Australia is starting to emerge from its worst bushfire season in living memory, with severe weather switching to storms and floods in some states. Khalem Chapman and Paul Eden scrutinise the aviation offensive to protect life and land.
Unprecedented in its severity, Australia’s 2019/2020 bushfire season has led to the death of 33 people and incinerated millions of acres of land containing homes and wildlife habitats.
As AIR International went to press, fire officials in the country’s most populated state of New South Wales (NSW) were reporting that the fires had been “contained” following major storms that brought flooding to the region, although they persist in other states.
Australians are well used to fighting widescale and destructive blazes and the nation’s annual preparedness includes a large fleet of firefighting aircraft assembled and managed by the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), an organisation established in 2003 on a co-operative basis between states and territories. The NAFC fleet provides a baseline capability through contracts with a number of external providers and totalled 167 aircraft for the current season, among them 54 Air Tractor AT-802 single-turboprops in various configurations.
Josephine Stirling, NAFC’s business manager, explained: “We lease these aircraft over the summer period under arrangements of different durations. The fleet is supplemented greatly in number under call-when-needed aircraft arrangements, made by the states and territories themselves. Although we don’t have visibility over these, by way of illustration, the highest number of aircraft engaged on a single day in New South Wales – which saw the greatest activity – was 160 on December 22, 2019. There are 38 aircraft normally available to NSW, so the additional 122 were all call-when-needed.”
The current fire season is considered to have begun last June and the authorities soon realised it was unusual. “The challenge for NAFC has been to meet the emergency ad-hoc requirements of the States,” Stirling said. “The NAFC fleet was in place at the beginning of the season, but its nature meant we added 21 services in short order, including large fixed-wing air tankers from North America.”
Three EC-130Q Hercules, one subsequently replaced by a 737-300 Fireliner, were brought in from Coulson Aviation’s US fleet, while Oregon-based Erickson Aero Tanker supplied a pair of MD-87s. Together, these aircraft provided large-capacity support to two RJ85s and three DC-10s from Australia’s Field Air and AGAIR, respectively.
Three Crew Lost
Such large machines bring a particular capability to firefighting efforts, with AGAIR noting that while its AT-802s deliver up to 3,000 litres of retardant with computer-controlled precision, the DC-10 releases 45,000 litres in a single pass. The company is also notable for supplying the NAFC fleet with four Aero Commander 690 and two 695 twins, plus a Cessna 337G and Citation 525 in support roles. Known as Birddogs, the Aero Commanders in particular are used to move Air Attack Supervisors rapidly into position. Remaining on station while AGAIR’s DC-10s go into action, the twin-turboprops are equipped with specialist suites of cameras and radios that enable the safe direction and oversight of large-aircraft operations.
But combatting any forest or bush fire, however well-managed the operation, is inherently highly risky and Coulson Aviation EC-130Q N134CG crashed during a firebombing mission to the Snowy Monaro area of southern NSW on January 23. Its three-man crew of Captain Ian H McBeth, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson and Flight Engineer Rick A DeMorgan Jr was lost.
Accidents also claimed at least two helicopters, the first a McDermott Aviation Bell 214, which landed heavily and rolled onto its side at Pechey, to the west of Brisbane, during a firefighting operation on November 13, 2019. Then, on January 10, a helicopter crashed into Ben Boyd Reservoir in the Ben Boyd National Park at Edrom, Bega Valley Shire on NSW’s south coast, as the pilot attempted to take on water before returning to action. In both cases, the pilots escaped with injuries. The latter machine was attached to the NSW Rural Fire Service, which contracts additional firefighting aircraft according to need. These are typical of the machines bolstering NAFC resources and Josephine Stirling is quick to praise the local organisations: “From our perspective, the states and territories did really well, scaling up their response to meet the challenge of this fire season, including managing the fatigue of our firefighters, with the assistance of the National Resource Sharing Centre, which called upon our friends in North America to come over and join the effort.”
With the annual bushfire season quickly turning into a crisis of national and even global proportions – ash has been detected as far away as South America – the Australian Defence Force (ADF) launched Operation Bushfire Assist in June 2019.
Domestically, the ADF deployed air assets to assist three Joint Task Forces (JTF) operating around the most affected regions – those being JTF 646 in Victoria, JTF 1110 in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, and JTF 1111 operating in South Australia and Tasmania.
