Helicopter Ops

by John Robertson

During the day of Wednesday 8th and of Thursday 9th August there was a big helicopter training exercise. Members of our Brigade attended with two trucks on the morning of both days. It seems that those there on Wednesday got better value. The event was at Chambers Flat RFB and was primarily to train and assess professional firefighters who required formal ‘air operations’ qualification. The RFB members present were mainly in the role of ‘extras’ but, on Wednesday at least, we learned quite a bit.

Chambers Flat Station is ideally placed for helicopter bush firefighting. On one side it has an oval on which to land any number of choppers and within 50 metres a large dam from which they can refill with water. Wednesday began with a formation arrival of the three Squirrel helos and a landing on the oval. They were numbered 667, 668 and 669 and coloured red, blue and green respectively. They are part of a national bush firefighting force and had recently come from WA. Air operations has a lot of jargon phrases and a helicopter is called a ‘helitak’. We had a general briefing on air operations and then the opportunity to examine the helitaks closely and to speak at some length to the pilots. In firefighting mode the Squirrel carries up to 1,100 litres of water plus 80 litres of foam. A normal load is about 1,000 litres, i.e. 1 tonne of water. The point was made that a drop is carried out at about 60 knots – 110 kph – and if a firefighter is hit with a tonne of water travelling at that speed it is no fun. The rectangular tank nestles snugly between the landing skids. The machines do not land to refill with water but hover low over a dam or such and suck the water up using a submersible pump and large hose which always hangs about 15 metres below the helitak. It takes less than a minute to fill the tank. When foam is used it is at a low rate of 0.2%; its purpose seems to be to help mark the outer edges of a drop as much as for any other qualities. A typical drop is about 60 metres long by about 20 metres wide at ground level.

Inspection of the helicopters complete, Paul Womersley gave the briefing for the day. The rural firefighters divided into Alpha and Bravo sectors each under the command of a Chambers Flat officer. Three vehicles in each sector went to a forest area and spaced out at some 100 metre intervals along a rough track to await the helitak demonstration.

At the same time the air operations officers were doing a navigation and helitack set up exercise. Each air ops team was given a GPS reference (in degrees, minutes and decimal minutes format) for a supposed fire. One was near Beaudesert. They had to go to the vicinity, find the best possible water source and call in the helitak(s). The objective is to find a site which enables a cycle time of about 5 minutes, drop to drop, for each helitack and then to guide them to the precise target.

The rural teams out on site had rather a quiet time while this was happening. It let us see the tinder dry condition of the bush – one match would have caused a conflagration. Our sector commander had to maintain contact with Incident Control by mobile phone – it is comforting to know that it is not only us who have trouble with radios! The drop site was a difficult one because it began with a high voltage power line. None the less the two helitaks with sirens at full bore coped admirably and laid down 4,000 litres of water in ‘tag-on’ form within 6 minutes. That done we returned to CFRFB and to a good lunch. We were back at the Station by 1400.

Posted in Training