Australia just experienced its hottest, driest year on record, with fires starting in the winter months and burning in some places until early March. Thousands of volunteer and career firefighters battled these blazes. As is normal practise, states helped each other out by sharing teams and resources.

As fire seasons get longer because of climate change, the prospect of fighting local fires and also having to support other states for larger sections of the year is daunting. It is also a problem for those who have to ensure we have adequate air support to be able to fight fires. Because many of the firefighting aircraft are leased, and shared around the world, as fire seasons get longer, there will be ever more demand, and greater cost, to secure the fleet we need.

Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre contracts a fleet of 150 firefighting aircraft across all states and territories, which goes up to 500 when including “on call” vehicles. At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, five large air tankers and nine large helicopters were contracted from North America, but as fires worsened in November, two additional tankers were leased. By January, $20 million in additional funding from the Australian government was used to add four more, including a DC-10 Air Tanker flown from Alabama thought to have cost AUD$1 million for the 50 days of its contract. (Source).

The dilemma is that as our fire seasons get longer (potentially going from September to late March), the same thing is happening elsewhere in the world.

There’s more competition for the tankers than ever before as climate change and land use patterns expose new areas to fire risk.

A smart option is to purchase additional aircraft so we are not locked into a market where the price of contract rentals keeps escalating.

One idea floated revolves around the retirement of the Lockheed Orion fleet owned by the RAAF.

The Lockheed Orion has been used by the Royal Australian Air Force for many years and the fleet is being retired, with the last planes to leave service in 2023. These planes have been used for tasks such as naval fleet support, maritime surveillance, search and survivor supply and anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.

There is a call to repurpose them to fight bushfires. Given the fact that the government already owns them, the common sense argument goes that this is a (relatively) cheap way to add to our air fleet for fighting bushfires.

There are varying views:

Some people say that these planes are too old or not suitable for firefighting:

  • They have ‘been in service since the mid 60’s they are 50 years old. They have had the useable life flown out of them. They aren’t being sold or given to anyone they are being scrapped because they are fatigued’.
  • ‘The Orions are out of airframe hours, and there is a shortage of spares given the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin) ceased production of the aircraft in the early 1990’s. This is over and above the problems and cost of adapting the Orion’s design to be compatible with a fire fighting role.
  • ‘They don’t have the necessary payload capacity’.

Others suggest that the Orion can be easily retrofitted to allow them to be used for firefighting.

  • They could be fitted with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS), which ‘loads into a C130 like any cargo, then you swap the side doors for the outlets’.
  • Use the aircraft for flame retardant powder NOT water.
  • Operate the aircraft unpressurised which removes the strain of the pressurisation cycles on the airframes. It does limit the aircraft to 10,000ft which should be no great problem given that the highest point in Australia is Mt Kosciusko at just over 7,300ft

The Victorian government has previously said that it wants ex-military aircraft to be converted to water bombers as it looks to secure a regular supply of fire-fighting planes and helicopters for longer and more intense bushfire seasons.

Last year Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said the idea of refitting retired Navy, Army or Air Force planes as fire-fighters had been put to the federal government.

So, what do people – who know about aerial firefighting and planes – think about this idea of retrofitting the Orions that the Australian public already owns?