Helisureste a firefighting outfit that can never lower its guard

Farnborough Air Show » 2006
November 16, 2006, 5:21 AM

Fires are a huge and growing problem in Spain and its islands, as they are throughout southern Europe. As many as 250 aircraft–the vast majority of them helicopters–are currently involved in fighting bush and forest fires around Spain. One of the country’s biggest contributors to this annual effort is Helisureste (HS), based in Alicante on the country’s Mediterranean coast. The company has built a great deal of firefighting experience over its 22-years in business. From a single Bell JetRanger with a Bambi bucket it has grown to field a 25-strong aircraft fleet, ranging from the Bell 407 to the weighty Russian Kamov Ka-32.

Most of HS’s work is paid for by the public sector: the agriculture, public health or civil protection departments of largely autonomous regional governments. The principle causes of fire vary by region. In relatively wet Galicia in the northwest, agricultural land exists cheek-by-jowl with woodland and the farmers traditionally burn old growth to prepare for new planting. In the drier south, lightning storms can set off blazes in tinder-dry brush. And it’s a year-round problem. “We cannot afford to lower our guard, even in the winter,” said HS commercial director Antonio Martinez.

Fire-fighting contracts typically last for two to four years. Central government tends to keep the bigger aircraft–like Kamov Ka-32s, Eurocopter SA 330J Pumas and Bombardier CL 215s–on standby to back up local response. These aircraft are based at some 20 locations throughout the country. The regional governments issue their own tenders and hire the smaller types for fast response.

As the largest national contributor, HS sends its Ka-32s (it owns four on the Spanish registry and is to receive five more from Russia), each capable of lifting a 4,500-liter (approximately 1,200 gallons) Bambi bucket. “Our usual mission involves flying a fire crew and Bambi bucket to assess the threat from the air before we start dropping water. If necessary we call in others and deal with the threat as a team,” said Martinez. “The 407 can drop 900 liters, so it is very useful as an initial response tool. If the team decides a larger response is required, we send the bigger Bells.”

The Kamovs are not cleared to fly passengers–its bulky lifting apparatus intrudes into the cabin–and its strong downwash can be a handicap, so they are brought in only if the fire is difficult to contain. To minimize the effect of its downwash, the company prefers to put a bucket at the end of a 30- or 50-meter long-line, rather than fit the tank and snorkel. “But the Ka-32 is a potent fire-fighting weapon, and its operating costs are less than half that of an S-64 Aircrane,” Martinez told Aviation International News.

National Responsibility

The HS operation is integrated into the national emergency response infrastructure, even at remote outposts in forests or mountainsides. When a member of the public spots a fire, he dials 112 (Spain’s equivalent of 911) and is connected directly to the forestry department. Depending on how it perceives the threat, the forestry department would dispatch either a local inspector to assess the level of response or the nearest helicopter with a fire-fighting team, its bucket folded into an external pod.

Each helicopter has a 50-km (30-mile) radius of responsibility and it responds to every call-out and every sighting of smoke– on its own initiative, if necessary. The crews try to deal with a fire within two hours. If the task looks too big, the region can call in central government to help with its larger aircraft.

Local knowledge is paramount. Although every water source in the region is programmed into the GPS, the crews build their experience over several seasons and rarely move between areas. The more experienced HS pilots have logged 8,000 hours in the fire-fighting role.

Martinez is convinced that the risk of fires has increased over the past 10 years. “We are moving from a typical three-month season to four months. Our regional commitments now involve an average of eight helicopters–one year-round, two for six months and five for four months. This is good for us, of course, because we can invest in new helicopters,” he said.

“After particularly serious fires in 2003 and 2004 we increased our fleet by ten percent–equivalent to acquiring five more machines,” Martinez continued. “Our customers now ask for bigger helicopters– upgrading from a 206 to a 407, say, or from a 205 to a 212 or 412 and keeping a Kamov on standby as a heavy bomber. There is also a modernization trend, from the old 205 to the 412 or employing new and faster helicopters like the 407. There may be an element of interregional rivalry– they want to be bigger and better than their neighbors–but there is no denying that the flying rate is up as well.”

Here at Farnborough International, Kamov can be found at Hall 1 Stand B13.

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