Australians should be retrained for aerial bushfire missions, pilots’ federation says

06 September 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Australian pilots should start training to work on aerial firefighting missions to boost the country’s capacity to tackle bushfires and reduce the need to bring in overseas pilots, the Australian Federation of Air Pilots says.

The federation’s president, Captain Louise Pole, said the federal government should own and operate an Australian-based fleet of aerial firefighting craft.

Captain Pole said it would take only a minimal retraining effort to get Australian pilots into firefighting aircraft.

“Based on the fact the government hasn’t already got a plan in place for the firefighting, we wouldn’t be able to get everybody and aircraft ready for this summer, but it wouldn’t take much longer after that to be able to get these pilots trained into these roles,” Captain Pole said.

She said federal and state contracts to bring firefighting aircraft into the country should in future stipulate the need for Australian pilots.

“The government needs to have contracts that require these aircraft [to be] operated by Australian pilots when they’re working in Australia. We believe the government should go to having Australian registered aircraft doing the work as well,” Captain Pole said.

“I guarantee there are hundreds out there who would be willing to do the job and protect their country and environment and be very proud to do that for Australia.”

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many pilots out of work, with less air traffic as a result of movement restrictions. Captain Pole said the pilots’ federation represented at least 500 pilots currently looking for work.

Emergency leaders are increasingly concerned the overlap between the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons will get bigger, making it harder for Australia to rely on American-based aircraft and crew when bushfires start early in the season.

The bushfire royal commission has suggested in a draft proposition that both federal and state and territory governments should secure a sovereign aerial firefighting capability “of sufficient size and versatility to meet national needs”.

However, Coulson Aviation, the Canadian company which has long-term contracts to provide aerial firefighting support in Australia, believes its pilots, which work year round in both hemispheres, are better suited to the job.

The company is investigating whether its pilots could move to Australia with their families for the entire fire season in an effort to contend with international COVID-19 quarantine requirements.

Coulson Aviation owner and chief executive Wayne Coulson said the company’s current NSW contract was about knowledge transfer, but the edge his company brought to aerial firefighting was its year-round experience.

Mr Coulson said there was significant pressure on aerial firefighters in Australia to perform, and pilots who worked year-round on firefighting missions had better long-term training opportunities.

“[In Australia] you have limited resources and it’s a big country, and, a lot of days, you get one shot to stop that fire, and if you don’t get it, it’s going to be significant damage done and lives are at risk,” Mr Coulson said.

Mr Coulson said the overlap of the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons meant it was already harder to guarantee aircraft would be available in Australia in time for early season bushfires.

Former ACT emergency services commissioner Peter Dunn this week added his voice to the push to put more Australian pilots in the air to tackle bushfires.

Mr Dunn said Australia needed to increase its capacity to launch “direct attack” missions on fires, seeking to target them from the air shortly after ignition and well before they grow in size and become out of control.

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