USA – The Coulson Group, a three-generation business started in 1960 by Cliff Coulson as a forest products company, is keeping 50 employees busy outfitting the 737-300s in Port Alberni.
Once they’re ready — and the first one will fly out in 10 days — the planes will head to the United States and Australia, a new weapon to combat increasingly severe wildfires.
“We’re the first to convert 737s to fight wildfires,” Wayne Coulson, Cliff’s youngest son and the Coulson Group’s president and CEO, said. “They are the only plane in the world that can multi-purpose, they can transport 70 firefighters, drop them off, head to the retardant pit and load up, and off they go.”
The 737s were bought from Southwest Airlines, which had to put 50 of them up for sale due to federal rules in the U.S. concerning how many different vintages of planes the airline was allowed to fly.
About 70 per cent of Coulson Group’s firefighting occurs over the U.S. and 30 per cent in Australia. It will take the refitted 737s two days to fly to Australia. The company also supplies C-130s and Sikorsky S-61 helicopter to firefighters Down Under.
“The 737s will be based at our hangar in Las Vegas, but all the manufacturing and installation is being done in B.C.,” Coulson said.
He said the company was the only one in the world that fights wildfires at night, a move sparked by what in Australia is known as Black Saturday.
“In Victoria (Australia), they had their worst bushfires in history in 2009, 173 people died in 12 hours,” he said. “We had two aircraft at the fires that day, other fires were starting, then night came.”
It took a while to get regulatory approval, but from that time on the company’s pilots have been flying in the dark with night-vision goggles.
“Wildfires are the only natural disaster that is controllable,” Coulson said. “But they tick for 24 hours a day, yet traditionally you only fought them for 12 hours a day.”
The Coulson Group expanded into aviation in 1985, and began manufacturing wood products in 1989. The company kept diversifying, opening a branch in the U.S. to provide fire suppression airplanes to the U.S. Forest Service, creating Coulson Aero Technologies and then Coulson Transport Airways in conjunction with Helijet International.
In 2007, the company founded Coulson Flying Tanker after it bought one of only four remaining Second World War-era Martin Mars cargo planes that had been converted to a water bomber. Although not operational today, the Martin Mars is still based at Sproat Lake outside Port Alberni.
In 2013, the Coulson Group bought its first of four C-130 Hercules.
Over the past three years the Coulson Group has divested itself of all its business interests except its firefighting planes and choppers, and its ice-blasting business (which Coulson said uses 85 per cent less water than a pressurized water blaster).