February 26, 2024

Meet the Aussie firefighters beating blazes from the sky

It takes nerve and skill to waterbomb raging bush and forest fires. But for the pilots of Gunnedah-based Kennedy Air, aerial firefighting in Australia and overseas is all in a day’s work.

Skimming across lakes and dams in a single-seater plane to scoop up water to then dump onto the heart of a raging bushfire has to be one of the most intimidating job descriptions around.

But for Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Gunnedah-based Kennedy Air, and his team of pilots, nothing is more rewarding than using their accomplished skills to precisely knock down a fire before it can threaten life or property.

Kennedy Air runs five Fire Boss planes equipped with scoops to pick up 3000 litres of water from nearby waterways. Combined with a fire-retardant gel, this can be delivered directly to the seat of a fire up to 20 times per hour.

So successful is this waterbombing technique that Kennedy Air was summoned to Greece in 2022 for that country’s fire season. It also worked in fire-ravaged Indonesia in 2016 and 2017, and fielded inquiries from Canada during its 2023 emergency.

“For someone that grew up on a farm out west of Gunnedah, aerial firefighting in Greece wasn’t something I anticipated we would ever do,” Andrew admits. He was one of three pilots to fly the firefighting planes to Europe in a gruelling nine-stop sequence comprising 70 hours of solo flying time.

The Australian bushfire season remains Kennedy Air’s top priority. But as the effects of climate change escalate, international contracts increasingly see the company kept busy during Australia’s colder months.

“The world’s a big place. We might find we’re in Spain, Portugal, Turkey or France or somewhere else other than Greece in the future,” Andrew says.

Andrew credits much of Kennedy Air’s success to the skilled team of pilots who work on-call, driven by a passion for aerial firefighting. “It’s a low-level environment, and does take laser-focus,” he says. “It takes a special personality to sit on standby for a week and then get called up when it’s really hot and windy. You really don’t feel like flying and you get sent off to a fire.”

The sporadic nature of aerial firefighting hasn’t deterred NAB Agribusiness from backing Kennedy Air for the past 21 years. That was demonstrated in 2015 when NAB provided trade facilities, equipment finance and FX support so Kennedy Air could import the first of the highly specialised, American-made Fire Boss planes.

“It was a leap for them as well as for us,” says Carl Pratten, NAB’s Agribusiness Manager in Gunnedah. “This type of aircraft didn’t have any firefighting contracts, was new to the industry, and had these scoops that cost a lot more than any other aeroplane the government used.

“For us it’s about reputation and integrity, and Kennedy Air has both. They’re quality operators who aren’t just chasing a dollar, they’re spending a dollar too, to do it right.”

For Andrew, NAB is “a key partner” in his business. “They’re always engaged in what we’re doing,” he says. “Honestly, we couldn’t have done it without NAB.”

NAB Rural Commodities Wrap: May 2024

NAB Rural Commodities Wrap: May 2024

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The NAB Rural Commodities Index increased by 3.2% month-on-month in April, after slipping 5.7% month-on-month in March.The index is around levels seen in April 2023.

NAB Rural Commodities Wrap: May 2024