became a worldwide pandemic, the ferocity of initial infections and casualties quickly spread across the globe, not unlike the intensity of a bush fire. 

The Australian aerial firefighting industry that relies heavily on international assistance presents challenges for overseas companies, with enforced quarantines becoming a reality for everyone arriving into the country. The situation at times becoming quite fluid, with developments and changes happening at times almost hourly. 

The Australian Government announced a ban on Australians traveling overseas in late March of 2020. This change caused great concern for many international companies with assets and staff still in the country. Many companies having just ended their contracts with Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Center (NAFC).  This national entity covers all international and domestic aerial firefighting operations. Some aerial firefighting companies elected to pack their machines and crews and depart for home before restrictions took hold. Some operators leaving their aircraft in the country with local operators like Erickson, whose aircraft are now on the way to other contracts after the 2020/2021 season recently ended.

Coulson and HeliCarrier, who in May 2020, flew their S-61s across the ditch to assist Indonesia taking up contracted work with the National Agency for Disaster Countermeasure or the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (BNPB.) The trip was reversed after their service in Indonesia, returning to Australia for the next fire season. The first contract for Coulson was a 150-day contract utilizing the Sikorsky S-61.

It is estimated the 2020 fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (45,961,000 acres,) destroying over 5,900 buildings and killing at least 34 people. The devastation estimates on the animals were over one billion losses. Air quality in some metropolitan cities, including Sydney and Melbourne, dropped to hazardous levels on more than one occasion. Financial costs associated with the bushfires are expected to exceed A$4.4 billion (USD 3.4 billion.) 

ROYAL COMMISSION 

On January 12, 2020 Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfires. Requiring the approval of the state and territory governments, the Commonwealth Government drafted the terms of reference. Support for the royal commission from Labor premiers was “lukewarm” at best. The Federal Government set the commission up to inquire into and report upon natural disaster management coordination related to the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season.

Three Commissioners were tasked with heading up the Royal Commission. This included Mark Binskin as Chair, a former senior officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. Mr. Binskin was the former Chief of the Defence Force from June 2014 until his retirement in July 2018. Joining him were Annabelle Bennett, a retired Judge of the Federal Court of Australia, and Professor Andrew Macintosh, a professor of law at the Australian National University and a member of the university’s Climate Change Institute. 

On January 14, 2020, the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews announced an independent investigation into the 2019-2020 bushfire season in Victoria. This was quickly followed on January 31, 2020 when the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced an independent investigation to review the causes, preparation, and response to the bushfires in New South Wales.

The final report contained 80 recommendations. Notably, for aviation, the report produced the following recommendations.

RECOMMENDATION 8.1 A SOVEREIGN AERIAL FIREFIGHTING CAPABILITY

  • Australian, state, and territory governments should develop an Australian-based and registered national aerial firefighting capability to be tasked according to the most significant national need. This capability should include:
  • A modest, very large air tanker/large air tanker, and Type-1 helicopter capability, including supporting infrastructure, aircrew and aviation support personnel, and
  • Any other aerial firefighting capabilities (e.g., Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), line-scanning, transport, and logistics) would benefit from a nationally coordinated approach.

RECOMMENDATION 8.2 RESEARCH AND EVALUATION INTO AERIAL FIREFIGHTING

  • Australian, state, and territory governments should support ongoing research and evaluation into aerial firefighting. This research and evaluation should include:
  • assessing the specific capability needs of states and territories and
  • exploring the most effective aerial firefighting strategies.

RECOMMENDATION 8.3 DEVELOPING THE AERIAL FIREFIGHTING INDUSTRY’S CAPABILITY

Australian, state, and territory governments, should adopt procurement and contracting strategies supporting and developing a broader Australian-based sovereign aerial firefighting industry.

SUPPORTING AERIAL FIREFIGHTING 

Considerable money and upgrading of equipment are also being undertaken for support on the fire ground, with new fuel trucks and large quantities of retardant and other associated equipment established in several states. 

STATES AND TERRITORIES STEPPING UP

The Commonwealth Government offered support or in-principle support for most of the recommendations, although notably did not outwardly support the proposal to establish a national aerial firefighting fleet.

The Federal Government has indicated that aircraft requirements are a matter for the states and territories. They would be guided by those.

New South Wales (NSW) and Western Australia own a fleet of American Champion Scouts Aerial Reconnaissance and Supervision aircraft owned by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) only states within Australia to have their own state-owned air assets. 

