Benoit Terral, Operational Marketing Manger, Aerial Work, at Airbus Helicopters, tells International Fire Buyer about how they are adding a new dimension to wildfire fighting
Tell us about your role at Airbus Helicopters.
I have been at Airbus Helicopters for five years in the operational marketing department. I am a former pilot and I’m in charge of aerial work missions. Inside that area, we focus on a lot of things, including wildfires. I have been trained by the French fire brigade, and I have a lot of contacts and partnerships within that organisation, especially in the South-East of the country, where wildfires are very common.
Airbus are normally associated with passenger aircraft. Tell us more about the fire-fighting and helicopter sides of the business.
We are the leader in the civilian helicopter market. All our aircraft are designed for civilian use first and can then be converted to military and other uses afterwards. The main point of our design is versatility, so we have helicopters that can perform five or six different missions in one day – fire-fighting in the morning, EMS or transport in the afternoon, for example. We have versatile aircraft. We have the most comprehensive range of helicopters in the world, with something like 14 different aircraft, ranging from 1.5 tonnes to 11 tonnes. Due to this, we usually have an answer to any situation, especially in the fire-fighting market. For that market we have two different aircraft. If you want to drop under 2.5 tonnes of water, then you use a light helicopter that is more versatile. The main additional advantage is that you can employ an on-scene commander, who can offer a view from the sky to manage the fire and report back to men on the ground. With a lighter helicopter you can drop up to one tonne of water, which is ideal for tackling smaller, less developed fires. For the main fire, we use much bigger helicopters. For this, we have designed a very special tool – the four tonne Internal Kit, which brings fire brigades something completely new for fighting large wildfires, not only in terms of productivity in fighting the fire. It means fire-fighters can drop four tonnes of water in a very innovative way by using pressure for a concentrated ‘gun’ effect on the ground. It has been proven to be more efficient than fixed-wing methods (better ground footprint). In France we have a large fixed-wing presence through Canadair and TRACKER, operated through a squadron of the French Security Institute. While fixed-wing fire-fighting is popular, it is very expensive; especially if you consider that the planes will only operate for a couple of months each year and spend the rest of the time sitting in a hangar. This model is no longer viable, especially in Europe. Helicopters will be a solution for at least the next decade largely because they are so versatile. At the end of the wildfire season, they can be used for all manner of other operations.
Helicopters can offer not just efficiency but also productivity: They are able to pick up water from anywhere – everything from small pools and lakes to seas and large bodies of water. The helicopter is fitted with a hose and a pump, and its manoeuvrability means it can pick up water more efficiently than a fixed-wing plane. We tested this in a real-life situation, as we always do with our products, on the French island of Corsica in 2007, which experiences many wildfires. In terms of productivity and efficiency, there is no comparison. The major difference between fixed-wing and rotary winged aircraft is that you can manage your speed better with a rotary wing. Managing speed means you can improve the accuracy of the dropping as well as the picking up of the water. In strong winds, and in the South of France we have something called the Mistral wind, rotary wings mean you can drop water very efficiently on the fire.
Is improving efficiency the main benefit to using rotary wings?
The use of fixed wing is interesting for the capacity. In the US, they use very large aircraft to drop water – converted 747s and so on. The time between locations (picking up the water and dropping it on the fire) can be as much as three or four hours. As a rule, the sooner you can drop water on the fire, the less you will need, and that’s why we advocate the use of helicopters. You can use a helicopter in a very restrictive area, which means the time taken between picking up and dropping the water can be as little as a matter of minutes (you are then more productive!). In France, the fire-fighting strategy is to target new fires, even if they are already battling a much bigger one. If a new fire is detected elsewhere, they send as many resources as possible to put out the smaller fire before returning to the original one.
Tell us more about the versatility of converting fire-fighting helicopters to cargo or transport ones.
It’s very simple. All our aircraft have the capability to change from a passenger transport capacity to a cargo one in ten minutes or so. You can then use it to bring equipment directly to where it’s needed. You can change the mission straight from dropping water to transporting fire-fighters to moving equipment to surveillance all with one aircraft.
Are there any other drawbacks, aside from the fact you can’t transport as much water in one go as with a fixed-wing plane?
When transporting liquid, the centre of gravity on a helicopter can be affected. This is something we have tried to combat on the Internal Kit that I mentioned earlier. We’ve drawn on dynamic stability technology from super tankers, and have studied the safest way to transport it. Four tonnes of water on an eight tonne helicopter is a big load compared to a fixed-wing, where the disparity between the two isn’t as great.
Is the fire-fighting market going to become a key one for Airbus Helicopters?
It is, yes, for several reasons. Emerging markets are becoming more and more interested in what we’re doing, because when you have big industry in your country, fires become more of a risk, and we do a lot of work with them to help prevent and combat fires there. We don’t just focus on wildfires, either. In Asia, especially, we’re looking at urban fires and trying to find some solutions for that.
In some governmental entities such as the police or Air Forces around the world, if they were to report to their overall Government that they would like to look at fire-fighting missions, they get additional funds and are allowed to renew their fleet. In Israel, for example, the police are renewing their fleet of six light helicopters, and they are now looking at fire-fighting applications with them as well. They are specifically asking for police helicopters that can also be used to fight fires. It’s definitely fair to say that all over the world fire-fighting helicopters are becoming more and more relevant and in-demand.
Where are you selling most of your helicopters at the moment?
In terms of light helicopters, definitely the US. They mobilise over 1300 helicopters every summer for fire-fighting – it’s amazing! For the bigger helicopters, then Asia is our biggest market. To name a couple of countries, we have sold a few to China and Korea, where they are not only fire-fighting helicopters; in China they are also police helicopters and in Korea they have search and rescue helicopters that are capable of fighting fires. Southern Europe are also quite keen on the smaller range of helicopters as well.
How will Airbus Helicopters evolve over the next five years?
One of the biggest drawbacks to fighting fires aerially is that once the sun goes down, everything has to stop. My background is, as I said, in the military – I was an attack helicopter pilot for 20 years in the French army. We are developing a new night vision system in order to be able to drop water at night just as effectively as during the day. Using night vision goggles today uses an American technology based on light identification – something that doesn’t work on fire! We are therefore working extremely hard on an innovative solution to allow our entire fleet of helicopters to be able to fly at night. From my point of view, it would be very difficult to fly a fixed wing plane for fight-fighting purposes at night, because of the speed. However, as helicopters fly much slower, you can drop water at night in exactly the same way. We’re talking about dropping water from a height of 100 feet, so very, very low altitude. The biggest threat to a helicopter at this height is from power lines. To develop this new project I drew on my experience in the Army, where we used to fly very low during the night on military missions. At least in France and I suspect in most other places, aerial fire-fighting is a very important method of combating wildfires. In France all ranks of fire-fighter are trained in how to guide a helicopter from the sky and tell it where to drop the water. The next step would be to use them at night.
Of course, something else is that these helicopters can be used to save lives. Imagine a fire team, day or night, stranded and surrounded by fire. A helicopter can land or hover and perform an emergency egress to save their lives.
Are unmanned aircraft something you are exploring?
We are looking at it for very light military applications, but not for fire-fighting. The point is that fire-fighting is exactly that: A fight. A combat situation. When you use a UAV there is a lack of situational awareness. You really need men in helicopters – ideally a very well-trained pilot and a fire officer. The strategy and vision comes from the fire-fighter and the flying skill comes from the pilot. On a UAV you would never get that. You can have all the images you want, but you will never be able to get the live co-ordination that a team would get from the air. In the next few years, at least, I cannot envisage UAVs replacing normal manned helicopters, no.