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RAAF air lifter delivers fire fighting chopper ahead of fire season

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service’s newly acquired Bell 412 helicopter in a RAAF C-17A Globemaster III aircraft prior to unloading at RAAF Base Richmond, New South Wales (Source: Dept of Defence)

A Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster III has successfully completed a trans-Pacific airlift mission to deliver a specialised firefighting Bell 412 helicopter to RAAF Base Richmond for the NSW Rural Fire Service ahead of the fire season.

A Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster III has successfully completed a trans-Pacific airlift mission to deliver a specialised firefighting Bell 412 helicopter to RAAF Base Richmond for the NSW Rural Fire Service ahead of the fire season.

Loaded by a No. 36 Squadron C-17A crew at Vancouver International Airport, Canada, the Bell 412 was delivered to RAAF Base Richmond on 15 September, where it was reconstructed and received additional servicing.

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The Bell 412 will be ready to combat bushfires this summer.

Commander Air Mobility Group Air Commodore Carl Newman said the mission was well-suited to the C-17A’s capabilities. 

“One of the reasons that Defence purchased the C-17A was the aircraft’s ability to transport large loads like this helicopter over great distances, where and when they were needed,” AIRCDRE Newman explained.

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“Using a C-17A to carry a Bell 412 across the Pacific is an outstanding example of a Defence asset in support of another government agency and one that will yield positive results for the broader Australian community.

It was the first time an Australian crew had transported a three-tonne Bell 412.

A special cargo instruction on how to safely load, restrain, and unload the helicopter was provided by Air Mobility Training and Development Unit.

To prepare for the journey to Australia, its rotor blades were stored in wooden crates and its entire fuselage was covered in a protective plastic.

Wheels were attached to the Bell 412’s landing skids and the helicopter was winched into the C-17A along special wooden ramps that were laid down on the transport aircraft’s cargo ramp.

AIRCDRE Newman added, “This process was repeated in reverse at RAAF Base Richmond with help from No. 22 Squadron Air Movements personnel.

The NSW Rural Fire Service will use the Bell 412 for rapid aerial response and remote area programs, as well as search-and-rescue missions.

Operations support manager of the fire service, Chief Superintendent Chris Ryder, is responsible for the service's fleet of aircraft.

“We can use it to look for fires that are small and try to put those firefighters into the field on those fires to ensure that they stay small over the season. We also chase lightning storms and storm bands,” Chief Superintendent Ryder said.

The fire service intends to use two other Bell 412s in this role. One has been shipped from Japan via commercial means and a third is still being sourced. 

Chief Superintendent Ryder said COVID-19 slowed the delivery.

“There’s long delays to get things onto those ships and flying it out commercially is problematic at the moment with COVID-19. Our priority was to try and get the helicopter out for this fire season and thankfully we were able to go to Defence and they brought it out on a C-17A,” he said.

The successful delivery of the Bell 412 continued the close working relationship between the NSW Rural Fire Service and Defence and, in particular, RAAF Base Richmond.

Since 2015, the base has served as a home for the fire service fleet of large air tankers, providing them with parking space and hangar facilities.

“Having them on the RAAF base works really well for us. It provides good security for the fleet,” Chief Superintendent Ryder said.

The C-17A Globemaster III provides the Air Force with an unprecedented capacity for strategic airlift. It allows Australia to rapidly deploy troops, supplies, combat vehicles, heavy equipment and helicopters anywhere in the world.

Based at RAAF Base Amberley, all eight C-17As are operated by No. 36 Squadron, and provide a logistics backbone for Australian Defence Force operations overseas. This has included operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as East Timor.

Australia introduced an initial fleet of four C-17As between 2006 and 2008. Additional aircraft were acquired in 2011, 2012, and 2015.

C-17As have supported personnel on deployments, and been an integral part of disaster relief and humanitarian missions.

The C-17A Globemaster is a high-wing four-engine heavy transport aircraft. It is fitted with a cargo bay ramp that allows it to airdrop cargo in-flight, and can operate from unsurfaced runways as short as 3,500 feet.

Able to carry up to 77 tonnes of cargo, the C-17A's cargo bay can accommodate loads ranging from:

  • an Abrams Tank;
  • four Bushmaster vehicles; or
  • three Black Hawk helicopters.

It can also be converted to a medical rescue aircraft - the C-17A can be refuelled in-flight by the KC-30A, extending its range further.

RAAF air lifter delivers fire fighting chopper ahead of fire season
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