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Kestrel rises to the task of Australian firefighting
Australian operators such as Kestrel provide suitable assets to state-based fire agencies, through the contracting arrangements with the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), to provide year-round coverage.
Kestrel has an Australia-based fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks.

Australian specialist aviation provider Kestrel Aviation, in partnership with Florida-based Firehawk Helicopters, has launched Firehawk 1, the first of its Australia-based fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks. While this aircraft type has been used in Australia over recent fire seasons as bucket machines, Firehawk 1 sees the first approved and operational tank-fitted Black Hawk join the fight.

Owing to its geographic remoteness, Australia is a distant market to many overseas-based aerial firefighting providers, which sees an increasing reliance on local operators leading the way with maintaining year-round capacity to react to bushfires, the seasons of which are getting longer and merging with that of the northern hemisphere.

This is why Australian operators such as Kestrel play an important part in providing suitable assets to state-based fire agencies, through the contracting arrangements with the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), to provide year-round coverage. With the introduction of Firehawk 1, Kestrel continues its journey in adapting its fleet to meet clients' requirements for increased capacity and capability. Assigned Helitack 125, Firehawk 1 will be joined by its twin, Firehawk 2, before the next Australian fire season.

Before invited dignitaries at its Mangalore base, Firehawk 1 gave a demonstration of its FAA-approved 3,500 litre Hawktank, which was developed in-house by Firehawk. The tank is capable of being filled in under 60 seconds, thanks to its hover fill snorkel, and uses a Trotter gate system that is commonly found on Singe Engine Air Tankers (SEATs). This gives the pilots several options for drop patterns from single shot ‘salvos’ to long drawn-out string lines, both of which were demonstrated during the public world premiere of the Hawktank.

The tank system is quick deployable, meaning it can be removed and allow the aircraft to switch to bucket operations in a matter of minutes should the conditions or environment change. Kestrel's managing director Ray Cronin says: “The tank was designed and built to Australian standards. NAFC and member agencies put the specification out, Firehawk took the [specification] and built the tank around it.”

When not engaged in aerial firefighting operations, the aircraft will be used to support construction, mining, offshore and special project industries, thanks to its impressive lifting capacity, which is greater than 3.5t.

23 February marked the close of Victoria's Night Fire Aviation Program for this fire season, with Helitack 346, a Bell 412 helicopter operated by Kestrel, returning to day aerial firefighting operations based at Kestrel's facility at Mangalore. While it was a quieter season in comparison to the events on the west coast of Australia, it has provided the opportunity to continue the development of this emerging and increasingly essential capability.

Kestrel's commitment to the programme was demonstrated by its seamless availability over the contract term, and its pre-season preparations providing the necessary regulatory approvals to advance Victoria into the realms of ‘initial attack’, the ability to commence fire suppression on new ignitions or the transition into established firegrounds after dark and adapting tactical operations commensurate with the fire behaviour. Kestrel remains the only Australian-owned operator with approval to undertake night helicopter firebombing, an effort which has earned the company recognition as a finalist in the innovation category at the upcoming Aviation/Aerospace Australia Airspace Awards in April.

“This season has seen a continuation of the dedication of our night programme team in collaboratively working alongside Victorian agencies, as well as other operators, to achieve a common goal,” says captain Richard Butterworth, Kestrel's head of training and lead pilot on the programme.

Until this season, night fire suppression had required a day reconnaissance prior to undertaking firebombing at night, with the purpose of identifying any potential hazards, such as power/telephone lines in the operational area. This restricted firefighting efforts to those fires which were already ablaze in the waning light of the afternoon.

With the continued development of the programme this season, and with the help of specialist night vision goggles supplied by Melbourne based Point Trading Group, helitack aircraft are now able to identify new water sources and attack new ignition sources after dark; a significant achievement for the ambitious project.

“This programme has come a long way since it was conceptualised, and credit must be given to the state of Victoria in leading this innovative effort,” adds Kestrel MD Ray Cronin.

With the potential for fire danger remaining this season, and with internationally operated aircraft now commencing their return overseas to support northern hemisphere fire seasons, Kestrel remains in place, offering year-round, day/night specialist response for the state of Victoria, and Australia as a whole. Additionally, Kestrel's culture of innovation has seen further improvements to the country's aerial firefighting capability, with the integration of type one capable helicopter assets such as the battle proven Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, which augments its world-class medium lift fleet of water bombers, night attack bombers and specialist rappel crewed aircraft.

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