When Kestrel Aviation’s managing director Ray Cronin discusses firefighting, he uses words similar to what a soldier would use when describing a battle. And, in many respects, fighting large-scale bushfires in Australia is like going into battle.
Cronin is an industry veteran, with more than 30 years aerial fire-fighting experience, who founded Kestrel Aviation in 1985. It started as a helicopter pilot training school at an airfield in suburban Melbourne, but now it is based at a purpose-built helicopter airfield in Mangalore, central Victoria, and is one of the largest aerial firefighting companies in Australia. Kestrel Aviation is also Australia’s largest operator of Bell 212 and Bell 412 helicopters with a total of twelve Bell aircraft amongst their extensive fleet.
“Bell helicopters are very straight-forward aircraft to work with. One of the great things, is it is a family of aircraft. If you have been working on Bell 212s and need to move to Bell 412s, it is not big deal at all. There is such a common theme in Bell’s design and in its systems.” The managing director believes that, from a maintenance perspective, the aircraft are predictable. They are equally satisfied with Bell’s strong customer support network, which “has allowed [them] to fulfil our mission to the communities we serve.” Bell has four certified customer service facilities in Australia providing specialist and ongoing support for its customers in-country.
Referring to the early days of the Huey, Cronin recognizes that Cronin describes Bell aircraft as ‘workhorses’ and attributes the aircraft’s robustness and reliability to the fact the aircraft were originally designed to be ‘war-horses’ ready to dominate the battlefield. Therefore, they are the beneficiaries of all that military research and development and the lessons learnt from having that aircraft flying around the battle-field.”
“The legacy and the history of the Bell as a medium-size helicopter platform has really aided us to have such a high serviceability and dispatch reliability of 99.7% at the moment,” said Cronin. “Anything built to military spec is going to be designed to operate beyond whatever it would face in the civil world.”
But today, these civil aircraft and its crew are facing a lot of challenges, including protecting Australian citizens from growing bushfires. One of the vital roles that Kestrel’s Bell 212s and Bell 412s play is to help put out the spot fires – flames that jump two or three feet ahead due to wing - so the main blaze is contained and can eventually be attacked by ground crews. “We operate the Bell in challenging conditions: heat, turbulence and low-level flying. That is why we have stayed with the Bell product. It does everything we need it to do and it is robust,” said Cronin.
Besides dumping water and fire retardant on fires, the Kestrel fleet of Bell 212s and 412s are also used to transport firefighters into difficult, hard to reach places. It is important to contain an ignition source and put water on it as soon as possible,” says Cronin, adding that the helicopter has a remote off load system with a hose connected to a 1,500 litre water tank on the helicopter’s underbelly. “The despatcher lowers down the hose to the rappel team who can then release the water directly to where it is needed.”
“It is not for the faint-hearted,” says Cronin, when asked to describe the type of person who would rappel out of a helicopter at 250ft and land in the bush to put out fires ignited by lightning strikes. “Rappel Firefighters are people who love the bush and the outdoors,” says Cronin, adding that they are resilient and know how to survive in remote areas. They either have to trek out of the wooded areas on their own, or they have to cut a clearing in the bush to make a make-shift helipad.
As for the pilots, these aviators flying the firefighting helicopters are a unique breed. “We have some pilots who are ex-military, but most of our pilots come from a general aviation, such as cattle mustering background,” says Cronin. “Pilots who do firefighting are generally extroverted people, who love to get their hands dirty and are hard-working and hands-on. Firefighting is not routine work, there are a lot of challenges in it”.
Kestrel has long pioneered technological and safety improvements in the Australian aerial firefighting arena and was the first Australian helicopter operator approved by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to fight fires at night. Its pilots have special night-vision goggles, called ‘Night Eyes’, that are CASA certified, allowing them to fly at any time of the day.
As bushfires in Australia are getting larger, more intense and less predictable and the fire season itself is getting longer, it’s the heroes like Cronin and his team that are working at the frontlines to keep Australians safe.
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