Pioneers of Argentina aerial firefighting

    Aerial firefighting in Argentina started in 1991 in Córdoba province. The government in the 1990s flew two Cessna C-188 aircraft initially tasked for aerial mosquito control. 

    Government pilots, Norberto  Cordeiro and Daniel Omar Caula realized the agencies Cessnas spent most of the time on the ground. The two started looking into aerial firefighting practices in Europe and the United States to make full use of the aircraft at their disposal and maximize their effectiveness. 

    Photo Gallery by Photographer Raúl Jaime

    With support from the Cordoba government, the aircraft began assisting on fires in the mountainous terrain that was a popular tourist attraction frequented by many thousands of tourists each year. Cordeiro, Caula and Gustavo Brunetto, in addition to aerial mosquito treatment flights, also flew executives and medical evacuation flights for the provincial government as part of their mission profile. 

    An Argentinian AT-802 fights a fire in Argentina. Photo by Ivan Parra

    During their free time, when those flights were not needed, they began training on specific maneuvers for aerial firefighting.

    The first training fights began carefully; no one in the agency had a high level of experience in aerial firefighting missions. Both questioned how the aircraft would behave flying near the ground and in mountainous terrain using during a water drop. “The first discharges we made were at 450 feet above the ground,” said Gustavo.

    As soon as they realized the aircraft handled well during those maneuvers, they began training runs that focused on discharging accuracy. The Cessna 188s had an emergency dump gate, which was small, thus, taking 6-7 seconds for a complete discharge.

    After six months of practicing and analyzing, their confidence was such that they began working active fires in the mountain areas. The first problem the team faced was coordinating with firefighters on the ground. 

    Ground crew and pilots work together to refill the AT-802 on the ground in Argentina. Photo by Ivan Parra

    No one had spoken to the ground firefighters about aviation support for their wildland firefighting; thus, the firefighters on the ground felt that aircraft would steal their work and not augment and assist their efforts on the ground. “After some time, the firefighters realized that this was not the case, an aircraft arriving and deploying 500 liters of water after firefighters had been fighting the fire for six or seven hours, was salvation,” Gustavo explained.

    However, when the pilots and firefighters finally started to work together as a team, no one knew how the other operated. There were no procedures in place. Therefore, in 1994, the firefighting pilots went to a fire station to better understand how firefighters worked. At the same time, firefighters visited the airport with the same objective to understand how the aviation operation worked. 

    From there, everything was about perfecting and coordinating as a team, but it wasn’t near the professionalism that was desired. “Even though we knew how to work as a team on the fire, we still missed many things. There were just a few airstrips were we could fly from, and those didn’t have water tanks. Government trucks had to supply us. We had to stop the aircraft and explain to the firefighters how to load the water into the aircraft. There were many issues; sometimes we didn’t even have the correct hoses couplings,” Gustavo said.  

    In 1996, the Aeronautical Technical Directorate of the Government of Córdoba developed a side opening mechanical dump gate that replaced the original one on the Cessna C-188s. “Now, a full salvo only took three seconds,” Gustavo noted.

    In 2003, Governor José Manuel de la Sota, a staunch supporter of the aerial firefighting mission, bought the operation an Air Tractor AT-502 to add to the fleet. Before with the C-188, they had to make drops no more than 15 feet above the ground. If the drops were made any higher, the water evaporated from the heat of the fire before it was effective. 

    Ground crews refill the tank of an AT-802 firefighting aircraft. Photo by Raul Jaime

    With the AT-502’s tank capacity being 1,800 liters, firefighting pilots would now be able to make drops at 30 feet above the ground, doubling the safe altitude for making water drops.  

    At the time the agency was anticipating delivery of the new Air Tractor, there were just a few ag-operators who had flown the AT-502 in Argentina. Help was sought out from operators Roberto Tomassoni and Omar Diaz, who traveled to Córdoba to speak to the agencies pilots about the aircraft and its operation. 

