Interview to a former Türk Hava Kurumu Canadair CL-215 pilot
The Mediterranean region is being ravaged by catastrophic wildfires and Turkey is also ravaged by controversy over the country’s once excellent firefighting aircraft fleet.
Much has been said about the decline of THK and its reasons, but on the press and on social media there seems to be enormous confusion about such extremely specialized aircraft and their capabilities, especially airplanes. Contradictory statements from officials have not helped.
Having been in touch between 2012 and 2017 with some of the pilots that every summer spent hours and hours every day battling fires from Turkey’s sky, I have felt it was important to contact the only one of them that I was able to trace.
Like many other foreign pilots, he was “bought” together with the Türk Hava Kurumu’s fleet of Canadair CL-215 and lost his job when it was dismantled.
Now he flies in a major airline and he has settled in the European country where his airline is based.
He was reluctant to recall those times, that are in a distant past for him, but eventually he accepted to answer some questions on technical details of aerial firefighting when I showed him some examples of the rampant misinformation.
Is it true that THK’s airplanes are obsolete, as it has been said?
They are indeed old, not obsolete, and it’s an important difference. They are old machines if compared to the generally more advanced ones operating in many countries. But in conditions of good maintenance and good crew training they can still play an important role in fire suppression operations, which is still very effective over forest fires.
How does the CL-215 compare with the more modern CL-415, like those belonging to Spain that we are seeing in action in Turkey now?
The CL-415 is an improved variant in almost every sense. The most important one is that it mounts turboprop engines, instead of the older piston engines of the CL-215. It has a slightly higher water tank capacity and more modern avionics.
What are the advantages of the turbine engines?
They are generally more powerful, with a wider range of power, with easier maintenance, less fuel consumption which gives larger autonomy, better performance at slow speed. At the same time, piston engines can have faster reaction times, that could be useful in some situations common in firefighting flights, especially during water runs, or maneuvering over the fire. All in all, the newer turboprops have more advantages, and to improve maneuverability the CL-415 has those winglets visible on ailerons and wing tips. I would say that piston engines are affected by conditions that are typical of firefighting in Mediterranean areas, like high temperatures and differences of altitude. In Turkey especially we operated often on quite high altitude fires over Anatolia, and in some areas, like the mountains behind Antalya or Marmaris, altitude difference during operations can be important.
It has been said that CL-215 can’t do more than two droppings of water per hour, is that true?
Who said that? Absolutely not. Well, it depends of course from the distance between the fire and the water bodies where the plane collects water, but besides that, I don’t know why it should be so low.
It has also been said that CL-215 has very poor avionics that makes it unusable for modern firefighting missions. In particular, it has been said that radio equipment makes the planes currently in the inventory of THK inadequate.
Avionics is a big aid to flight, it is one of those things that the more we have of it, the better it is. Said this, in most of my experience I felt that, for the kind of operations we were flying, mostly during the day, with clear weather, the avionics we had was more than enough. About the radios, I don’t remember feeling that our radios were inadequate, but of course, I understand that there might be new requirements. Of all the avionics components, though, radio is perhaps the most modular one, usually easy to change, and not so expensive either.
You mentioned good maintenance and good training as a requirement to keep an airplane in flying conditions, do you think there has been enough of both to keep those THK CL-215s operative?
I have no idea of the current situation since I left several years ago and I am not in touch with the environment. It is possible of course and I hope so.
But training for a pilot never ends, it’s not like getting a driving license, and then you can drive a car whenever you want. Like in any activity, lack of constant practice reduces performance and obviously effectiveness and safety. What is true for any pilot is even more true for firefighting pilots: there is need of a high degree of eye-hand coordination and training must be continuous. And of course training is expensive. To reduce costs, fortunately, there are some CL-415 simulators, one is in your country, in Milan, by the way, but not for all maneuvers: some must be executed on a real plane, in real situations.
How about maintenance?
I am not a technician and as far as I know maintenance of CL-215 is not particularly complicated for an aircraft of that complexity, but of course there are specific requirements, for example the need of accurate checks for corrosion, for a machine often operating on seawater. And what I said about training is also true for maintenance crews. But with Canadairs we can benefit of a long experience, going back more than 60 years. I have no idea of what kind of maintenance those planes in Etimesgut received but while maintenance is expensive, and bare bones budgets do not help, aircraft are also expensive assets and no owner wants to see them falling apart.
There is a lot of talks about this new Russian planes, and how they would be more capable than Canadairs.
