Alan Warnes reviews the current CL-215 and Bombardier -415 Super Scooper operators.
CANADAIR DEVELOPED the original CL-215 as a dedicated amphibious firefighting aircraft, designed for optimum performance at low speeds and in the high gust-loading conditions often found over forest fires. This high-wing, twin Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp R2800 radial-engine type made its maiden flight on October 23, 1967. First delivery, to France’s Protection Civile (now known as the Securité Civile), took place in June 1969. Production ended in 1990 after 125 had been built, initially beginning with the Series 1 and culminating with the Series 5. The type gained the nickname Scooper, referring to its ability to scoop water into its tanks by skimming the surface of a suitable body of water.
A new variant, the CL-215T, was announced by the manufacturer in 1987. This featured Pratt & Whitney PW123AF turboprop engines, systems improvements, plus design changes to the wing and empennage to improve handling. The first of two development aircraft, converted from CL-215 airframes, flew on June 8, 1989. Canadair decided against building new production CL-215Ts in favour of further developing the aircraft as the CL-415 (later becoming the Bombardier 415). However, retrofit kits were offered to convert existing CL-215s to CL-215T standard.
YXX Aerospace was established to undertake the CL-215 to CL-215T conversion. The Canadian company, a joint venture between Conair Group Inc and AeroFlite of Kingman, Arizona, sub-contracted Cascade Aerospace, a Conair subsidiary, to conduct the extensive aircraft modifications required for the conversion. This included 75 associated Service Bulletins, the two PW123AF engines, six new aerodynamic modifications (including winglets and finlets), avionics upgrades, power-assisted flight controls and a new power distribution system, which required complete rewiring of the aircraft. The Spanish Air Force ordered 17 of these conversions from its existing CL-215 fleet, while Alberta ordered four, Quebec two and Saskatchewan five.
The CL-415, which became known as the Super Scooper and was developed from the CL-215 Series 5, features the new turboprop engines, aerodynamic refinements (including winglets and finlets), increased operating weight and greater speed, an updated cockpit and changes to the water release system, including a foam injection system. The capacity of the fire-bombing system was also increased from 1,621 US gallons to 1,440 US gallons. Series production began in 1993, with the first aircraft making its maiden flight on December 6 of that year and the first delivery taking place in November 1994. Production ended in 2015 after 95 aircraft had been produced.
Although the 415 will carry the same load and has a similar performance to the CL-215T, the 415 differs in having a better, four-door bomb bay, rather than the CL-215T’s two-door bay. In addition, the 415 has an EFIS avionics suite.
The 415 has the ability to scoop a 6,137 litre load in just 12 seconds while skimming at 70kts on a 410m-long run over the water. This can then be mixed with chemical foam, if required, before being dropped on a fire. The aircraft can then refill its tanks from a local water source without the requirement to return to base for this purpose.
It has a normal cruising speed of 180kts, and can fight fires up to six miles from a water source and can complete nine drops within an hour, delivering 14,589 gallons of water. Typically, the 415 could be used to provide an initial attack capability in the early stages of a fire, dropping water directly on the active flanks and head of a fire from a height of 100-150ft and at a speed of just over 100kts.
Although primarily designed for aerial firefighting, it was also developed as the 415MP (multi-purpose) for the paramilitary search and rescue and utility transport roles and the 415GR, which has higher operating weights.
On October 14, 2015, Bombardier announced that it was ‘pausing’ production of the 415 because it had no further orders for the type. The decision was also influenced by the fact that the lease on its facility at Jack Garland Airport, North Bay, Ontario, where the 415 final assembly line was located, was due to expire in April 2016. The company said at the time that if further orders were forthcoming, these aircraft would be built in Montreal, but no additional deals materialised. Bombardier blamed the global economic slowdown for the dearth of orders, noting that the governments which are its primary customers for the type were having to pull back on their spending.
In an effort to cut costs, the manufacturer then began to look for a buyer for its amphibious aircraft division. Eventually, on June 20, 2016, Viking Air of Victoria, British Columbia, announced a preliminary agreement to purchase the Type Certificates for all of the Bombardier 415 variants, together with the Canadair CL-215 and CL-215T. The acquisition was completed on October 3, 2016. With the Type Certificate transfer, Viking became the Original Equipment Manufacturer, gaining full manufacturing design rights and assuming responsibility for product support, parts and service.
A Viking spokesman told the author, “we have a list of customers and Viking will support them all. We are looking to putting the -415 back into production but right now we are concentrating on selling the CL-215T.”
