HI Uplift: Pulling it out of the fire

Wildfires burned in 19 European countries this summer. The only continent on Earth to escape them in 2022, so far, is Antarctica. Yet their impact is being felt even there. A hole in the ozone above the frozen continent grew to its largest size since the eruption of Pinatubo in 1991 as a result of Australian wildfires this year.

These fires need fighting and this presents two opportunities for helicopter lessors to expand into what is a traditionally underfunded sector operating with ageing equipment.

Speaking at the recent Helicopter Investor Town Hall, James Nohilly, senior vice president, fleet management, Milestone Aviation said given the frequency and intensity of wildfires globally there has been an increased focus on aerial firefighting.

“We see two real areas for growth. The first is increased investment in fire protection from national and transnational bodies. The second is around fleet renewal of the installed base that is there today,” said Nohilly.

Most of the current firefighting fleet is made up of ageing equipment. The average age of type one aircraft fighting fires in the US last summer was 43, according to Nohilly. “It hasn’t been a sector that has typically attracted new technology due to the cost for operators and the contracting structure. We see that evolving right now with a number of groups looking at capability upgrade and fleet renewal.”

Not a huge amount of the fleet of 340 aircraft is involved in firefighting, but Milestone would like to move some newer assets – such as the S92 and Airbus 225 – into the segment. Nohilly said the firm doesn’t see a massive growth opportunity in terms of operating leases. “But we do see increased demand for modern aircraft and for capital.”

Milestone recently partnered with Australian fire-fighting equipment designer, Helitak to develop a fire suppression tank for the S92 (pictured above). The lightweight 4,000kg (1,050 US gallons) collapsible belly-mounted tank is specifically designed for the helicopter.

“It is secured onto the airframe in such a way that doesn’t impede the airframe which was a critical factor,” said Nohilly. “The tank fills through a snorkel at hover in about 50 seconds and has easily compatible drop patterns that can be completed in as little as four seconds.

“A unique solution to the repetitive external lift restrictions that the [S]92 otherwise is burdened with,” he added.

The European firefighting market is not linear, according to Jean-Francois Chiron, CEO, Heli Protection. “It will fluctuate depending on the previous firefighting season. We experienced a big fire in France and I am sure we will see more helicopters involved in firefighting. This was seen in Turkey and Greece last year for example,” he told HI’s Town Hall.

Finding more helicopters is the easy part, said Chiron. The big problem is having the properly trained crew in place to operate them. “This is what the French government doesn’t understand very well. It is not a problem of helicopters it’s a problem of crew.”

Governments are investing huge amounts of money fighting fires with NH90s which are inefficient for the mission said Roy Knaus, CEO, Heli Austria Group. The operator has been firefighting in Germany and Austria this season. “It will take some time before they find out they could invest the money better.”

On price, Knaus thinks the Spanish will be “extremely challenging” because operators have their own contracts, fly high amounts of hours and are under “enormous pressure”.

The market in Europe is not fluid meaning operators have to build co-operations in order to secure contracts in other regions, Knaus said. Chiron agrees, he points to the lack of overarching European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulation for firefighting meaning each country has its own local doctrine for firefighting. “If you go to Spain there is a special rule and you have to go through a local operator. In France it is the same problem.”

Frederic Goig, founder, AviAsset told HI’s Town Hall: “The firefighting market in Europe has to be structured and it has to improved when you see the results we have had [fires this summer]. It has to be done country-by-country. Each country has its own doctrine, each believes theirs is the best and there is no real mutual understanding at EU level.”

The case involving Greek firefighters attempting to fly in France highlights this issue, according to Goig. “They could not operate because they could not integrate into the local setup. So they flew to France and then they flew back. Which is ridiculous because the fire was still expanding at the time. So more work needs to be done at country and EU level to ensure a proper firefighting response in Europe,” he said. This Town Hall online meeting was sponsored by Aero Asset.

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