NSW has invested $26.3 million to provide the 737 Large Air Tanker’ Marie Bashir’ and two Citation ‘Birddog’ aircraft to undertake line scanning operations. The 737 was purchased from Coulson Aviation and received a new paint job over the Australian winter. Today, it is flying as Bomber 210. 

NSW RFS also purchased two Bell 412 Helicopters, an investment of $6.3 million. A Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster delivered one of the helicopters via Vancouver International Airport, Canada. A third Bell 412 will also join the fleet courtesy of the Goodman Foundation. These helicopters join the single AS.350 and the two BK-117s already in service. 

The Australian Capital Territory Government took the step of contracting its owned state-based helicopters this season. In conjunction with Wildcat Helicopters, United Aero stationed two Bell 412s, Helitak 274 and 275, alongside a Firebird AS350 provided by Microflite Helicopters. 

Western Australia elected to continue with their Large Air Tanker program for the 2020-21 season by engaging the C-130H from Coulson to operate out of Busselton this season. 

Erickson, Inc. returned with a six-ship fleet operated across Australia in conjunction with Kestrel Aviation, with two Air Cranes in both Victoria and New South Wales and single examples in South Australia and Western Australia. The East Coast-based machines had their lowest utilization in many years, thanks in part to the La Nina weather events this season. 

To ensure timely arrivals for the start of the NSW contract, the company elected to fly one of the aircraft, Gypsy Lady, to Australia from Greece in an AN-124 transporter. The rest of the fleet arrived via ship direct from Greece, where they were unloaded and reassembled for their upcoming state contracts. 

Based at Lake Macquarie Airport in NSW, Skyline Aviation Group also elected to purchase a tank from Helitak and fit it to their ex-Royal Australian Navy S-70 Seahawk fleet. The first of the S-70Bs, VH-XHJ, joined the Australian register in October 2019, the former N24-002, the first of the Seahawks modified for its new role in aerial fire suppression.  

Kestrel Aviation, based in Mangalore Victoria, continued the company’s further expansion. The first of two UH-60 Blackhawks painted and flown by company pilots arrived. Named Firehawk 1 or Helitak 125, the Hawk is the first type flown in Australia with an internal tank. It was one of two Blackhawks in operation this season with Kestrel. 

The company also announced that their first firefighting equipped Airbus AS332L1 Super Puma and their fleet to augment the company’s already growing fleet. This will be the first type in the Australian aerial firefighting line-up. 

Coulson Aviation and Kestrel Aviation have again been working with the Victorian Government on its Night Aerial Firefighting program. The work of the trial this year focused on allowing crews to safely conduct the first attack at night without the requirement of having to complete a reconnaissance flight of the area during the day or having first worked on fires in the daylight.

This is the same approach Coulson has successfully conducted in the US. The certification through the Victorian trial now enables Coulson teams to undertake night fire suppression missions in the Sikorsky Helitacks anywhere in Australia. 

Coulson Aviation continues its expansion within Australia through local subsidiary Coulson Aviation Australia. Signing a contract for the operation and maintenance of the NSW RFS fleet, including the 737 FIRELINER, two Citations, and two Bell 412 helicopters. 

The ten-year contract also saw the company move its Australian headquarters to Bankstown, securing a hangar facility with other bases at RAAF Richmond and Avalon Airport.

Coulson also picked up its first Large Air Tanker (LAT) contract with the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) division of the Western Australian Government. Aircraft N132CG was employed extensively on the large-scale fires within the state this season. 

Quebec, Canada based Helicarrier, in partnership with local operator Paton Air returned for another season. The company is now firmly entrenching itself in Australia. Plans are now to base C-FIZA in the country permanently. It is hoped to have the aircraft on the Australian civil VH register. Local training of pilots and crew will see the operation expand as time and resources allow.  

Aerotech Australasia also joined the ranks of local UH-60 Blackhawk operators. The company’s latest addition is a UH-60A Blackhawk. This particular aircraft saw service with the US Army at Marietta Dobbins Air Reserve Base (KMGE), Georgia. The aircraft is being prepared for its Australian operations and will be completed before season 2021-22. The aircraft became the first Australian registered Blackhawk when it became VH-UHS. 

The company has recently delivered a Helitak tank with the aircraft becoming the first Australian operator with the Helitak FT4500 tank on an Australian registered Blackhawk.

