History of Aerial Fire Fighting

A short history of aerial fire fighting on Sappi Forests (Pty) Ltd plantations in Southern Africa as undertaken by Orsmond Aerial Spray (Pty) Ltd.

In 1980, Sappi Forests in Natal, were experiencing wild fire problems, especially in the Karkloof area, and new measures to control these fires were called for as serious financial losses were being incurred. Mr. Peter Stoker, at that stage General Manager of Sappi Forests in Natal and who later became Managing Director of Sappi Forests (Pty) Ltd decided it was time to try aerial fire fighting as an additional tool to his armory as wild fire loss was becoming a major problem. Although odd rather unsuccessful experiments had been tried with smaller aircraft in a fire fighting role prior to 1980, no work had been done using the new 2000 litre capacity turbine powered agricultural aircraft that appeared on the South African agricultural scene that year.

It was through Peter Stoker's foresight, some twenty years ago, in using these new generation agricultural aircraft that aerial fire fighting has developed into the powerful suppression tool that it is today. The Timber industry owes Peter Stoker a great debt of gratitude for "sticking his neck out" so many years ago.

In the winter of 1980, Peter Stoker decided it was time to try aerial fire fighting but had really no idea who could undertake this experiment for Sappi. However, he heard that Orsmond Aerial Spray (Pty) Ltd of Bethlehem in the Orange Free State (as it was known then) had recently purchased new Ayres Turbo Thrush aircraft with a 2000 litre hopper capacity and these aircraft were the obvious choice. A rough airstrip of only about 550 meters was hurriedly prepared at Shafton and asingle Ayres Turbo Thrush was dispatched from Bethlehem to Shafton to attempt to control a fire in the Karkloof valley. As you can well imagine, knowing what we know to day, it was a fair circus. Nobody had any experience on how to load the aircraft quickly, the pilot had to learn how to dump a load accurately on the target and possibly the most important of all, the fire boss had to learn how to give the pilot accurate information about the actual target. And all this in a day or two! But despite all, Peter Stoker saw the possibilities of this form of attack and despite enormous criticism from a large sector of the industry, decided this was the route to go in the future.

After this brief experiment in 1980, planning started for the 1981 season, which really became the first season that serious aerial fire fighting took place in South Africa and that on Sappi plantations.

The first question was the loading of the aircraft. The aircraft in their original form only had a 50mm side loader system, which was far too slow, taking nearly three minutes for a full load. Des Parkes from Sappi and Brian Arton from OAS (Orsmond Aerial Spray) set about designing an overhead system to load the aircraft at the Shafton airstrip. There were many short comings of this overhead system, from messing a lot of water on the ground and causing a lot of mud in the loading area, to the safety aspect of the loading crew slipping off wet wings, to the flexible loading pipe being caught in the propeller as the aircraft taxied underneath, to the loading crews getting soaking wet nearly every load, but above all it worked and was used for nearly ten years. But the one thing the old overhead system could do and that was load an aircraft quickly, in 35 to 40 seconds. An interim measure was the "goose neck" that was not very successful system which used a goose neck shaped 100mm pipe loading through the top of the hopper.

The present day 100mm side loading system that was introduced in 1990 and takes about 80 seconds for a full load. It is far more manageable and the safety aspects are a lot higher for both aircraft and loading crews. In the early days, more emphasis was put on performance rather than other aspects as by saving 30 to 40 seconds a load on a 100 load fire, you gained nearly an extra hour of flying for one aircraft.

The next question was the dump door on the aircraft- The original one used which was the standard door in a crop spraying configuration was really too small. A new specially manufactured fire dump door was imported from Transland in the United States of America. This improved the dump tremendously by letting the complete 2000 litre load out in about 1,9 seconds which gave the pilot the ability to control the dump over a distance of between 50 to 100 meters depending on the aircraft speed. A "spotter aircraft was considered the next logical step for at least three reasons. Firstly, being used as an ideal vehicle for spotting fires in a similar but supporting role to the existing fire lookout towers, hence the name. Secondly as a communications platform that could communicate with the fire boss and act as his "eye in the sky" as it were, and thirdly, to give the bomber pilot an uncluttered communication channel via the spotter aircraft as target instructions are required at a moments notice for precise bombing. In the next twenty years, the spotter aircraft's role became more an airborne operations centre than its original role as a fire spotter.