With the 415 no longer in production, the remaining operators of the radial-engine CL-215 do not now have the option of replacing these with new 415s. As a result, Cascade could see more orders for CL-215T conversions in the future if these operators decide to upgrade their fleets.
Various commercial and government operators in the country operate a considerable number of these aircraft, all of which are used in the firefighting role. These include Buffalo Airways at Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, which has eight CL-215s, although at least some of these may now have recently been withdrawn from use. Four of them are operated by the company on behalf of the Government of the Northwest Territories, which protect the forest. communities and mine sites in the region.
Conair of Abbotsford, British Columbia, operate four CL-215Ts under contract on behalf of the Province of Alberta. The Province of Manitoba Government Air Service flies seven CL-215s and four Bombardier 415s, while the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Natural Resources has two CL-215s and five Bombardier 415s.
Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry operates nine Bombardier 415s, while Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife flies four CL-215s, two CL-215Ts and eight Bombardier 415s. In Saskatchewan, the Ministry of Environment Aviation Operations has three CL-215s and three CL-215Ts, with two more of the latter conversions on order.
Croatian Air Force and Air Defence originally took delivery of two CL-215s, which entered service in 1995 but were sold in 2005. An initial four Bombardier 415s were also purchased and entered service from 1997. An order for two more was announced on November 15, 2007, with deliveries taking place in June 2009 and February 2010. All six remain in service with the Fire Fighting Squadron at Zadar-Zemunik, while some are deployed to Dubrovnik during the firefighting season. The unit has participated in several overseas fire fighting missions, the most recent was in Israel during November 2016 (see later).
France’s Securité Civile was the first operator of the CL-215, taking delivery of a total of 15, beginning in 1969, at which time it was known as the Protection Civile. Four of these were lost in accidents and the remainder withdrawn from service in the late 1990s.
They have been replaced by 15 Bombardier 415s, delivered between 1996 and 2007. Three have been lost in accidents, leaving 12 in service with the Groupement des Avions Bombardier de’Eau at Marseille although this with most of the Securite Civile fire-fighting fleet is in the process of moving to Nimes-Garons.
The first of 16 CL-215s ordered by the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) was delivered in December 1975. In 1996 these were supplemented by four further examples acquired from the Yugoslav Air Force. The HAF has 12 of these aircraft remaining in service, after eight losses through attrition. They are operated by 355 Mira at Elefsis, but seasonal detachments are maintained at Andravida, Néa Anghialos, Preveza, Samos and Thessalonika to provide firefighting coverage around the country.
The HAF also purchased eight Bombardier 415GRs and two 415MPs, the former entering service from January 1999 and the latter from 2001. Two 415GRs and one 415MP have been lost in accidents, while the remainder continue to fly with 383 Mira at Thesaloniki. The unit also maintains seasonal detachments at Andravida and Elefsis.
Italy’s Department of Civil Protection, the Protezione Civile, took delivery of 22 Bombardier 415s, the last two of which arrived in early 2010. Three were lost in accidents before the 19 survivors were transferred to the Vigili del Fuoco, the National Fire Department, in 2013. They are now operated and maintained on its behalf by Babcock Italia’s Fixed-Wing Division with their main base at Rome-Ciampino International Airport. With 100 pilots and 130 technicians, they fly from three main bases and two seasonal ones.
Korean Business Air Service acquired a single second-hand CL-215 in December 2011 from Buffalo Airways. It was shipped by sea to Korea and is based at Sacheon for firefighting operations. Local reports in early 2013 suggested it had only undertaken three missions since being delivered due to some local political issues because Southern Gyeongsang province already had sole responsibility for these operations.
A pair of Bombardier 415MPs were ordered by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency through a contract announced on June 13, 2008. Deliveries took place in January and November 2009. In addition to being used in the firefighting role, they also carry out maritime surveillance missions. For the latter they have been fitted with Swedish Space Corporation’s MSS 6000 system, including Automatic Identification System (AIS), Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR), Side-
Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), flight management system, still and video cameras and satellite communications. The system also includes a ground station for post-mission data processing. They are based at Kuala Lumpur-Subang.
Five Bombardier 415s were acquired by the Royal Moroccan Air Force for firefighting missions. The first, the order for which had not been previously announced, was delivered in February 2011. On March 28, 2011, Bombardier announced a deal for a further four, although the customer was not identified at the time. These were delivered between May 2011 and September 2013. They are operated by the 3eme Escadre de Transport at Kenitra.
