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Aerial firefighting safety incidents hit 20-year high in 2019/20

written by Adam Thorn | May 25, 2020

ATSB Lockheed C-130 bushfire
This image was released by the ATSB as part of their investigation into the deaths of three American firefighters who died tackling a bushfire in southern NSW in January.

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.

Number of reported aerial firefighting occurrences per financial year

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.

Locations of reported aerial firefighting occurrences
Locations of reported aerial firefighting 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.

Comments (6)

  • Marum


    Aerial water bombing is incredibly dangerous. The aircraft are operating at low altitude and in often high winds, and always high thermals caused by the fires. The crash in NSW was inevitable.
    “The Airtanker has become a symbol in the public’s (and politician’s) minds. At a meeting two years ago, a former hotshot [bushfire] superintendent was asked, based on his long experience, what was the effectiveness of airtankers? As I remember, he said, generously, less than 30%. (Credit: Quadrant online)

    Also, the cost of water-bombing uses up funds that could be put into other more effective firefighting services.(Quadrant online) They cost up to $50.00 a second. No one is a greater enthusiast of aviation than me. But Air tankers “AT’ And “VLAT” s are only a political stunt. Aerial :” Spotter aircraft are incredibly useful to on ground firefighters.

    High altitude water drops are from VLATs are incredibly dangerous for firefighters on the ground. The turnround time makes them ineffective. (At least an hour) By then the fire has leap-frogged the area they water-bombed.

    The answer is effective land management. Which of course The Greens” deny all the time. How about the “Carbon Footprint from all these water-bombers? And the crews to maintain them? Don’t get me wrong. Aircraft have their uses, but they are not the silver bullet.


  • Jack Chomley


    One of the most hazardous environments to fly in, takes special kinds of pilots to do it.

  • Richard Keith Jones


    There have been several studies and reports on the effeciveness of aerial retardant bombing of bush fires over the years. A comprehensive one was published in the CSIRO Ecos magazine way back in Summer 86/87. See http://www.ecosmagazine.com/?act=view_file&file_id=EC50p18.pdf Retardant water bombing is shown to not be very cost effective except for very low intensity fires and only then if the water pick up point is close to the fire because as mentioned by Marum, the turnaround time is a key factor. It may be effective if applied to a fire very early in the life of the fire before it reaches a runaway wildfire. As you will see in the report that I referenced, once a fire becomes well established the heat intensity of such as the Ash Wednesday fires has been estimated to be up to 100 MegaWatts per metre of fire front and can easily jump a fire retardant strip by igniting new bush simply by its radiant heat or by carry forward on the wind a storm of airborn burning embers. Water bombing looks spectacular and has a marketing effect on the general public but appears not very useful in most circumstances of a wild fire with high temperatures, high winds, low soil and air humidty and unstable atmospheric conditions. As the article points out, other uses of aircraft can be effective in developing strategies and tactics for early discovery of fires before they get to a high intensity and fighting the fires by other means. Don’t get me wrong,I have been a pilot and aircraft design engineer for 70 years but there are “horses for courses” and like to see aircraft used effecively with minimised risk. Living in a designated high fire risk area I am very keen to see effective wildfire mitigation by ground fuel minimisation with cost effective prompt fire detection and early control.

  • Marum


    @RJ. Thanks mate. It is nice to have somebody else back up my findings and studies , into bush fire control.
    I thought that I would make the point, that uninformed people are not necessarily fools. They only become fools, when they act on dubious information, without checking with the experts on the facts. Just because some agitator has a Degree in Humanities, does not mean he knows more about fighting bushfires, than a firefighter with no degree who has been fighting bushfires for thirty years or more. BTW city firemen no nothing about fighting bushfires. Twice in those 35 years, I saved the appliance which the city firemen had abandoned, in the face of an oncoming fire.

    The other thing that bothers me, is the air traffic. We have a combination of large and small fixed wing, and rotary wing aircraft, operating in uncontrolled airspace. They are operating at low altitude, in high turbulence and strong winds, in an often low visibility environment, due to bushfire smoke.I predict a serious collision ,sooner, rather than later. I sincerely hope I am incorrect.

