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The original firebomber
Victorian pilot Keith Davidson’s life in the air and on the air base is pioneering stuff.
49 years' flying in and out of Stawell. 42 years’ aerial firefighting. 21,430 flying hours.
Take away the flying and Keith’s is still a remarkable legacy.
Until the early 1970s, aerial firefighting in Australia (or firebombing as it is commonly called) was limited to pilots dropping retardant through the spray door of crop dusting aircraft. Loads were small and accuracy variable.
Keith, always practical and mechanical, saw an opportunity for a better system. He took a Fletcher FU-24 crop duster (pictured in the series above), revamped the crop dusting equipment and developed, engineered and fitted a fore and aft ‘fire door’ to the plane.
With the specialist fire door, Keith and his fellow pilots could drop retardant or water in a pattern that slowed or stopped grass and bushfires.
“He was ahead of his time with this development,” says fellow pilot and long-time colleague Rob Boschen.
“Keith had the vision that this type of door would work better. He was able to build it himself and make it work.”
Keith got the flying bug young in life. “I came off a small farm in Wando Bridge, 15km north-east of Casterton. There wasn’t enough land for one brother, let alone two. So I decided to do some flying.
“In the early 1950s, my father grew linseed and the caterpillars got in that bad that we needed to spray with DDT from Tiger Moth aircraft,” Keith recalls.
The caterpillars and the Tiger Moths kept returning, and with it Keith’s urge to fly. His break came when Western Districts politician and neighbour Digby Crozier offered Keith some flying lessons in Hamilton.
After that it was shearing on neighbours’ farms to pay for lessons and, eventually, a flying job in Stawell spreading fertiliser and spraying crops.
Fire bombing was side line work in the early 1970s, something employers like Keith’s did to help CFA and other fire authorities on bad days.
Then in the 1974-75 fire season, Keith dropped his first load “in anger” on fires burning near Werrimull in the Mallee scrub.
“I had no training in fire. I had a bit of an idea about it from growing up in the country. We were up there for three-four days. We did quite a bit of good, I think,” Keith remembers.
Newspaper reports of the Werrimull fire show a concrete mixer combining the 1,100 litres of water and retardant dropped by Keith and other pilots from Fletcher crop dusters on the Mallee.
It’s a long way from the Fletcher to the plane Keith has flown during recent fire seasons – the Air Tractor 802F, equipped with a 3,200 litre capacity hopper, computer-operated fire door and air conditioning.
As for flying, Keith believes the skills needed to be a good firebomber haven’t changed greatly across his 42 seasons.
“First up, stay safe. Don’t get into a corner that you can’t get out of.
“Get the right speed. When the load starts to go, you get this lift up so you’ve got to have full control forward to hold the plane on the same level. It’s no good having the retardant 400 feet in the air, showering down for the next 10 minutes.”
His flying mantra is similarly pragmatic. “You’ve got to keep from bumping into things. You don’t want to end up in there with the fire.”
The 2015-16 fire season was, in all likelihood, Keith’s last as a firebomber. He’s on standby this season, but hasn’t flown yet. He reckons he should give it away before he gets “the tap on the shoulder.”
Still, there’s plenty to do around the base. He remains a part-owner of AGA services in Stawell whose Air Tractors and other aircraft work fire seasons in Victoria and interstate.
He’ll continue to maintain ‘Harry’, the yellow tractor off the family farm in Wando Bridge that he modified with small wheels for towing aircraft. There are young pilots to chat with and mechanical systems to tweak.
Colleague Rob Boschen believes Keith’s legacy will live long in many areas of aviation, none more so the many pilots he has mentored – Rob included.
“Keith would always do what needed to be done and other pilots would see and learn,” Rob says.
“Keith’s is an ability not many pilots had then or have now. It’s the ability to look at a situation, no matter how serious or desperate it is, and provide a solution.
“He’s never rattled – that is what has kept him safe. He moves with purpose, not with haste. He’s made an enormous contribution.”