Victoria’s “game-changing” night-time aerial firebombing trials a success

Night-time water bombing activity. (Emergency Management Victoria)
Night-time water bombing activity. (Emergency Management Victoria)

Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) says there has been good progress on its night-time aerial firebombing trial.

In an Australian first, the state government body has been leading a study of night time firefighting, which kicked off in late 2017 with some reconnaissance flights and aerial mapping.

The ability to fight fires from the air at night would give aircraft more hours in the day to respond to fires and therefore improve Victoria’s firefighting capability.

Specifically, it was hoped fighting fires when the weather is cooler after dark or before sunrise would allow the emergency services to get on top of fires quicker, particularly at remote locations where access by road may be difficult.


VIDEO: Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley explains the night time firefighting trial.

The trial, based out of Ballarat, is being conducted in partnership with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP), as well as operators Kestrel Aviation and Coulson Aviation.

Its aim is to test the ability to hover-fill helicopters at night and test the efficiency of night vision technology, including infrared systems and night vision goggles.

EMV said in February the results of the trial would be used to guide the future use of night-time aerial firebombing operations in Victoria as well as other states and territories.

While it would not result in an immediate capability, EMV said “it is possible that operators will have the capability for the 2018/19 summer season”.

Following those reconnaissance flights and aerial mapping exercises, in late February a Sikorsky S-61 successfully hover-filled from a dam, and then in a subsequent exercise both hover-filled and then dumped water on some strategically lit fires.

Hover Fill from Open water Source – Miners Rest Quarry Ballarat – S61 helicopter. (Emergency Management Victoria)
The S-61 hover fills from an open water source. (Emergency Management Victoria)

The EMV described these exercises as a “significant milestone”, given it represented the first time in Australia that a fire bombing helicopter had hover-filled at night and then dropped water onto a fire.

“A variety of flights have been undertaken involving hover fill water pickup and then dropping water onto predetermined targets in a range of topographic and vegetation settings,” EMV said in an update on March 1.

“Activities have been tracked using aircraft position logging data, as well as infra-red photography captured from the S-76 supervisory aircraft. Targets have been successfully identified and water dropped onto them.

“The water drops onto fire demonstrated that the fire line was well targeted and after each run, the fire had been extinguished to allow ground crews to mop up.”

EMV said the initial observations from the trial indicated the system of work being tested “delivered effective targeting”.

Further, the project of hover-filling using night vision goggles was “feasible and repeatable”.

Successful in every aspect

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the exercise was “successful in every aspect”.

“This is an example of how night vision technology can help us better protect Victorian communities by extending the hours we can fight fires and if approved for operations, will be a game changer in the way we can fight fires,” Lapsley said.

“Victoria can be proud of what we have achieved during the trial so far. This has been an exciting week and there has been a lot of work done in the background to ensure we can operate safely and effectively at night.”

EMV said in its latest update on its website on March 13 the trial had “demonstrated how helicopters can work at night to hover-fill and ground-fill, before doing several water drops in the forest as well as on a series of controlled burns in grassland”.

Lapsley said the next step was “to establish operational procedures which connect the ground crews to work with aircraft at night”.

“Establishing a safe system of work around night aerial firebombing is important and we are continuing to work through what that means and ensure we get the processes right,” Lapsley said.

CASA was evaluating and assessing the trial and offering advice on aviation safety issues.

“While night vision aircraft operations have been permitted for many years, under the safety regulations, using this technology in firefighting is a new challenge,” a CASA spokesman said in February, according to the EMV website.

“A lot of work has been done by CASA’s experts to ensure the appropriate safety standards are met while giving firefighting aircraft the ability to work at night.”

Next steps

EMV said if approvals were forthcoming, Coulson Aviation would be “approved to undertake night hover fill and fire-bombing using NVIS technology as part of the air operators certificate”.

“The approvals being contemplated represent a first of type decision for CASA and will shape future approvals for other operators as well as informing overseas air regulator decision where companies are seeking recognition of approvals made by the Australian air safety regulator,” EMV said.

Meanwhile, EMV said it was working with Kestrel Aviation “to progress a further series of trial activities to demonstrate hover filling and firebombing using alternative aircraft”.

“This is part of the continuing work EMV is undertaking with operators, CASA and the fire agencies,” EMV said.

Coulson Group chief executive Wayne Coulson said approval to operate at night would make a significant difference to fire fighting operations.

“This is the first time on the planet that a helicopter has gone into the wild land at night and dipped into a dip site and loaded it up and brought the water to a fire and put the fire out,” Coulson told the CHEK News Canada website.

“We now have night vision goggles, we also have Nightsuns bolted to the gear to add additional light for safety on the aircraft when we’re working at night.”

Kestrel Aviation, based at Mangalore Airport about 50nm north-east of Melbourne Tullamarine, said EMV had engaged its Bell 412 to conduct managed live fire suppression assessments.

The company said it was the first time EMV had engaged the Bell 412 in such activities and a first for Kestrel Aviation to continue its night fire trial flights onto live fire.

Night-time water bombing activity in a Helitack 346. (Kestrel)
Night-time water bombing activity in Bell 412 Helitack 346. (Kestrel)
A Helitack 346 at Mangalore in Victoria on 29 January 2018. (Kestrel)
Helitack 346 at Mangalore in Victoria on January 29. (Kestrel)

“At this point in the program all of our combined expectations are being achieved through a collaborative and detailed risk management plan,” Kestrel Aviation managing director Ray Cronin said.

“The emphasis throughout these trials has been to make safety our priority whilst progressively developing capability.

“It should not be underestimated what this means to the aerial firefighting sector in Australia. EMV and the combined fire agencies who have shown leadership with this capability should be congratulated, as should CASA for dealing with uncharted territory in terms of regulation.

“Night firebombing operations are already conducted offshore, and Australians can have confidence that specialist companies such as Kestrel are doing everything to stay abreast of international capabilities in fire suppression.”

Helitack 346 night bombing on 11 February 2018. (Kestrel)
Helitack 346 night bombing on February 11. (Kestrel)

Comments

  1. Bill says

    It’s all good and well for test fires in a controlled, relatively benign environment, but what about during intense bushfires that create a lot of smoke and other obscuerants in the atmosphere that reduce the effectiveness of NVGs? It can be too late by the time you realise you have lost visual references that you are IIMC. It’s ama6that CASA would even consider night aerial fire bombing when you look at how restrictive they are in other areas of the industry.

  2. Paul Brisbane says

    Never understood why the defence force were never tooled up to do this across Australia as a mixed unit of civil/reserves and full time pilots and engineers in a hybrid wing.
    Not really to difficult to set up and wouldn’t need a government 2 year study as we hire them ever year so surely some one knows what works