Piper pushes plan for Lake aerial firefighting fleet

12th December 2020

Source: Newcastle Herald | By: Max McKinney | Posted: December 12, 2020

A Lake Macquarie aviation business hopes to convert 11 ex-Navy Seahawk helicopters into a retained firefighting fleet that would be based out of Lake Macquarie Airport and create hundreds of local jobs.

Skyline Aviation Group, which purchased the aircraft from the defence department in 2018, has been working to convert three of the helicopters for civilian use. One is set to undergo testing at Belmont in a fortnight and be assessed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority for type certification approval.

Skyline bought the aircraft with firefighting in mind, but last summer's bushfires and the subsequent Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which recommended establishing a national aerial firefighting fleet, has propelled the group towards converting all 11 helicopters primarily for that use.

"We're at the stage where we are putting our hand up. We're here and we're ready to go," Skyline Aviation business development manager Mat Edwards said, after showing the Newcastle Herald through company's warehouse on Friday.

Mr Edwards described the Seahawk as a "marinised version of a Blackhawk", a helicopter already being used for firefighting in Australia.

"Last season, four or five Blackhawks were brought in from [overseas]," he said.

A Seahawk can carry about 4000 litres of water. This is less than half carried by an Erickson Air-Crane, but Mr Edwards said the Seahawks were a much faster aircraft.

"An Erickson Air-Crane will do 100 knots, this thing will do 150," he said.

"If you look at water delivered to the fire, this thing is going to be lapping an Air-Crane.

"But compared to other heavy-lift machines available, you've got McDermott Aviation in Queensland - they have the biggest lift helicopter currently in Australia, that's doing 2.6 tonne. So you're nearly doubling their lift capacity."

He said the converted choppers would also retain their night-flying capability.

The company is lobbying for either a retained contract with the National Aerial Firefighting Centre or a call-when-needed arrangement.

Research by Lake Macquarie economic development company Dantia suggests the government would save millions of dollars annually compared to drafting in aircraft from overseas.

Further benefits would be derived from a domestic spend.

Skyline hopes to land a year-long contract before a long-term deal that would allow it to convert the entire fleet and establish a broader operations facility at Belmont.

That proposal would create an estimated 276 direct jobs and more than 400 supported jobs, according to Dantia.

While Skyline's vision is for all 11 aircraft to be used for emergency and heavy-lift operations serving Australia and New Zealand, if government contracts or assistance can't be obtained it may consider overseas offers to buy the helicopters and 40 shipping containers worth of spare parts.

"There's foreign interest in them at the moment, but the goal is not to sell all of them," Mr Edwards said.

"We've got them sitting here, we're an operational company fighting fires already. But there's foreign-owned companies coming in here, that are of similar category - Blackhawks which are basically its sister - that the government is spending millions of dollars on. How about supporting Australian business?

"If they commit to us, we'll commit to them."

Independent state MP Greg Piper wants the NSW government to waste no time and support a Lake Macquarie aviation company's plan to convert ex-military Seahawk helicopters into a firefighting fleet.

Mr Piper, who visited Skyline Aviation with Deputy Premier John Barilaro this week, said the region, state and nation would benefit from the fleet.

"Having a permanently retained aerial firefighting capacity like this would not only make sense, it would also be a significant employer and economic boost for Lake Macquarie," he said.

"These Seahawks can operate far more cheaply than those we currently hire from overseas, and they can operate at night which would significantly improve our ability to bring major fires under control."

The Lake Macquarie MP, who backed the proposal in a parliament speech last month, urged the NSW government to act on the recent royal commission recommendation to establish a domestic aerial firefighting fleet.

"We could wait around for the federal government to do something or we could bite the bullet and get behind a fleet which is sitting in a warehouse almost ready to go," he said.

"I'm pleased the state government and in particular the Deputy Premier are now showing a keen interest in what Skyline has to offer, but it needs to go to the next level because I'd hate to see another summer of bushfires rip through the state while a fleet like this remains mothballed."

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