Coronavirus-grounded commercial pilots push to retrain as firebombers as bushfire season heats up

17 October 2020

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USA – Captain Louise Pole is among thousands of airline pilots who’ve been hit by the pandemic travel restrictions and left facing an uncertain future.

But instead of waiting for borders to reopen and tourism to recommence, she’s hoping their skills can be put to good use over this bushfire season.

Captain Pole heads the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) and represents hundreds of members whose flying hours have been reduced or cut completely as international and state borders shut.

The organisation has made a submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, the inquiry called after the last deadly fire season, which is due to provide its final report later this month.

She told the ABC there were lots of pilots who would be prepared to swap a jumbo jet for a firebomber and could take up immediate training in order to be ready to work this summer.

“We have had a large number of our airline pilots in particular, but other areas of the industry stood down and in some cases have been made redundant,” Captain Pole said.

“I do think they would be capable of assisting in this bushfire season.”

Some commercial pilots have previous experience with defence, border force and agricultural jobs that require proficiency in low-altitude flying, experience that AFAP argues would help speed up the training process.

“What would be required from them is to reskill into firefighting and low-level work to be able to carry out the firefighting capability for Australia,” Captain Pole said.

Experts issue caution over training requirements

The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) coordinates arrangements across the country for combating bushfires.

Its general manager Richard Alder said the training for aerial firefighting is intensive and can take years to complete.

“This is not a set of skills that can be rushed,” he said.

“It’s also important to note that there are only a limited number of jobs available.”

Aerial firefighting is considered a key component of the national response to the bushfire season, both to battle the flames and to provide public reassurance.

A number of large planes that are called in to assist are leased from other countries, and the Royal Commissioners are considering a draft proposition from counsel assisting about an Australian sovereign aerial firefighting capability “of sufficient size and versatility to meet national needs”.

The draft propositions further suggest “contracting arrangements that encourage the Australian-based aerial firefighting industry to develop capability”.

AFAP is lobbying for federal, state and territory governments to commit to an Australian-registered fleet of aircraft “crewed by Australian-licensed pilots”.

“Any nationally shared aerial assets should be owned by the Federal Government,” the AFAP submission said.

The organisation is calling for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to register international planes locally when they are leased to work in Australia.

AFAP argues the current arrangements mean Australian-licensed pilots are “precluded from operating them”.

It has also pointed to the multi-million-dollar cost of leasing aircraft over the last fire season, describing it as “undue reliance”.

Canadian company Coulson Aviation has provided a number of key large aircraft and has recently hired a number of Australian commercial pilots who are out of work during the pandemic.

Some have received training in Canada as part of the preparations for the fire season.

Political stoush over firebombing capability

A spokesman for Federal Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said the Government would be guided by the fire experts on how to manage aerial firefighting efforts, including the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Chiefs Council and NAFC.

“Decisions in regards to leasing or purchasing aircraft, and the contractual arrangements that go with them, are made by firefighting experts not politicians,” the spokesman said.

Ahead of the royal commission’s final report, a parliamentary inquiry has been conducted, with its own recommendations about the future of Australia’s firebombing resources.

The Labor-led inquiry recommended the Federal Government develop a business case for a “permanent, sovereign firefighting fleet” which includes Large Air Tankers and Very Large Air Tankers as well as small- and medium-sized aircraft.

But the Government provided a dissenting report, arguing the operational makeup of the firefighting fleet is “not the role of the Commonwealth Government”.

Key points:

  • Airline pilots want to retrain to fly water bombing aircraft during the fire season
  • The National Aerial Firefighting Centre says training is intensive and job options are limited
  • Royal commissioners are considering whether to endorse a sovereign Australian fleet
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