Will Australia Give the Be-200 a Go?

Australia has been hammered by bushfires this year, with New South Wales alone reporting almost 2 million hectares burned by the middle of December. As a result, states are desperately looking for ways to augment their aerial firefighting forces. Victoria boasted about having the largest fleet of firefighting aircraft in their history, with some 50 fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft counted in their order of battle. New South Wales relied on their 737 Fireliner to help them gain the upper hand on bushfires. And Queensland’s Premier was looking at ways to modify ex-military aircraft to do the job.

While premiers and fire commissioners are looking at domestic sources of air-tankers, one man is thinking outside the box.

Richard McDonald, who owns R-Mach Aviation in Rockhampton, Queensland, is looking overseas for help.

“I was working fires here around Rockhampton, my home town, in 2009. Everything was on fire and I was pretty much the only water-bomber in the area. I jumped on the Internet and thought ‘there’s got to be a better way than this,’ and I found the Beriev Be-200. I pursued that for a bit, then found out that Dave Baskett [President of International Emergency Services] was already doing that up in Santa Maria, California, so we joined forces.”

A Look at the Beriev

McDonald is impressed by Beriev’s scooper. “The Russians have a really good product there and I think that, once we get it out on the Fireline we’ll really have a game-changer. Their operation is a lot more economical, with a quicker response time for firefighting. The aircraft is purpose-built for the low, slow operation. However, as the Beriev is jet-powered it has the ability to cover long distances quickly.

“The Beriev is jet-powered, so it can get there and back again quickly.”

The Be-200 has a maximum speed of 435 mph, a maximum weight of 94,600 lbs, and a maximum range of 2,051 miles. It is designed for multiple roles, including firefighting, Medivac, search and rescue, maritime patrol, cargo, and passenger transportation.

In the firefighting role, it has a payload of 3,170 gallons. Away from the Fire-Bombing Configuration it can carry up to 72 passengers. The high-speed cruising and good payload yield some surprising numbers for the amount of liquid the aircraft can deliver. “I did a calculation on 10 Be-200s fighting a fire within 15 minutes of a water source. In one hour, those aircraft would put the equivalent of 80 mm of rain on an area of 10 km by 50 meters,” McDonald disclosed.

The aircraft boasts a Digital Flight Control (Fly-by-wire) cockpit that is fitted with satellite navigation (GPS), FMS, autopilot and weather radar. In addition to an integrated all-weather avionics system which was developed by Honeywell in conjunction with the Moscow Research Institute of Aircraft Equipment.

The Question of Water

Many people associate Australia with dry, dusty, desert-like conditions with little in the way of water sources for scooping. History shows that 80% of the bushfires that occur in Australia are within 10 minutes flight time from a water source which the Be-200 could scoop from, due to the speed of the jet-powered aircraft. “With the conventional large air tankers [which have to land at an airbase to be refilled], it can take an hour just to load them up. Building retardant lines is only a small percentage of what aircraft are being asked to do on the fireground, but if the Be-200 is asked to do that, it has this capability, just like the other jets do.

“There are lots of lakes, rivers and ocean water available in high-risk areas and some don’t realize the potential for a scooping aircraft until they do some research.”

“Last year I was out fighting a bushfire in Mackay and there were three lakes right at the fire. With one Beriev, we could have put a load on those fires every three minutes - that’s 132,000 liters every hour. We fought that fire for three weeks, with one Beriev Be-200 added to the toolbox I think we could have had that fire out in three days. It’s all about keeping the fires small, so that the ground crews can get in and knock it out. In the Mackay fire, it just kept flaring up on them so they began running out of resources, people were getting tired, and it all snowballs.”

The Uphill Climb

So what are the prospects of getting a Be-200 into Australia? “With forward-thinking people in the top jobs, hopefully, we can get it across the line. This technology has been available for over 15 years. It is the biggest and most versatile amphibious water bomber which has been purpose-built from the ground up. It is still in production with full factory support, yet it has never been properly evaluated in the western fireground. It has been a very steep hill to climb,” McDonald lamented.

Nevertheless, he’s optimistic.

“I believe it is worth the effort. I hope that I can gain enough support from our Australian government to at least give it a fair trial. I just need to get one of the Be-200s out here. Once I get it out here, I don’t think it will go home."

Since Queensland’s Premier has been talking about getting additional aircraft after this spring’s devastating start to the bushfire season, could the Be-200 be an option for that state?

“Yes, I think this aircraft would be a perfect solution for Queensland. We need to have something that’s more versatile. The Be-200 is a multi-role aircraft. It is the best fixed-wing firefighting aircraft in the world and it can also be used in other disaster relief roles, as mentioned before, when the bushfires are not burning. That allows the aircraft to be based in our country all year round, which would be a very cost-effective way of helping to protect assets and save lives.”

Looking Beyond Australia

But McDonald isn’t thinking only about Australia. He has bigger plans in mind.

“The ideal model between Dave, Patrick and myself is to have a large fleet of Be-200s around the world. You could have a number of Be-200s in Australia, strategically placed around the country helping with all the different roles it is capable of."

“The U.S. could have its own fleet of Be-200s scattered around the country where the main wildfire risk exists. Several more could be scattered about Europe in France, Italy, and the like. If a firestorm like what has happened here in Australia in November and December occurs, with cooperation between the different countries we could have an incredible fire-suppressing force at that location within 1 to 2 days."

"At any given time, there are only one or two places in the world where fires are burning, so if you had an agreement with other places, like what Coulson and Conair are doing, Be-200s could ferry between those places.”

With millions of hectares burned so far across the country as summer is just getting underway Down Under, Australia needs the Be-200 sooner rather than later, because who knows how much more will burn before fire season ends?

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