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The Dromader question, RFS CASA and Senator Heffernan

The weekends always bring interesting questions to be raised and investigated.

I listened to Senator Heffernan in November 2013, when he asked some very pointed questions about the RFS [Rural Fire Service of NSW] of McCormick of CASA.

The matter was again taken up from the May 2013 senate estimates, with only a single answer to the November estimates and none from May 2013.

Senate Estimates Hansard, 29 May 2013, p. 102.

CHAIR [Sterle]: Mr McCormick, where possible, please could we have the answers as direct and short as possible. I know that is a big call for this committee.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I want to talk about the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales and its requirement for fixed-wing operators in fire suppressions. In many areas of New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service is at odds with people’s requirements for the operation of aircraft.

To what extent does the Civil Aviation Safety Authority control aerial firefighting in New South Wales, or Australia, beyond certificate approvals and pilot licensing?

Mr McCormick: We are occasionally called on to designate special areas of airspace.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Is it necessary for CASA to accredit any activities of aerial firefighting management being undertaken by state bodies such as the New South Wales Rural Fire Service or accredit training syllabi presently approved by the Australian National Training Authority?
I think we ought to have a briefing. I have some pretty serious stuff about that young bloke who got killed at Bethungra, which is just across the road from where I am. He had 4½ hours in a modified Dromader plane which was overweight to buggery. Some serious people in the flying world are concerned that there seems to be a lack of accreditation and regulation in how rural fire services planes are operated. There is also this issue of the requirement that they have to have five radios in an aircraft used for firefighting, a requirement that, I understand, was imposed unilaterally by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. You have no oversight of that sort of stuff?

Mr McCormick: I am aware of these issues. I was just at Pays Air Service in Scone and we were discussing this. It came as a bit of a revelation to me as well that they had five radios on board. But perhaps it is best with these issues, Chair—and Mr Mrdak is in agreement—that we arrange a meeting through the minister’s office. We could address all these issues completely on—

Senator HEFFERNAN: I have letter here from a solicitor’s firm in Cooma which is of great concern. They have raised some pretty serious issues. I think that, somehow, we ought to conference it.

Mr McCormick: I am more than happy to do that.

Mr Mrdak: Perhaps, through the minister’s office, we can arrange a discussion between you, Senator, and—

Senator HEFFERNAN: As you know, we do not play politics with this stuff.

Mr Mrdak: With legitimate issues like this, Senator, it is appropriate for us to arrange, through the minister’s office, a meeting with you, Mr McCormick and his key people

Senator HEFFERNAN: If we do that, I can get a couple of people along.

Mr McCormick: I think that is the way. We are more than happy to sit down with other experts and work through this. I agree—this is not an issue to muck around with.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I also have a series of questions about 20 accidents which have been recorded since 16 February 2013—five of them fatal. These are air incidents and accidents. I might also present those questions to you.
Mr Mrdak: Given the nature of the questions, I think that is the way to go. It probably requires discussion.

CHAIR: Senator Heffernan, just so I am very clear: Mr McCormick and Mr Mrdak will, through the minister’s office, organise a briefing for those who are interested. It is not an extension of Senate estimates.

Mr Mrdak: We will organise a private meeting with Senator Heffernan where we can get the right people in the room and have a discussion about these issues.

CHAIR: And whoever else wants to come along—it is a very important issue and I will be there too. But it is not an extension of Senate estimates.

CHAIR: Welcome back to Senate estimates, and we are on CASA. It seems to me, having watched for many years—probably longer than even you, Mr McCormick—the interaction between the Rural Fire Service and aviation, that the guy who got killed down the coast the other day should not have been killed. The Dromader, we know, is a plane that was fitted to carry 1,000 litres originally. We have a guy who was cleaned up on the Bethungra Hills a few years ago. The difficulty, as you may know, with the Dromader is that they are seriously upgraded with a powered-up engine, a powered-up load from 1,000 litres to probably 3,000 litres, and I think with the powered-up engine they are legal at about 2,400. They generally carry the full load and, as you would be aware, they do not power up the airframe. The rougher the weather the more speed they have on to put the fire out, and the more load you put on the wings. Hence, the wing fell off this plane and it should not have fallen off. Those guys are crop sprayers normally and they go in with 1,000 litres et cetera.

