Moving Aerial Firefighting into the Future with a Sustainable Fleet

ABBOTSFORD, CANADA (April 28, 2021) – Conair Group Inc. is proactively taking steps to reduce carbon pollution created by their operation when fulfilling aerial firefighting missions. Results from a recent study support that their multi-faceted sustainability approach, including investing in modern aircraft, simulators and advanced technologies, is placing them at the forefront of an industry dedicated to protecting the world from wildfires. 

Wildfires Affect Climate Change

The impact of wildfires, increasing in number, size and intensity, is more than the loss of life, resources, and property. It is also the disruption of essential services including power, water, and transportation plus the increase in air pollution. And forest fire outcomes extend to the less tangible, negatively influencing climate change by eliminating vegetation that would otherwise remove CO2 from the air and changing soil composition, potentially making it difficult for ecosystems to recover. Wildfires themselves emit billions of tons of CO2 plus soot, or black carbon, into the atmosphere each year, perpetuating the vicious circle that affects climate change, raising temperatures which melts snowpacks too quickly, causes drought, and dries out vegetation, which, in turn, fuels fires that further release more pollutants into the atmosphere, raising temperatures even higher. Aircraft used to fight these fires also pump CO2 into the atmosphere, but their mission offers more good than harm. Conair’s forward-thinking objective is to do the most good for the least harm.

A Responsible Airtanker

Conair does their part to battle blazes by supporting firefighters on the ground with aerial assets, dropping water or retardant from airtankers to cool or slow flames. And while their mission is to work with a diverse team of firefighter partners to contain wildfires, they recognized they could do more to reduce their own carbon footprint during missions. 

When it came time to look toward replacing their legacy fixed-wing fleet of airtankers with a new, advanced aircraft type, one criterion considered was an aircraft that produced less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while offering improved firefighting effectiveness. Conair selected De Havilland’s Dash 8-400 for airtanker conversion as it offered a significantly reduced environmental footprint while providing a large Type II Next Generation tank compared against Type I aircraft. The Dash 8-400 provided the benefits of a lighter but robust frame with composite propulsion, providing tactical agility and consistent drop speeds in steep, rugged and diverse terrain, as well as effective aerodynamics and efficient lift systems, with powerful engines, giving it the ability to respond faster than most jets when travelling less than 480 kms / 300 miles, an effective range when responding to fires. In addition, the aircraft’s ability to land at most 5000’ runways, compared to longer runway requirements for larger aircraft, means the airtanker is more versatile, capable of actioning out of a larger number of airport bases, often situated closer to wildfires, further reducing flight time and fuel consumption while providing fast initial attack services that contribute to controlling wildfire spread. (Reference Figure 1)

Quantifiable Results

To quantify the environmental performance of the airtanker variant of the Dash 8-400, the Q400AT, Conair commissioned JPOM Canada to examine the CO2 emissions of the aircraft against other fixed-wing land-based airtankers using a typical wildfire as an example. The scenario was based on a fire requiring 60,000 litres of retardant, situated 110 km from an airbase. Findings proved that the Q400 airtanker produced significantly less CO2 than its counterparts, and when calculated over an average fire season, showed up to a 429% improvement in emission output over very large airtankers and more than a two-fold improvement over aircraft of similar tank size. (Reference Figure 2)

The study also evaluated the quantity of retardant dropped compared to fuel burned in order to gauge the aircraft’s overall efficiency and value. The Q400AT performed significantly better for fuel efficiency than all other aircraft types, dropping 15.9 litres or US gallons of retardant on a wildfire for every litre or US gallon of fuel burned, more than double the retardant delivered for fuel burned on most Type I and VLAT airtankers. (Reference Figure 3)

The study and aircraft attributes demonstrate that the Q400AT offers wildfire management agencies the ability to maximize their overall response over a season while minimizing both fuel costs and emission output. 

Stepping towards a sustainable future, Conair has invested in 11 former Flybe aircraft which it will convert over the next few years into airtankers, replacing their legacy fleet of CV580 aircraft. The new, modern aerial firefighters offer decades of service into the future, with strong support by a responsive Original Equipment Manufacturer providing parts and equipment for years to come.

Sustainability through Simulation

With a focus on sustainability beyond their fleet, the company has also created a Training + Tactics Centre offering specialized aerial firefighting simulators for their Bird Dogs, RJ85, Fire Boss, Q400AT and Air Tractor fleets, taking aircraft out of the sky for essential pilot training, not only reducing CO2 emissions but also improving safety by allowing pilots the ability to perform critical procedures from within the safe confines of a simulator. Currently, the Centre offers an Avro RJ85 Level D Full Flight Simulator as well as an AT802 Level 5 Flight Training Device. Under installation is a six platform Mission Training System including the Q400AT that will allow Air Attack Officers and pilots to practice in concert with each other over simulated fires, virtually experiencing the intense and complex environment of a real-life mission.

Technology for Efficiency

Conair continually investigates new ways to incorporate technology into its operation that will both reduce its environmental footprint while improving its aerial firefighting response. To enhance its superior aerial firefighting performance, the Q400AT flight deck is equipped with a proprietary Flight Envelope Awareness System, which provides the pilots with enhanced safety awareness information, such as instantaneous G-Loading, slow speed awareness and angle of attack details, along with flap configuration over-speed awareness. These innovative systems use technology to capture data on the aircraft while performing complex aerial firefighting maneuvers, feeding that information through to the crew using effective communications tools, resulting in safer operations and more accurate drops, which yield less suppressant waste and less time in the sky producing emissions. 

In addition, Conair makes an ongoing effort to cut GHG emissions by electrifying its ground fleet, investing in more energy efficient support vehicles including tugs, golf carts, booms and scissor lifts. The company incorporates technologies to reduce even administrative elements like paper use, using apps such as Ramco to streamline mechanic operations while offering the ability to track Quality Assurance. Looking forward, the group is researching new advanced composite materials to make their aircraft lighter, enabling them to increase tank capacity, improving results while using aircraft that reduce impact on the environment.

A Collective Response Affects Change

Addressing climate change requires a global effort, with all stakeholders doing their part to curb emissions. Conair is making their own strides to move into the future with a more sustainable aerial firefighting operation, supporting government customers, firefighters, and communities by protecting the world from wildfires in the most environmentally responsible ways possible.

About Conair Group Inc.

Headquartered in Canada, Conair is a world leader in aerial firefighting operations, delivering a comprehensive range of purpose-engineered, multi-role aircraft and services globally.  With over 70 aircraft and 300 employees, Conair operates the largest, privately owned, fixed-wing fleet of firefighting aircraft in the world. Founded in Canada over 50 years ago, Conair’s operations extend across North America, Europe and Australia. Conair can provide aircraft for purchase, lease or under contract and offers specialized services including aeronautical engineering design, flight operations and aircraft maintenance related to aerial firefighting missions. Conair’s Training + Tactics Centre features state-of-the-art flight simulators for pilot training. Learn out more at www.conair.ca