World Air Photography Blogs

Air Tanker History in Canada, Part One

The first operational use of air tankers in Canada took place in Ontario in 1945 with a float equipped Noorduyn Norseman. While taxiing, the aircraft could scoop 55 Imp. gallons into each float and the pilot discharge the load over the fire. Because of the limited capacity, further development and use was curtailed.

Firefighting Noorduyn Norseman

Firefighting Noorduyn Norseman

Throughout the late 1940’s experimentation continued in the United States with military aircraft and in Ontario with water filled latex lined paper bags but both met with limited success.

Further experimentation and use continued through the 1950’s in the United States and isolated operational use occurred in Canada with the Grumman Goose, T.B.M. Avenger and DeHavilland Otter in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario respectively.

Grumman G-21A Goose

Grumman G-21A Goose, Forest Industries Flying Tankers Ltd, Sproat Lake, Vancouver Island, B.C.

1958 appeared to be the turning point in Canada for the acceptance of the fixed wing aircraft as an air tanker. By this year Norcanair had equipped their deHavilland Otters and Beavers with float mounted external tanks with probes to pick up the water. Norcanair fulfilled an important role in fire suppression for Saskatchewan during this era.

In the period between 1959 and 1961 several types of air tankers including the Stearman (Alberta, B.C.), Avenger, Beaver, Husky and B-17 (B.C.) were positioned in the western Provinces. 1960 saw the first operational use of the huge Martin Mars on the coast and southern interior of B.C. The PBY Canso and the deHavilland Otter saw action on fires in eastern Canada including Quebec and Newfoundland. In 1962 the western provinces realized that they required the guaranteed availability of air tanker services and the first air tanker contracts were introduced in British Columbia and Alberta.

The need was identified in the late 1960’s for larger payloads and faster speeds. In 1969 notable additions to the various tanker fleets in Canada included the Douglas A-26 and initial worldwide deliveries of the Canadian built CL 215.

Douglas A-26 Air Spray water bombers

“Air Spray”, Douglas A-26 water bombers
Photo: Flyvertosset

Operational use of the Grumman Tracker and Douglas DC-6 began in 1972. The availability of civilian and military surplus aircraft for firebombing continued through the 1970’s to the mid 1980’s.

Buffalo Airways Douglas DC-4 Water Tanker

Buffalo Airways Douglas DC-4 Water Tanker at the Yellowknife Base.
Photo: Flyvertosset

In 1975 Northern Air Operations was developed as a means for the Province to own and operate the Air Tanker Fleet,. 6 – ex-Navy 1957 De Havilland Trackers were purchased & converted to retardant bombers.

Grumman Tracker

Conair, Grumman Tracker

In 1962 Field Aviation converted 18 Canso, built in 1947, over to water Skimmers for forest fire suppression. Norcanair acquired four of these Canso and found work within Saskatchewan and elsewhere around the country. SK Government purchased the 3 remaining Cansos from Norcanair in 1981 and kept them until 1996.

buffalo airways Canso_Drop

Buffalo Airways Consolidated Vultee PBY-5A Water Bomber
Photo: Buffalo Airways

The CL 215 was designed specifically to meet the demands of the Canadian Forestry. First delivery of this aircraft occurred in 1969 with 125 produced between 69 and 89. The Saskatchewan Government purchased 4 in 87/88 and 2 when the three Canso were sold in 1996.

Canadair CL-215

Canadair CL-215, the Canadian designed and built water bomber

The first use of turbine powered aircraft in a firebombing role in Canada was with the Ontario Air Services deHavilland Turbo Beaver in the mid 1960’s. The Twin Otter soon followed.

dehavilland twin otter firetanker

deHavilland Twin Otter Firetanker
Photo: DJ Kennedy

By the mid 1980’s in North America some agencies recognized that replacements for many aging piston engined tankers was necessary due to dwindling engine and parts supplies and increased maintenance and fuel costs. Development of turbine powered air tankers such as the Fokker F27 and turbine converted Tracker occurred through the late 1980’s. By 1990 production of the CL 215 ceased in favor of the turbine conversion of these aircraft and the production of the new CL 415. 1994 saw the addition of the Lockheed L188 Electra to British Columbia’s fleet, followed by the Air Tractor 802 in 1996 and Convair 580 in 2000.

Air Spray, Lockeheed Electra L-188 Tanker

Air Spray, Lockeheed Electra L-188 Tanker
Photo: Flyvertosset

Despite the trend toward turboprop aircraft by some manufacturers and agencies, many other agencies and operators across Canada continue to use their piston air tanker fleets effectively into the new century. These include types, which originally saw action in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, such as the T.B.M. Avenger, Canso and Martin Mars.

Martin Mars water drop Tanks fully opened

Martin Mars water drop. Tanks fully opened
Photo: Flyvertosset

Times are changing and the Mars Bombers have retired. The jets are coming as well as more turboprop tankers. We have not even touched on the many helicopters use to fight our forest fires, so sometime in the future we will have “Part 2” of the continuing story about aerial firefighting in Canada. This is a dedication to the men and women who risk their lives and sometime loose it in order to protect os from the forest fires.

Facts About Wildfires

  • A wildfire, also known as a forest fire or peat fire, is an uncontrolled fire often occurring in wildareas, but which can also destroy houses or agricultural resources.
  • When dealing with different kinds of wildfire, firefighters refer to them as types of fires: surface fires, dependent crown fires, running crown fires, spot fires and ground fires.
  • Running crown fires are a firefighter’s worst nightmare because they burn extremely hot, travel rapidly and can change direction quickly.
  • The most dangerous aspect of running crown fires are the convection currents which produce massive firestorms and tornadoes that can send embers well ahead of the main fire front, causing spot fires that in turn can start new fires in another direction.
  • Weather conditions can directly contribute to the occurrence of wildfires such as through lightning strikes, or indirectly such as by an extended dry spell or drought that contributes to the availability of fuel.
  • Another cause of wildfires is the buildup of grass, leaves and twigs in a pile. This accumulation of dead matter can create heat, enough in some instances to spontaneously combust and ignite the surrounding area.
  • Lightning strikes the Earth over 100,000 times a day. Of these, 10-20% cause a fire.
    Man-made causes such as arson or plain carelessness (like smoking in forested areas or improperly extinguishing campfires) by individuals is the biggest cause of wildfires.
  • More than four out of every five wildfires are caused by people.
  • A large wildfire, or conflagration, is often capable of modifying the local weather conditions or producing “its own weather”.

Sources: Virginia Department of Forestry, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment,Flyvertosset. Photo credits are shown on photo or in caption.

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