Tangent Link’s Aerial Firefighting Europe brought together over 500 aerial firefighting specialists from all around the globe

The Tangent Link Aerial Firefighting Europe conference and exhibition, took place at Nîmes–Alès–Camargue–Cévennes Airport, to an impressive backdrop of around 30 aircraft. The event attracted 500 attendees from 34 countries, which helped to make the Aerial Firefighting Europe 2017 one of Tangent Link’s most successful events to date.

This year’s venue was the brand new Base Aérienne Sécurité Civile (BASC) facility which was only opened in March 2017. It hosts the bulk of the French Ministry of Interior’s Sécurité Civile firefighting fleet, which boasts 12 Canadair CL-415s, nine S-2F Trackers, three Beech 200 King Airs and two Bombardier Dash-8 Q400s. They are part of the civil protection force, aimed at forming a mass attack on wildfires that are now such a regular occurrence in the southern reaches of Europe.

Nearly all of the fleet was parked on the ramp or in the Sabena Technic maintenance facility next door to the exhibition. During the event, the aircraft could be seen coming and going for training sorties as well as flushing the occasional wild fires that were breaking out even in the middle of October! Seeing the elderly S-2F Trackers taxy down to the ‘pelicandrome’ to be filled up with retardant before heading off was a nice sight.

An interoperability workshop took place on 18th October and was overseen by the Australian-based National Firefighting Centre’s General Manager and IFAWG Chairman Richard Alder and Johann Goldammer, Director of Global Fire Monitoring Centre in Germany.

One of the main aspects of the get-together, by pilots from Croatia, France, Italy and Spain were standard operating procedures (SOPs). The Croatian Air Force’s Aerial Firefighting CO, Major Davor Turkovic pointed out that scooping from a river would be unusual for the CAF because there are no such big rivers in Croatia, saying “Our biggest river back home is a quarter of yours.” and then asked: “I would like to know how often you get wood floating down them?”

The Aerial Firefighting Europe exhibition attracted 40 companies from all over the world, displaying the latest equipment on the market to help with the modernisation of aerial firefighting fleets. It includes a large variety of drones, tanker capabilities, helicopters, Intelligence Surveillance and Recce (ISR) assets and other equipment which could help to stop wildfires in their tracks. Several of these systems participated in an afternoon aerial display.

Tangent Link had Canadair 215/415 water-bombers from Croatia, Italy and Spain here to participate in a simulated water-drop on the second day of the event. ‘Pelican Flight’ was expected to scoop and drop in three different locations, however serious wildfires in Portugal which had claimed more lives meant that the exercise was cancelled. The unpredictability of wildfires had even taken its toll on an exercise aimed at smoothing combined airborne firefighting ops. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the aerial firefighting game. One interesting visitor was an Italian Vigili Del Fuoco Piaggio P180, one of only two that serves the firefighting force that dropped off high ranking officials on the Sunday before the event started and returned mid-week to pick them up.

Christos Stylianides, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, opened the event with a keynote speech. He talked about the challenges of the many wild fires this summer which affected most of the southern Mediterranean countries, and spoke of his concerns that these would spread further north annually as they have done in Sweden and even Greenland in the past.

He spoke of President Macron’s call for a European Civil Protection Force. “First, we must increase our collective capacity to respond, simplify and streamline the procedures and secondly we must have stronger links between national capacities and the deployment of assets at a European level.”

There is a clear need to simplify the ways in which the EU works all the different AFF fleets, but Stylianides would only say that it was a sovereign issue and not one for the EU.
Many of the companies present were North America based, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, Global Air Tanker, Coulson Aviation (USA), Neptune Aviation, Conair Group all showing the visitors, what their capabilities could offer Europe. However, as Wayne Coulson told the author, breaking the Canadair CL-215/-415’s grip on the market will be hard.

Babcock, which is a major force in aerial firefighting, operates 19 CL-415s on behalf of Italy’s Vigili Del Fuoco, two CL-215s in Portugal and two CL-215s in Spain. The UK-based company was marketing its own Infra-red cameras, mounted in front of the aircraft’s windshield. The system, was certified in March which meant there was only time to fit it on one aircraft before the fire-fighting season, temporarily halted the upgrade. Vincenzo Tataglione of Babcock’s Mission Critical Services told the author: “Pilots can use the system during the reconnaissance phase and during the fire attack. You can detect the hot spot from a long distance and improve the efficiency of the mission. The imagery can also be data-linked to the ground station, tablet or smart-phone.”

Vancouver-based Viking Air were also present throughout the event, taking a chance to talk to the many CL-215/-415 operators present. The company, which restarted Twin Otter production in 2007, acquired the engineering and production rights of the Canadair CL-215/-415 Super Scoopers on Oct 1, 2016. It allowed one of their representatives to give the author an update for the future which includes the upgraded CL-415EAF (Enhanced Aerial Firefighting) Super Scooper and possibly even to start production on a new CL-515. For more on that see a separate news item.
This year’s event even had two unmanned aerial systems being demonstrated in the flying display, by Aerones and Azur Drones. The former illustrated the method in which a drone could be used, ideal for high rise buildings and the latter for ISR purposes.

The hour and a half display drew people out on to the ramp not just for the drones, but a selection of helicopters including the Kaman K-Max. The pilot of the Chamonix-Mont Blanc Air AS350 Ecureil put on an excellent display, illustrating how a fire can be put out as well as building a temporary fire station. Air Tractor flew one of their AT-802s as well as a Fireboss with its Wipaire floats, which dropped water in front of the 200 or so onlookers.

Jacques Bonneval was presented with the International Aerial Firefighting Award at the impressive gala dinner, sponsored by DynCorp. He has made numerous contributions to aerial firefighting, both in France and overseas. After 15 years serving Aeronavale (French Navy Aviation), Jacques brought his extensive operational experience to the National Aerial Firefighting organisation. He put in place policies and processes to further enhance air-to-ground cooperation for safer, more efficient and more effective use of water bombers while responding to highest pilots’ management responsibilities.

Jacques’ 25 years of exceptional experiences gained in the aerial firefighting, under National flags, was later put to use in the international arena. Under the Bombardier Company’s auspices, Jacques Bonneval provided the training of Canadair pilots worldwide, thus embedding foreign aerial firefighting capabilities in adherence to the requirements for effectiveness, efficiency and flight safety. As a rare contributor to the furthering of safety and efficiency in aerial firefighting he fully represents what the International Aerial Firefighting Award stands for and complies with the fullest extent to all standards and requirements.

From a journalist’s perspective, Tangent Link’s Aerial Firefighting Europe provided a stunning insight into the world of aerial firefighting, which doesn’t always get the recognition that this proud community deserves.

Alan Warnes
Independent Journalist