Fighting Fire: Large Air Tankers at Avalon Airport
For the past six years Avalon Airport has housed some of the largest performers in the fire fighting fleet that descends on our state every summer. The LATS or large air tankers have become iconic in their imagery, flying deep and low over unimaginable fire and dropping their incandescent red near the burning scrub below.
The tragic deaths of three heroes in the sibling fleet in NSW earlier this year was a sobering reminder of the precariousness of the task that these men and women have faced daily in what has become known around the world as our worst and most prolonged bushfire season on record.
We caught up recently with the man behind the operation at Avalon. John Reps, who is the Large Air Tanker Project Officer has been with DELWP (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) for just a couple of months. His background is military, and the link is tangible given the reality of the massive mobilisation and battle waged against the bushfires each year.
Avalon Airport was chosen as the Victorian base for its location.
“Location, location, location,” repeats John. “The pilots say that Avalon is outrageously great support, especially Air Traffic Control. When they launch out of here everyone else is cleared out so the fire bomber can launch without delay. It's like a fire engine with a siren - you launch and everyone else just pulls over - and you go straight. It's really good.”
The aircraft he’s talking about are known internally as Bomber 390, Bomber 391 and the Bird Dog.
The former are more widely known as RJ85 and C130. They’re the large tankers that carry the water and retardant mix loads and dump the loads ahead of the fire.
The lesser known Bird Dog’s function is just as important to the mission. This twin engine small plane, nimble and quick, takes off as soon as the call comes through from the State Air Desk. It aims to get to the fire first, to work through all the parameters and requirements with ground control so that by the time the bombers have caught up it can fill them in on where to drop their loads - even drawing out the path to follow through the air with its own smoke.
Communication is paramount. Each morning begins with a 10 o’clock briefing: where are the fires in the state, where might the aircraft be needed? Then the pilots go into a hold. They run checks on the aircraft, and work through maintenance, so that as soon as a call comes through from the State Air Desk they are ready to begin the water bombing evolution within a fifteen minute window.
The team on the ground at Avalon are vital to this operation. Each of the bombers has a tank that needs to be filled with a precisely combined mixture of water and retardant.
“Everyone will look at the aircraft, but the centre of gravity of the operation is the very unromantic looking tanks and mixers out there, and the people running around in their high vis vests,” explains John.
“Aeroplanes don't mean anything unless those guys are jumping around. It always comes down to that - the person with the hose, the person back on the mixer, the forklift driver, all that stuff... it's not glamorous but that's where the juice is.”
In fact for someone like John, who mobilises the operation and works to keep the entire processes well-oiled, the biggest pressure is supply chain.
“I’m always wary - not worried - but wary of the supply chain. If we don’t have retardant then all else falls over. My biggest concern is trucks. Truck drivers on highways trying to move retardant from the warehouse, over to here to get it onto the aircraft. So if, for example, there's a fire that affects the roads to Avalon, and we have to go into high operational state, and I'm ordering as fast as I can but nothing can get through, operationally that's where my focus is going - it's very much a logistics issue.”
And that's not just at Avalon; John’s remit extends out to the Albury base as well, where the bombers can reload if required. “How do we make sure we have enough retardant in the right spot at the right time?”
These types of pressures aside, there’s no sense of panic at all in John’s description of the evolution of the water bombing process; everything seems logical, ordered, and completely unemotional.
“It’s very non-Hollywood! Slow is smooth and smooth is fast - nobody rushes anywhere. And that's all the way up to the air crew when they're about to drop their load; that same approach - it's a calm environment, it's not swashbuckling - it's all very focussed.”
Asked if this will ever become a permanent set up at the airport, and you get the feeling that John might be trying to do himself out of a job.
“Everything I'm doing is pointing in that direction. How do we shift away from mobilisation/demobilisation to a permanent operation. At the beginning of this year none of this stuff was here. These were empty offices. And that’s a lot of effort just to get that part up and going, too much effort, when it's easier to say let's leave it in situ. We'll see. It'll give us huge gains in what we call operational integrity - to ensure that the state of Victoria simply has this capability within the state.”
IMAGES FROM TOP: LAT RJ85 on a smoky day at Avalon; Large Air Tanker Project Officer John Reps; LAT C130; the nimble Bird Dog resting in a hangar at Avalon; rows of retardant; the retardant and water is combined in these mixers before being loaded into the tanks of the large air tankers