Water Bombers of the Israeli Police

Since May 2011, AT-802A/F Air Tractors have been used as the primary aerial assets in support of the firefighting operations of the Israeli National Fire and Rescue Authority. Once operated by the Israeli Air Force’s 249 ‘Elad’ Squadron at Sde Dov airport near Tel Aviv, they have been used by the Israeli Police Aviation Unit since November 2016. Based in the historic airfields of Kedma and Megiddo, the fleet of fourteen AT-802s has seen extensive use for tackling wildfires in Israel and overseas, particularly in Cyprus.  As many wildfires in Israel were created by arsonists this past summer, the fleet of Air Tractor AT-802s is now being prepared for extensive aerial firefighting use in the upcoming fire season.

Formation of the 249th ‘Elad’ Aerial Firefighting Squadron

In December 2010, the Mount Carmel forest fire killed 44 people, causing injuries to many others, and displaced 17,000 people in Israel.  Due to the absence of any firefighting aircraft and also the existence of an old tradition banning the use of military resources (including the aircraft of the Israeli Air Force) for aerial firefighting, it took two days until finally, on request of the Israeli government, several countries sent firefighting aircraft and helicopters to the country to tackle the massive fire. Based on the lessons learned from that wildfire, the Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ordered the Israeli Ministry of Defence to create an aerial firefighting unit serving Israel.

In January 2011, the Israeli Air Force was tasked to reform its 249 Squadron as an aerial firefighting unit to operate a fleet of two AT-802F two-seaters and five AT-802A single-seaters (all second-hand) that the Israeli MOD procured from Spain under a USD 20 million contract with Elbit Systems. The squadron was formed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rami on March 31, 2011.

On May 23, 2011, the first three Air Tractors, two AT-802Fs, and one AT-802A, which had arrived on March 31, became fully operational with the 249 Squadron at Sde Dov airport near Tel Aviv. Maintained and operated by Chim-Nir Aviation and Elbit systems. The small fleet of seven Air Tractors (two AT-802Fs and five AT-802As) was later expanded into fourteen when one more AT-802A and six more AT-802Fs were purchased in 2014. Most of 2011 was spent to train and prepare a group of retired and reservist pilots of the Israeli Air Force to fly them in the 249th Squadron.

In 2011, the 249th Aerial Firefighting Squadron was named ‘Elad’ after a 17-year-old volunteer firefighter, Elad Riben, who lost his life during the 2010 Mount Hermel fire. Before the procurement of the AT-802s and formation of the squadron dedicated to aerial firefighting, the Israeli National Fire and Rescue Authority employed a single Ayers S2R-T34 Turbo Thrush commander of Chim-Nir Aviation at Herzliya airport, whose primary use was fertilizing and air spraying farms in Israel. Their small number and unavailability due to maintenance works and issues would cause problems for the National Fire and Rescue Authority.

When S2R-T34/45s from Chim-Nir Aviation were used for aerial firefighting, their operator could guarantee to have them airborne in a maximum of 90 minutes. Each carries a maximum of 1,500 liters (400 Gallons) of water. Thanks to the acquisition of AT-802s in 2011, the Fire and Rescue Authority of Israel was capable of being assigned and on the way to a firefight in the country in less than 30 minutes. Also, thanks to the larger and more powerful engines, they can carry a maximum of 3,100 liters/800 Gallons of water, and 20% can be replaced with fire retardant chemicals. They can create a 100-meter-long protective line against fires and can land and be refilled within 10 minutes.

Two airfields, Megiddo in the North of Israel and Kedma in the South, were prepared with special equipment to fill the tanks of the aircraft during firefighting operations. Once a fire was detected, the aircraft could be airborne within 15 minutes and reach the affected zone seven to 15 minutes after take-off. Starting in 2011, during fire seasons, the Israeli Air Force could deploy one or two of them to each of the frontline airfields to support the National Fire and Rescue Authority in tackling the wildfires. This was later expanded to six to seven in each airfield when the number of Air Tractors reached 14 in 2016.

On March 28, 2012, one of the AT-802As of the squadron was severely damaged seconds after take-off from Kedma airfield in the south of Israel. According to its pilot, Aryeh Horev, a former C-130E/H pilot with over 15,000 flight hours experience, the throttle lever of the aircraft suddenly went into reverse position. At the same time, it was airborne at an altitude of 30 feet. The wounded Pilot of the aircraft returned to service after the incident, and the aircraft was repaired in a year.

Participation in International Firefighting Operations

In its four years of operations, the squadron participated in extinguishing more than 500 fires, for which its aircraft logged 4,600 sorties and 2,500 flight hours. Some of these operations took place in Jordan and Cyprus. A temporary unavailability of one of the AT-802s caused by an incident on March 28, 2012,  led to the procurement of an eighth AT-802 by Elbit Systems for the 249th Elad Squadron. After completion of the repair work of the damaged AT-802, the IAF had now eight of them available for aerial firefighting operations in 2014, but this wasn’t enough to meet the needs of the National Fire and Rescue Authority. Subsequently, the Israeli MOD ordered six more AT-802s (all F or two-seater models) through Elbit Systems Ltd for the IAF’s 249th Squadron.

For the first time in summer 2012, the 249th ‘Elad’ Squadron was tasked to deploy two aircraft to a country overseas to fight wildfires. They were deployed to Bulgaria to help fight a wildfire in the Vitosha Mountains near Sofia. It was just the beginning of their participation in international operations. Later, in June 2016, one of their largest international operations took place in Cyprus. That year, the Republic of Cyprus faced one of the largest wildfires in its history between June 19 and 23. The wildfire burned several thousands of hectares of pine forest in Troodos mountains. It overwhelmed the local fleet of two firefighting aircraft of the Cypriot Forestry Department (an AT-802F and a S2RHG-T65) as well as two Bell 412s and three AW139s of the Cyprus Police Aviation Unit and Griffin HAR2 helicopters of the Royal Air Force’s 84th Search and Rescue Squadron at RAF Akrotiri.

