Today, Tuesday the 23 of February, marks the close of Victoria’s Night Fire Aviation Program for this fire season, with Helitack 346, one of Kestrel’s Bell 412 helicopters, returning to day aerial firefighting operations based at Kestrel facility at Mangalore from tomorrow. Whilst thankfully a quieter season in comparison to the events on the west coast of Australia, it has provided the opportunity to continue the development of this emerging and increasingly essential capability.
Kestrel Aviation’s commitment to the program was demonstrated by its seamless availability over the contract term, and its pre-season preparations providing the necessary regulatory approvals to advance Victoria into the realms of “initial attack”, the ability to commence fire suppression on new ignitions or the transition into established firegrounds after dark and adapting tactical operations commensurate with the fire behaviour. Kestrel remains the only Australian-owned operator with approval to undertake night helicopter firebombing, an effort which has earned the company recognition as a finalist in the innovation category at the upcoming Airspace Awards in April.
“This season has seen a continuation of the dedication of our night program team in collaboratively working alongside Victorian agencies, as well as other operators, to achieve a common goal” said Captain Richard Butterworth, Kestrel’s Head of Training and lead pilot on the Program.
Until this season, night fire suppression had required a day reconnaissance prior to undertaking firebombing at night, with the purpose to identify any potential hazards, such as power/telephone lines in the operational area. This restricted firefighting efforts to those fires which were already ablaze in the waning light of the afternoon.
With the continued development of the Program this season, and with the help of specialist night vision goggles supplied by Melbourne based Point Trading Group, helitack aircraft are now able to identify new water sources and attack new ignition sources after dark; a significant achievement for the ambitious project.
“This Program has come a long way since it was conceptualised, and credit must be given to the state of Victoria in leading this innovative effort” says Kestrel’s Managing Director, Ray Cronin.
With the potential for fire danger remaining this season, and with internationally operated aircraft now commencing their return overseas to support northern hemisphere fire seasons, Kestrel remains in place, offering year-round, day/night specialist response for the state of Victoria, and Australia as a whole. Additionally, Kestrel’s culture of innovation has seen further improvements to the country’s aerial firefighting capability, with the integration of type one capable helicopter assets such as the battle proven Sikorsky UH-60 “Blackhawk”, which augment its world-class medium lift fleet of water bombers, night attack bombers and specialist rappel crewed aircraft.