The aircraft involved come from all three branches of the Australian military. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) mobilised its C-17A Globemaster III, B350 King Air, C-27J Spartan, C-130J-30 Super Hercules, KC-30A and P-8A Poseidon fleets. The Australian Army Aviation Corps (AAvn) provided the bulk of the helicopter support, employing its CH-47F Chinooks, MRH90 Taipan (NH90) and S-70A-9 Black Hawks, while the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) deployed H135T2+ helicopters, MRH90s (which are pooled with the AAvn’s Taipan fleet) and MH-60R Seahawks.
From January 2020, three AAvn MRH90 helicopters operating out of RAAF Base East Sale in support of operations in Victoria, although by mid-February they were due back at their Townsville home base imminently. Usually an RAAF training base at its peak in January, the East Sale site hosted an AAvn MRH90, two S-70As, along with four C-27Js and four Chinooks.
While firefighting is the responsibility of civilian airborne assets, ADF aircraft have been heavily involved moving military and civilian personnel, equipment, retardant and relief supplies, as well as performing reconnaissance and surveillance missions, and supporting ADF personnel deployed in the field.
Fire-mapping surveillance of the fire was provided by the Poseidon and the platform’s extensive sensor suite but, from February, its requirement was reduced as the fire threat eased across the nation. C-130J-30s and C-27Js have supplied the majority of the RAAF’s domestic air transport mission, with the service’s C-17 and KC-30A fleets leading an international cargo mission. In January, the C-17 and KC-30A fleets delivered 117 tonnes of fire retardant in powder form from the US. Up to February 18, Operation Bushfire Assist delivered 5,813,500 litres of water, 73,300 litres of fuel and 1,344,075kg of fodder (hay/straw) to affected communities by air and ground transports.
Flt Lt Andrew Willersdorf, an RAAF C-27J pilot, said: “It’s eye-opening to see the amount of devastation these bushfires are causing and humbling to witness the selflessness of volunteers and community spirit… Being a pilot in the air force is always diverse and rewarding, but giving back to our own communities makes me very proud to be part of the ADF.” He praised the Spartan for being “suitable for sustained operations like this because it is light on the ground and won’t damage airfields during constant take-off and landing rotations”. By January, C-27J operations as part of JTF 646 had totalled 119 flights moving 139,001lbs (63,049kg) of cargo, 1014 passengers, 30 household pets and 14 koalas.
Many nations provided additional support, in the form of firefighters, aid and even military aircraft. Among the latter, the Royal New Zealand Air Force deployed three NH90 helicopters and the Republic of Singapore Air Force supplied two CH-47Ds, while the Japan Air Self-Defense Force contributed a pair of C-130H Hercules. Other aircraft delivering personnel, retardant and equipment from overseas included Canadian CC-117 and Indonesian C-130H transports.
Looking back to when the crisis was at its peak, NAFC’s Josephine Stirling said: “I understand that approximately 120 countries offered support of differing kinds to Australia. It was heartening, given what we were facing.”
After more than four months of nightmarish conditions, the number of military personnel involved in Operation Bushfire Assist is reducing daily. As of February 18, domestic forces from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) stood at 4,600 – including 1,100 reservists – compared to January's figures of 6,400 and 2,500 respectively. At the same time, the total number of international military staff supporting the fight against the raging inferno sweeping across the country had also dropped to 196 from 350.
With the fire beginning to ease in late January, due to intense and much-needed rainfall Australia was faced with another issue – flooding. To assist in areas under threat, rotary wing assets from the ADF have been on hand to provide SAR and cargo transport operations.