    I lived on a small acreage just out of Brissie for 35 years. The first year the bushfires came through with the westerlies. The fire was in the treetops. POTENTIALLY LETHAL. After that I obtained a “PERMIT TO BURN” of the local Fire Brigade. Thus; Every four years I had burnt the entire fence-line. Never ever had a bushfire problem again. All without using any water, except to soak the “Beaters” I had made. Unless you count the beer, my neighbours and I drank after the burn. (Damn near a gallon each)

    My friends inform me, that the “PERMITS” are almost impossible to obtain now. That is a prime example how minority groups are influencing Governments and Councils. Ask any farmer whose property abuts a National Park. The fuel load is allowed to build up until it finally erupts, and burns everything down.


  • Marum


    @RKJ Thank you for your comments, which by and large, agree with mine. If you are flying at 150+ feet over a large fire, you are flying in very hot air, and don’t have a lot of lift. Therefore your maneuvreability is severely compromised. You will be also flying in an updraft. Now, if you have a local updraft somewhere you have to have downdraft. So at 150 feet you transition from an updraft to a downdraft, some instant trim correction is necessary. Otherwise a very high speed landing may occur. Rotary wing aircraft perform even worse than fixed wing, in very hot air.
    Note table for air density

    Density and specific weight of air at 1 atmosphere pressure, at temperatures given as °C:

    Temperature Density Specific weight Thermal expansion coefficient
    [°C] [kg/m3] [lbm/ft3] [sl/ft3*10-3] [lbm/gal(US liq)] [N/m3] [lbf/ft3] [x10-3 K-1]
    -75 1.783 0.1113 3.460 0.01488 17.49 0.11131 5.14
    -50 1.582 0.0988 3.070 0.01320 15.52 0.09878 4.55
    -25 1.422 0.0888 2.759 0.01187 13.94 0.08877 4.08
    -15 1.367 0.0853 2.652 0.01141 13.40 0.08532 3.92
    -10 1.341 0.0837 2.601 0.01119 13.15 0.08370 3.84
    -5 1.316 0.0821 2.553 0.01098 12.90 0.08214 3.76
    0 1.292 0.0806 2.506 0.01078 12.67 0.08063 3.69
    5 1.268 0.0792 2.461 0.01059 12.44 0.07919 3.62
    10 1.246 0.0778 2.418 0.01040 12.22 0.07780 3.56
    15 1.225 0.0765 2.376 0.01022 12.01 0.07645 3.50
    20 1.204 0.0752 2.336 0.01005 11.81 0.07516 3.43
    25 1.184 0.0739 2.297 0.00988 11.61 0.07390 3.38
    30 1.164 0.0727 2.259 0.00972 11.42 0.07269 3.32
    40 1.127 0.0704 2.188 0.00941 11.06 0.07039 3.21
    50 1.093 0.0682 2.120 0.00912 10.72 0.06822 3.12
    60 1.060 0.0662 2.057 0.00885 10.40 0.06619 3.02
    80 1.000 0.0625 1.941 0.00835 9.81 0.06245 2.85
    100 0.9467 0.0591 1.837 0.00790 9.28 0.05910

    Aircraft are nominally designed for an air densityof 1.225 kg per Sq M. (opposite 15C)

    CREDIT: Table stollen from NASA.

    So you can see at 150 feet above a fire front at 50 degrees C (122F ) what you lift would be like. Remember if you are at low speed as well this will affect your stall speed. So any turns should be performed with extreme caution.
    As you can see by the table you have reduced the air density by close to 10%, To be conservative I would raise all my maneuvreing speeds and stall speeds by 20% to be on the safe side. You know what they say about old bold Pilots don’t you??

    Regards Marum. (Die fliessende Katze)

  • Marum


    Edit: Per cubic metre….not sq metre.

    An example: A Friend of mine was taking off at Charleville, in a single engine, low-wing tail-dragger, on a summer day with a full payload. Did I mention hot?
    He set 10 degree flaps and away he went. He got off the strip and pulled up the flaps, and it settled back on the runway. It took him three goes to get airborne. By then, he had probably beaten the air into submission. Something to be said for a high-wing configuration….NO? He did try climbing out on 10 percent flaps, but under those conditions the engine did not have enough power to achieve V2 (climbout) velocity. Once he managed to get some twenty feet above the runway, the air was cool enough, to give sufficient lift to fly.

    I would have removed some of the load, or stayed overnight, and taken off just before dawn.


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