    Before the aircraft was delivered, the government sent Gustavo to Orlando, Florida, in the United States where he attended a familiarization course for the AT-502 presented by SIMCOM simulators and training. 

    Gustavo quickly adapted to the AT-502, “Back then, I had 500 hours in Turbo Commander and 400 hours in the Caravan with its PT6A engine and some crop dusting experience”.

    When the Air Tractor AT-502 arrived, crews began training and familiarization without a load in the mountains. After 3 to 4 hours becoming comfortable in the cockpit of the new plane, Gustavo decided to perform the first flight with a full load. 

    What should have been a routine training flight turned into a real emergency. The World Rally was running nearby where training was being conducted, and a car had crashed in Agua de Oro, La Cumbre. The vehicle caught fire, igniting brush in an area where there were over one hundred thousand spectators along the rally route. 

    Gustavo jumped into action in what he recalls was a difficult flight. The wind blowing at 45 knots with Gustavo at the controls having never flown the aircraft loaded. He performed a few observations turns upon arrival at the fire to determine the best attack maneuver. 

    He made his first low pass and salvoed the water. As soon as he did, the aircraft pitched up, Gustavo describing his shock as immediately being only able to see blue sky and no horizon. He raised up from the seat, hitting his helmet on the cockpit ceiling. “I went from dumping 500 liters to 2,000 liters of water,” he explained. “It was very different.” 

    The water hit the fire, and he turned back to the base. “Firemen via radio told me it was a perfect hit and asked me for another dump. However, I was thinking about retiring and opening a drugstore, and at that moment, the situation terrified me,” Gustavo laughed. He completed the mission that day, and the fire was extinguished. 

    With more training over the next several months, the pilots came to realize the AT-502 was perfect for their aerial firefighting missions.

    With the ongoing success of the AT-502, two years later, the Cordoba government added a second Air Tractor to the fleet outfitted with a hydraulic operated dump gate. In 2006, the government added its first Air Tractor AT-802 increasing its capabilities with a 3,000-liter tank. A  year later the government sold their Cessna C-188s, purchasing a second AT-802. Cordoba’s aerial firefighting fleet now consists of an all Air Tractor fleet of two AT-802s and two AT-502s.

    When the aerial firefighting team incorporated a new pilot, they faced a quandary. After 14 years, no regulations governed their operation. There were no written procedures for reporting accidents and no insurance or law to protect the pilots and their crew. The team requested the Argentinian Air Force to create a license add-on for aerial firefighting. However, the Air Force didn’t have any experience in aerial firefighting operations, so they asked Gustavo and his team to establish the requirements, experience levels needed and provide information on the theoretical knowledge required to acquire an aerial firefighting add-on. 

    Gustavo and his team then went to work on providing the Air Force with the information they would need to create the new add-on. In the meantime, they wrote procedures, regulations, and standardizations for the aerial firefighting industry. 

    Gustavo was one of the first pilots to acquire the newly created aerial firefighting add-on. “Anyone with more than ten years of experience aerial firefighting acquired the add-on automatically,” he explained. The Air Force assigned two inspectors (Hipólito Molina Carranza and Eduardo Álvarez) to train with them and so they could then function as inspectors and check pilots to provide licensing for new firefighting pilots. 

    For many years Cordoba was the only province with an aerial firefighting team. The National Firefighting Plan was created in 1996, which provided the necessary support to the remaining Argentine provinces with helicopters and a contracted aircraft. Not long ago the program acquired an AT-802 Fire Boss. The government of Córdoba is now evaluating the possibility of incorporating a Fire Boss aircraft into its fleet. 

    Gustavo, who at that time the National Firefighting PLan was enacted, was the Air Work Chief of the Aeronautical Directorate of the Province of Córdoba, did not agree with using the Fire Boss aircraft. Not because he did not like the Fire Boss, but because he understood it would require specialized training to fly. Moreover, it would be necessary to coordinate with the Coast Guard every time one was deployed to restrict access to lakes while the Fire Boss worked. “There were many things to consider before starting to work safely,” commented Gustavo. 

