Aerial firefighting in the Asia-Pacific region
Investment and innovation in aerial firefighting aircraft continues around the world, and in the Asia Pacific region, opportunities abound as governments consider whether or not to operate their own fleets or employ third parties to assist in the challenge of fighting forest fires in an increasingly warm climate. Mandy Langfield offers a snapshot of some of the latest investments in aerial firefighting fleets in the region
The Helicopter Detachment of China’s Forest Fire Bureau was established in 2009 in Daqing, a city in the northeast Heilongjiang Province. In 2019, a reorganization of assets was performed, which resulted in the aviation team being split into two parts – the first in Daqing, and the other in Kunming, in the southwest of the country. At the time, Zhang Yinghai, Captain of the Kunming Aviation Rescue Detachment, commented: “The new establishment marks a strategic move for China to ramp up its aviation rescue. It helps co-ordinate firefighting and rescue operations both by air and on the ground.”
Between them, the two branches operate 18 Changhe Z-8 helicopters (derived from the SA321 Super Frelon from Aerospatiale) and 101 ground support vehicles, which are operated by, in total, over 500 crewmembers. Seven of the large, heavy-lift helicopters are based in Kunming. Each is capable of delivering around 30 firefighting personnel, and 3.4 tons of water in its underbelly tank, on a flight, and in optimal conditions, is capable of flying up to five hours at a time.
China’s aerial firefighting efforts are not solely focused on the power that helicopters can provide. In 2020, the AVIC AG600 took its first flight. The amphibious plane, specially developed in China to meet the needs of the emergency and rescue services, is expected to be certified for operation in 2021. Public specifications of the aircraft show that it can collect 12 tons of water in 20 seconds, and can extinguish an area of 4,000 square meters with one dump of water.
On 4 March this year, Chinese state media reported that the AG600 successfully completed a flight to test its water-dropping function, and there are plans to conduct more such tests throughout the year.
Eurocopter, before it was bought by Airbus, provided firefighting helicopters to Japan’s first unit, a SA3160 Alouette III, which was procured by the Tokyo Fire Department in 1967. The Tokyo Fire Department currently has seven helicopters, comprising a fleet including AS365 Dauphin, AS332 and H225 Super Pumas.
In 2017, the Shizuoka and Fukushima Prefecture Fire Fighting and Disaster Relief Agencies signed a deal with Leonardo for one AW139 each. The new helicopters will feature standard firefighting equipment including a Bambi Bucket, rescue hoist and searchlight. A simultaneous contract with the Tokyo Fire Department for the AW189 marked the debut of Leonardo’s new generation helicopter in Japan. The Tokyo Fire Department AW189 features 19 seats, a dual hoist, and extended range auxiliary fuel tank for long-range missions to remote islands.
The AW139 for the Shizuoka Prefecture Fire Fighting & Disaster Relief Agency carries out rescue operations around Mount Fuji, equipped with a belly tank and a gyro-stabilized camera system with microwave downlink. The AW139 for Fukushima Prefecture, meanwhile, was also equipped with snow skis, and the Yamaguchi Prefecture Fire Fighting & Disaster Relief agency AW169 features a full glass cockpit, with four axis autopilot, and the same microwave donwlink system.
Meanwhile, Japanese firm ShinMaywa has produced an amphibious aircraft called the US-2 on behalf of the Japan Maritime Defence Force. Introduced in 2007, although its primary role is for search and rescue, it is capable of taking on 15 tons of water in order to perform a firefighting role as well. In 2010, the company unveiled the first specifications for a civilian firefighting version of the plane that incorporates the 15-ton water / retardant / foam tank in place of one of the fuel tanks, a pair of water scoops, automatic foam mixing equipment, and a computer-managed drop system.
India tends to rely on its military helicopters for assistance in aerial firefighting duties, deploying Air Force helicopters equipped with Bambi Buckets to aid the National Disaster Response Force. In December 2020, an Indian Air Force Mi-17-V5 helicopter was deployed on a firefighting mission in the Dzukou Valley, scooping water from nearby lakes to drop on a large forest fire. C-130J Hercules aircraft were used to transport personnel to the scene.