Can I just say that I am disgusted because I am informed that on that day it was pretty rugged weather. The Rural Fire Service blokes seem to be outside the ambit of the safety guidelines. I do not know what the interaction is with air safety and CASA on these operations. These guys did not particularly want to fly because it was bad weather and they were taunted by the Rural Fire Service blokes by saying, ‘Real men and real pilots should be up there.’ If that is the attitude of the Rural Fire Service something needs to be done between CASA and the relationships with the Rural Fire Service and air firefighting.

As you would know, Mr McCormick, a lot of this stuff looks great on TV and is useless for putting the fire out except if you are going to dump it on a house with the Elvis. If you dump 1,000 litres on a fire with low humidity and no mop up it looks great on the telly but it is a waste of time. So, could you tell me what the working relationship is between CASA and the Rural Fire Service on having some sort of civilised operation with these planes. Sure, they are grounded, but they should never have been allowed to do the things they were. I have spoken to guys that I have known for years,—I will not name them as we may have an inquiry into this—as I am an old pilot, as you know. You can actually overload a plane, especially if you are expecting it to go down ravines and up and over and in high weather and high sheer. Would you like to reflect upon that death and the operation of that plane on that day, and what is the working relationship, so that we can have a safe regime for Rural Fire Service firefighting by aircraft?

Mr McCormick: As you say, Senator, the Dromader has been the subject of a number of supplemental type certificates over the years allowing increase in weight and increase in horsepower, one before the other generally. There have been some aerodynamic refinements required to the aeroplane as well to take the extra power.

We have been working with the Dromader operators for some time around those STCs and the effectiveness of them. They date back quite a long way. With the Dromader itself, there was a failure in Western Australia, which I thought you might be referring to, a few years ago. I cannot remember exactly which year.

The wing failed due to fatigue. We did quite an extensive investigation into that and found that some of the requirements, which were placed on the operators after they had incorporated the supplemental type certificates to increase the weight, may not necessarily have been followed, particularly in the recording of hours, the amount of bank angle they were allowed to use, the amount of G they were allowed to use, et cetera.

CHAIR: That is what it is all about.

Mr McCormick: In reality, once the aircraft is certified and has a type certification data sheet that says it can operate at these particular weights it is just like any other aircraft to us in terms of the onus being on the operator to operate within the bounds of the flight manual and the flight envelope of the aircraft.

As far as the Rural Fire Service goes, generally speaking I think in New South Wales in particular nearly everyone that undertakes fire bombing is contracted to the bush fire service. We provide air space issues around the operation. I think we have discussed here before that some of the operators of these aircraft—not only the Dromader; the Air Tractor and others—wind up using multiple radios talking to fire controllers et cetera.

We generally rely on the operators to know what is safe and what is in their operations manual that we look at and how they interact with the Rural Fire Service. We do not have a head of power, as such, to impose anything on the Rural Fire Service but we certainly have not finished looking at this. Those particular Dromaders are just now coming back into service, with another inspection regime in place. We have not finished that body of work. Luckily, there are not a great many Dromaders. It is unfortunate that the tragic accident killed people. There are not a lot of these aircraft in service and we will continue to work with them.

CHAIR: By the way, these standby fees cost a lot of money. I know of one instance—I had better not name the plant but it was an expensive piece of plant—where two of these were contracted on standby to a Rural Fire Service somewhere in Australia. The standby fee enables this particular operation to buy one new plant every year. That is how expensive it is.

If I am contracted to the Rural Fire Service and there is a fire they may say to me, ‘You’re the contractor; get up there and dump on that fire.’ If the flying conditions are not safe and I am contracted to do the flying they may say to me: ‘Are you a man or aren’t you?

