When the heat is on, Working on Fire’s AT 802 water bombers join the fight
The Air Tractor (AT) 802-F, Single Engine Aerial Tanker (SEAT) is a highly effective and sought-after aerial firefighting resource. It is specifically designed for fast and effective aerial firefighting. Around the world this fire-extinguishing aircraft labours, season after season, to supply fast and efficient relief during wildland firefighting operations – not just as an initial attack resource, but also to support ground crews during extended operations.
This remarkable aircraft carries up to 3,104 litres of water mixed with fire suppressants and it reaches a cruising speed of 250 km/h for rapid response to a fireline. Its programmable computerised “fire gate” can discharge its content in pre-set volumes and intervals or as a once-off load, enabling the pilot to optimise dispersal and make precision drops on a number of critical points on a fire. The computer takes air speed, volume and height above ground to determine the volume and timing of the load to be released.
Photo credit: Gert Jansen van Rensburg, WOF Aviation Spotter Pilot.
“The settings allow the pilot to disperse the load evenly along the flanks of a grassland fire, pulling a line of up to 1,000 metres,” explains Koos Kieck, ex-military (South African Air Force pilot), now bomber pilot for Working on Fire Aviation.
“On the other hand, one can also ‘open the gates’ and eject the full tank within half a second to penetrate thick forest canopies.”
Once emptied, it returns to the airfield at speeds up to 350 km/h to refill its tank. The refill operation takes about 2 minutes, after which it returns to the fireline.
The AT 802-F has an endurance of 3,5 to 4 hours and, depending on the proximity of the runway, its average turnaround time is about 14 minutes, delivering roughly 14,000 litres per hour onto a fire.
Kishugu® Aviation (Pty) Ltd owns the only four AT 802-Fs currently operating in South Africa, which they supply to Working on Fire Aviation to service the South African Government’s Working on Fire (WOF) Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and WOF’s other clients, consisting of local municipalities, large landowners and Fire Protection Associations (FPAs).
WOF Aviation started using the AT 802-F for its aerial firefighting operations in 2013. Prior to that, they made use of Dromaders and Thrushes – essentially crop sprayers, adapted for aerial firefighting. Today, this fleet of fixed-wing water bombers fly an average of 350 hours during active firefighting operations annually. Kishugu® Aviation imported the AT 802-F from Spain and sent a number of pilots to acquire type specific ratings in either Spain or Brazil.
To qualify as an aerial firefighting fixed-wing water bomber pilot on the AT 802-F, a pilot requires a Commercial Pilot’s License (CPL); 1,000 total flying hours as the Pilot in Command (PIC); at least 500 hours turbine and 300 hours taildragger experience. Crop spraying experience serves as a benefit, seeing that such a pilot will be accustomed to flying close to the ground.
Once these requirements are met, the pilot is subjected to type specific training on the AT 802-F as well as specialised air and ground training in wildland firefighting, which includes: fire behaviour, communication skills and techniques and maintaining situational awareness.
“I underwent my type specific training in Brazil and Argentina through Aero Globo Aeronaves,” explains Cornel Jansen van Rensburg, who joined the WOF Aviation team in 2017. “Being a bomber pilot is the most rewarding job I have ever done. It combines action and adrenaline with precision, teamwork and a real sense of purpose.”
“It is immensely satisfying when our team – the command and control aircraft, Huey helicopters and fixed-wing bombers, along with the ground crews – successfully extinguishes a fire, save lives,and limit damage to property and the environment,” says Koos Kieck. “But to accomplish this, each component has to play its part, and the AT 802 with its speed, large water tank and versatility in drops, continues to prove its worth during operations.”