International Military Support
|Status (as of mid-February)
|Indonesian National Armed Forces (INAF)
|Engineers arrived in early February to support operations in the Blue Mountains, NSW. INAF assistance was ongoing.
|Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF)
|2 x C-130H
|The JASDF aircraft and personnel departed Australia on February 9.
|New Zealand Defence Forces (NZDF)
1 x C-130H
3 x NH90
|The NZDF engineering support and aircraft have returned to New Zealand.
|Papua New Guinean Defence Force (PNGDF)
|The PNGDF supported JTF 646. All personnel returned to Papua New Guinea on February 21.
|Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF)
|Engineers from the RFMF were still working with ADF personnel in East Gippsland, Victoria.
|Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF)
|2 x CH-47SD
|The RSAF has completed its final tasking and were located in Oakey, Queensland. The RSAF assisted the ADF in delivering fodder, food and water, along with the movement of firefighters to inaccessible areas.
|Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)
|1 x CC-177A
|At least one RCAF CC-177A Globemaster III delivered personnel, retardant and equipment from overseas to assist the operation.
|United States Air Force (USAF)
|Remaining personnel departed for Guam on February 16. When the USAF assisted the ADF, it operated from RAAF Base East Sale, Victoria.
In at the DEAP End
Australia’s Defence and Science Technology Group deployed a research aircraft – a modified Beech 1900C known as the Defence Experimentation Airborne Platform (DEAP) – tasked with looking for hotspots across Kangaroo Island, South Australia and providing image data for RAAF analysts.
The DEAP employs the WESCAM MX-20HD electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) full-motion video kit and a wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) system, also known as Angel Fire. The bushfire crisis was the first time the aircraft and its kit had been employed to support firefighting efforts. During its inclusion in the operation, defence scientists have investigated the possibility of enhancing the platform further by adding a short-wave infrared sensor so it can conduct surveillance through smoke in the event of future bushfires as well as other emergency response scenarios. The DEAP system informs the RAAF on future upgrade options for its P-8A Poseidon fleet.
Nightmare Over Mallacoota
On New Year’s Eve, bushfires tore through national parks in eastern Victoria, encircling and cutting off the coastal town of Mallacoota and its residents in what was one of the worst incidents during the crisis. For the evacuation and firefighting effort, the RAAF deployed three C-27J Spartans and 34 personnel from No 35 Squadron to assist the army’s Chinooks, MRH-90s and Black Hawks, as well as the RAN’s HMAS Choules and contracted SAR helicopters. RAAF King Air 350s also brought in essential supplies and emergency personnel to the town, as well as being used to extract local people.
Heavy smoke and poor visibility provided horrific conditions for aircraft crews trying to get into Mallacoota and it wasn’t until January 3 that the first C-27J was able to land. That day it evacuated 25 people. The next day, conditions thwarted attempts to reach the town. On January 5, conditions had improved enough for the ADF to evacuate 381 people, 243 of which were rescued by the C-27J across eight missions. By January 8, 472 people had been removed from Mallacoota, while both ADF and contracted SAR helicopters had delivered medical personnel and nearly 17.7 tons (18 tonnes) of supplies to the town.
Flt Lt Sean Joyce, an RAAF C-27J pilot with No 35 Squadron, said: “I don’t think any of the crew on board have encountered conditions like this before.” He added that on some days the visibility was down to 1640ft (500m) or less and getting into the town was impossible. “We were utilising all of the tools we have available to get in – and on some days, none of those will get us there. On other days, we can make it in and we’ll work a full crew duty just to get as much as we can in and out of Mallacoota,” he added.
In total, the ADF’s C-27J, CH-47F, MRH90, King Air 350 and S-70A-9 aircraft helped in evacuating 4,000 residents from Mallacoota.
Flight of the WASPs
At the beginning of the year, the ADF employed its AeroVironment Wasp III small unmanned aerial vehicle (SUAV) to monitor the fire’s progress in the early hours of the morning when helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were not patrolling the area.
Capt Shaun Montgomery, 20th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, said: “MRH-90s, MH-60Rs and civilian aircraft were flying in the area all day from 9am and most of the night, but there was up to a seven-hour gap overnight when the fire wasn’t being monitored. The first details of where the fire had spread overnight came from reports back from crews on the ground.”
He added: “We saw an opportunity to provide reconnaissance support and co-ordinated the airspace to enable operations during that early morning period.”
According to Bombardier Jarrod Logan of the same unit, the Wasp III can capture electro-optic/infrared imagery from the ground. “We’ve been able to provide some really good product to help the [Emergency Services Agency] detect where the fire front is and decide how to best delegate their resources,” he said.
As of February 18, the Wasp III was being employed by ADF personnel to monitor spot fires and to assist ACT Emergency Services in planning future operations.