There were more accidents and safety incidents involving aerial firefighting aircraft in the financial year covering the last bushfire season than any in the previous 20, Australian Aviation can reveal.
The findings form part of an ATSB submission into the so-called Bushfire Royal Commission, created in the wake of the “Black Summer” bushfire crisis.
However, the report warns that the rise is likely due to there being a four-fold increase in firefighting activity compared to other summers, rather than a higher rate of occurrence.
ATSB director of transport safety, Dr Stuart Godley, said, “Aviation activity relating to aerial firefighting has increased over recent bushfire seasons. Further, there were two fatal aerial firefighting accidents between August 2018 and March 2020, whereas in the previous 17 years there were only three fatal accidents.”
The ATSB defines an ‘occurrence’ as an accident, incident or serious incident. An accident takes place when someone dies, or aircraft or property is damaged or destroyed; an incident is an occurrence ‘associated with the operation of an aircraft that affects or could affect the safety of operation’; and finally a serious incident is an incident that could become an accident.
Over the full 20-year period the ATSB studied, all deaths and 40 per cent of other incidents occurred in NSW.
Around three-quarters of aerial firefighting occurrences involved Australian VH registered aircraft, with foreign-registered aircraft accounting for the bulk of the remaining occurrences.
Probably reflective of increased activity, the proportion of occurrences involving foreign-registered aircraft increased significantly over the study period.
Between July 2019 and March 2020, foreign-registered aircraft were involved in two-thirds of more severe occurrences, and between 2014 and 2018, the rate of reported occurrences involving VH registered aircraft was consistent between aeroplanes and helicopters.
VH registered piston-powered helicopters had around double the rate of more severe occurrences than turboshaft helicopters.
Half of all reported aerial firefighting occurrences and four-fifths of more severe aerial firefighting occurrences were operational in nature, typically terrain crashes, with around one-quarter of the more severe occurrences associated with aircraft control.
Further, around one-quarter of more severe occurrences involved a technical issue, most commonly engine failure or malfunction.
Since 2018 the ATSB has started six different investigations involving aerial firefighting aircraft, including one into the Lockheed C 130 large air tanker crash near Cooma, NSW in January 2020, which killed three flight crew.
This number represents about one-third of all investigations involving aircraft conducting aerial work commenced by the ATSB since 2018.
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