Coulson Aviation is expanding its global aerial firefighting capabilities with the acquisition of four Cessna Citation 550 High-Performance Aircraft (HPA) previously operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to lead tankers to retardant drop points and collect intelligence for fire commanders on the ground. “It’s a growing piece of our industry that we plan to expand into,” president and COO Britt Coulson told AIN.
Coulson said the Port Alberni, British Columbia-based company chose the Citation IIs because of their special-missions configuration, as well as their speed and range compared with older turboprops used by competitors. “While we started to get into the lead plane and aerial intelligence business on the fixed-wing side…we purchased these four from Border Patrol specifically for the unique mission suite that they have in them,” he said, adding the jets came to the company with camera ports and other modifications that were designed by and installed at the factory, in addition to updated glass cockpits.
“The Citation platform, for a reasonably fast, newer-generation single-pilot aircraft, it’s just a really good fit for firefighting,” Coulson said. “It’s got a straight wing, so it’s got good low-and slow-characteristics, it’s easy to fly, it’s got great visibility out of the cockpit, and they’re readily available. So it was an aircraft model that we were planning to move into anyway. We also like repurposing government aircraft…the U.S. government does an amazing job looking after its aircraft.”
Previously, the company’s only intelligence-gathering aircraft was a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that couldn’t be used as a lead aircraft in firefighting missions. The 550s will be able to serve both roles. As a lead aircraft, Coulson explained, they will be equipped with smoke kits. In advance of the tanker dropping retardant or water, the Citations will fly a dry run with the tanker crew watching, rejoin and lead the tanker through the drop using the smoke to signal to the tanker when to begin dropping retardant. “They’ll pop up some smoke and then the air tanker…starts its drop as the nose of the [tanker] is starting to go through the smoke,” Coulson said.
In terms of intelligence gathering, Coulson will use the 550s to gather information from fire scenes—including weather, maps, drop analysis, and video—and transmit it to fire agency command centers. “Kind of leveraging off the military model where you would have like an AWAC-type aircraft up above the battlefield monitoring, tracking, relaying data,” he said.
The first of the four 550s have been delivered to the company following maintenance at Flightcraft in Portland, Oregon. Coulson Aviation is completing the twinjet’s interior at its in-house upholstery shop.
In addition to maintenance and new paint, all of the 550s are outfitted with new equipment such as high-resolution imaging systems, FLIRs, gimbals, and satellite uplink. Coulson said the 550s were already equipped with Universal Avionics glass cockpits.
These are not the first business jets in Coulson Aviation’s stable. Earlier, the company acquired two Citation 560s that it modified as lead and intelligence-gathering aircraft and sold them to New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia, where it has an agreement to operate them. All told, the company’s fleet comprises fixed-wing tankers—a mix of C-130s and Boeing 737s—and helicopters, including Sikorsky S-61s and S-76s, UH-60 Blackhawks, CH-47 Chinooks, and Bell 412s.