The past few years have seen an increase in demand for aerial assets globally. Agencies around the world are looking for more resources to deploy water from the sky as fire seasons are ravaging once pristine landscapes. But how do resources and tactics change in different continents?
Brittany Wise of Erickson told AirMed&Rescue: “From an operator’s perspective, aerial firefighting is standard practice depending on the platform and chosen application method. Operators must adapt their strategy based on localized regulatory and safety requirements (i.e. duty time, flight hour limits); however, agencies worldwide differ in their needs, preferences, and use of aerial assets. Individual agencies have different approaches to executing initial and extended aerial attacks on fires based on local regulations, challenges, and tactical, operational strategies. These individualized approaches vary by country and are specific to each region to ensure maximum effectiveness of the aerial resources sourced. Countries and their supporting fire agencies have a difficult task balancing risk and costs while protecting their constituents' lives and property.”
Babcock plays an important role in providing aerial firefighting support to governmental customers in Spain. Babcock’s role in firefighting missions is twofold: relay real-time tactical information back to the Advanced Command Post, and douse the flames with retardant from the air. The company said: “Our modifications and upgrades provide the firefighting aircraft with the capability to monitor fire behavior and its evolution, relaying this information back to the strategic co-ordination team on the ground. Using cameras and monitoring equipment attached to our aircraft, we can take real-time images and infrared maps of the active perimeter, giving the team on the ground a bird’s eye view of the situation to inform their extinguishing strategy.”
Babcock supports a fleet of 57 bespoke firefighting aircraft, supporting around 8,200 flying hours a year across 46 operational bases. In 2020, Babcock crews were part of a wider team that fought 17 significant fires in Spain in 2020, which burned over 60,000 hectares.
Titan Aerial Firefighting also operates in Spain with a fleet of AT-802 aircraft equipped with the Fire Retardant Dispersal System (FRDS), which the company says ‘is the only computerized, constant-flow firegate with approval for part replacement’. The latest iteration is the third generation of the FRDS, with a lighter structure, a 25-per-cent improvement in flow rate compared to the previous generation. It also has a more accessible system for operation, foam injection control and a fully electric operation, replacing previously hydraulic functions. Titan said: “This last point is one of the most outstanding, since the FRDS Gen III uses 30-per-cent fewer components, which also facilitates maintenance tasks, but also maintaining the same installation procedure as the second generation. The operators highlight its many qualities: the precision of the gate, the high constant flow of water and the reduction in weight, obtained by using materials and techniques related to aerospace engineering.”
Babcock operates over 100 firefighting aircraft, including both helicopters and planes (light, medium and heavies) alongside managing the Italian government’s 19 amphibious firefighting aircraft. With this fleet portfolio, Babcock provides a full range of firefighting-related missions, including water-dropping, ground firefighter transportation, mission co-ordination and real-time image gathering to feed to command and control centers.
The Vigili del Fuoco (Italian Fire Service) is Italy’s institutional agency for fire and rescue service. It is part of the Ministry of Interior's Dipartimento dei Vigili del Fuoco, del Soccorso Pubblico e della Difesa Civile (Department of Firefighters, Public Rescue and Civil(ian) Protection). Twelve helicopter units are located at Alghero, Arezzo, Bari, Bologna, Catania, Genoa, Pescara, Salerno, Turin, Varese, Venice and at the Aviation Center of Rome Ciampino.
The helicopters in use include AW139s – these are gradually replacing the AB412 helicopters. The Italian National Fire Corps AW139 helicopters feature a wide range of mission equipment, including an external rescue hoist, cargo hook with bambi bucket provision, weather radar, multi-band and satellite communication systems, high-definition forward looking infra-red / low light TV system, Leonardo’s high-definition mission console, with digital recorder, high definition down link, an Optical proximity LiDAR system, night vision goggle capability, new-generation Trakka searchlight, emergency floatation system and external life rafts, external loudspeaker, medical rack and bubble windows. The aircraft also feature an advanced four-axis autopilot perfectly suited for search and rescue operations.
Other aircraft that have been used by the Italian Fire Service include the Agusta-Bell AB 412, used for transportation, rescue, fire extinguishing; the Agusta-Bell AB 206, used for reconnaissance services (monitoring and control); and AgustaWestland AW109s, which are gradually replacing the older AB 206. Two twin-engine turboprop airplanes, Piaggio P180 Avanti II, are located at Rome Ciampino, and support the aerial firefighting effort.
Erickson is currently supporting S-64 fire programs in Italy, as well as other locations such as Chile and Australia. Operations cannot happen without the support of crews and mechanics, and there are 159 Erickson employees scattered around the world at the moment, flying and maintaining the aircraft so they are mission ready at all times.
