Over the past 10 years, more and more use is being made of aerial firefighting support in the form of suitable helicopters and airplanes.
Helicopters involved in firefighting operations are used to drop water onto the fire (water bombing), and to transport firefighting crews to remote areas, as well as dropping off rations and supplies to these crews. Helicopter pilots face numerous hazardous situations that are not experienced under normal flying operations. These include thick smoke, strong wind and turbulence when flying at low level close to mountains, and power / telephone cables close to dams used for collecting water. Helicopters are only used to assist during daylight hours.
a) Spotter airplanes: These light aircraft circle high above the fire site and act as the eyes for the Fire Boss, relaying information updates as well as supervising the helicopters doing water bombing. They are often referred to as the Control & Command aircraft (C & C).
b) There are instances where modified crop-spraying airplanes are used to waterbomb the fire. While effective for sites that have a runway close by, in remote rugged terrain they have little use.
c) Light helicopters, such as the Bell Jet Ranger, are useful for the transportation of food and supplies, and for carrying a small (400 litres) Bambi Bucket (the bright orange collapsible bucket suspended below the helicopter) for dousing small spot fires. These aircraft cannot be used in strong wind conditions.
d) Medium category helicopters, such as the HU-1 (Huey), are able to undersling a Bambi Bucket with a volume of approximately 1 200 litres, and are becoming popular due to their availability and lower operating cost.
e) In the heavy-duty category are primarily the Russian-made MTV / Mi-8 and KAMOV attack helicopters that have been converted for firefighting purposes. These extremely powerful aircraft carry a 3 500 litre Bambi Bucket, and can fly in almost any conditions. They are, however, extremely expensive to operate.
f) There have been developments over the past few years where Boeing Jumbo Jets have been converted to assist with wildfires, and they are able to carry many thousands of litres of water that can be released in varying amounts, as opposed to the Bambi Bucket where it is all or nothing.
g) The South African Air Force has a number of Oryx helicopters that are able to assist in times of need, but will usually only become involved once all private options have been exhausted.