South Africans have seen some tumult in the airborne firefighting industry recently. A number of high-profile fatal accidents involving ageing Huey helicopters have drawn widespread criticism, with accusations of inadequate oversight by the SACAA and dodgy maintenance by the operators.
This culminated in the withdrawal of the WOF (Working on Fire) operating permits by the SACAA, with the usual recriminations now being bandied about by all parties involved.
During the massive fires which devastated huge areas of the Cape Peninsula earlier this year, it became patently obvious that the Hueys with their Bambi Buckets were only managing to put out the fringes of these fires. The water bombers, single engine Ag-type aircraft, were wholly inadequate, having to ferry from distant airfields and back to refill their hoppers with water. Bigger aircraft with much more capacity were required.
The ground forces of fire fighters were very effective, well-trained and would have been even more successful, had the aerial fire fighting been more effective.
The answer, as always, lies in funding. The Hueys are old and cheap – running costs can be very high, but as the popular argument goes, one could well contain costs by cutting corners and using dubious spares. Perhaps we should take a leaf from the North American example.
The US have long been leaders in aerial fire fighting, but even there the hard lessons learnt from using obsolete equipment have resulted in serious soul-searching and re-evaluation of aircraft. A number of fatal accidents involving Korean War vintage bombers have resulted in new aircraft being introduced, the BAE 146/Avro RJ being the prime example.
With the Cape’s fire season only months away, it would have been ideal to have a few of these stationed around!