Sun sets on another season of night fire bombing

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.

HT346 has been based at Mangalore again this season

“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.

HT346 during EMV demonstrations (Photo: Aviation Report)

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.

Kestrel’s on a Mission

Mission Helicopters, a subsidiary of Australian owned Kestrel Aviation, was established in 2019 to provide high-end tourism and commercial helicopter charter for communities in Far North Queensland from its proposed base at Mission Beach.

Servicing the Cassowary Coast, an application has been lodged with Council to construct a purpose built helicopter and passenger handling facility which will service, amongst others Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville and the Dunk and Bedarra Island resorts. The site also provides an important link for local tourism and the Great Barrier Reef.

The base will be located at 2224 Tully Beach Road, Mission Beach.

Locally designed and built, the proposed facility will add to the overall ambiance and attractiveness of the Mission Beach area, whilst providing additional capability to respond to natural disasters or emergency response incidents that may occur in the region. Space for two helicopters has been permitted at the proposed base.

Providing a range of benefits to the local community, including employment and access to additional high-end tourism market, it represents continued investment in the region by Kestrel’s owners, Ray and Eleanor Cronin.

Kestrel, who will operate the aircraft at the facility under its Air Operator’s Certificate, will position part of its Bell 206L3 LongRanger and Sikorsky S-76 fleet to Mission Beach, and, on an as-required basis, its Bell Medium fleet of 212 and 412, the largest of its type in Australia.

For more information, and information on some of the myths and facts around the proposal, please refer to the attached infographic.

Kestrel’s Night Fire Trials moved to ‘live fire’

                                                                                        Helitack 346 Ballarat March 2018

Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) have engaged Kestrel’s Bell 412 NVIS over the past two nights in Ballarat to conduct managed live fire suppression assessments.

A first for Emergency Management Victoria to engage the Bell 412 in such activities and a first for Kestrel to continue its NVIS fire trial flights onto live fire.

‘At this point in the program all of our combined expectations are being achieved through a collaborative and detailed risk management plan. The emphasis throughout these trials has been to make safety our priority whilst progressively developing capability’ Ray Cronin said (Managing Director-Kestrel)

Kestrel acknowledge the enormous support of all involved in these night trials, EMV, CFA, DELWP, NAFC, CASA and Point Trading (provision of Night Vision Imaging Systems).    Kestrel would also like to express special thanks to the CFA volunteers who provided the mantel of safety during the operations and their local hospitality.

Now that the proving flights and trials are complete Kestrel will work with CASA to finalise Kestrel’s approval to conduct NVIS fire operations as an ongoing aerial fire suppression activity.

‘It should not be underestimated what this means to the aerial firefighting sector in Australia.  EMV and the combined fire agencies who have shown leadership with this capability should be congratulated, as should CASA for dealing with uncharted territory in terms of regulation.’ Ray Cronin said.

Captain Richard Butterworth Head of Training for Kestrel has had the full backing of the company to develop this capability for Kestrel which has achieved this milestone and will advance the company  in terms of operational activity and training programs in the future.

Australian owned helicopter company leads way in night firefighting

February 2018

Kestrel Aviation (Kestrel), one of Australia’s leading specialist helicopter firefighting companies, is preparing to launch its night vision firefighting capability in Australia, paving the way for firefighting after dark in Australia for the first time.

Kestrel has completed the first two trial phases, involving dropping water at low levels onto pre-determined targets using its advanced Conair 85-KE fire attack system, something that has not previously been achieved in Australia. The final phase, to be conducted in partnership with emergency management agencies in Victoria, will involve applying the low-level water drops into a controlled fire environment, to obtain final approval from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to commence live, night-time aerial firefighting.

“Victoria is one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world,” said Kestrel Managing Director Ray Cronin.

“Night time aerial firebombing has the potential to improve the ability of Victoria and other states to fight fires, affording better protection for bushfire-prone communities,” he said.

“Kestrel is combining its industry-leading helicopter pilot skills with innovative technology to drop water and suppressants on fires in all conditions at night.

“These low level, night time deployments of water from Kestrel’s advanced helicopter belly tank are the first to deliver with considerable accuracy in Australia.

“Safety is a key focus and we have been working with CASA to meet all the safety regulations and gain the necessary approvals to participate in the trial.

Kestrel has several skilled pilots with night-flying accreditation, who will be conducting the firebombing operations alongside Victorian emergency management personnel. The next stage will involve live night vision firebombing trials with Emergency Management Victoria (EMV), the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP).

“We anticipate receiving approval to go ‘live’, being ready to fight frontline bushfires at night, by the end of March,” Mr Cronin said.

Kestrel’s base at Mangalore, Central Victoria, is ideally situated for preliminary night trials, with a variety of terrain and celestial luminosity (various moon phases, clouded versus clear skies, and so on) that help to determine the feasibility of night bombing activities.

Kestrel is using Australian-made ‘Night Eyes’ vision goggles, which offer advanced image performance that is critical to the unique fire ground environment.

“This is a unique opportunity for Australian companies to showcase their capabilities and take the critical firefighting suppression flight past daylight hours,” said Mr Cronin.

