As an unseasonably severe dry season hits Brazil and the fires raging in the Amazon receive international attention, agricultural aviation begins to showcase its ability to work in a dual-role capacity, fighting to save one of the largest rainforests on earth.
The participation of agricultural aircraft in aerial firefighting has continued to gain strength over recent years in Brazil. Coordination between private industry and the public sector in aerial firefighting efforts is shaping up to become a large portion of companies’ work each year.
Tangará Aeroagrícola, an agricultural aviation operator, began operations in Brazil in 1969. The company progressing into aerial firefighting operations in 1991, carrying out its first mission in the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park.
Tangará Aeroagrícola realized the need for mission-specific aircraft for aerial firefighting, beginning to use firefighting specific aircraft in 2010. “When we acquired the first AT-502, we sought knowledge in Chile and hired a Chilean instructor to train our company pilots. Since 2012, we have been helping the state of São Paulo as part of the contingent of aircraft utilized by the Fire and Civil Defense departments. Also providing free training to various groups of the state’s Fire Department. Currently, we are also encouraging the use of firefighting specific aircraft by the private sector,” stated Thiago Magalhães.
In addition to investments in training and larger aircraft, Tangará Aeroagrícola recognized the need to install specific equipment for aerial firefighting missions. The development of fire-specific gate boxes, that are attached to the bottom of the aircraft in lieu of the agricultural gate, has allowed for continual evolution of the dual purpose aircraft, for agricultural aviation and aerial firefighting.
“Keeping up with new technology and coming up with solutions is a prime factor for any industry, and aerial firefighting is no different. The idea came up in 2006 when we manufactured the first manual fire gate box at the request of Tucano Aviação Agrícola, in Primavera do Leste (state of Mato Grosso).
Since then, we have been listening to the demands of our partners and seeking new technologies that could meet the needs of the Brazilian aerial firefighting fleet and improve their equipment. We emphasize that international cooperation is also a key factor for the development of new technologies,” Brazilian manufacturer of fire gate products Zanoni Equipamentos stated.
Coordinating with the public sector
Firefighting has a complicated relationship with the public sector in Brazil. Not only in regulatory and supervisory matters (as happens in agricultural aviation as well) but also operational and financial hurdles must be overcome to solidify the dual purpose of private sector aviation helping government.
Currently, at the federal level, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity (ICMBio), is responsible for the Brazilian National Parks. Maintaining multiple operational bases across the country, the ICMBio is also the responsible party that signs agreements with aviation companies along with using its own aircraft to combat wildfires in Brazil.
The states of Minas Gerais, Bahia, São Paulo, and Piauí recently established their own hiring models, which now complement the federal aerial firefighting effort.
The effort to regulate and allocate funds at the state level has been led by SINDAG (Brazil’s National Union of Agricultural Aviation Companies) and other local companies. This has, in turn, lead to more job opportunities for agricultural pilots to provide aerial firefighting support in addition to agricultural missions.
All parties with a stake in aerial firefighting, such as local fire brigades and the Brazilian Army, have learned since the inception of a public/private initiative that it is essential for the success of the operations to work hand in hand with private companies to protect their communities from wildfire risk.
Brazilian companies Pachu and Imagem also recently formed a partnership to serve their areas of operation under a fixed price on demand contract with the government. “Our company assigns an aircraft, a pilot and a support team for each of the regions we serve,” stated Jorge Humberto Morato de Toledo from Imagem.
In addition, the company coordinates openly with other teams in Brazil. Using the Whatsapp app, the company coordinates with firefighters using a dedicated group chat where information is exchanged to allow better planning of firefighting operations.
Coordination is key
Private companies providing aerial firefighting realized the need for coordination is not just essential between companies and public entities. Coordinating firefighting efforts needs to involve everyone that plays a role in fighting fires. As new players enter the arena, like state government agencies in Brazil, different forms of dialogue and cooperation between them must be established.
In 2013, fires that hit Taim Ecological Station in the state of Rio Grande do Sul helped solidify those information-sharing efforts after realizing performance could be improved.
“The requirement that only the aircraft hired by ICMBio (including the need for the biggest aircraft) disrupted the operation, which could have been more efficient with the use of local airplanes at the beginning of the fire threat.” according to Alan Poulsen from Taim Aeragrícola.
Due to the vastness of Brazil, sometimes state agencies are not enough or are too slow-moving to establish a robust aerial firefighting operation. In one such case, Brazilian agricultural operation Aerotex, led by Rui Alberto Textor, formed a “private air brigade” of sorts to serve farmers in the southwest of Goiás.
This philanthropic effort was paid for by farmers to protect their crops from wildfire. Proceeds were donated to the Cancer Hospital, a shelter for the elderly, schools, and other charities chosen by the company and by the farmers as beneficiaries.
Opportunity to shine
2019 has focused a great deal of media attention on the fires in the Amazon, yet little attention has been paid thus far to work carried out in the region by local ag pilots working as aerial firefighting pilots; except for media coverage provided via SINDAG and AgAir Update, an agricultural aviation specific publication, on their websites.
“What changes in the Amazon is that the terrain is flat. Elsewhere, for example, in Minas state, the terrain is more rugged. Where there are a lot of mountains, the risk to the pilot is higher. There in the Amazon, in the state of Rondônia, where we have been working in the cities of Porto Velho and Machadinho do Oeste, it is practically flat, so it offers a safer operation, but the visibility is the most critical factor,” said pilot Gustavo Borges.
Borges works as part of a partnership between Americasul and Serrana who work under contract for ICMBio. Initially, four aircraft were dispatched to Chapada dos Guimarães in the state of Mato Grosso where they fought fires that were brought under control within two days.
Shortly after, the crew was then dispatched to Rondônia in Porto Velho, where the crew worked in conjunction with a C-130 and multiple helicopters with aerial firefighting efforts in various locations. This includes teams at Machadinho do Oeste, where coordinated efforts continue to fight the raging fires with assistance from the Rondônia Fire Department, Government Air Operations Group and the Brazilian Army.
As public awareness of SEAT aircraft in aerial firefighting application continues to grow, so too does the work of Brazil’s agricultural aviation community in adapting to the industry, training and better coordinating their efforts to combat wildfire in the region effectively.
This story featured in the fall issue of AerialFire magazine, you can read it in the magazine by clicking the cover image below.