Now that these requirements had been addressed, plantation airstrips became the next major issue. For the 1981 season, three airstrips were readied, the original Shafton strip (adjacent to the strip now in use), a new strip at Mossbank was built and an old private airstrip next Comrie station was recommissioned. For this season, one turbine bomber and one spotter were based at Shafton with the pilots, Stewie Britton and Neels Jonk living in a caravan on the plantation.
In 1982, a new airstrip was recommended for Sutton and Pinewoods and Brian Arton visited the plantations and found suitable sites for the new airstrips which are still in use today. One turbine bomber aircraft was stationed at Shafton for the season, with the pilot, Mike Dewar being accommodated in the old Tweedie house. The spotter aircraft piloted by Bemie Marriott was stationed at Oribi airport in Pietermaritzburg.

In 1983, the arrangements in Natal were the same as the previous year. However, due to the progress made in aerial fire fighting in Natal, Sappi Transvaal decided to station one bomber and a spotter at Elandshoogte plantation.

Brian Arton was commissioned to find suitable sites for airstrips at Elandshoogte and Ndubazi and these were built and equipped with water and fuel. The Ngodwana Mill airstrip was equipped with water and fuel as well, giving three airstrips for the first season. Brian Arton, turbine bomber pilot, and Jacques Strydom, spotter pilot, were housed on the plantation at Elandshoogte in what was known as the "students flat"

In 1984, Sappi Natal increased the aircraft on contract to two bombers, pilots Mike Dewar and Stewie Britton, and one spotter, pilot Bernie Marriott, all being stationed at Oribi airport. This was a significant move as the pilots now all lived in town and not in isolation on a plantation. This improved the pilots quality of life no end as after being on standby from sunrise to sunset, they at least had some evening entertainment available as well as shops to do any shopping on their way to or from the airport. The season started of with two piston powered Ayres Bull Thrush bombers, which carried 2000 litres each but were piston engine powered. The drawback with these aircraft was the time taken in warming up the engine before take off, typically about 20 minutes and adding oil at each refueling stop which wasted more time. After only a month or so, the two Bull Thrush bombers were replaced by two Turbo Thrush bombers on Sappi's request.

The Transvaal contract for 1984 called for one turbine bomber, pilot Brian Arton and one spotter, pilot Deon Mattyhsen both housed in the Students flat at Elandshoogte.

In 1985, Natal had one turbine bomber, pilot Gert Badenhorst and one spotter aircraft, pilot Bernie Marriott. Both pilots were housed in Pietermaritzburg. By now, a new airstrip had been opened at Mooiplaas in Zululand and the existing strips at Clan Syndicate and Stockdale were equipped with water and fuel.

In the Transvaal, the contract was the same as in 1984, one turbine bomber, pilot Brian Arton, and one spotter aircraft, pilot Johan Heine, the pilots being housed in the student's flat at Elandshoogte. By this stage, the Transvaal also had built strips at Mooifontein, Helvetia and Venus.

In 1986, Natal contracted one 2000 litre Turbine bomber, pilot Rob Taylor initially and in the latter part of the season Brian Arton, and one 1500 litre piston Agcat Bomber, pilot Chris Oostdam, who managed to destroy this aircraft (ZS-KAZ) within the first two weeks of the season during a forced landing on a school rugby field in Queensborough while returning from Mooiplaas. no doubt completely lost. A replacement Agcat (ZS-JEZ) and pilot. Dave MacGregor, were brought in to replaced ZS-KAZ. One spotter aircraft was also used that season, pilot Bernie Marriott The pilots were all housed in Pietermaritzburg. During the previous off season, De Rust airstrip was built and brought into use for the season.

In the Transvaal in 1986, the fleet was increased to one turbine, pilot Mike Cronin, one piston Agcat bomber, pilot Chris Liebenberg, one spotter, pilot Russell Betjemin, all based at Elandshoogte and one spotter based out of Nelspruit, pilot Johan Heine. The Nelspruit based spotter, a Cessna 182, was purchased by Sappi Transvaal from one of the contractors building the mill at Ngodwana at the end of the 1985 season and during the off season (1985-1986) OAS had lent Sappi Johan Heine as a pilot for this aircraft. Johan Heine eventually became a permanent Sappi employee in early 1986 and later a LFPA employee.

In 1987, the Natal contract was similar to 1986 with Rob Taylor and Brian Arton flying the turbine bomber and Dave MacGregor the piston Agcat (ZS-LBJ). Bernie Marriott was the spotter pilot. All the pilots were housed in Pietermaritzburg.
In the Transvaal, much to the joy of Neels Eicker, plantation manager of Elandshoogte (as I think he had had enough of pilots stationed on his plantation by then), the whole operation was moved to Nelspruit airport with all the pilots housed in Nelspruit. Kevin Ernie was the turbine pilot and Chris Liebenberg the piston bomber pilot. All the spotter aircraft were now contracted and supplied by the LFPA.

