Frontline fire bombers grounded

Two fixed-wing fire bombers contracted to operate from Latrobe Regional Airport this bushfire season have been grounded amid structural integrity concerns.

The Dromader planes are due to arrive at LRA in December, however Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley announced last week all variants of this model aircraft were grounded amid a nationwide safety review.

The grounding, enforced by the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority, comes after a pilot was killed in a Dromader crash near Ulladulla in New South Wales on 24 October, after its wing came off mid-flight.

A CASA spokesperson said the authority was taking findings from the current Ulladulla crash investigation, by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, to determine the overall safety of the Dromader fleet.

“We’ve collected recent maintenance info and data, which we will analyse and endeavour to see if there’s any issues about ongoing safety,” the spokesperson said.

“There are a number of questions we are asking, but where you get a failure of a structural component, in this case a wing, one thing you always need to look at is metal fatigue.”

He said while the Dromaders were “not ancient”, the ages of active aircraft across Australia ranged from 20 to 30 years old.

“At this stage we don’t know when we will finish this – it will take as long as it takes – but we don’t keep aircraft on the ground for long periods of time unless we absolutely have to,” he said.

Designed as a crop dusting aircraft, the Dromaders are contracted for firefighting operations every summer, to drop fire retardant at the head of a fire, in an effort to slow the firefront down.

Commissioner Lapsley said he anticipated the issue would be resolved before the aircraft were due to come into service.

“In the meantime, we’re looking at sourcing replacement aircraft and will discuss the state’s needs with other authorities across Australia,” Commissioner Lapsley said.

“Regardless, Victoria will have sufficient aerial firefighting coverage with the majority of the permanent fleet still available, as well as more than 100 contracted aircraft that can be called on as required across the state.”

Country Fire Authority acting Gippsland commander Bryan Russell said he had no cause for concern about the state’s ability to source alternative options, in the case of a delayed investigation outcome.

Dromaders are also scheduled to be based in Bairnsdale, Benambra, Bendigo and Hamilton this summer.