News & Media

Tankers with wings

  • Bird Dog
  • RJ
  • Medium helicopter at Sea Lake
  • Hercules

By: CFA News

Category: Incidents - Bushfire, Vehicles / Equipment / Buildings

  11.01 AM 6 January, 2017

Location: General

Views: 7837

“They are just tankers with wings.” CFA aviation officer Wayne Rigg is walking across Avalon Airport’s apron pointing to RJ and Hercules. 

The two aircraft – technically known as Large Air Tankers or LATs – dominate the tarmac.

As their name suggests, they are very large. RJ’s tanks carry 12,500 litres of water, foam or retardant. Hercules carries 15,000 litres.

And while Wayne is impressed with their performance over the past two seasons in Victoria, he’s at pains to emphasise the niche role they play in the broader Victorian firefighting team.

“Aircraft don’t put out fires. Ground crews put out fires and aircraft support the ground crews. If your entire strategy is based on the use of aircraft, you will fail,” Wayne stresses.

I ask Wayne to elaborate. After all, there is some very sophisticated and expensive equipment sitting at-the-ready on the Avalon tarmac.

“Aircraft like these are fantastic at knocking down a flank or getting into inaccessible terrain,” Wayne points out.

“They have great drop heights given their size – 80 to 100 feet off the deck depending on the fuel and the topography.

“However, without ground support they could bomb the heck out of fires all day. And that fire is going to reignite if you are not blacking out, if you are not getting an edge around it, if you are not securing the fire.”

For the veteran aviation officer, the value of aircraft – from the largest air tanker to the smallest helicopter – can be measured community-by-community.

He points to Sea Lake in the Mallee by way of illustration: “A few years ago we put a medium helicopter in Sea Lake where there was something like 20 per cent of Australia’s cereal crop growing.

“Think about it for a moment. That grain is peoples’ livelihoods. That’s our brigade members and our communities. And at harvest time, where are our firefighters? They are on harvesters, driving semis or away contracting.”

And the helicopter in Sea Lake?

“If that helicopter keeps a small fire small – if it keeps it to 10 hectares and not 10,000 – then you are only there for an hour with six trucks. You are not there for 10 hours with 20 trucks.

“It means that people are back on their harvesters. So yes, we need to be careful about how we use aircraft. Yes, they are expensive. But how much would we pay to unburn a community?”

And just like that Wayne is off. There is a line of lightning strikes moving across North East Victoria and fires, small for now, are starting in the high country. He’ll supervise air operations from Bird Dog, the small twin-engine aircraft that guides RJ and Hercules to fires and coordinates aerial attack with ground crews.

Information on the fire is still sketchy, but he’s got a ‘long-lat’ for Tambo Crossing in East Gippsland.

The three aircraft move across the tarmac in a well-rehearsed dance – Bird Dog, then Hercules, and finally RJ.

They land back at Avalon in surprisingly quick time, job done. Between them, Hercules and RJ have dropped 27,500 litres of retardant on a burning tree off Collins Road in Tambo crossing.

A long way to fly for a single tree?

Wayne’s response is emphatic. “These are just tankers with wings. Like trucks, their job is to keep small fires small. Miss that one tree and perhaps you are looking at the next big fire in the Great Divide.”

Last Updated: 11 January 2017