1988 saw a big change in the OAS fire fighting setup. Brian Arton was transferred permanently to Pietermaritzburg to manage all the fire contracts and an office was established at Oribi airport. This was also the first year that the NMFPA hired a spotter, pilot van Niekerk, for patrols on high risk days. Sappi Natal increased the number of Sappi bombers to three during peak season, pilots MacGregor, Taylor, and Richard Franz and two spotter aircraft, pilots, Graham Heath and Brian Arton. All the aircraft were based out of Oribi.

In the Transvaal, LFPA provided the spotter aircraft and pilots and OAS two turbine bombers, pilot Ziets van Rhyn and Sias Steenkamp, all aircraft based out of Nelspruit.

In 1989, with the acquisition of Saligna, Sappi increased their bombers to four turbines, two based at Oribi, pilots. Rob Taylor and Richard Franz/Brian Arton and two at Sutton, pilots Tito Domingues and Tex Texierra. Two spotter aircraft were based at Oribi, pilots Dave MacGregor,Sias, Arton and Mitch Spall. This season we carried one extra pilot to cover any eventualities in both spotter or bomber roles. A new strip was built at Epsom to replace Comrie that was really not an ideal fire fighting airstrip, being at the bottom of a basin and too short. New strips were also built at Glenbain, Riverdale and Winterton. Existing strips that were equipped with water and fuel were Clan Syndicate, Pannar Main, Windy Hill, Harding Municipal, Craigiebum and the original Tanker Services strip at Highflats. Sites for new strips at Highflats and Braemar were located and would be built after the season. The first serious accident took place at the Tanker Services strip when Tex Texierra broke an undercarriage leg on C9-TAG during take-off on 16 October 1989.

The season started with a fire at Epsom on 26 June and ended on 27 October with fires at Clairmont and Glenbain.

The Transvaal 1989 season remained at two bombers, a 2000 litre turbine Agcat (ZS-LJD), pilot Ziets van Rhyn and a 1500 litre Turbo Thrush (ZS-LJT), pilot Sias Steenkamp. The Spotter aircraft were provided by the LFPA.
In 1990, the aircraft numbers increased for various reasons, the dryness of the season, the general political unrest in Natal and for the First time both HL&H and NTE contracted one bomber each. Sappi Natal contracted their normal four bombers and two spotter aircraft making a total of six bombers and two spotter aircraft based at Oribi. However for the high-risk month of August 1990, Sappi Natal contracted another four bombers and an additional spotter, making a total of ten turbine bombers and three spotter aircraft based at Oribi for that month. The bomber pilots were Brian Arton, Rob Taylor, Dave MacGregor, Ivan Rautenbach, Richard Franz, Tito Domingues, Jan Human, James Tait, Wynand Wentzel and Cliff Brown. The spotter pilots were Mitch Spall, Greg Nani and Russell O'Gorman.

In Natal, three additional airstrips, Liff, Braemar, and the new Highflats strip were taken into service that year. The first bomber operation of the season was a standby at Glenbain on 25 May and the last were fires at De Rust, Masonite and Liff on 23 November.

Sappi Transvaal contracted their normal two turbine bombers but in August, the 1500 litre turbine was replaced by a 2500 litre piston engined Dromader, ZS-LEG, as the one turbine was required in Natal. The pilots were Ziets van Rhyn and Sias Steenkamp. Spotter aircraft and pilots were provided by the LFPA.

In 1991, the Natal contract was for 6 bombers ; Sappi four, HL&H and NTE/Mondi one each, Sappi contracted two spotter aircraft. Once again, from 1s1 August, till 27th of September Sappi contracted one extra bomber, making a total of seven for that period. The bomber pilots were Brian Arton, Rob Taylor, Dave MacGregor, Richard Franz, Wynand Wentzel, Ivan Rautenbach, Steve Whiteing, Brent Hansen and Russell Marett. The spotter pilots were Mitch Spall and Russell O'Gorman.
Regrettably, the first fatal accident in the history of aerial fire fighting in South Africa took place at Mondi Gilboa plantation on 29th August 1991 when Dave MacGregor was killed in ZS-LZC. Dave's place in the team was filled between Brent Hansen and Russell Marett. It is interesting to note that the total spotter hours flown in Natal in 1991 were 372.27 hours and the total bomber hours were 602.20, The first fires fought this season were at Glenbain and Richmond on 25 May and the last was an aborted fire call on 1 October. In the Transvaal, 1991 also saw a change in bomber numbers supplied by OAS.

