Boeing 737 deployed to fight wildfires as world’s new “fireliner”
Boeing aircraft seem to be taking on new roles recently. From a “flying pad” of Virgin Orbit’s satellite air-launch program to, this time, a water-bomber: in a world’s first, a modified version of the B737 passenger plane has been used to fight wildfires.
The retired Southwest passenger jetliner, a 737-300, was deployed to fight bushfires for the first time ever on November 22 and 23, 2018, in the port city of Newcastle, north of Sydney, Australia, the BBC reports. The plane dropped several loads of fire retardant on the out-of-control blaze in the affected area, assisting firefighters on the ground.
Nicknamed “Gaia”, the aircraft was converted into an air tanker by the Canada-based aerial firefighting company Coulson Aviation, the first company to perform such modification on a 737. The aircraft, which is valued at around $7 million, is currently on contract with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFSA), the state’s volunteer-based firefighting agency.
The organization shared a video of the modified plane, Tanker 137, in action:
The 737 Large Air Tanker 'Gaia' has been in action in the Hunter this afternoon - the first time this kind of plane has been used to fight a fire anywhere in the world. It's provided valuable support to firefighters on the ground. #NSWRFS #nswfires #avgeek pic.twitter.com/qHnbcddFpe— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) November 22, 2018
The southeastern state of New South Wales, where the plane performed its first firefighting mission, has been affected by drought since this August and the bushfire season is well under way. According to the RFSA twitter page, the 737 “Gaia” will now be sent to assist firefighting efforts in Queensland, northeast Australia.
Meet the new “Fireliner”
The Gaia is one of several Large Air Tankers operated by the New South Wales RFSA (including the Lockheed C-130Q Hercules four-engine turboprop military transporter). The modified 737 aircraft, or “fireliner” as Coulson Aviation names it, can carry over 4,000 gallons (15,000 liters) of water or fire retardant in its tank, the ABC writes.
Although this is less compared to some other water-bombing aircraft (such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 air tanker, a converted wide-body passenger jetliner, which can carry up to 12,000 gallons (45,000 liters) of water), the advantage of using a 737 on such missions, Australian officials say, is that the plane can also carry firefighters – 63 of them, when its water/fire retardant tank is empty.
"It's got all the capacity to drop big loads of water and retardant, but because it was a former passenger plane, we can also carry people in it and across interstate lines," spokesman for the association, Chris Garlick, was quoted as saying by the BBC. The 737 also comes in particularly useful in laying fire retardant lines for containment.
Garlick said the agency was excited with how the plane had performed on its first firefighting mission. “It has been tested in other situations to demonstrate its effectiveness, but this time is the first time in the world a 737 has been used to fight fires,” ABC quotes him as saying.
The plane is actually one of the six 737-300 airliners (average age of 23 years) bought from Southwest by Coulson for converting them into air tankers. This particular 737 arrived in Australia just two weeks ago, after lengthy journey from North America since it was first delivered this fall, Planespotters data indicates.
Prior to being introduced to Australian firefighting services in its new role as a “fireliner”, the modified 737 had completed the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) airworthiness certification program in San Bernardino, California (U.S.).