McDermott Aviation continues to expand its local operations and invest in new systems to further improve the delivery of water/retardant on the fire ground. Apart from the newly launched Bell 214ST’s outfitted with the Helitak tank. McDermott Aviation also collaborated with Fireball International and Helitak Fire Fighting Equipment to display the new Fireball International camera/satellite technology that detects smoke and reports on the fire movement. Two Bell 214s returned from their operations in Greece with one aircraft, each being unloaded at Fremantle and Geelong. The company is also investing in its fleet with a new Bell 214 under construction. 

In partnership with United Aero Helicopters again, Wildcat Helicopters brought Canadian registered Bell 412 airframes to work on NSW contracts. A new posting for two machines (Hlitack 274 and 275) with a permanent base at the ACT Rural Fire Service Hume helicopter base. Helitack 273 was noted at Camden in NSW. 

Valhalla Helicopters also returned to Australia. This season three machines were assembled at Albion Park airport after arrival by boat. C-FPSZ a Bell 205 or Helitack 252 and was joined by fellow Bell 205 C-GRUV or Helitack 253 and finally a Bell 212 C-GLFT or Helitack 254. 

Field Air based in Ballarat, Victoria also brought a new type of aircraft to Australia this season on contract. Conair’s Q400AT aircraft, a converted Bombardier Q-400 passenger airliner, agreed with the Queensland Rural Fire Service. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk authorized the spending of $15 million on a long-term contract for a LAT. C-FFQ was located in the city of Bundaberg in Northern Queensland. 

Departing from its Abbotsford base in Canada via stops in Oakland, Honolulu, Majuro, Honiara, and finally Brisbane, where it cleared customs. Then onto its new operating base in Bundaberg.

Fitted with a 10,000 liter tank, this was the first time a LAT had been contracted by Queensland. It saw use on fires, including being deployed after an illegal campfire started in mid-October began spreading across Fraser Island. The fires destroyed more than 80,000ha of the island. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Fraser Island saw extensive damage due to the fires. 

The company also undertook the conversion of one of their Air Tractors to a Fireboss conversion. The AT802A-0848 is powered by a PWC -67F and features the new Trotter Gen III fire door. It also has onboard independent gel and foam systems.

As with past seasons, two RJ85s were again based in NSW and Victoria this season in conjunction with Conair. Both aircraft have been to Australia previously. Bomber 166, C-GVFT was positioned at Dubbo, New South Wales starting its contract on October 1, 2020. Bomber 391, C-GVFK, began its contract on December 2 at Avalon Airport. 

Moorabbin, Victoria-based Microflite, expanded its contract work this season further afield this fire season. A single AS350, Firebird 100, VH-XXU was added, operating on contract for the ACT government. The aircraft fitted with Specialist Intelligence Gathering (SIG) capabilities. Employing six mobile data connections plus other sophisticated systems such as cameras and lasers that can identify the exact position of the fire, down to a single tree on the fire ground. 

Microflite again provided Airbus Helicopters EC130s as Firebird machines working alongside the Victorian-based Air Cranes® helicopters. Microflite also utilizes the Helitak fire tank system on both their AS350 and Bell 212 aircraft.

Timberline Helicopters also returned to Australia with its UH-60 Blackhawk fleet. The company also operates this year in Indonesia and Australian operations, conducting firefighting operations with the BNPB. 

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) has again increased its operational fleet with several aircraft joining the fleet this season. In February, the NSW RFS 737 FIRELINER was deployed to assist with operations in Western Australia. The Marie Bashir (Large Air Tanker) and Citation lead plane assisted firefighters battling blazes near Perth and across the state over the next week. The 737 and Citation are owned by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and operated on its behalf by Coulson Aviation Australia.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s 36 squadron C-17’s were also a key player in this year’s firefighting operations, performing troop transportation for firefighters and retardant from the eastern part of the country to Western Australia, where the bushfire activity was the most severe this fire season. 50 Tonnes of firefighting retardant was flown into Busselton from Richmond on January 9, 2021. A97-447, a Lockheed-Martin C-130J-30 Hercules operated by 37 Squadron, based at RAAF Richmond, delivered fire retardant chemicals to Busselton on February 4, 2021.

While not nearly as severe as the “Black Summer” fires of 2019/2020, the most recent fire season offered up its own unique set of challenges based on a global pandemic, fires on a national heritage listed island, and the largest fires seen in Western Australia in decades. Many lessons have been learned by Australia’s aerial firefighters over the past years, it now turns to hoping for practical application and solutions to many of the issues identified over Black Summer to make a long lasting difference.