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Water Bombers — A worthwhile fixed wing option

Fixed-wing firefighting aircraft offer significant advantages: rapid response, large capacity, strategic precision, versatility, and long endurance, making them crucial in modern wildfire management strategies

May 21, 2024 By Wg Cdr Jamshed Lashkari (Retd) Photo(s): By De Havilland Canada, Bombardier
DHC-515 Firefighter

Off late the Indian country side has been witness to forest fires with the rising mercury and negligible rainfall in the lower Himalayas and Eastern plains. Quoting the data from Forest Survey of India, a number of 54.40 per cent of forests in India are exposed to occasional fires, 7.49 per cent to moderately frequent fires and 2.40 per cent to high incidence levels of fires. Most of these fires are believed to be man-made due to changes in agriculture and unchecked land- use patterns.

Forest Survey of India data reveals that 54.40 per cent of forests in India are exposed to occasional fires, 7.49 per cent to moderately frequent fires, and 2.40 per cent to high incidence levels of fires.

In response to curbing these fires, the local administration requisitions the use of aerial assets. These aerial assets in India are primarily rotary wingers of the IAF who employ bambi bucket operations. These buckets typically have a capacity to hold 4,000 to 9,000 litres of water. Water is usually scooped up from natural resources or even from man-made structures like swimming pools or in the absence of both have to return to launch / recovery base to refill and refuel.

What is lacking is a fixed wing water bomber force in the country. A few of the nations which actively employ water bombers or airtankers are USA, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, Spain, Japan. There is a plethora of category of fixed wing aircraft based on the water carrying capacity ranging from 3,000 to 45,000 litres.

Local administrations in India use aerial assets, primarily rotary wing aircraft of the IAF employing bambi bucket operations with capacities of 4,000 to 9,000 litres of water, to combat forest fires

In the amphibious category the Canadian CL-415 (Super Scooper) is specifically designed for aerial firefighting. This platform is powered by turboprop engines and can scoop up to 6,140 litres of water from a nearby water source without having to return to base to refill its tanks. The CL-515 can hold up to 7,000 litres of water.

(Left) Bombardier 415 - Amphibious aircraft; (Right) FILE PHOTO - AN IAF MI-17 HELICOPTER USING A BAMBI BUCKET TO DOUSE FOREST FIRE

The An-32 aircraft is also utilised for aerial firefighting called the An-32P Firekiller. The IAF has no dearth of An-32s. Some of these aircraft can be modified to An-32P Firekiller wherein 8 tonnes of liquid can be discharged from two external tanks. When not employed in fire-fighting duties the aircraft goes back to being the workhorse of the IAF.

India lacks a fixed-wing water bomber force, a method used by countries like the USA, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, Spain, and Japan for effective firefighting

Aerial fire-fighting is an expensive business. A more viable option would be to modify the existing available fixed wingers like the An-32 into even more multi roles. This is a very expensive way to fight fires and consequently has to be used as a last resort for wild fires as well as dangerous fires where firefighters are at risk and may themselves become casualties such as ammunition dump or petroleum dump fires.

Fixed-wing firefighting aircraft offer several advantages over other firefighting assets:

  1. Rapid Response: These aircraft can swiftly reach remote or inaccessible areas, providing immediate support to ground crews and swiftly containing wildfires in their early stages.
  2. Large Capacity: Air tankers can carry thousands of litres of fire retardants or water, delivering massive quantities in a single drop and effectively halting the spread of flames over vast areas.
  3. Strategic Precision: Air Crew are trained to execute precise drops, strategically targeting fire lines and hotspots to maximise effectiveness and minimise collateral damage.
  4. Versatility: Fixed-wing aircraft can operate in various terrains and weather conditions, offering flexibility in firefighting efforts across diverse landscapes.
  5. Long Endurance: With extended flight durations, these aircraft can sustain continuous operations, ensuring relentless suppression efforts until wildfires are under control.

To improve firefighting capabilities, modifying existing fixed-wing aircraft like the An-32 into multi-role firefighting assets could be a viable and worthwhile expenditure for India in the long run

Fixed-wing firefighting aircraft represent a cornerstone of modern wildfire management strategies, offering unparalleled capabilities in combating large-scale infernos. With their rapid response, large capacity, strategic precision, versatility, and continuous endurance, these specialised planes play a pivotal role in safeguarding lives, property, and ecosystems from the devastating impact of wildfires. This is not the last of forest fires in India and fire-fighting operations will need a rejig. The speed and capacity of the existing aerial platforms is certainly an impediment and to overcome the same, firefighting capabilities in the form of fixed wing assets might be a worthwhile expenditure in the long run. As technology continues to evolve, the effectiveness and safety offered by fixed-wing firefighting aircraft will play a vital role in protecting communities and landscapes from the ever-present threat of wildfires.