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‘Black Saturday changed our outlook on fire’: Coulson

written by Hannah Dowling | June 30, 2022

(Dave Soda)

The devastation of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires resulted in long-term changes to aerial firefighting methods, according to Coulson Aviation CEO Wayne Coulson.

Speaking with Australian Aviation, Coulson shared that the aftermath of Black Saturday “changed our outlook on fire”, and took the company in an entirely different strategic direction.

“It was predicted that Australia would have this bad day, but we didn’t know how terrible it would be,” he said.

Read the whole interview with Wayne Coulson here via our premium content, or listen to the podcast audio above. 

“We talked to the crews through the fuel stops during the day. And once it was hitting dusk, the tragedy was still going on. We didn’t sleep for a week — it just changed our lives.”

Coulson said that his company went on to invest in new equipment and procedures to begin waterbombing during the night, to better aid in fighting bushfires.

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“We came home from the end of that season and thought, ‘we’re going to do things differently. We’re going to fly 24 hours a day. We are going to figure it out one way or another,'” he said.

“And that took us on a multi-year trial of using night vision goggles on little helicopters, big helicopters, and working on a program that let us go out and prove it.”

The Coulson Aviation chief said that night operations during bushfires was “a lot of common sense”.

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“When the sun goes down, you have no heat. The relative humidity climbs as you get into the darkness and lose the heat. When you have less heat and more humidity, the impact of a drop will be better than it is during the day,” he explained.

Plus, Coulson said that firefighting after dark involves being “more proactive”.

“We use what we call an overwatch helicopter. The overwatch helicopter is the ‘mind and management’ of the firebombing helicopter.

“It goes up first and pre-determines where you’re going to suck water and where you’re going to drop the load,” he said.

“The firebombing aircraft is just running back and forth, but now it has someone watching above it. The overwatch helicopter fires a laser beam the size of a car to identify hazards, which the pilot of the firebombing aircraft can see with night vision goggles.

“We can also use the laser to identify where we’re going to pick up water and where we’re going to drop the load. So that’s how we communicate, and it’s worked extremely well.”

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