Summer 2021 has seen global wildfires become fiercer, faster, and more costly than ever. Defining images of planes and helicopters being used to extinguish blazes in Turkey and Greece have demonstrated the vital importance of aerial firefighting assets in the current climate. There are numerous options available to governments augmenting their aerial firefighting capabilities, and a like breadth of costs. In particular, large air tankers are becoming more in demand as their effectiveness is realized. One such tanker is the Dash 8-400.
The interior of the multirole Dash 8-400MRE can be converted from airtanker to cargo, passenger, medevac or a combination thereof. In fact, it is said to be the first aircraft in the world to be certified by Transport Canada to carry passengers, cargo and fire retardant. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certification is in the final stages and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification will no doubt follow.
The Dash 8-400MRE has been used for over 15 years by France’s Securite Civile, during which time it has flown more than 8,000 hours with fleet availability for dispatch rate of 98.5 per cent; and has been used in missions by governments in France, Haiti, Russia, and Israel.
A variant, the Dash 8-400AT, is strictly an aerial firefighter that finished its first contract in Australia in December 2020, and saw three aircraft operating in North America in 2021. Early this year, Conair announced an 11-aircraft purchase of the Dash 8-400 airliner for conversion to airtankers over the next four to five years, and France’s Securite Civile has three remaining Dash 8-400MREs on order for delivery. The modified aircraft is being considered in global markets including Asia, South America and Europe.
There are many characteristics that lend the Dash 8-400 airtanker, nicknamed the ‘Q’, to its firefighting role, including a high climb rate and reliable slow speed flight, which enable accurate water, foam, and retardant drops. Its certification for use on 5,000’ airfields, meanwhile, means that it can be deployed to more remote areas where wildfires could take hold unexpectedly far away from larger airports.
Conversion to a firefighting aircraft is not a straightforward task. Conair is producing the Dash 8-400AT, dedicated to aerial firefighting, as well as the Dash 8-400MRE, which features a multi-role emergency response ability that enable its reconfiguration from air tanker to cargo, passenger, combi transport, or medevac missions. Conair subcontracted the installation of the quick-change interior to Flying Colours Corporation, and installs the retardant tank at its own base in Abbotsford, Canada.
Safety is key in any firefighting aircraft and a key priority to Conair. A flight envelope awareness system that offers information including G-loading, slow speed, and angle of attack all aid in reducing pilot workload, while an enhanced flight vision system can be deployed as standard or in head-up display modes. A Cobham Aviator 700 connectivity system completes the cockpit equipment in the MRE variant.
The need for a mixed fleet of aerial firefighting assets is now more obvious than ever. Helicopters and fixed-wing planes working together, to extinguish fires through a mix of retardant and water, are key to successful missions. Jeff Berry, Director Business Development at Conair Aerial Firefighting, explained: “Catastrophic fires can generate more than 10 billion British thermal units (BTU) per hour. To give you an idea of a water drop’s impact on that type of fire – one Fire Boss AT802 load can only absorb seven million BTU, assuming 100 per cent of the water reaches the ground. But we know that in these extreme conditions, it doesn’t all reach the ground. Sometimes up to 50 per cent of the drop evaporates before reaching the fire. An extraordinarily large fleet of water bombing tankers would be needed to overcome these new fires.”
Tactics need to be changed to fight larger and more intense fires, and working with multiple aerial firefighting assets in co-ordination with ground personnel means a more effective wildfire fighting strategy. “An airtanker lines the perimeter of the fire with retardant,” explained Berry. “The retardant coats the fuel long after its water has evaporated, slowing combustion and advancement of flames – hopefully long enough that the firefighters on the ground can work towards containment. It’s the firefighters on the ground that put out wildfires, not the aircraft. Water and retardant work together, not in competition. Water drops cool the flames while retardant drops slow the flames. It’s a balanced approach.”
The Dash 8-400AT, or its multi-role variant 8-400MRE, can line the fire perimeter with retardant then respond to the next fire, leaving water bombers onsite to cool the flames for crews on the ground. And if there isn’t another fire to respond to, it can drop water, assisting water bombers.