We want you to get a VC out of this and put the fire out even though it is not safe.’ What protection does the pilot have, other than his saying no when he is contracted? You will close Sydney airport if it is not safe.

How do you ‘not safe’ firefighting from the air?

Mr McCormick: We do rely on the expertise of the people that are involved in the firefighting—both the on-ground commander and particularly the companies that contract to them. We have a lot of faith in the people who do this fire bombing work. They are normally pretty big organisations, so we let them understand the risks and decide what should happen. It is terrible if they are being intimidated to fly.

CHAIR: That is my understanding, from a pilot. They feel obliged, and every now and then it all turns to custard.

Mr McCormick: I can give you an answer on notice, if you like, about the relationship between us and the Rural Fire Service.

CHAIR: I think it is not between the pilot and the Rural Fire Service; it has to be between you and the Rural Fire Service. There needs to be some steadying influence in the cowboy attitude at times. I am not alleging anything, broadly, but it is an uncomfortable feeling that a lot of very learned, experienced pilots have. This guy was disgusted that a remark would be made: ‘Are you a man or aren’t you? Get up there!’ I can give you the details.

Mr McCormick: We will look into that.

Answer:

CASA provides oversight of Air Operator Certificate holders, including those who conduct aerial firefighting operations under a commercial relationship with the Rural Fire Service. CASA does not oversight Rural Fire Service organisations directly.

CASA has been advised by the NSW Rural Fire Service that it is undertaking an investigation into the matter raised by Senator Heffernan. CASA has requested a copy of that report when completed, and will consider its content in respect of any aviation safety concerns.

Another refusal to answer with a clear basis for the answer by McCormick and no QON [Question on Notice response by MvcCormick]

Senate Estimates: Page 72 Senate Monday, 18 November 2013
Civil Aviation Safety Authority

 

CHAIR [Heffernan] : Welcome back to Senate estimates, and we are on CASA. It seems to me, having watched for many years—probably longer than even you, Mr McCormick—the interaction between the Rural Fire Service and aviation, that the guy who got killed down the coast the other day should not have been killed. The Dromader, we know, is a plane that was fitted to carry 1,000 litres originally. We have a guy who was cleaned up on the Bethungra Hills a few years ago. The difficulty, as you may know, with the Dromader is that they are seriously upgraded with a powered-up engine, a powered-up load from 1,000 litres to probably 3,000 litres, and I think with the powered-up engine they are legal at about 2,400. They generally carry the full load and, as you would be aware, they do not power up the airframe. The rougher the weather the more speed they have on to put the fire out, and the more load you put on the wings. Hence, the wing fell off this plane and it should not have fallen off. Those guys are crop sprayers normally and they go in with 1,000 litres et cetera.

Can I just say that I am disgusted because I am informed that on that day it was pretty rugged weather. The Rural Fire Service blokes seem to be outside the ambit of the safety guidelines. I do not know what the interaction is with air safety and CASA on these operations. These guys did not particularly want to fly because it was bad weather and they were taunted by the Rural Fire Service blokes by saying, ‘Real men and real pilots should be up there.’ If that is the attitude of the Rural Fire Service something needs to be done between CASA and the relationships with the Rural Fire Service and air firefighting.

As you would know, Mr McCormick, a lot of this stuff looks great on TV and is useless for putting the fire out except if you are going to dump it on a house with the Elvis. If you dump 1,000 litres on a fire with low humidity and no mop up it looks great on the telly but it is a waste of time. So, could you tell me what the working relationship is between CASA and the Rural Fire Service on having some sort of civilised operation with these planes. Sure, they are grounded, but they should never have been allowed to do the things they were. I have spoken to guys that I have known for years,—I will not name them as we may have an inquiry into this—as I am an old pilot, as you know. You can actually overload a plane, especially if you are expecting it to go down ravines and up and over and in high weather and high sheer. Would you like to reflect upon that death and the operation of that plane on that day, and what is the working relationship, so that we can have a safe regime for Rural Fire Service firefighting by aircraft?