    Finally, convinced it was time for a change, procedures to acquire the Fire Boss were initiated, but for political reasons, it was not until a year and a half ago the Government of Córdoba received its first Air Tractor Fire Boss AT-802. The Fire Boss was purchased along with a training package that provided theory, simulator practices, and real-time training in the aircraft. Three pilots from the team traveled to Spain to complete training. 

    The crew at Falconer in Argentina. Photo by Ivan Parra.

    The AT-802 Fire Boss can operate both from land or bodies of water. The performance of the airplane varies greatly depending on the area of ​​the fire. If near the fire zone (within 10 miles) where there is a lake for the AT-802 Fire Boss, it can make as many as five or six drops to one made by the AT-802.

    Gustavo Brunetto retired a year and a half ago as Head of Aerial Work for Cordoba. In his 30 years of experience as a pilot, he flew mosquito control, aerial firefighting, and executive flights. Gustavo was in the role of head of the aerial firefighting team for 17 years, also teaching for over 20 years in aeronautical studies, which he continues today.

    From its humble beginnings to the present, there are many improvements that the Cordoba aerial firefighting team has developed. Among them is a modernized fleet, and 22 airstrips from which it can operate around Argentina. Each has Australian water tanks with a capacity for 200,000 liters onsite. Learning from experience, each Argentinian fire station now has the necessary hose couplings needed for loading water on an aircraft, and both firefighters and pilots are trained to work safely and in teams. 

    Gustavo recommends to any aspiring pilot that set a goal to become aerial firefighting pilots that they should aim to join aerial firefighting teams that meet ANAC requirements for license add-ons. He also suggests attending an ag pilot course to get used to flying close to the ground and developing the skills needed for aerial firefighting operations.

    Currently, one of the schools that conducts an aerial firefighting course is Falconer. In addition to being a flight school, Falconer is an official Air Tractor representative and partner with AeroGlobo (Brazil) and Lane Aviation (US).

    The theoretical and practical courses are conducted in Marcos Juarez, Córdoba. The academic portion is an intensive two days of the course. Professors of each subject have extensive experience and are directly involved in aerial firefighting. Gustavo provides instruction for “Logistics and Operational Techniques” and “Aircraft and Equipment,” both for airplanes. 

    Meteorology is taught by Gerardo Barrera, Head of the Forecast Weather Office of Córdoba airport and professor of Meteorology as applied to flight. Dr. Jorge Mestres, an aeronautical doctor, dictates the “Hygiene and First Aid” class. Gabriel Marcellini and Gustavo Del Rey teach “Logistics and Operative Techniques” and “Aircraft and Equipment,” both for helicopters. Santiago Pereyra, a Marcos Juarez firefighter, who has participated in several land deployments against fires in the mountains, teaches “Forest Fires” class. 

    The Practical course is completed in a few days and consists of nine flight hours of aerial firefighting training, which three are in a unique ag aircraft, the IA-46 Ranquel made in Argentina, a general aviation tail dragger aircraft converted for aerial application. 

    Falconer’s owner, Roberto Tomassoni, is an ag and firefighter pilot. The school was a project that he dreamed about from a young age and worked as a flight instructor. He saw the need to train pilots for ag application and firefighting, not only in Argentina but throughout Latin America. “It is an activity that grows day by day and will continue to grow. The lack of trained pilots is a problem,” Roberto explained.

    That’s why Falconer; in addition to training commercial pilots, trains pilots for ag and aerial firefighting. Roberto emphasizes that Falconer students receive not only theoretical instruction but from the first day of training, they see the aircraft used and its equipment. “That is an added value that is very difficult to find in other schools,” Roberto states.

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