The Spanish Air Force originally acquired 30 CL-215s, which served from 1973 until 1996. Seven were lost in accidents, another seven sold to CEGISA (later INAER), one withdrawn from service and the remaining 15 converted to CL-215T configuration. One of the latter was written-off on March 25, 2003, but the other 14 remain in service with 43 Grupo’s 431 and 432 Escuadróns at Torrejon. In addition, 43 Grupo also flies four Bombardier 415s, the first of which was delivered in 2006 and the final example in November 2013.
Two CL-215s were delivered to the Royal Thai Navy in July and August 1978 but were grounded in 2000 due to a lack of spares. One, however, was returned to operational service in January 2013 and is used in the maritime patrol and search and rescue role. It is operated by 2 Wing’s 201 Squadron and based at U-Tapao International Airport.
Nine CL-215s are flown by Gokcen Aviation-Turkish Aeronautical Association under contract to the Turkish Ministry of Forestry for firefighting missions. Turkish pilots and mechanics were trained in water bombing and forest firefighting operations with the type by Canada’s Buffalo Airways, which flew three of its own aircraft and crews over to Turkey to undertake the contract.
Aero-Flite Inc of Kingman, Arizona, operates four Bombardier 415s. The company is the only private operator worldwide of the 415, all others being owned or flown by military or government agencies. The company is the only US operator of the type and only took delivery of its first aircraft in 2013. It also has the distinction of having purchased the final production 415, which was delivered on January 13, 2016.
As will be apparent from the list above, the largest concentrations of these aircraft are in Canada and Europe, with only a handful operating elsewhere, in Asia and North Africa. Although most are normally operated on behalf of their respective governments, when serious forest fires erupt in countries that have a limited capability, these governments often offer to deploy their fire-fighting aircraft to assist.
A typical example of this was as a result of one of the most serious outbreaks of forest fires in Israel in recent years, in November 2016. This resulted in a number of Bombardier 415s being deployed from other countries to assist, along with several other types. Overnight on November 23-24, two Hellenic Air Force 415s arrived in Israel at Hatzor Air Base to assist in extinguishing fires that had been raging for the previous three days in several different parts of the country. They were joined on November 24 by two Croatian Air Force 415s, along with a pair of 415s from Italy’s Corpo Forestale dello Stato, plus a CL-215 from Turkey’s Türk Hava Kurumu. After six days in intensive operations, the Israeli authorities deemed the fires as being under control and the aircraft began returning to their respective countries.
During June 2016, Cyprus was experiencing its worst forest fires in a decade, which were raging in the Troodos mountains. As part of the European civil protection mechanism, France’s Securité Civile deployed three Bombardier 415s to Cyprus to assist. In addition, Hellenic Air Force aircraft were also dispatched to join the effort to extinguish the fires.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the MMEA 415s in Malaysia also assist other countries in the region when the need arises. In October 2015 one of these aircraft was deployed to Indonesia, where it operated in South Sumatra to assist in extinguishing the forest fires there. It was supplemented by an MMEA AS365N3 Dauphin helicopter, while a Royal Malaysian Air Force C-130H Hercules provided logistics support.
Other examples of these aircraft, operated by commercial companies, may be operated under long or short-term contracts to government agencies, particularly at the height of the fire season. In the USA, the Bombardier 415s of Aero Flite regularly operate on behalf of individual state and federal agencies and the US Forest Service (USFS). During last year’s fire season, two of the Aero Flite’s 415s were on an exclusive use contract with the USFS, while the other two were made available on a call when needed basis. Their contract with the USFS extends for a period of five years through to 2020.
The use of a US company with Bombardiers is, however, fairly new, as US operators had until recently shied away from purchasing the type, preferring instead to use a range of other aircraft. Canadian-registered Canadairs and Bombardier 415s have, however, been regularly used for fire-fighting in the US for over 20 years, annually deploying south for several months during the year, under contract to US agencies.
Inevitably, due to the inherently dangerous nature of aerial firefighting, there have been a number of crashes over the 48 years since the first CL-215 entered service. A total of 29 CL-215/215Ts have been lost in accidents, resulting in 46 fatalities. In the 22 years since the newer Bombardier 415 began operations, eight have crashed, with the loss of ten lives.
Today, a fleet of 170 of these aircraft remain in service with 21 operators in eleven countries around the world. Viking Air’s recent acquisition of the Type Certificate for all variants looks set to ensure that the type will continue to be fully supported, despite the end of production.