After a request of the Cypriot government from its allies to support its ongoing battle against the wildfire on June 18, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israeli Air Force to deploy three of its thirteen AT-802s (at that time). They were accompanied by a C-130H Hercules tactical transport aircraft of the IAF’s 131 Squadron, carrying special firefighting equipment, including fire retardant for the aircraft. All arrived early on June 19 at Andreas Papandreou Air Base, Paphos. A fourth Air Tractor arrived at Paphos in the afternoon of the same day. The Elad Squadron’s AT-802F Air Tankers flew in two-ship formation flights and dropped fire retardant every 20-30 minutes over the Forest.

On June 20, C-130Hs ‘428’ and ‘661’ of the Israeli Air Force arrived to deliver additional fire retardant for the four Israeli Air Tractors there. By the end of June 20, estimations showed that 15 square kilometers of land and forest had been charred in Troodos, which made it the biggest fire in Cyprus after the Saittas fire in June 2007. Finally, a day after the fire was put out in Troodos, the AT-802s returned to Israel on June 24.

As the Cypriot Police Aviation Unit and the Cypriot Forestry Department deployed their helicopters and aircraft to Israel to help the country battle wildfires between 2016 and 2023, the Israeli Police Aviation Unit, which became the operator of the 14 AT-802A/Fs in November 2016, did the same for Cyprus. In 2022 and 2023, the Israeli AT-802s were deployed to Paphos to help the country fight wildfires several times.

On August 7, 2023, two AT-802Fs under the control of four Israeli Police pilots were flown to Paphos. A C-130J-30 of the Israeli Air Force airlifted a technician and several firefighters alongside six tons of fire retardant for use on the AT-802Fs in Cyprus. After flying several aerial firefighting missions, the two AT-802Fs were finally flown back to Israel on August 9, 2023, while a KC-130HI (427) airlifted their ground crew and ground equipment back home.

Deterring the Palestinian airborne arson attacks

In November 2016, the Elad squadron was transferred to the Israeli Police Aviation. This resulted in its relocation from Sde Dov Airport of Tel Aviv to Herzliya Airfield, where Chim-Nir Aviation and Elbit Systems previously performed heavy maintenance. Every year, the fleet of six AT-802As and eight AT-802Fs were kept in the highest state of readiness. During the fire season, six to seven of them are kept on alert in each of the Kedma and Megiddo airfields, tasked to battle wildfires in the south and north, respectively.

The majority of wildfires of late in Israel have been attributed to arsonists, including those with ties to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist organizations. Before the start of the recent war, Palestinian arsonists used condoms filled with Helium gas as small balloons carrying explosives to create wildfires. A group of these balloons were being flown on windy days towards the North of the Gaza Strip to burn vegetation and cause wildfire around Israeli villages and towns. The AT-802s on deployment at Kedma assisted the Israeli Fire and Rescue Department in putting out any fire created using this method in southern Israel.

In November 2016, wildfires and urban fires occurred in Israel from Beersheba in the south to Nahariya in the north. On January 13, 2017, the Israeli fire investigation’s “Gal Report” found that of 80 fires in November 2016, 71 resulted from arson. Two Arab citizens of Israel confessed to deliberately setting those fires. At least 35 people were arrested on suspicion of setting fires or inciting to do so. 15 were citizens of the Palestinian Authority, while 10 were Arab citizens of Israel. These massive fires kept the fleet of 14 AT-802s of the Israeli Police overwhelmed, resulting in the Israeli government asking for the help of its allies to fight the wildfires. Cyprus, Greece, Russia, Croatia, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Azerbaijan Republic, France, and Ukraine sent firefighting helicopters, aircraft, and other equipment to help fight the fires.

In 2021, massive wildfires near Jerusalem burned almost 11000 hectares/28,000 acres of land on fires starting August 15, 2021. AT-802s flown from Herzliya, Kedma, and Megiddo fought the fire until the blaze was brought under control on August 19. A year later, in July 2022, four of the AT-802s were flown from Megiddo Airfield assisted by 20 firefighting teams of the Fire and Rescue Services as well as additional teams from Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) to put out a wildfire around Route 886 (highway) which connects Manara and Yiftah near Lebanon border.

In May and June 2023, almost 180 fires erupted across Israel during a heatwave. The fires kept the Police’s AT-802s extremely busy for three weeks. One fire erupted in a playground after 100 people had gathered for a party, leading to a massive wildfire after partygoers failed to extinguish a barbeque fire.

Since October 7, 2023, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has been busy with Operation Swords of Iron against the Hamas terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip as a response to their deadly terrorist attack, which took the lives of over 1,200 Israelis and other nationals in the villages around Gaza. As a result of the operation, a vast majority of Gaza territory has so far been under the control of IDF, thus making it difficult for Hamas and PIJ to launch airborne arson attacks in the south of the country. however, the risk of facing similar arson attacks in the North of Israel is very high during summer.

Both Palestinian terrorists in the South of Lebanon and the Hezbollah terrorist organization are expected to conduct arson attacks in the North of Israel in the summer of 2024. In addition to that, the launch of unguided rockets as well as one-way attack drones at IDF’s outposts and Israeli villages in the North are still dangers for wildfire in Israel. The AT-802A/Fs of the Israeli Police Aviation on deployment at Megiddo Airfield, supported by the surveillance drones of the Israeli Air Force, will play an important role this year in fighting any wildfire created as a result of the current ongoing war in North Israel.

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