Malaysia and Indonesia
The Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia operates an elite airborne team (Multi-Skill Team, or MUST) within its Special Forces unit. Formed in the late 1990s, MUST combined all of the unit’s specially trained firefighters into one unit, and it is responsible for medevac, search and rescue operations and jungle firefighting missions.
However, the Malaysian government also contracts with local and international private civil helicopter operators to help during wildfire season. In the past, aircraft drafted in to assist with fire control and prevention include Mi-8s from Kazakhstan, and two Mi-172s. Vietnamese operator VNH South worked with Komala Indonesia to bring two Mi-172s to Malaysia in 2017, and VNH South has indicated its interest in furthering its aerial firefighting activities in the region.
In 2015, one of Coulson’s Next Generation Large Airtankers, Tanker 132 (THOR) was utilized in Indonesia, which was the first time a large airtanker conducted operations in country. “Having one of our C-130s fight fire in Borneo and Sumatra afforded us a great opportunity to get to meet the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB),” said Britt Coulson, Co-President of Coulson Group. “The ability to provide both large fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft ensures the agency is supported in the safest, most efficient and effective way possible.”
In 2020, Coulson Aviation was granted its first official contracted foray into the Asian market by the BNPB. Foster Coulson, Co-President Coulson Group, commented: “We are really excited to be expanding into the Asia pacific markets with our fleet. This market has been a long-time focus for our company, and we are committed to growing our presence in Indonesia and the surrounding countries in the years to come.” Under the terms of the contract, one of Coulson’s S-61 helicopters was sent to Indonesia from Australia to support aerial firefighting efforts.
In 2019, Indonesia became the launch customer for Viking Air’s new CL-515, a new-build variant of the company’s CL line of water bombers and special mission aircraft. Indonesia ordered six of the aircraft, with deliveries set to begin in 2024. With Covid-19 affecting the world, though, the launch date has been pushed back, with no definitive date from Viking as to when deliveries might begin. Viking Executive Vice-President of Sales and Marketing Robert Mauracher commented: “Unfortunately, due to the effect of Covid-19 on Viking’s operations and the pandemic’s impact on governments, their citizens and budgets globally, we have elected to slide the formal launch of the CL-515 until we see a stabilization in the global economic situation and a return to normal daily activities.”
New Zealand’s aerial firefighting capabilities come from multiple sources spread across both the North and South Islands. Among the operators are Hammer Springs Helicopters, operated by Amuri Helicopters LTD, which operates a AS350 FXII Squirrel equipped with both a 1,000-liter collapsible bucket and a 1,000-liter cloudburst bucket. Both buckets are equipped with Class A foam injection systems that have adjustable flow rates depending on the fire ground requirements. Both buckets can be carried inside the helicopter for a rapid response time.
Precision Helicopters operates three AS350 B2 helicopters. The aircraft have high-visibility blades, FM and VHF radios with push-to-talk capabilities from the front passenger seat and real-time tracking / flight following software. The helicopter’s fire buckets are collapsible, allowing them to fit inside the aircraft for a faster response time, and have foam injection units installed.
Christchurch Helicopters bought two fire suppression tanks at a cost of more than $200,000 each, in 2020. At the time, Chief Executive Terry Murdoch praised the tanks for being safer than buckets, with a reduced chance of an accidental water drop, and the ability to carry firefighters in the cabin as space is freed up.
New Zealand is also at the forefront of aerial firefighting in a different way, with two companies teaming up with a British firm to design and build two new version of single engine air tankers (SEATs) – the Firecatcher F-25 and F-45. Powered by a Pratt&Whitney PT6A-140A engine, the F-25 is actually a modified version of the Super-Pac XL utility aircraft from Pacific Aerospace. Reportedly, the companies are working towards certification in the UK, Australia and the US this year, with first flight in 2023 and deliveries in 2024.
The scope of Australia’s firefighting fleet ebbs and flows in line with the country’s difficult and unpredictable climate. To save repeating information, please refer to page 12, where you will find an update on the latest developments in the country’s push to form a sovereign firefighting fleet, in line with recommendations from the Royal Commission enquiry into the Black Summer event.