Coulson Aviation Australia currently operates a permanent fleet of six aircraft, owned by the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service (RFS), including three Bell 412 helicopters, two Cessna C560 small fixed-wing aircraft, and one Boeing 737 Fireliner large air tanker.
The company maintains a full-time Australia-based staff of 43 people to support these operations, over half of which (26) are flight crew, including pilots and aircrew officers.
Coulson Aviation also provides large aircraft to a number of Australian states, including NSW, Victoria and Western Australia (WA) on a temporary basis – including Fireliners, Lockheed C-130s, CH-47 Chinooks, and Sikorsky S-61s. During the bushfire season, Coulson’s staff can swell to around 75 team members, including over 40 flight crew, to deliver these short-term contracts.
The fire determines the aircraft
“Fixed-wing and rotor-based firefighting aircraft play different roles in fire and have different capabilities,” said Nathan Soster, Coulson Aviation Australia’s Director of Flight Operations and Chief Pilot for Rotary Aircraft. He added: “Every fire has its own set of circumstances – for example the geography it’s in – that determines what aircraft will work best.”
Fixed-wing aircraft, such as Coulson’s Boeing 737 Fireliners and C-130H Hercules, ‘can travel great distances in a short timeframe, and put a lot of product – typically retardant – down on the fireground’.
He added that Coulson Aviation also uses the Cessna Citations, both for the transport of passengers and resources, as well as for intelligence gathering and incident management. “These aircraft can be fitted with scanning devices that feed back important information to assist incident management decision-making,” he explained.
By contrast, rotary-wing aircraft ‘can’t travel great distances as quickly, so are generally pre-positioned in areas of high risk’.
“The helitankers operated by Coulson are great on initial attack, and have the advantage of drawing water from local water sources – as well as being filled at bases – which helps with a quicker turnaround time for each load delivered,” said Soster. “The Bell 412s Coulson operates on behalf of the NSW RFS are multi-role platforms with HD thermal cameras that can feed live images straight back to the incident management team. The aircraft can also winch crews into remote fires or undertake rescues.”
Extensive training and an ‘open culture’
Soster explained that due to the way that Coulson Aviation operates, many of Coulson team members are trained to be able to operate ‘across the world’. “Both Australia-based and international team members undertake the same simulation training,” he explained, adding that: “All participate in our annual spring training event, where everyone comes together for a week of diverse ground school and flying activities.”
Everyone comes together for a week of diverse ground school and flying activities
More specifically, Soster added that: “Coulson Aviation Australia pilots and ground crews conduct a wide variety of training, in compliance with … regulatory requirements [as outlined by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)], and dependent on the task or aircraft they fly.” This encompasses everything from Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998 (CASR) Part 61 proficiency checks, to additional training using ‘full-motion simulators where available’.
“The company also holds annual ground training events covering another range of training items, such as human factors, safety management systems, emergency response, drug and alcohol management, dangerous goods awareness to name a few,” he said.
“All aerial firefighting activity comes with some added risk due to the nature of the work required to help keep our communities safe from natural hazards, however the safety of our staff is always top of mind,” said Britt Coulson, CEO of Coulson Aviation Australia. “We mitigate risks as best we can, by running an effective safety managements system (SMS) with a robust Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) and Ground Risk Assessment Tool (GRAT).”
He added that the company operated under an ‘open culture’ in which all staff, ‘including pilots and crew’, can report issues to management to implement improvements. “We regularly engage with industry and fire agencies to learn what others can add to our practices, and we also believe strongly on a focus of giving our crews the best aircraft the aerial firefighting community can have,” he continued.
A wide range of equipment
Soster explained that both the Bell 412 helicopters and RFS-owned C560 fixed-wing aircraft operated by Coulson Aviation Australia are fitted with ‘either a FLIR 380HD camera or Linescan equipment that allows … real-time fire mapping and intelligence-gathering capabilities’.
“This provides fire management staff with the best and most recent intelligence, to not only best manage the fire, but also keep firefighting personnel informed and safe in their mission,” he added.
Aircraft are fitted with either a FLIR 380HD camera or Linescan equipment that allows real-time fire mapping and intelligence-gathering capabilities
Additionally, all Coulson heavy-lift helicopters and large airtankers are fitted with the company’s Retardant Aerial Delivery System (RADS). “This system features a touch screen controller and cockpit interface, and provides real-time flow rate adjustment technology, resulting in superior drop zone coverage and accuracy,” said Soster.
Working with Australian state and federal governments
Soster explained that when operating in Australia, Coulson Aviation’s aircraft typically ‘work under the arrangements and operating procedures of the state for which we are engaged’. He added that each state will typically have its own aviation unit for firefighting, as well as an Air Desk that dispatches aircraft to incidents, while coordinating the response across multiple operators.
“These procedures allow us to work closely with other firefighting aircraft,” said Soster. “In situations where we all come together on a single fire, the fire agencies have procedures and resources in place such as an Air Attack Supervisor, who sets the firefighting objectives and manages the aerial incident response.”
Britt Coulson added that it is important that the standards of flying employed by Coulson Aviation are ‘consistent, as our aircraft have fought fires in multiple states within a period of a few days, and all have minor differences’ in terms of the way operations are conducted. He explained that the company is currently working with the various Australian states and the federally-run National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), to ‘standardize airspace management, and utilize common terminology’ with the aim of reducing risks further.
Britt Coulson praised the NSW RFS, which he said has taken a lead in developing Australia’s sovereign aerial firefighting capabilities, with their own pilot training programs for both large airtankers and lead planes already underway, with approval from CASA. “These approved syllabuses are designed to transfer the knowledge from experienced US-based team members to the Australian-based team,” he explained, adding that the training programs are ‘the first of their kind in Australia’.
Looking to the future
Britt Coulson said that in response to the growing demand for aerial firefighting services, Coulson Aviation is looking to produce more large airtankers – including two C-130Hs due to enter service with the company in 2023, as well as a Fireliner for the Argentinean government.
Coulson Aviation is looking to produce more large airtankers
He added that the company was looking to begin converting Boeing 737-700s into Fireliners from 2024, ‘which will have a higher capacity tanking system’, and will ‘build on the success of Coulson Aviation’s 737-300 program’.
Coulson added that the company is also in the ‘final planning stages’ of building a new 60,000ft² (5,574m²) completion center, ‘which will further increase production’.