The 50th Anniversary of Operational Firebombing in Australia

Firebombing aircraft used 50 years ago

6 February, 2017

Victoria has a long and proud history of aerial firefighting, and the 6th February 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the earliest recorded firebombing operation in the country. As the first state in Australia to use firebombing aircraft in an operation, the firebombers paved the way for the engagement of aerial firefighting in not only the state, but across the whole country.

On the 6th of February 1967, two Piper Pawnees contracted by Alpine Aviation (a predecessor to Alpine Airwork), made the first operational drops on a small lightning strike fire near Benambra in North-East Victoria. Prior to this time firebombing had been trialled in various locations across Australia. However this operation, under the guidance of Forest Commission of Victoria (a precursor to DEWLP), was the first recorded drop on an active fire in Australia. 

For pilots Ben Buckley and Bob Lansbury, who were at the helm of the two Alpine Aviation Pawnees – a VH-MOK and a VH-GWS –the first operation could have ended in tragedy. After beginning to climb to the normal flying altitude, Buckley noticed that his centre of gravity was shifting due to a leak in the fuel retardant holder. As luck would have it, just as the angle was getting desperate, the chamber gave way and the retardant was released, rebalancing the plane to normal flying altitude. 

“What these guys did 50 years ago shaped how we use firefighting aircraft today,” said Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley

“Not only were they ahead of their time as industry pioneers, they had a vision, they had a dream and had passion and now we acknowledge the enormous value their work would add to the future of firefighting across the country, and it all started in Benambra, a little rural town in regional Victoria.”

On the first fire the pilots dropped a total of 15 loads of the fire retardant Phos-Chek in the rugged terrain that took ground crews five hours to walk in to. This contained the burn area to a one hectare radius, which was easily brought under control once ground crews arrived. 

In the summer of 1967-68, three fires were brought under control using the firebombing technique, which lead to a new base established to serve the Grampians region. 

Firebombing is an integral part of our firefighting strategy and has continued to serve a large role within the Victorian firefighting industry over the last 50 years, especially within the remote areas of the state.

CFA volunteer firefighter and Air Attack Supervisor Michael Carr has been working with Victoria’s air fleet for the last 20 years has seen extraordinary leaps and bounds in not only the types of the aircraft that have joined the fleet, but also the technology available but also both on the ground and in the air. 

“During my time with the CFA, I’ve seen the fleet go from a few Type 3 helicopters and birddog aircraft, which carry around 1200 litres, up to Large Air Tankers (LATs) and DC10s, which can carry up to 54,000 litres of fuel retardant and water,” says Carr.

“Then there’s the Erikson Aircrane, which can not only carry large volumes of water, but also has the ability for a quick refill turnaround. I feel this has changed the urban interface of modern day firefighting and has the ability to asset protect like never before.”

Victoria continues to the lead the industry in the use of these aircraft, with a current base fleet of 48 firefighting aircraft positioned across the state. 

“What planes and pilots can do is nothing short of brilliant, but at the end of the day they’re here to support the crews on the ground,” says Carr.

Following on from the low-key 25 year anniversary event held at the very remote Snowy Range airstrip in 1992, the 50th anniversary will be marked by a celebration today at the original Benbambra airstrip, along with a historical photo display and unveiling of a new historical sign at the site.

~ With thanks to NAFC and James Kightley