Sappi contracted their normal two turbine bombers with pilots Ziets van Rhyn and Sias Steenkamp and the LFPA one piston engined Dromader bomber, pilot Richard Aschenborn. These three aircraft flew 203.60 hours that season.
In Natal, 1992 was the year to end all years as far as fires went. The first fire of the season was an HL&H fire at Harcourt plantation on 6th April and the last was a Sappi fire at Windy Hill on 6th November at which Richard Franz taxied into a hole and wrote off C9-TAG on the Windy Hill strip during this fire.

The Natal bomber fleet started off as 2 in April/May, grew to 6 in June and was 8 through till the end of October and still 7 at the end of the season. Sappi as usual bore the brunt of the burden, having four bombers, HL&H had 1, Mondi had 1 and the NMFPA had 2. This was the first year that the NMFPA took part in the bombing program and also supplied the spotter aircraft that year. As you can imagine with a season as long as this one was. an incredible 983.10 hours were flown by these bomber aircraft. The pilots that flew on the bombing contract that year were; Brian Arton, Richard Franz, Russell Marett, Ashley Robinson, Wynand Wentzel, Jan Human, Steve Whiteing and Brent Hansen.

The LFPA, later to become the FFA supplied all the aircraft for the Transvaal season and from here on, no records will be given for the Transvaal.

In 1993, the season started with the first fire on 12th May and finished early, due to good rains with the last fire on the 26th September. Sappi contracted 4 bombers, HL&H and Mondi one each. making a total of 6 for the season. The Mondi strip at Mooi River was taken into service during this season.

A total of 406.25 hours were flown by the bombers that year, less than half of the 1992 season. The bomber pilots were Brian Arton, Richard Franz. Russell Marett, Jan Human, Nick Whyte and Wynand Wentzel. On 16 July, Jan Human had an accident at Glenbain and wrote of ZS-LUW. Fortunately. Jan escaped injury and was flying the next day, fetching a replacement aircraft ZS-LBJ.

In 1994, it was the first year the NMFPA brought in a helicopter. However Sappi still retained 4 bombers, Mondi and HL&H one each, giving a total of six for the season. By mid April 3 bombers were on standby and fought the first fire on 18th April. By 1st June, 4 were on standby and the other two came on standby on 1st July of that year. The last fire was fought on 24th October. The bomber pilots that year were Brian Arton, Richard Franz, Russell Marett, Jan Human, Steve Whiteing, Nick Whyte and Ben Kruger who relieved Nick Whyte towards the end of the season and a total of 756.40 hours were flown. All the spotter aircraft were supplied by the NMFPA.

In 1995, things changed fairly dramatically. Two Russian helicopters were contracted by the KZNFPA to replace some of the fixed wing bombers, however 4 were wisely retained. This was also the first year that the bombers were contracted to the KZNFPA and not to a particular timber grower Two bombers went on standby on 14th June and the first fire was fought the same day for Mondi on Calderwood plantation with the last fire of the season being fought on 7th November at Sappi Shafton plantation. The other two bombers went on standby on 1st July. The pilots for the season were Brian Arton. Richard Franz, Jan Human, Steve Whiteing and Ben Kruger relieving at the end of the season. The total fixed wing bomber hours for the season were 221.40 All the spotter aircraft were supplied by the NMFPA.

In 1996, the situation was virtually the same as 1995, with 4 bombers on contract with the same pilots. I unfortunately do not have the 1996 records with me in Australia so can not give details of this season.

In 1997, the number of bombers on contract was identical to the previous two years, 1995 and 1996. However it was possibly the quietest season experienced in Natal for many years. The four bombers flew only 126.5 hours for the whole season. The bomber pilots were Brian Arton, Steve Whiteing, Mike Dewar and Richard Franz. James Tait stood in for Richard Franz for over a month while Richard was in hospital suffering from septicaemia. One spotter was supplied by OAS for this season and was flown by Mitch Spall. The first fire was fought on 26 June and the last on 10 October.

In 1998, it was once again a carbon copy of 1997 with four bombers flown by Brian Arton, Richard Franz, Steve Whiteing and Mike Dewar. It was a reasonably quiet season with only 217.7 bomber hours flown. OAS supplied one spotter, flown by Mitch Spall, for six weeks to help out as one of the KZNFPA spotter was not available in the early part of the season. The first fire was fought on 26 May and the last fire on 5 October.

In 1999, the contract changed for the first time in 4 years. The bomber numbers were increased to 6. Jan Human took over the management of the OAS operation from Brian Arton on 1 August after Brian Arton retired on 31 July and emigrated to Australia. He had over nineteen seasons of aerial fire fighting experience behind him and had been involved with Sappi since the inception of Peter Stoker's plan to introduce aerial fire fighting to Sappi and South Africa. In August, regrettably the second fatal bomber accident in aerial fire fighting took place, killing the pilot Garth Kopke.


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