Forestry Aviation

Bryan Rees (bio)

If you are interested in this article then you should also have a look at this article by Bryan.

Aircraft have been used extensively in Victoria for forestry, and particularly forest fire operations, since 1930.

1930 to 1961

FCV negotiated with the Air Board for the provision of aircraft for reconnaissance and detection of fires. First fire detection flights were by Air Force Westland Wapiti aircraft. These patrols became a regular fire season operation. Testimony from the 1939 Stretton Royal Commission provides information about these early aerial fire patrols.
Aerial application of insecticide powder to control damage by case moths in a conifer plantation. The report of this work concludes "Remarkably successful results were obtained, auguring well for the future control by this means of like destructive insect visitations ...this is the first occasion (this) procedure has been adopted in Australia"

First aerial photography operations for the FCV from which mosaics were prepared of 15,000 acres of forest.
Initial use of radio communication in Victorian forestry, born of the need to report fire sightings from aircraft patrols direct to the local forest staff.
First experiments in "bombing" fires using chemical dropped from aircraft in cartons. This work, on a technique widely accepted as an American development, not only coincided with early water bombing experiments in the USA, but pre-dates by some years, any known records of using fire retardant chemicals in preference to plain water.
First airborne command of firefighting operations via direct radio communication to ground crews.
Aerial photography of 13000 square miles of forest completed, including much inaccessible country. These surveys enabled the planning of roading systems for fire protection and the harvesting of large quantities of timber for the post war building boom.
Experiments conducted with aerial spraying to kill vegetation for the preparation of firebreaks.
Further trials in firebombing using Liberator, Lincoln and Mustang aircraft to drop chemicals in metal tanks designed to burst on impact.
First use of a helicopter for fire control work in Australia. The Sikorsky machine was the only helicopter in the country at the time, and was used for reconnaissance and mapping, and the deployment of men and equipment in rugged forest in the eastern ranges. This success led quickly to helicopter surveillance flights for timber assessment and forest type classification.

First recorded aerial drops of food supplies to an isolated firefighting crew. This technique has been considerably improved in recent years by the development of specially designed free fall containers which provide aerodynamic lift to cushion impact with the ground.

The FCV constructed the highest airfield in Australia, at 5,300 feet on Snowy Range, strategically located in the heavily forested eastern ranges, as a base for various aircraft operations.

1961 to 1991

Use of agricultural aircraft to distribute baits for control of damage by vermin in pine plantations commenced as a routine practice

First of a number of aerial spraying projects using agricultural aircraft and helicopters to control plagues of stick insects defoliating high value mountain ash forests.
Aerial sowing of eucalypt seeds introduced as an operational technique for regeneration.
Development of rappelling as a method of lowering firefighters from a hovering helicopter. Operations are conducted from a Bell 47G helicopter.
High performance twin-engined aircraft chartered and fitted out for cloud seeding to induce increased rainfall over dangerously dry forests as a fire prevention measure. Using techniques established by CSIRO, cloud seeding operations were carried out each summer for several years.
First year-round contract for helicopter service, using a Bell 47G helicopter.
First organised operational control of wildfire by firebombing in Australia. Two Piper Pawnee agricultural aircraft bombed a wildfire in rugged mountain forest with fifteen loads of fire retardant slurry

Infra red heat sensing techniques were introduced with an image converter. This instrument is used by an observer in an aircraft to map the edge of a fire when smoke obscures it from normal vision.
Aerial ignition techniques used for suppression of a wildfire. Specially developed incendiaries were dropped from a helicopter to burn out 5,000 acres between a safe control line and the advancing front of a large and damaging forest fire

The first aerial spraying of a fungicide was carried out over 1200 acres of pine plantations to control a pathogen causing serious needle cast. New operational techniques were developed for the marking of accurately spaced swaths to achieve uniform distribution of the spray

Fuel reduction burning by aerial distribution of incendiaries over large areas was commenced as a routine fire protection measure
Trials of Canadian Twin Otter fitted with membrane tank for firebombing. The membrane system relied on releasing the load by a knife rupturing a membrane in the base of the underbelly tank. System proved too complex to be operationally viable.
FCV purchases Premo aerial incendiary machine from Canada. Machine uses “ping pong ball” type incendiaries.
Commencement of trials of C130 Hercules, on loan from RAAF, fitted with MAFFS (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System) for firebombing. Trials continued over two fire seasons. System ultimately proved non-viable due to high costs and long turn around times.
February 16th, Ash Wednesday. Over 40 aircraft instrumental in all aspects of fire control operations despite severe operating conditions

Major advancement in infra-red technology with introduction of airborne infra red line scanning-significantly improving ability to map large areas. Introduction of Department's own FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) equipment enhanced efficiency of firebombing, fire mapping and mopping up operations

Commencement of CSIRO project Aquarius to study relative efficiencies of DC-6, medium helicopters (Bell 205) and agricultural fixed wing aircraft for firebombing.
Largest single aerial firefighting operation in Australia at lightning-caused fires in North-Eastern Victoria. Extended over three weeks and at one stage involved 20 helicopters and 16 fixed-wing aircraft. National Safety Council (NSCA) conducts first firebombing operations using helicopter bellytanks on behalf of Victorian fire agencies.
CNR conducts first Victorian operations of an aerial driptorch dropping gellied petrol for high intensity burns in the Swifts Ck area.

