Controlling wildfires is a concern for many countries around the world. Operators and manufacturers of aerial firefighting equipment recently came together in Sacramento California for a conference discussing the latest industry developments. Rob Edgcumbe attended for GAR with Hayman Tam providing additional photographic coverage.
The Aerial Firefighting International conference takes place at various locations around the globe in order to provide coverage of the major markets for aerial firefighting assets and operations. This year the conference returned to Sacramento in California. A wide range of attendees showed up to discuss the latest developments in aircraft, technologies and operations.
Manufacturers were well represented, as were the many state agencies that are responsible for firefighting operations in their respective countries. The fire seasons may vary based on the geographic locations but the issues are very similar. Indeed, many of the firefighting assets move around the world to deal with the needs of different countries at different times.
A trade exhibit section was included with the conference where various businesses were keen to show off their latest developments. In addition, a demonstration was set up on the ramp at McClellan Airport which included a number of airframes on static display as well as some flying demonstrations. The ramp had a wide variety of sizes of aircraft on show. Helicopters included a Bell 205, a Bell 412EPi, the Airbus Helicopters H215 demonstrator that was wrapping up its US tour and a converted UH-60 Black Hawk from Timberline Helicopters. The US Army also brought in a Black Hawk of their own.
The fixed wing aircraft certainly covered the size range. Calfire have a large operation at McClellan and they had Trackers and a Bronco on display. Meanwhile, they seemed to have a busy flying programme underway with many other Broncos undergoing test. Air Tractor had the AT802 in both wheeled and amphibious configurations and these two aircraft provided a number of demonstrations of water drops. A PC-12 from Colorado also flew above the event, demonstrating fire management technologies.
Bigger tanker aircraft were well represented. A Conair BAE Systems RJ85 was parked up next to a Bombardier CL-415 – an aircraft that received much discussion during the conference due to the recent suspension of production. Many operators felt that a restart of the line would be needed before long if the customers could coordinate their requirements. A MAFFS P-3 was also on show while another took off and provided a brief flyby. Dominating the ramp, though, was Global Supertanker’s Boeing 747-400. They have taken the system that was fitted to a 747-100 and installed it in the more modern airframe. Originally a JAL passenger jet, it was converted by Boeing to a freighter configuration. Now it has undergone the firefighting modification and is in the final stages of supplemental type certification.
The use of large and very large tanker aircraft was a topic of discussion for the conference attendees. A trial programme has been underway in Australia to evaluate the usefulness of such large aircraft. During the course of the trial, the aircraft were actually used in a wider geographical area than planned due to their flexibility. The results of the trial have yet to be formulated but the experience does appear that they have added a new dimension to the service. Data analysis tools were also explored to determine the effectiveness of different aerial assets and their utilisation.
The mix of types used was an area for concern for some operators. The S-2 Tracker has been a heavily used asset around the world and is a big part of French firefighting operations. However, they are coming up on some hard airworthiness limits and will need to be replaced from 2018-2022. A request for proposals on this is due out shortly. Whether an in production option exists for this remains to be seen.
The current production tankers presented included a Bombardier Q400 programme from Conair along with their BAE Systems RJ85 conversion. Meanwhile, Neptune Aviation has a conversion for the earlier build BAe146 airliners. Neptune’s programme is based on the strong support that BAE Systems is providing in order to maximise the utility of their out of production airframe. They praised the support that they received. It does appear that this airframe, irrespective of generation, is becoming very popular for this role.
In the helicopter area, the availability of ex-military airframes is driving a lot of market activity. The low utilisation in this type of operation makes it very hard to justify the cost of a new airframe. Conversion of used assets is much more cost effective. Timberline was highlighting the weight that they could take out of the Black Hawk when they remove the military equipment and wiring. This improves the useful load that they can carry. Helimax have similar experience with their ex-US Army CH-47 Chinooks.
A projection of fire risks, areas at risk and the amount of time at which they will be at risk as a result of climate change suggests that the risk of fire activity is getting higher in many areas. Therefore, the demand for firefighting assets and the most effective utilisation of those assets is likely to increase. The use of UAVs was explored by some of the presenters to determine what value they might bring to managing fire activities while not impinging on the use of manned aerial assets.
Attendance at the conference was very good. With the number of different countries represented, the chance to share knowledge between agencies was extensive and provided a good opportunity for all attendees. They will all meet again in 2017 when the conference will be held in Nimes in France, the heart of the French firefighting operation.