By John Thomas
Over twenty years ago, an agricultural application and aerial firefighting company in Spain developed a visionary and aggressively proactive strategy to combat wildfires… they actively hunted them with loaded Air Tractor AT-802 SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers)!
Having inherited the agricultural aviation business that his father established in 1965, the young and visionary entrepreneur Vicente Huerta Dominguez, Jr., owner and CEO of Avialsa, located in Valencia (yes, think oranges), early in his business career recognized the newly-developed AT-802 agricultural aircraft would be indeed an excellent and cost-effective water-bomber.
This lead him to the decision to invest in two AT-802s (serial numbers 802-0018 and 802-0019) that he used in 1995 to promote his very own “Initial Fire Attack” program to the Spanish authorities.
The test program aimed at proving the concept that early fire detection and immediate suppression is better than the traditional method of holding air tankers on the ground while ground personnel or observation aircraft make the determination as to whether aerial suppression is needed…they just get after it!
This “armed reconnaissance”, seeking targets of opportunity, was based on the proven capabilities of the newly acquired Air Tractor AT-802 aircraft, wildfire statistical data for the preceding 10 years and use of specialized software (a computer generated analysis of years of collected historical weather data, fire activity and fire locations combined with current and forecasted weather conditions to include humidity levels, winds, dry lightning, as well as typical outdoor activity of the public) and last but not least Avialsa’s experience in aerial firefighting operations.
Aerial patrol routes were developed and flown by one or two, dual cockpit AT-802s (pilot and observer pilot) loaded with retardant or water and foam. Upon detection of a fire, the crews immediately attacked it. The program was a resounding success – despite a dramatic 20% increase in the number of wildfires that year, the burned area was reduced by an incredible 60%.
The two Air Tractor aircraft accumulated almost 1,300 flying hours in four months with an amazing over 99% dispatch reliability rate. According to Vicente Huerta,“800 gallons of fire retardant dumped during the first minute of a fire is better than 8,000 gallons being delivered in the first 10 minutes or 800,000 gallons being delivered in 30 minutes.”
The test program proved successful and the Spanish government awarded Avialsa, 3 to 5-year contracts for their program – Aircraft Vigilance and Attack (AVA). Consequently, Huerta decided to start phasing out at that time the current Avialsa PZL M-18 Dromader aircraft and invest in building a completely new AT-802 fleet.
Over the years, Huerta’s business bloomed and his companies now have 150 employees and strive for continuous growth and expansion, united around one key factor – the continued success of Air Tractor AT-802 aircraft. Being the center of Huerta’s business, the AT-802 grew into a truly capable and successful aerial fire-fighting asset.
Avialsa and its sister-company, Air Tractor Europe (exclusive distributor of Air Tractor aircraft for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East since 1996), achieved amazing success and have sold over 150 new and pre-owned Air Tractor aircraft to different customers in 13 countries worldwide, including to the governments of Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Cyprus and Israel.
Today, Avialsa still patrols but now instead of a crew of two, their patrols are single piloted and may also be flown in a Fire Boss, an AT-802A or a dual cockpit AT-802.
Availsa’s inventive AVA concept has proven successful and cost-effective in decades-long domestic aerial firefighting operations in Spain, but also in regular foreign deployments to neighboring nations of Italy, France and Portugal.
Croatia, a small Balkan nation globally recognized as an aerial fire-fighting superpower is regularly patrolling its loaded AT-802s on a daily base during the summer season between May and October. Under the well established practice, two aircraft are taking off every morning from their home base in Zadar for patrolling flights towards Dubrovnik airport; one aircraft flies southeast along the coast line with the other flying over the Adriatic Sea covering the nation’s statistically-proven, wildfire-prone islands.
In the afternoon both planes fly back home from Dubrovnik to Zadar, again patrolling the wildfire-proven areas. While doing so, an immediate attack on the forest fire with 820 gallons (3,104 liters) of water, foam, or retardant while the fire is still small, benign and easily controllable is the action of choice.
This has been perfectly mastered in Croatia and is now an example of how an AT-802 should be properly used. Could this concept work in the United States? Probably not, it’s most likely just too costly, among other reasons. According to Hugo Arceo, sales manager at Air Tractor Europe, the cost per hour the government pays for an AT-802 on patrol in Spain is so economical that it would be unwise not to use them in this proactive way.
Turns out, most fires reported in Spain come from these airborne patrols and they are promptly and effectively extinguished by Avialsa AT-802s far before developing into destructive, out-of control, deadly wildfires!