Mr McCormick: As you say, Senator, the Dromader has been the subject of a number of supplemental type certificates over the years allowing increase in weight and increase in horsepower, one before the other generally. There have been some aerodynamic refinements required to the aeroplane as well to take the extra power.

We have been working with the Dromader operators for some time around those STCs and the effectiveness of them. They date back quite a long way. With the Dromader itself, there was a failure in Western Australia, which I thought you might be referring to, a few years ago. I cannot remember exactly which year.

The wing failed due to fatigue. We did quite an extensive investigation into that and found that some of the requirements, which were placed on the operators after they had incorporated the supplemental type certificates to increase the weight, may not necessarily have been followed, particularly in the recording of hours, the amount of bank angle they were allowed to use, the amount of G they were allowed to use, et cetera.

CHAIR: That is what it is all about.

Mr McCormick: In reality, once the aircraft is certified and has a type certification data sheet that says it can operate at these particular weights it is just like any other aircraft to us in terms of the onus being on the operator to operate within the bounds of the flight manual and the flight envelope of the aircraft.

As far as the Rural Fire Service goes, generally speaking I think in New South Wales in particular nearly everyone that undertakes fire bombing is contracted to the bush fire service. We provide air space issues around the operation. I think we have discussed here before that some of the operators of these aircraft—not only the Dromader; the Air Tractor and others—wind up using multiple radios talking to fire controllers et cetera.

We generally rely on the operators to know what is safe and what is in their operations manual that we look at and how they interact with the Rural Fire Service. We do not have a head of power, as such, to impose anything on the Rural Fire Service but we certainly have not finished looking at this. Those particular Dromaders are just now coming back into service, with another inspection regime in place. We have not finished that body of work. Luckily, there are not a great many Dromaders. It is unfortunate that the tragic accident killed people. There are not a lot of these aircraft in service and we will continue to work with them.

CHAIR: By the way, these standby fees cost a lot of money. I know of one instance—I had better not name the plant but it was an expensive piece of plant—where two of these were contracted on standby to a Rural Fire Service somewhere in Australia. The standby fee enables this particular operation to buy one new plant every year. That is how expensive it is.

If I am contracted to the Rural Fire Service and there is a fire they may say to me, ‘You’re the contractor; get up there and dump on that fire.’ If the flying conditions are not safe and I am contracted to do the flying they may say to me: ‘Are you a man or aren’t you?

We want you to get a VC out of this and put the fire out even though it is not safe.’ What protection does the pilot have, other than his saying no when he is contracted? You will close Sydney airport if it is not safe.

How do you ‘not safe’ firefighting from the air?

Mr McCormick: We do rely on the expertise of the people that are involved in the firefighting—both the on-ground commander and particularly the companies that contract to them. We have a lot of faith in the people who do this fire bombing work. They are normally pretty big organisations, so we let them understand the risks and decide what should happen. It is terrible if they are being intimidated to fly.

CHAIR: That is my understanding, from a pilot. They feel obliged, and every now and then it all turns to custard.

Mr McCormick: I can give you an answer on notice, if you like, about the relationship between us and the Rural Fire Service.

CHAIR: I think it is not between the pilot and the Rural Fire Service; it has to be between you and the Rural Fire Service. There needs to be some steadying influence in the cowboy attitude at times. I am not alleging anything, broadly, but it is an uncomfortable feeling that a lot of very learned, experienced pilots have. This guy was disgusted that a remark would be made: ‘Are you a man or aren’t you? Get up there!’ I can give you the details.
Mr McCormick: We will look into that.

Answer [February 2014]:
CASA provides oversight of Air Operator Certificate holders, including those who conduct aerial firefighting operations under a commercial relationship with the Rural Fire Service. CASA does not oversight Rural Fire Service organisations directly.
CASA has been advised by the NSW Rural Fire Service that it is undertaking an investigation into the matter raised by Senator Heffernan. CASA has requested a copy of that report when completed, and will consider its content in respect of any aviation safety concerns.