50 Years of Firebombing Operations

The 6th February 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the first organised operational firebombing flights in Australia.

On 6 Feb 1967, two Piper Pawnees contracted from Alpine Aviation of Benambra made the first operational drops of retardant on a small lightning-strike fire in north-eastern Victoria.

    

These the two aircraft, VH-MOK and VH-GWS, were flown by experienced agricultural aviation pilots Ben Buckley and Bob Lansbury, who remain friends to this day.

It was what has become a classic application of firebombing: they were able to contain a remote fire until the ground crews were able to walk in some five hours later to ensure it was ‘safe’.

Previously, there had been a remarkable range of experiments with different aircraft (from heavy military four engine bombers and single seat fighters to agricultural aircraft) with differing drop materials, techniques and equipment, and aircraft had often been used for fire spotting, as they are today.

But this was the first real firebombing job, and the start of modern aerial firefighting operations in Australia.

Alpine Airwork, a successor company to the original Alpine Aviation, remains a current contractor to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre – currently supplying two single engine air tankers (SEATs) at Benambra, Victoria.

Both pilots involved, Ben Buckley and Bob Lansbury, now in their eighties, are still active in aviation. They spoke to us about those flights.

Bob Lansbury told us about how the operations got going. Though he was clear it wasn’t something he thought he should be particularly singled out for (it was “just the job” he said) he was happy to give us some insights:

“Yes it was interesting and unusual. What we did in those days was quite effective.

“We saw lightning in the area, and we knew it was going to happen. We were ready to go. We only had small aircraft of course, but we were quickly on the job. We lived in the area, Benambra, we were right in the middle so we knew it.

“Once the fire gets bigger than about a big back yard it’s too much, but we had a free hand in where to put the stuff.

“There’d been complex experiments in the early seventies with big aircraft and small aircraft and small loads on the ground. Once it was greater than one million watts heat energy per hectare you really couldn’t stop it.”

Bob has a lot of experience – “27 to 30 thousand hours spraying crops.” Before qualifying as a pilot he was an aircraft maintenance engineer: “I started as an apprentice engineer in 1955. Six years with TAA.” He continued as an agricultural pilot for many more years after that day in 1967 and he added he also “… flew firebombing for some years afterwards.” Today, he’s still getting into the air regularly. “I flew for forty years, and I’m still flying my Piper Cherokee.”

Ben Buckley, a well known and colourful character in Australian aviation still flies his Pioneer 300 aircraft – as he says – a “pocket rocket”. He also told us about that day back in 1967:

“We’d just got off super phosphate operations. We dropped fifteen loads on the sixth – myself and Bob Lansbury. We’d been doing some spreading, and we’d done tests a couple of years before, in 1965.

“See a bit of smoke, push the lever and drop in front of the fire!

“We’d dump on the flanks and then across the head of the fire. The fire would burn up to it, but the Phos-Chek [retardant] would suppress the burn, able to slow it right down, and then the ground team went in to make it ‘safe’ afterwards.

“We had no radios then, Bob Lansbury and I, we just kept going back with another load that day, until it was done. Lansbury was an engineer before becoming a pilot, and he helped me with my Pioneer 300 recently. We’re still in touch.

“Yes, I understand it was the first official – I see they’ve put that it, ‘official’ – fire bombing effort in Victoria – and Australia. It wasn’t like today’s machines with their huge loads, but once we’d done it we knew what we were doing.”

Text compiled by James Kightly, photos courtesy of Geoffrey Goodall.