Calls for air support finally heeded

January 3, 2002

More Elvis choppers on their way

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday 3 January, 2002

The New South Wales government will bring in two more Erickson Air-Crane Helitankers hopefully within three days to aid firefighting efforts across the state.

Emergency Services Minister Bob Debus confirmed the pending arrival of the two helicopters at the Rural Fire Service coordination centre this afternoon.

“The government has today taken the decision to engage two more of the Erickson … Elvis helicopters,” Mr Debus said.

“They will be brought in crates from the United States.

“It’s necessary to engage an extraordinarily large aircraft called a Antonov to bring them here.

“I expect that they will be here … in three to five days.”

The helitanker, dubbed Elvis, has been invaluable in fighting bushfires that have been raging on the outskirts of Sydney and across the state for the past 11 days.

One of the two new aircraft was sitting on a wharf in the United States when Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg requested that it be brought to Australia.

“We are persuaded by its performance in recent days that it would be a more than reasonable thing to bring some more of these aircraft,” Mr Debus said.

“I gather that the commonwealth will be assisting us in the purchase and maintenance of them into the future.”

Earlier, an Erickson spokesman in the US said one aircraft was ready to be packaged into the Ukraine-built Antonov at the company’s Oregon headquarters.

He said it would not be difficult to locate another one as it was winter in the US and out of the bushfire season.

Mr Koperberg said the helitankers would take some pressure off ground crews.

“The further importation of two Erickson sky cranes will aid the mop-up effort tremendously,” he said.

“It will also give crews the ability to rest and allow them to be diverted to the enormous task of mop-up, allowing the Erickson Air Cranes to deal with spot fires as they occur rather than to continue to divert resources on the ground away from their other tasks.”

Earlier today, the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) slammed the Rural Fire Service’s apparent hesitation to embrace the offers to purchase more Elvis air cranes as “looking a gift horse in the mouth”.

FBEU state secretary Chris Read said: “There can be no doubt of the effectiveness of the aircraft.” He said while Australia was so severely prone to bushfires, we were the only country in the world without specialist aircraft to fight them.

“You’ve got two governments (state and federal) offering to purchase up to four of these aircraft … I’m just amazed (at the delay),” Mr Read said.

The Victorian government leased Elvis from Erickson and has allowed NSW to use it.

Yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard said the federal government would consider buying a number of new helitankers, which cost around $US15 million ($A29.5 million) each.

It normally takes three months to build a helitanker but in the past Erickson has agreed to lease an aircraft to a country that needed one immediately.

With a capacity to dump 9,000 litres on blazes, the Air Crane helped save almost 300 homes in Sydney’s north-west on Tuesday during an estimated 40 trips.

Operated by a specialised team of two pilots and three engineers, the aircraft is “the most versatile, powerful, and cost effective aerial fire suppression system in the world”, according to the company’s website.

The helitanker is designed to refill from fresh water and sea water sources in less than 45 seconds.

The air crane was nicknamed Elvis after its time serving with the US National Guard in Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley’s home town.



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