Can you share some details about the company’s development over the years? How has it become what it is today?
Our company was founded by Vicente Huerta Sr. He had the idea of bringing an aircraft from the United States to Spain to crop-spray orange groves in a more efficient way, given their great size.
In 1973, a series of large fires broke out in Spain. At the time, the Instituto para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (Nature Conservation Institute) – better known as ICONA – was the organization charged with fire management nationwide. It proposed to use crop-spraying aircraft to extinguish fires, loading them with water instead of pesticides. This is how aerial firefighting was born, which is something we have pioneered worldwide.
Since then, our company has grown and expanded. During this time, it has changed its location on several occasions, as well as the types of aircraft it operates. We went from a single aircraft to operating in more than 10 countries around the world. Today, the Air Tractor AT-802 makes up Titan’s entire fleet.
What is the scale of the challenge European aerial firefighting operators are facing, and are they up to the task?
I’m very glad you’ve asked me this question. Aerial firefighting is a huge challenge. Because of climate change, fires are now much more intense and destructive. The abandonment of rural areas as well as less control over the countryside has made fires much harder to extinguish. For these reasons, better resources are needed as well as improved planning and training of the professionals involved.
In Europe I believe we are at the forefront of fire extinguishing techniques, but unfortunately getting hold of good professionals for this sector takes a long time. It’s a very long period in training and there needs to be a willingness on behalf of operators to make that investment. Pilots have to train for years and because of this there’s a shortage of good pilots. And our forests need protecting even more than ever.
In Europe I believe we are at the forefront of fire extinguishing techniques, but getting hold of good professionals for this sector unfortunately takes a long time and a willingness on behalf of operators to make that investment. Pilots have to train for years and because of this there’s a shortage of good pilots. And our forests need protecting even more than ever.
Are European governments investing sufficiently in either sovereign aerial firefighting fleets or contracted providers to cope with the increasing frequency and severity of wildfire seasons?
I'm also very glad you asked me this question, too [laughs]! Governments are starting to realize the importance of having their own firefighting fleets. Wildfires are becoming increasingly common around the world. In fact, 2021 was a very intense year for fires in Europe.
Based on our experience, the most efficient strategy would be a combination of both – government-owned and contracted. The latter are a very welcome reinforcement during the summer season when more capacity is required. In this way, governments can rely less on maintaining large fleets of aircraft that lie idle in winter. Besides, private operators’ fleets tend to feature state-of-the-art technology.
How does Spain differ from other European nations in their approach to aerial firefighting? How does the climate and geography affect operations?
Spain was a world pioneer in aerial firefighting techniques. Nowadays, responsibility has been devolved to local communities and it’s a very different picture. Unfortunately, we see with concern that some have settled for providing a lower quality and less efficient service, which has been driven by price. As we have seen, this cost-cutting can result in fires now lasting for days when they could have been extinguished in a few hours had the right resources been deployed.
Climate change affects how wildfires are caused and develop. No one doubts it now. This means we must adapt by improving both material and human resources.
What training do your pilots undertake before they can fly solo? What simulation techniques and technology have you invested in, or plan to invest in?
It’s a long process, but always with the objective that our pilots work with safety. First, they must have a pilot’s license and know how to fly. From there, they go on to receive simulator training sessions. In conjunction with a well-known software company Entrol, we have developed a unique firefighting simulator for the AT-802, both for land (AT-802 Air Tractor) and AT-802 Fire Boss amphibious versions. These simulator training sessions are combined with real flights in a dual-control aircraft with an instructor. With this, new pilots learn all firefighting techniques from an experienced professional.
After this process the pilot can fly solo, but following a ‘lead plane’, which marks the entry and exit trajectories of the fire, as well as the height at which to dump its retardant, foam or water load so that it is efficient but safe.
After no less than two years, the pilot can begin to operate without this lead plane, thus becoming a fully-qualified firefighting pilot.
Firefighting begins with prevention, so what does Titan do before the summer to try and minimize the risks of wildfires occurring, or limiting their impact if they do occur?
We fully agree that the fight against fire starts with prevention. Sadly, most of the prevention tasks are carried out by public administrations, so the possible intervention of a private company in this field is complicated.
However, our extinguishing techniques are based on early firefighting. In collaboration with the Generalitat de Catalunya, many years ago we developed the AVA system (Attack and Vigilance Aircraft). This method sends patrol planes equipped to attack fires before they start to grow and risk turning into full-blown conflagrations. The fire is then extinguished as soon as it’s detected.
Currently, our research and revelopment (R&D) department is collaborating with a company to develop a technology to help accelerate soil and forest regeneration after a forest fire.
Communication between aerial firefighting aircraft, and ground and aerial crews, is essential to safe and effective aerial operations. What communication system do you rely on for inter-crew communication and aircraft tracking services?
Our pilots are in constant contact with the other professionals on the ground via TETRA digital radio. These communications are secure and allow a two-way dialogue between firefighters in the air and on the ground.
We have also recently implemented an image streaming system to further increase the information that ground crews can receive from aircraft in flight.
In terms expanding your services, where do you see Titan operating in years to come?
Our expansion strategy is the so-called ‘oil spill’. At the moment our main focus is on Europe, in the Mediterranean area, but we do not rule out operating anywhere in the world, although it would be as part of our long-term objectives.
What are your hopes for the future of aerial firefighting capabilities and investment in resources in Europe?
I believe that Europe is experiencing a historic moment thanks to European funds. This would allow countries to make a much-needed investment in firefighting resources in a short period of time. Our forests are now more threatened than ever by climate change, and this could be a decisive factor in their defense.