Technology: What’s the latest in aerial fire fighting research and development?
Many nations worldwide are pushing for greater aerial fire fighting capabilities amid the rising fears over climate change and the increase in wildfires. Amid ongoing concerns, commercial companies, militaries and governments have been proactive in developing various versions of these aircraft that can combat fires. Whether modifying existing aircraft to adopt fire fighting capabilities, developing new aircraft or retrofitting removable kits into military planes for rapid response, it is clear it has become a worldwide priority.
Airbus’ A400M is a good example of retrofitting a kit into an existing aircraft to provide the capability for a far cheaper price tag. In July, the manufacturer announced it ran a successful series of tests of its military airlifter in Spain, operating the removable demonstrator kit.
It was in collaboration with the 43rd Group of the Spanish Air Force, the European authorities in Firefighting operations, and the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MITECO). The goal was to determine how much water the aircraft could drop and whether the kit was viable.
Airbus said the campaign took place in daylight conditions as the A400M would fly at a low height of 150 feet and speeds of 125 knots. The aircraft would drop 20 tons of water in less than ten seconds.
The four-engine aircraft has been flying since December 2009 and entered into service in 2013 with the French Air Force as its launch customer. Airbus built the turboprop to replace aging aircraft, like the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. To compare, the Hercules and the Boeing 747 Supertanker, both used for fire fighting can carry between five and 25 tons of water.
What makes the design of this kit is how it fits into the aircraft. Airbus calls it a roll-on/roll-off (RORO) design that requires no modification to the plane. According to the company, the water is stored in a fixed tank in the cargo hold and retained by two doors.
Airbus intends to test the kit during night-time conditions soon.
Embraer’s MAFFS II
Brazil’s Embraer is inching closer to its C-390 Millennium aircraft to perform improved fire fighting missions. On 5 September, the company announced it had completed flight tests under the certification campaign for the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS II), an improved version of its predecessor developed in the 1970s.
The system is also a RORO design and can drop up to 3 000 gallons of water (11 300 litres) with or without fire retardant water. It can quickly be installed into the aircraft’s cargo compartment and only needs aircraft power to operate.
Embraer completed the tests at its facility in Gavião Peixoto, São Paulo State, in Brazil, as the last step before being certified by the Brazilian Military Certification Authority (IFI). The tests included several in-flight water drops, and Embraer said it demonstrated “excellent aspects of flight quality and manoeuvrability,” which is essential for flying at low speeds.
Compared to the original MAFFS, the improved version replaces five tanks with one large one. The system can be pressurised by a compressor in the air instead of completing that process on the ground, which saves significant time. It can also be deployed more rapidly to the fire as its cargo ramp and door can stay closed, which reduces drag.
China’s newest version of the AG600 seaplane, the AG600M, completed its maiden flight taking off and landing on the water on August 29th. Developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the registered B-0DCC aircraft successfully took off from the Zhanghe Reservoir across from the Jingmen-Zhanghe Airport and, after an 18-minute test flight, landed on water.
The first variant of the amphibious water bomber was supposed to have its first flight in 2014 but it was delayed until 2017. The new prototype has been built with several improvements and is expected to start firefighting missions in 2023 and will enter the market in 2025, AVIC says.
Four Dongan WJ-6 turboprop engines run the aircraft, and its maximum take-off weight is quite a steady increase from the previous variant. The AG600 had a 53,5 tons MTOW, compared to the AG600 M’s 60 tons one. It can allegedly stay in the air for a considerable 12 hours and can carry 50 passengers.
Aerotime noted that the size of the water bomber is larger than typical amphibious aircraft and is more like the single-aisle Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320.
Chinese state media outlet CGTN said that AVIC conducted multiple tests during the flight and claimed it was in good condition. The AG600M completed its maiden flight from the ground on May 31st.
EU to hasten fire fighting aircraft purchase plans
Only months after the European Union said it was in talks with manufacturers to buy more fire fighting aircraft in July, the EU met again on 5 September with its member states and agreed to expedite these plans and establish a fleet soon. Initially, production of these helicopters was set for the second half of this decade but will likely start sooner.
Europe’s wildfires were some worst during this year’s Summer. The meeting on Monday saw the ministers from EU countries and the European Commission discuss plans to advance the purchase of helicopters funded by the EU, Janez Lenarcic, head of the EU’s crisis management, said in a statement, according to Reuters.
“At a European level, we have reached our capacity limit. Some overwhelming fires in some member states did, in fact, not lead to a request for assistance because the countries concerned... knew that no capacities would have been available,” Lenarcic said at the meeting.
Currently, EU countries are responsible for combating fires and can only request the EU as a last resort. The new planes will be bought by member states but will entirely be financed by the EU, Lenarcic said.
While no manufacturers have been named yet, Lenarcic revealed the EU would produce more amphibious aircraft.
Sources: Reuters, CGNT, Aerotime