Written for Skies Magazine – February/March 2020
The missions are flown with military precision in aircraft that are supremely maintained to an almost 100 per cent dispatch rate. A successful flight can help save properties, forests – and lives.
The targets are dynamic, in ever-changing conditions, and the flying is some of the most challenging that pilots will ever experience.
This is Conair Group Inc., the world’s largest privately-owned aerial firefighting company.
“The absolute truth of our business is that we have never successfully put out a forest fire with airplanes,” said Jeff Berry, director, Business Development.
“They’re put out on the ground. The role of an air tanker is to support the firefighters on the ground and buy them time. Anybody that says they put out fires with airplanes has never fought a fire on the ground.”
If anyone should know, it’s Berry, who started fighting forest fires in the late 1970s as a “ground pounder,” and worked his way up to managing the aviation program for the Province of British Columbia before joining Conair.
The Abbotsford B.C.-based company has been flying for over 50 years, but the recent frightening increase in intensity and duration of major fires around the world is leading Conair to look carefully at its operations, fleet and training.
“We’ve just had the worst seasons in history,” said Berry, giving the examples of the devastating 2016 fire in Fort McMurray, Alta., the 2017 and 2018 seasons in B.C., and the extreme fires that began at the end of 2019 in Australia.
When Berry describes recent fire seasons as being “off the charts,” he means it literally. Decades ago, the Canadian government created the Forest Fire Danger Rating System, which is in use worldwide.
The rating system’s Build-Up Index (BUI) chart helps determine fire intensity. It was created with a top-end value of 200, reflecting the state of fires back then.
But fires have changed – in 2018, the BUI in the Caribou region of British Columbia was 450 – way off the chart.
“Every single agency we talk to is worried, and they all want [planes that are] bigger, faster, more, and sooner,” said Berry.
STEARMAN & TBM
Conair – the portmanteau of “aerial contractors” – was established in 1969 when a group of pilots purchased the assets of Skyway, a crop-spraying company that had done pioneering work in aerial firefighting.
“In 1958, Skyway converted the Boeing Stearman and Grumman TBM to go fight fires,” explained Barry Marsden, CEO of Conair.
With a fleet strategy of acquiring low-time and low-cycle airframes from both ex-military and airline sources, Douglas A-26s were purchased in 1970 and converted to fulfil Conair’s new contracts.
“We were able to grow with the customers and meet their needs. We continue to do that, while being creative in trying to look at the next tool that they would need,” said Marsden.
The company now has a large and growing customer base that includes the governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon; the U.S. Forest Service; the State of Alaska; Sécurité Civile France; and Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre.
Conair’s first large aircraft was added to the fleet in 1971. That Douglas DC-6B was also the first 3,000 US gallon tanker in North America.
“I flew the DC-6B a lot, and really enjoyed it. I also flew the A-26s, TBMs and Stearmans, and enjoyed them all for their different character,” said Marsden.
Air tankers are categorized based on capacity: Type 1 aircraft can carry 3,000 US gallons/11,350 litres; Type 2 is between 1,000 — 2,999 US gallons/6,800 – 11,349 litres; Type 3 carries 800 – 1,799 US gallons/3,028 – 6,799 litres; and Type 4 is less than 800 gallons.
Then there’s the handful of VLATs — very large air tankers – conversions of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 747 that can drop prodigious amounts of retardant – 11,600 gallons for the DC-10 and 18,500 gallons for the 747.
Conair has a fleet of 70 aircraft, with 58 planes based in Abbotsford and 12 in Spokane, Wash. The air tankers range from the Type 1 Lockheed L-188C and BAe/Avro RJ85 quad-jet, the Type 2 Convair CV-580, and the Type 3 Air Tractor AT-802 Fire Boss.
The company also operates float-equipped AT-802s and amphibious Canadair CL-215/CL-415 waterbombers – all Type 3s.
Land-based tankers, loaded with orange-coloured retardant, can only do part of a firefighting mission and are augmented by the amphibs — the float-equipped Fire Boss and purpose-built Canadair CL-215/CL-415s. These planes skim the surface of a nearby lake or river, fill their tanks and quickly fly to the fire location to maintain a high frequency of water drops.
“As the climate changes have taken hold and as fire intensities increase, it has become absolutely essential that you blend retardants and [water] suppressants, ring the fire with retardant to slow it down, and then you cool the inside to keep it from spotting over and buy crews enough time to go in and put it out,” explained Berry.
Conair’s fleet of four-engine Lockheed L-188C Electras and Convair CV-580 twin-turboprops have provided yeoman’s service for years, but time is running out for the venerable air tankers.
“Both the Convair and the Electra are fantastic airplanes. But the risk that we’re taking on behalf of the customer is that we can’t predict when a big structural integrity problem is going to occur right in the middle of the season and ground an aircraft,” said Berry.
According to Berry, the two first-generation turboprops were designed before widespread fatigue damage was understood. The planes’ challenging inspection procedures, obsolete avionics and instrumentation, decreasing OEM engine support and a rapidly diminishing parts supply will drive both the Convair and Electra from Conair’s fleet within the next few years.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Selecting a new type for conversion into an aerial firefighter requires weighing several factors, including airframe suitability, availability of aircraft, acquisition price, spares inventory, and operational and maintenance history.
