Fifty Years Of Waterbombing: At the beginning of June, the French Securite Civile marked 50 years of aerial water bombing.
The agency, which is part of the country’s interior ministry, held four days of celebrations including an airshow at the little airfield of Aix-le-Milles, near Marseille on June 2 providing a great opportunity to the agency’s fixed-wing assets in action.
Securite Civile began aerial firefighting operations in 1963 using modified PBY Catalinas, now it has a fleet of 26 fixed-wing aircraft including 12 Bombardier 415s amphibians, nine Grumman S-2 Trackers converted into Conair Turbo Firecats, three Beechcraft King Airs, which act as “Bird Dogs” for air control over a fire, as well as the two Q400s regional airliners.
The event gave a fascinating insight into the Securite Civile operation as well as a great opportunity to snap of the aircraft, which are rarely seen outside France.
The Trackers are the organization’s retardant bombers while the 415 amphibians are the primary water bombers. The Pelicans, as they are dubbed, can often be seen scooping water from lakes across southern France as they battle wildfires. Every fire season the 415s and Trackers are dispersed away from their home base of Marseille-Provence Airport to civil and military airfields across the country.
The 415s are held on alert while the Trackers which can be flown by a single pilot, are sent up on a combat air patrol with crews looking for tell-tale signs of fire allowing them to react quickly and halt the spread of a blaze. This is a critical issue which is particularly important in the south-east of France which suffers from the strong Mistral regional winds which can carry blazes very quickly if they are not brought under control.
The presence of the fire bombers and the important role they have means they have a huge following in France and big crowds attended the event on June 2. As part of the proceedings the agency invited several historic aircraft including a Canadair CL-215 operated by Inaer of Spain and one of a handful of PBY Catalinas still being flown in Europe. The appearance of these two aircraft generated a significant amount of excitement. The U.K.-based Catalina, operated by Plane Sailing was bought in after a French-owned machine wasn’t able to participate.
But Plane Sailing’s aircraft was an apt choice by the organizers as it was previously operated by the Securite Civile during 1966, 1967 and 1968 fire seasons, where it was known as “Pelican Bleu”. The aircraft had been fitted out in Canada as a fire bomber although much of the fixtures for the role have since been removed. Today the aircraft which is known as “Miss Pick Up” represents a wartime U.S. Army Air Force Catalina which was used to pick up downed pilots.