Night-time aerial firefighting to be trialed

A Coulson Aviation chopper undertaking night-time firefighting.

Trials will start this season to test the capabilities of night-time aerial fire fighting, with the NSW Bushfire Inquiry recommending the technology be fully implemented if trials are successful.

Recommendation 52 of the inquiry reads, “That, in order to enhance NSW’s fire fighting capacity, Government trial aerial fire fighting at night in the 2020-21 season with a view to full implementation if successful.”

Bridget Ryan, co-owner of True North Helicopters, said she and husband Jim would explore adopting the technology if the trials are successful and the appropriate funding and safety precautions are in place.

“We’re interested to see what their trials come up with, but the effect of night-time aerial fighting has definitely got to outweigh the safety factors associated with night-time flying and the cost as well,” she said. “The aircraft have to be equipped differently, training has to be done, and training has got to be done at certain time frames during the year, because you’ve got to keep current all year long.”

As of 2020, Canadian company Coulson Aviation has been approved for advanced Night Vision Goggle (NVG) aerial firefighting in Australia and in California. The company cites the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria as “the trigger” for their exploration into the use of advanced aerial firefighting methods.

Coulson’s first night-time trials were conducted in 2011, with the State of Victoria the first to allow NVG night-time firefighting missions during the 2017-18 season.

Coulson describes “rigorous training” for their teams “so they can rely on muscle memory when under pressure” and the need for “the most advanced” technology in order to safely undertake night-time missions.

If the trials are successful, the technology could be adopted by local companies, like True North. Currently, Mrs Ryan said the company’s three full-time and three seasonal pilots are limited to only working ten-hour days during fire seasons, in line with the NSW Rural Fire Service’ official rules for preventing fatigue. Since fire activity typically peaks in the late afternoon, True North pilots might not start a shift until 11am, in order to cover as much afternoon and evening flying time as possible before visibility starts to fade around 9pm in the summertime.

Mrs Ryan said their current contracts only cover one ten-hour shift per day, but True North has the capability to do more, even while night-time flying is still being tested.

“The other thing [the State Government] could consider is to factor that cost to operators that we can put on two shifts for the day,” she said. “Then we could have one in the morning and one at night; but you’d also have to be careful, because aircraft are on a very tight maintenance schedule. You might use all those flying hours in four or five days and then you’ve got to stand that aircraft down for maintenance.”

Mrs Ryan said the maintenance periods might not last more than a day, but it would require closer attention to scheduling and ground crew shifts to ensure the helicopters are back in the air as soon as possible. 

“On a normal year it’s not a problem, but last year was just out of the ballpark,” she said, remembering the 2019-20 fires. “It worked, all the procedures worked really well.”

Last summer, their total crew included up to 15 people, working on a rotating roster.

Mrs Ryan was positive about the collaboration between contractors like True North, the RFS and National Parks, saying the agencies would check in with the pilots to make sure they were using the aircraft as effectively as possible within the allotted time frames. 

“It worked well, I don’t think major mistakes were made, as long as we can learn and pull some positives out of it, that’s the best we can hope for,” she said. 

In the meantime, True North will continue to monitor the night-time firefighting trials with interest.

“We’re sitting on the fence to see what the trial will bring,” said Mrs Ryan. “It’s a direction that we would consider. We’re definitely not against it. If the contracts were there and that’s what’s required of the pilots, we’d do that.”

Correction, October 30: An earlier version of this article misstated that nighttime flying trials had commenced with the NSW RFS. The trials are in fact scheduled to commence with the NSW RFS this season, but haven’t started yet.