Paris Air Show

Firefighters bank on hot summers

 - December 13, 2006, 7:51 AM

Fighting fires from the air used to be an ad hoc business, as unpredictable as the odds of getting a return on your equipment investment. Even during a hot summer, aircraft operators in southern Europe might have their Bambi buckets gathering dust in the corner of a hangar on the off-chance a camping stove should topple over somewhere.

It is only over the past half-dozen years that governments, even those that dismiss the theory of global warning, have been forced to recognize the destructive power of one of its possible effects. Nowadays, as summers on this side of the Atlantic seem to grow inexorably longer and hotter, many operators are negotiating lucrative contracts and bigger aircraft–both fixed- and rotary-wing–for firefighting duty.

Portugal’s national firefighting service now hires more than 20 helicopters for positioning at airports and heliports throughout the country. Each spring, for what has now become a significant slice of business, Cascais-based Heliportugal commits its four Eurocopter AS 350B AStars and charters in several more from the cooler north of the continent. Last summer, an extra seven arrived from Germany, while freelance crews quadrupled the operator’s  pilot strength. Notwithstanding their efforts, at the height of the 2004 season, fires forced evacuation of villages and beaches and closed the main Porto-to-Lisbon highway for several hours.

France has developed a sophisticated network to protect its vulnerable south, where vast areas of maquis scrubland, often surrounding expensive properties, grow tinder-dry each summer. Forest covers a full 80 percent of one French département, the Var. A whole battalion of more than 2,000 French navy personnel, supported by both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, protects just the southern port of Marseilles and its environs–some 59,280 acres in area.

AStar and Alouette helicopters tend to fly over the flanks of fires, leaving the vanguard of the blaze to Bombardier CL 415 twin turboprop amphibians, which even the locals recognize as “Canadairs.” However, the Eurocopters also move equipment and deploy ground teams, which renders both types indispensable.

The Navy deployed the entire battalion last summer to tackle a blaze that affected nearly 5,000 acres in the Marseilles area, while more that 400 tourists evacuated threatened hotels on Corsica.

In Italy, after five years of chartering Erickson Air-Crane S-64E Helitankers to fight fires there, as well as on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, the state forestry corps ordered four S-64s of their own in 2003. (The type also achieved celebrity status of sorts, in recognition of its effectiveness in dealing with fires on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia.)

Oregon-based Erickson has won so much new business for its tanker conversion that it has run out of old airframes and is seeking approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to build them from the ground up (it bought the type certificate from Sikorsky 13 years ago). It has developed a digital cockpit with a three-axis autopilot for the S-64, as well as a 2,650-gallon water tank, with optional water cannon and snorkel attachments.

As well as sales to Greece and Italy, Erickson has most recently struck a deal for two S-64E conversions, complete with the cannon and snorkel, with the forest service of South Korea.

Recognizing their effectiveness, entrepreneurs and OEMs are promoting a whole range of potential airborne assets. Russia’s Kamov has linked its Ka-32 utility helicopter with Irkut’s Be-200 amphibian turbofan and seeks overseas orders. It is also planning a U.S. demonstration tour. The Ilyushin-76 is already in service and, with bizarre logic, U.S. firm Aerotech envisions ex-U.S. Air Force A-10 tankbusters bombing and strafing advancing fire fronts “in the urban interface.”

BAE Systems’ regional aircraft group has discovered a further niche market for its 146 commuter airliner. A leased -200 variant, formerly operated by Air Wisconsin, is currently in Nevada being converted by Minden Air, an operator of SP-2H/P2V Neptunes, for a possible contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

Finally, for really big fires (presumably in sparsely populated areas), Evergreen International Aviation has completed the “supertanker” conversion of a Boeing 747, which can release 24,000 gallons of fire retardant. It has scheduled a second round of test flights for the first airframe over the next few weeks and, pending FAA approval, crews will be testing its payload before the end of this fire season. “If all goes well,” a spokeswoman told Aviation International News, “we hope to be fighting fires by the next season.”