Most of them are not new and these talks are not new either. In Italy it was experimented to swap Canadairs with Russian jet seaplanes. There were some joint operations in the 2000s, but eventually Italy stuck to CL-415.
It’s not that the Russian planes are not good, let’s make this clear. But we need to keep in mind the operational conditions. The Beriev 200 was designed as the civilian version of a maritime patrol, antisom Soviet aircraft. Jet engines can be faster than turboprops or piston radial engines. But speed is not a primary requirement for aerial firefighting in a region like the Mediterranean. With fires along the coast, the water source is sometimes only mere minutes away. And I have already said that we need slow flying for precision and high maneuverability over hills and between mountains. Plus, jets have other problems, like higher fuel consumption and the risk of aspiring seawater into the air intakes. Crucially, higher speed needs longer runways and longer water bodies to collect water. It’s not a problem on the sea, but Turkish lakes are typically small, with few notable exceptions. Not casually, there are very few jet-powered amphibious planes. And waves could be a problem too. Our CL-215 was very good cutting the short, high waves, but it’s a very sturdy beast. If I only think of the bumps I got off Antalya my back aches again. But long, windless waves are a real danger for any seaplane.
How about land based planes? There is the Antonov AN26 but also the US built B747 Supertanker, that can drop more than 70 tons of water or retardant over a fire.
It should be clear that aerial firefighting is a multi-level, complicated business. Every asset can help, especially in the emergency situations that apparently we are going to face more and more often. When fighting either a small fire or a burning forest, a Supertanker can drop an enormous amount of retardant and save a village, or stop an advancing fire long enough to allow other planes to intervene.
But resources are not unlimited.
Such a plane needs a real airport to land and land crew to refill, with logistical support needed. In Turkey this would not be a big problem, because there are many civilian and military airports that could support operations almost everywhere. But surely, you can’t operate such aircraft from an airport like Ephesus.
What about civilian air traffic?
Ah of course, this kind of operations would require closing a civilian airport or to commandeer a military one to firefighting for the time being. It makes sense for an emergency but not for every fire of course. It would not be like with Canadairs, departing from Izmir or Antalya in the morning and returning only to refuel or at the end of the mission.
There have been people making fun of the Dromader, the tiny Polish, single engine, firefighting plane that was also in the inventory of THK, and Hayko Cepkin, the famous rockstar, tweeted that in his opinion it is actually one of the best firefighter aircraft around.
I met Hayko Cepkin when we were operating from Ephesus and he did skydiving there, and I think he knows what he says. But Dromaders alone are not the answer. As I said, there are many many elements in successful firefighting, and all of them are important. Dromaders are cheap and can operate from almost any runway, so you can buy many of them to be deployed all around the country, to make a first line of defense and rush them in to put out small fires before they become serious, especially if they are in inaccessible areas. Then every element is important, from helicopters to people on the ground digging a fire trench. Canadairs are good because they are versatile, they can land on almost any body of water, even with the short high waves typical of the Mediterranean, can make many drops over the fire in a short period of time. But they are by no means the only tool in our box. Ideally, we have a network on the ground, a first line of defense, helicopters, aircraft and then the big guns like the Supertankers. What makes Canadair so popular is that it is the multitool in the box, adjustable to a variety of situations.
You are describing an effort that would require a titanic, military grade coordination…
Actually, in Turkey that coordination was very good, I would say excellent. Once again, I have no idea of the current situation and I do not know why their system looks overwhelmed, but when I was there, the OGM [Orman Genel Mudurlugu, General Directorate of Forestry] had a capillary network on the ground, almost to village level, and first alert was often almost instantaneous. Many many times we arrived over the area and the fire had been brought under control by local means, that often were village farmers with buckets and shovels volunteering or recruited on the spot. There were also very sophisticated helicopters to control the operations and direct the efforts to the right priority, that could be to contain a large fire or to focus on a secondary one that could threaten a village, for instance.
It has been announced that drones will be used in this role too, what do you think?
I am old school and I do not like drones, but obviously they will be an extremely useful tool. Not a game changer I think, but very useful.
Seeing the situation, and imagining all the problems there, would you return to fly those THK CL-215s if they ask you?
Yes. Tomorrow. Early morning. No hesitation.
But why? You have a safe job, situation is probably difficult at a bureaucratic level, not to mention the danger…
I don’t care. I have not learned to fly to be a bus driver. Firefighting is not a job, it is a mission. And that is flying for real.