Investment by governments
In July 2021, Conair, via Field Air, Conair’s partner in Australia, was awarded a four-year contract starting for the 2021/2022 bushfire season for the Dash 8-400AT airtanker. The aircraft will operate in Queensland from September to December 2021, the state’s peak fire danger period, and then will relocate to Victoria for the first quarter of 2022. This long-term commitment by both states contributes towards a sovereign fleet, with the new aerial firefighter staying in the country year-round. “The aircraft will remain in Australia for its annual heavy maintenance period between seasons,” a spokesperson for Field Air told AirMed&Rescue.
This will be the Dash 8-400AT’s second year of operation in Australia. Last year, the aircraft’s ability to respond effectively to the region’s bushfires was praised after it successfully assisted firefighters with the complex Fraser Island blaze, where crews dropped roughly 200,000 litres of biodegradable fire suppressant to help quell the flames so partner firefighter ground crews could work towards containment.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk commented: “The large air tanker (LAT) is an important tool when it comes to fighting bushfires in Queensland. Before Covid, bushfires wrought havoc throughout many regions across our state, costing businesses and threatening homes. The LAT was used a number of times with great effect last bushfire season. We want to ensure our fires are able to call on the LAT as soon as it’s required – this deal locks in the future of this aerial asset in Queensland.”
Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Mark Ryan added: “The Queensland Government understands the important role aircraft play in helping Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) combat bushfires, which is why it made the decision in 2019 to deliver a LAT for the State. The co-sharing arrangement with Victoria is an evolution of this commitment and will ensure the LAT is at Queensland’s disposal for the at least next four bushfire seasons. This will deliver certainty and efficiencies because QFES will no longer need to contract a LAT on a season-by-season arrangement.” Ryan also noted the versatility of the aircraft, and its ability to work effectively with a wider fleet of planes and helicopters.
Future of flight
Across the world, climate change is having a dramatic effect on the frequency and severity of wildfires, and governments are making the decision to invest in their own firefighting aircraft as the demand for resources increases. Where before countries may have been able to share the few firefighting aircraft available, now, with fires spreading across countries at a frightening rate, the ability to share such assets on an international basis is becoming increasingly difficult as nations have their own fires to fight.
France is one of the countries that has had its own fleet for a while and is investing in more. Conair has been modifying the Dash 8-400 into multi-role airtankers since 2005 for France, having delivered the fifth Dash 8-400 multi-role airtanker recently, with three more on order. The Dash 8-400 works with Canadair water scoopers to fight forest fires, which are breaking out ever more frequently in southern France as the climate changes.
Conair also sent a Q to Alaska for the summer of 2021 to boost the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities. As the company plans to retire its 580 fleet, it is keen for its clients to have the experience of the new Dash 8-400 airtanker. Division of Forestry Aviation Program Manager Steve Elwell was effusive in his praise for the plane: “If I had to design a perfect airtanker for the State of Alaska, given our remote bases, infrastructure supply lines and distances, this would be the aircraft.”
Whether or not the future of flight – hybrid or all-electric engines – will happen any time soon is up for debate, but de Havilland is investing in research and development to this end, to keep the Dash-8 flying. July 2021 saw the announcement from the company that it is working with Pratt & Whitney to integrate hybrid-electric technology into a De Havilland Canada Dash 8-100 flight demonstrator. The flight demonstrator will include an advanced electric motor and controller from Collins Aerospace. The hybrid-electric propulsion technology and flight demonstrator program is part of a Ca$163M investment, supported by the governments of Canada and Quebec. Maria Della Posta, President, Pratt & Whitney Canada, commented: “Hybrid-electric technology holds considerable potential to drive the next step-change in efficiency for aircraft engines, while contributing to the development of the industry’s workforce, economic growth and innovation.”
As August came to an end, QLD Premier Palaszczuk welcomed the arrival of the LAT: “Right around the world, we’re seeing our climate changing. The threat of bushfires is increasing. This deal will ensure that our firefighters have access to this cutting-edge technology when they need it – helping to keep Queenslanders safe from the bushfire threat.”