Israel’s Aerial Firefighting Unit provides assistance to firefighters on the ground with the aim of identifying hotspots and rapidly gaining control over fires before they become too large. It has only been in operation for around a decade, after the Mount Carmel fire in 2010 decimated the Mediterranean forest in northern Israel, claiming 44 lives and forcing the evacuation of more than 17,000 people.
The Aerial Firefighting Unit Aerial operates 14 Air Tractors, single-engine planes, which can hold 3,000 liters of water, 20 per cent of which can be replaced with fire retardant chemicals. The planes are capable of creating a 100-meter-long protective line against fires, and can land and be refilled within 10 minutes. The planes can take off from one of two airfields – Megiddo in the North, and Kedma in the South. Once notified, the aircraft can be in the air within 15 minutes and reach the scene of the fire within seven to 15 minutes, depending on the distance needed to travel.
In November 2016 , the command of the Aerial firefighting unit passed in to the hands of the Israeli Police.
It is hoped that the current restriction on nighttime aerial firefighting in Israel will soon be lifted thanks to the introduction of Elbit Systems’ Hydrop development. The Israeli Fire Fighting Squadron was part of testing in January 2020 that saw two Air Tractors extinguish a burning field from 500 ft using the liquid pellet system.
Most commonly seen in the air above Greece during the summer months are Canadair-Bombarider CL-215 Scooper and CL-415 Superscooper aircraft. The aging PZL M-18 Dromaders are also still used by the 359 Public Services Air Support Squadron. Since their delivery in 1983, the Dromaders have seen many Greek-made improvements, such as modifications to the wing fuel tanks, increasing the capacity by more than 70 per cent, resulting in a longer flight time – from 2.5 to 4.5 hours. Additional improvements have focused on the aircraft’s overall agility, with the installation of new flaps that have an extended angle capacity.
Erickson has been operating in Greece for 22 years. In 2020, the company provided nine aircraft to the Hellenic Fire Brigade, which made 2,692 drops during 292 hours of missions. Greece was the scene of the Sea Snorkel’s operational debut – an addition to the S-64 Air Crane that allows the helicopters to draw from saltwater sources in record time. Erickson said: “The Sea Snorkel was a game changer in terms of being able to utilize the abundance of salt water along the coastline, reducing the amount of time pilots would take flying around the island trying to find fresh water sources.”
The Sea Snorkel uses a solid tube that extends into the water and a hyrdrofoil that remains submerged while the aircraft flies forward, forcing water through the tube and into the tank (2,560 US gallons, approximately 9,691 liters), filled in just 23 seconds while flying at a forward airspeed of 30 to 40 knots. Flying forward also eliminates the corrosion problems caused by salt spray kicked up by the aircraft’s rotors during hover refills over saltwater. Erickson also operates its S-64 fire program in Greece.
The Direction générale de la sécurité civile et de la gestion des crises (General directorate for civil defence and crisis management) is a civil defence agency of the French Government. Sécurité Civile aircraft operate for the Rescue operation and civil-military cooperation branch under the Groupement des Moyens Aériens Sécurité Civile (Aerial Group). Aircraft carry the title SECURITE CIVILE on the fuselage sides, together with the international civil defence symbol. The aircraft are divided into the Groupement des Helicopteres de la Securite Civile (Helicopter Group) and the Groupement des Avions Bombardiers d'Eau (Water Bomber Group).
According to the French Government, the water bomber fleet includes 12 Canadair CL415s, 10 Grumman S-2 Trackers, four Dash-8 Q400s, and three Beechcraft King Air 200s. The fourth Q400 was delivered in early 2020 and is the second of six multi-role aircraft that the Securite Civile is acquiring from Conair following conversion.
The Securite Civil also operates a fleet of around 40 EC145 helicopters that operate from 22 bases in mainland France and the overseas territories of Corsica. Among the fleet’s other duties of search and rescue and emergency medical response, the crews can also respond to aerial firefighting duties when needed.
Portugal is another country in which Babcock delivers mission-critical services, including aerial firefighting. There were 11 large fires over the summer of 2020 in the country, in which Babcock played a critical role in extinguishing.
June 2017 was one of the country’s worse summers on records in terms of fires, when a series of 156 wildfires erupted, and within hours, had claimed the lives of 64 civilians and caused serious injuries to 204 others, including more than a dozen firefighters. Included in the aerial fleet were at least four helicopters, six Air Tractor AT-802 Fire Bosses and two Canadairs. France, Italy and Spain all sent supporting aircraft and crew. In total, over 2,000 firefighters, supported by two battalions of Portugal Army soldiers and a significant number of law enforcement and civil protection personnel, fought the blazes actively supported from the air by a mixed fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft.
The Air Tractor AT-802 Fire Boss amphibious fire-fighting planes were operated by the local company Agro-Montia.