“We believe Kestrel’s lead will provide a pathway for a sustainable future in night time firefighting within the local helicopter industry in Australia.

“We wish to acknowledge the contributions of all our partners in allowing us to evolve this innovative technology – CASA, NAFC, EMV and CFA – as well as our highly trained Kestrel team members.

“Night firebombing operations are already conducted offshore, and Australians can have confidence that specialist companies such as Kestrel are doing everything to stay abreast of international capabilities in fire suppression.”

About Kestrel Aviation

Kestrel Aviation is one of Australia’s leading specialist helicopter firefighting companies, with more than 27 years’ experience providing firefighting and other services to state and federal agencies. Kestrel is one of the leading contractors to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) and its member state agencies, and currently holds 19 contracts with NAFC including six Erickson S64 Aircranes. Kestrel owner and managing director Ray Cronin is a highly respected helicopter pilot in Australia.

Helitack 346 becoming airborne for night bombing operations, Mangalore Victoria, 28 January 2018

Helitack 346 hovering over a dam, Upton Road Avenel, 28 January 2018

Helitack 346 night bombing, 11 February 2018

Kestrel adds to fleet

October 2017

Today Kestrel’s new 412HP VH-XCN arrived at Mangalore after a ferry from its previous owner, Lifeflight at Archerfield.

XCN will commence a role equipment fit out then join the fleet of seven medium helicopters equipped with the industry leading Conair 85-KE firefighting belly tank attack systems.

With the fire season already knocking on the door XCN will no doubt earn its stripes in its new role.

Ferried by Captain David Sewell and Callum Cronin

Pre Fire Season Pilot training

October 2016

2016 Pre Fire Season Pilot training has been completed for this year. All Kestrel pilots for both the medium and light helicopters undergo a comprehensive week long course culminating in approval to conduct firefighting operations for the forthcoming season.

The Classroom covers not only firefighting techniques and safety considerations, but among other things human factors, fatigue management, wire avoidance, low visibility recovery techniques and Fire Agency expectations.

The flying aspect covers the Company flight reviews, Kestrel designed standard firebombing profiles and techniques, precision – close crew support water bombing, firebombing target, standard water pickups and emergency dump procedures.

These training programs are to ensure that the Kestrel crews are armed with the appropriate skills to approach the challenging low level environment of accurate wild fire firebombing.



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Aerial Firefighting Asia Pacific Conference

September 2016

Kestrel attended the Aerial Firefighting conference held in Adelaide on 5th and 6th of September 2016.  Seen here at the Channel nine sponsored welcome function is Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Mr Craig Laspley and Managing Director-Kestrel Ray Cronin.  The event covered two days with interesting innovation in aerial firefighting and a great opportunity to network with likeminded operators from around the globe.


Kestrel awarded fire contracts in Victoria

October 2015

Kestrel Aviation has been awarded seven more National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) contracts for Bell type 2 helicopters for service for the Victorian Government fire contracts.  These seven services will be Helitack 330, Helitack 331, Helitack 332, Helitack 333, Helitack 337 (Bell 212s) and Helitack 334 and Helitack 346 two Bell 412s, this adds to the current fleet of six Air Cranes and three longrangers on Contract to NAFC.

“Kestrel is committed to serving the community of Victoria as part of the latest fleet acquisition by NAFC for the Victorian Government” says Ray Cronin (Managing Director) “Kestrel have spent many years building the company’s capacity and facilities to the level that they are at today and are confident in our ability to support the community when needed” .

Kestrel with their 16 contracted services providing Aerial fire fighting capacity to four States cover the range from the very large Air Crane capacity helicopters, the medium capacity helicopters and three of the light Air Attack helicopter platforms and are one of the largest operators in this field of aviation in Australia.

This year Victoria is affected by an El Nino weather pattern and will experience drier and warmer than average conditions, no doubt the large fleet of helicopters and aircraft engaged by Victoria will go a long way to assisting with the potential suppression of wild fire activity.

AFAC Conference- Adelaide SA

September 2015

Kestrel once again participated in the AFAC conference alongside Erickson Incorporated, which was this year held in Adelaide. The annual conference is considered to be Australasia’s largest and most important emergency services and public safety conference and trade exhibition and is a good opportunity to meet with delegates and visitors from emergency and security services and all levels of government and non-government organisations from Australia and all over the world.

This year the booth was staffed by Ray and Eleanor Cronin as well as Pat Pilolla and Mike Rotonda who flew over from the United States to represent Erickson for the 3 day event.


Helicopter Winch training in Vietnam

July 2015

Kestrel Aviation was recently asked to provide specialised Helicopter Winch training to several candidates from the Southern Vietnam Helicopter Company at their home base in Vung Tau City, Vietnam.

Over the course of the training Candidates had class room theory followed by flight instruction based around their aircrafts, AS332, EC225 and the Mi172 Helicopters.

All Candidates successfully completed the training and were awarded their Certificate of Competency.

Two senior flight engineers carried out further advanced training to obtain their winch instructors approval to assist the company to maintain internal crew recency training.

The level of attention and commitment from the Candidates was impressive, together with the friendly and professional support from all concerned made for a positive outcome for everyone.