In the early 1990s, Conair identified the Bombardier Q400 – now the De Havilland Canada DHC-8-400 — as an ideal candidate for conversion. In response to a request from the French government, the twin-turboprop was turned into the world’s first multi-role air tanker. After almost 15 years operating two of the planes, the French Ministry of the Interior ordered six additional aircraft in April 2019.
As a Type 2, the Q400MR has a tank capacity of over 2,600 US gallons, while the cabin can be configured for passengers, freight or medical evacuations, or as a “combi” with mixed use.
Conair will soon complete the conversion of the first Q400MR for its own fleet. Over the next few years, six of the speedy, modern aircraft will replace the aging CV-580s.
Conair’s expertise in creating operational improvements to its airframe conversions extends to the Q400MR. “We’ve developed a Flight Envelope Advisory System that gives the pilots more control of flaps at low speeds and different weights, making the aircraft safer to operate at low speed,” said Berry.
The first jet-powered tanker to undergo a Conair conversion was the British Aerospace BAe/Avro RJ85. Beginning in 2009, over 30,000 hours of engineering work and flight testing was required to produce the first aircraft.
“The thing that makes the RJ such a great [firefighting] airplane is that it was originally designed to fly into the challenging London City Airport [U.K.]. It has a clamshell [airbrake] and it can just hang there. It’s got a nice square wing, so when it slows down, it doesn’t nose up on you. When you’re on short final, you can see where you’re going,” said Berry.
Conair has completed eight RJ85 conversions and acquired more than a dozen additional aircraft that were recently retired from airline service. As a Type 1 tanker, the RJ can carry 3,000 US gallons, and will replace the Lockheed Electra in the fleet.
“We looked at the 737 before we made a decision on the RJ and felt the RJ was a better low-speed handling airplane, which is really our life,” added Marsden. “We would like to look at a very large tanker at some point in the future, but I don’t know what airframe that would be — probably a twin-engine.”
Going forward, Conair’s all-turbine fleet will be focused on the Fire Boss, CL-415, Q400MR, and the RJ85.
KEEP ‘EM FLYING
Conair’s planes might not fly much – with each aircraft logging just 150 to 200 hours per year – but firefighting missions require a high tempo, and planes can add between 400 and 600 takeoff and landing cycles every year.
But just like a fire truck, they must launch within minutes of receiving a “scramble” call, and Conair is proud of its remarkable aircraft dispatch rate of 99.5 per cent.
Flight operations director Claude Marchand and his team of engineers and pilots keep the planes flying, with the work done at Conair’s extensive maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and training facilities at its Abbotsford base.
During the fire season, fully equipped maintenance “shops on wheels” are deployed to remote bases, with parts delivered in Conair’s Cessna Grand Caravan and Rockwell Turbo Commander shuttles. In a fire, those planes also serve as “bird dog” air attack control and lead aircraft.
The demands on the firefighting fleet translate into an intensive maintenance schedule, amplified by the age of some of the aircraft.
Each aircraft cycles through Conair’s packed hangars in the seven-month off-season to undergo a full maintenance regime, returning to the flight line for pilot currency and training in advance of the fire season.
TRAIN LIKE YOU FIGHT, FIGHT LIKE YOU TRAIN
In step with Conair’s transition to new generation aircraft, Marchand’s cadre of 80 pilots and managers are making training and operational changes to optimize cockpit procedures.
Both the Q400MR and the RJ85 can transit from base to a fire location much faster than the CV-580 and Electra, and pilots fly in a comfortable flight deck with up-to-date automated flight control systems.
But the new aircraft were designed to carry passengers in airline service, not fly low-and-slow in a turbulent environment, driving Conair to a team approach for its cockpit crew pairings.
“We will take the experienced firefighter pilot, put him in the left seat, and we’ll hire an airline pilot that has a lot of time on type and we’ll put her in the right seat,” said Marchand. “After take-off, the right-seater will use automation to get to the fire. Once there, the firefighter will take over and hand-fly the mission.”
Last year, Conair commissioned a Level D full-flight simulator for the RJ85, for training the company’s own pilots and other operators’ crews. The sim only reproduces airlines operations, not firefighting missions, but Conair will soon revolutionize the way its crews are trained.
Mirroring networked training systems that have been developed for the military, Conair’s Distributed Wildfire Simulation Centre will link six fixed-base simulators – one dedicated to the AT802 Fire Boss with five re-configurable units that will match every plane in the fleet.
“You’ll be able to put a fire on the landscape and then meet over it with a group of airplanes, look out the window of your cockpit, see the other airplanes, watch them drop, and practice all the elements of aerial firefighting,” said Berry.
“Our slogan, borrowed from the Air Force, is ‘train like you fight, fight like you train,’ and we’re developing a world-class aerial firefighting training and tactics centre that will allow us to do just that.”
As Conair looks to the future and moves into its second half-century of operation, Marsden is justifiably proud of his 400-person team.
“We’ve been able to attract the right people to work and stay in the business,” he said. “It’s really the people that are there to support you, and make the company look good and perform well for the customer.”