For the past three years, the Conair RJ85 has traveled from its home hangar at Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, to New South Wales, Australia, to support government agency partners and local firefighters in protecting communities and natural resources from wildfires during their summer season.
This season, the RJ85 and crew were strategically based in Dubbo, approximately 300 km (186 Miles) Northwest of Sydney. Conair partners with Australian aerial firefighting and aviation specialist Field Air Group, who provides a support staff of 50 to assist during the aircraft’s operational season..
The aircraft, affectionately named “Hunter” by Australians, is an AVRO RJ85 that has been custom modified by Conair with a proprietary retardant delivery system (RDS) to become an air tanker purpose-engineered for aerial firefighting. The aircraft’s tank, identified on Hunter by its sizable belly, can deliver 11,355 liters (3000 gallons) of water, retardant, or gel on a fire. The four-engine jet aircraft has excellent low-speed and high-speed performance capabilities, making it ideal for almost any terrain, whether in an Initial Attack capacity or supporting sustained suppression missions.
Hunter Works North and South Hemispheres
From April to August, “Hunter” works firefighting missions on forest fires in western Canada. When contracts complete each year, the aircraft undergoes a comprehensive maintenance program. In late September, the RJ85 aerial firefighter heads south, taking off to battle bushfires in the southern hemisphere until February. After that, it’s back to Abbotsford’s home base for some needed time off, and another full servicing before it heads back into operation in Canada.
The Brains behind the Brawn
The aircraft’s specialized air tanker pilots have thousands of hours of commercial flight and aerial firefighting experience. They know this multi-million dollar machine intimately, having flown critical and challenging missions at its controls for years. During each maintenance break, its pilots undergo intensive training from Conair’s Training + Tactics Centre, including ground, flight, and line instruction from experts with decades of aerial firefighting experience. Safety is paramount in this unique industry. In addition to aircraft systems instruction and RJ85 simulator training in fire suppression tactics, pilots learn about the mechanics of fighting fires, from strategy to fire behavior, fire weather, and human factors such as fatigue.
Documenting Hunter’s flight from Canada to Australia in 2020 is Ray Horton, Captain of tanker 166 “Hunter.” Ray has been with Conair for nearly 38 years. Partnering in the cockpit with Ray is Anthony Ussher as First Officer and on the ground is Ed Da Silva and Steve Daechsel, expert Maintenance Engineers. The RJ85 team knows the aircraft inside and out. They are tight, supporting each other during missions and while on the ground, forming a small family bubble while away from home for months at a time positioned remotely at bases.
Preparations for Hunter’s ferry flight to Australia annually is an exercise in coordination and communication between all Conair departments to ensure every facet of the trip and subsequent 4-month firefighting role locked down for overseas operations. This includes the Planning group’s input to forecast current and future maintenance schedules and from the Purchasing and Materials departments to ensure the spare parts inventory that might be needed. Parts required are either shipped or carried on board the aircraft. With COVID-19 this year, the team has been proactively planning, anticipating potential supply delays and longer shipping times.
Months before departure to Australia, Conair’s maintenance team identifies qualified aerial firefighting maintenance engineers for the Australian deployment. These specialized individuals are experts in the RJ85 as an aircraft and in the specifications of the modified RJ85 as an air tanker.
As soon as Hunter returns from its Canadian commitments, tanker 166 is towed into the hangar. The crews conduct up to 6 weeks of heavy maintenance tasks, forecasted to ensure no significant maintenance is required during fire contract operations.
The Avionics Department removes all Canadian customer radios and installs an FM radio specific to Australian specifications and long-range communication HF radio for transiting the Pacific Ocean. Conair painters remove and replace all tail numbers and apply nose and cowling decals appropriate to Australian requirements. The final touches – the expert cleaners ensure the aircraft is clean and polished.
Fueling Up for the Journey
Flying from Canada to Australia is a stretch for the RJ85 at over 20 hours of flight time. To get the aircraft over the Pacific, a ferry fuel system is installed in its body, consisting of five 500 US gallon fuel bags in five dedicated leakproof containers. This ferry system, assembled in the aircraft’s cabin, requires special flight permits from each country Hunter flies through en route to Australia.
Rick MacNevin and his Conair team obtain all the documentation and ensure the weights of the installed components associated with the ferry trip, both temporary and permanent, are tracked and accounted for. Once everything is installed, Hunter is rolled out for extensive ground runs and fuel system tests, capped off by a post-maintenance and ferry fuel test flight to ensure all systems are in perfect working order.
COVID-19 added to the logistical challenges at least two-fold this year. Routing proved especially challenging due to ongoing changing restrictions from each country as the pandemic evolved. Together with our Australian partner, Field Air, Flight Operations managed the logistics of the crew schedules for the entire stay in Australia, working through ferry flight planning details and coordinating routes along with fuel and overnight technical stops.
Once routing was approved, overnight accommodations had to be sourced from limited options, and health assessments were performed, including COVID-19 testing. Conair’s Human Resources team also coordinated with Field Air to ensure all appropriate Australian documents were obtained and that the crew was fully covered for health and welfare for the length of their deployment.
When departure day from Canada came, the two pilots and two maintenance engineers boarded Hunter knowing it was fully fueled, well maintained, qualified, prepped, and ready for the journey ahead.
The Trip Across the Pacific
The extensive planning and proactive response from all Conair’s teams translated into a seamless trip south! The additional COVID-19 paperwork prepared to accompany Hunter was there to support if needed. Still, the timely pre-departure COVID-19 test proved to be an essential aspect of the trip, with each touch down requiring proof of a recent negative result from all those on board.
The skies were empty save for the odd cargo flight. The overnight stops en route between Canada and Australia proved interesting at best in the new COVID-19 world. After refueling in Oakland, Hunter made an overnight stop in Honolulu. The city was entirely closed except for the odd ABC store. Masks were mandatory with restrictions in place from being on the street unless exercising.
In Honiara, the crew was transferred to and from the hotel in a hospital van, complete with a flashing light escort, and was on full lockdown in rooms overnight. It is a different world out there traveling during a pandemic, but despite all the restrictions en route, the Conair crew was treated with the utmost respect for the entire journey.
On arrival in Australia, the Brisbane Approach Controller thanked the crew for “coming out today.” The airport itself was completely empty. No other travelers were seen in the terminal as the team was processed through airport COVID protocol and immigration teams. The police and health authorities that greeted the group and worked with them through the process were all keen to make the experience as painless as possible under the circumstances.
The Conair team was safely tucked away in their hotel on arrival in Australia for a two week quarantine period. The group was kept entertained by Field Air gifts, including groceries, books, and jars of vegemite to enjoy while watching hours of Netflix. On days 2 and 7, they were given COVID tests and confirmed ‘clean.’
The crew has settled into their routines at Dubbo base, regularly performing maintenance and systems checks in preparation for mission call outs. Just like firefighters at a fire station, health and wellness is always front of mind for the Conair group, from COVID protocol through pilot preparedness, doing everything they can to stay in top shape to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice, 24/7. In the future, as the landscape of aerial firefighting changes, Hunter may be able to stay Down Under year-round, enabling a local crew of pilots and dedicated mechanics to be fully trained over time and mindfully deployed to ensure safely executed missions.