I’m an aircraft operator. How do I get involved?
Currently all aircraft services provided to NAFC are sourced through competitive public tender processes. Successful tenderers enter into a contact with NAFC. Keep an eye on the NAFC website for announcements of any call for tenders. Tenders are also publicly advertised in ‘The Australian’ newspaper. To be successful in a tender process your company will have to demonstrate suitable capability and experience, and the services you provide will need to meet very exacting specifications. You will need to operate under an Australian Air Operators Certificate. Operators that are not based in Australia may like to consider forming an alliance or partnership with an Australian-based aviation company.
Firefighting aircraft services are occasionally provided on a Call-When-Needed or CWN basis. Provided specified operator and aircraft standards are met, this system allows suitable operators to place their details on a CWN Register. At times of high activity, fire agencies may draw extra aircraft, if needed, from CWN registers. NAFC does not currently operate a CWN Register, although it is planned in the future. A number of State and Territory agencies do operate CWN registers, and it would be necessary for you to contact them directly for details.
For more information on Air Operators Certificates and other legislative requirements, the relevant authority is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority of Australia. Their contact details may be found at www.casa.gov.au.
How do I get a job in aerial firefighting?
NAFC does not employ pilots, and this is also the case with most Australian firefighting agencies. Pilots are employed by the commercial aircraft operators who supply aircraft services to NAFC or to State and Territory agencies under contract. You need to get in touch with an aircraft operator. Note that NAFC and State and Territory aerial firefighting contracts and CWN arrangements all carry minimum experience and recent experience requirements for pilots involved in aerial firefighting.
What is dropped from aircraft to fight bushfires?
It could be water, Class A foam, a gel or retardant. The Air Attack Supervisor for a bushfire incident will assess the situation and decide what will be the most effective approach for that particular situation. Water is only used when there can be a very quick turnaround – this is normally the province of helicopters that can re-fill themselves while hovering over a nearby water source. Water is applied directly to the fire.
Retardant is a slurry with a similar consistency to tomato soup. Retardant dropped from aircraft contains mainly water and high-grade ammonium phosphate or ammonium sulphate, materials which are commonly used as agricultural or garden fertilisers. Most retardants include a thickening substance such as guar gum, which is often used in food, and a dye so that aerial crews can see where the retardant has been dropped. The retardant is laid ahead of the fire and coats the fuel (leaves, twigs and bark) on the ground. As the fire burns into the coated fuel a chemical reaction occurs, and this retards fire behaviour. The main advantage of retardant is that it does not rely on the water to suppress the fire and remains effective for some time after it is dropped.
Class A foam, or bushfire fighting foam, is somewhat akin to a detergent. It is added to the load of water in a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft. As the load leaves the aircraft the shearing action of the airflow causes bubbles to be formed – in a nutshell this improves the smothering effect of the water, allowing it to be more effective and to remain on the ground for a longer period. Class A Foam is applied directly to the fire.
Only approved bushfire foam, gel and retardant products may be dropped from aircraft in Australia. Australian agencies apply the approval scheme of the Wildland Fire Chemical System of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Can you use sea-water?
Most firefighting aircraft are capable of dropping either salt or fresh water. However, for helicopters that are equipped with bellytanks that use hover-fill pumps, or with buckets on ‘short’ lines, we do tend to prefer to use fresh water if possible. This is to avoid the chance of ingesting salt into the turbine engines, and into some particular parts of the airframe that are susceptible to corrosion – all of which requires substantial extra maintenance at the end of the day. However, in an emergency, any suitable water supply will be used, including sea water, and the extra maintenance will be undertaken. For helicopters equipped with sea-snorkels (allowing the helicopter to maintain forward speed when filling) and buckets on long lines (greater than 100 feet) the use of sea water does not create these maintenance issues. All Type 1 (large) helicopters contracted for firefighting in Australia have this equipment as standard and routinely use salt water. There may also be situations where the Air Attack Supervisor is conscious of the possible environmental effect of a large amount of salt water (for example on sensitive vegetation or in domestic water supply areas) and may require the pilot to use fresh water if available. This would only be the case in very limited circumstances. Again, in an emergency any suitable water supply will be used.
Firebombing at Night
Aerial firefighting at night has the potential to enhance firefighting capability and to better protect communities. Fighting fires at night offers the opportunity to take advantage of more favourable conditions including lower temperatures and higher humidity, and to continue the work done during the day. NAFC has for some years contracted helicopters capable of working at night using Night Vision Goggles (NVG) for mapping and incendiary dropping. NVG and infrared technology has advanced significantly in recent years, opening the possibility of safe and effective firebombing at night.
During early 2018, Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) conducted a trial of night firebombing in the Ballarat area, in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. NAFC contracted NVG equipped helicopters for the trial and provided financial and other support. The 2018 trial demonstrated that night firebombing could be a practical and effective tool. The trial of helicopter firebombing using NVGs continued in Victoria through the following seasons, operationalising the learnings of the earlier trial. Until further experienced is gained, night firebombing will only occur on fires where the aircraft crew has operated during the day.
In 2020-21 NAFC will contract two helicopters capable of firebombing at night, both based in Victoria. Several other Type 2 and Type 3 helicopters based in Victoria and New South Wales will be capable of NVG mapping, reconnaissance, supervision and aerial ignition.