1991 to 2003

The Department acknowledges 25 years of operational firebombing in Victoria and Australia with presentations to the pilots who flew the first operations.
CNR deployed 6 rotary wing and 7 fixed wing aircraft, 50 aviation support staff and 14 pilots to NSW, at the request of the Department of Bushfire Services NSW, for a variety of operations during the Sydney bushfires. CNR aircraft flew nearly 450 hours over a 10 day period.
AFAC (Australasian Fire Authorities Council) conducts trials into the performance of the Bombardier CL415 water scooping/firebombing aircraft in Victorian Otway Ranges.

CNR becomes Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE)
NRE and the CFA conduct statewide aircraft operations on 21 February involving 11 fixed wing firebombers, 6 light helicopters, 3 medium helicopters and 1 infrared fire mapping aircraft.
NRE contracts the largest contingent of aircraft for aerial firefighting to date in anticipation of a severe summer – 6 light helicopters, 4 medium helicopters, 10 fixed-wing firebombers, 1 infrared line scanning fixed-wing aircraft and 1 light reconnaissance twin-engine fixed-wing aircraft

An Erickson S64F Aircrane large helicopter with a 9000 litre capacity bellytank and 45 sec hover fill time was also contracted for the fire season. In one joint NRE/CFA operation the Aircrane delivered 612,000 litres of water in 6.1 hours
State Aircraft Unit formed as a joint fire agency initiative of Country Fire Authority and Dept of Sustainability & Environment (formerly NRE) to provide specialist aviation resources for fire and land management within Victoria. The SAU is staffed by personnel from both Agencies
National Callsign system for fire aircraft introduced.

At the height of the Great Alpine fire, 2 Erickson Aircranes, 12 fixed wing firebombers, 9 light helicopters, 6 medium helicopters, 2 IR scanning aircraft and numerous fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft were operating in Victoria. A total of 3300 hours was flown during these fires.

2003 to 2018

National Aerial Firefighting Co-ordination Centre part funds a Mil 8 and Bell 214B for firebombing operations in Victoria, the first time these types of helicopters have been used for fire suppression in Victoria.
The most hours flown by aircraft for fire operations in Victoria to date – 8200 hours flown by Agency aircraft. At height of the Great Divide fires, 55-65 aircraft were engaged at any one time with 36 state fleet aircraft available, and an additional 200 Call-When-Needed aircraft utilised throughout the campaign.
Rappel feasibility trials conducted from Sikorsky S61 helicopter.

First use of chemical retardant in Victoria from a helicopter bucket. Line building was conducted during the Blue Rag fire using a Type 1 Sikorsky S61 helicopter.
At the peak of the season following the Black Saturday fires a maximum number of 57 aircraft were operational across the State. Approx 7200hrs were flown by agency aircraft over this season. 2900 hrs were flown on fire suppression operations between 7/2/09 & 24/2/09 and 225 hrs flown on Black Saturday.
Victoria contracts a DC10 Very Large Airtanker for Operational trials in Victoria. The aircraft is capable of dropping 42,000 litres of aerial suppressant.

DSE acknowledges 25 seasons of operational rappel crews in Victoria.
In March 2010 an evaluation trial of the operational use of Night Vision Goggle (NVG) for aerial incendiary operations was conducted in Victoria, the first known operation of this type in the world.
Victoria contracts two Convair 580 multi engine airtankers (MEAT) for operational trials in Victoria. Each aircraft is capable of dropping 8000 litres of aerial suppressant.

Victorian “fire” aircraft conducted approx 1100 hrs of operations during Victoria’s flood crisis conducting aerial reconnaissance, sling loading and passenger transport operations.
A total of 9800 hours (7600 hours for fire suppression) were flow by Agency aircraft during the fire and burning season.
Two Large Airtankers (LATs) C130 and RJ85, are contracted for the fire season to provide a high-volume firebombing capacity based from Avalon airport.
Victoria conducts the first operational “live fire” trials of NVG helicopter firebombing in Australia.