The NSW Rural Fire Service faces an uphill battle to get two Black Hawk helicopters to fly firefighters to remote areas because it is deemed an ‘‘unacceptable risk to safety’’.
Two years after plans for the Defence Force to give two Black Hawks to NSW, emails between RFS commissioner Rob Rogers and air safety regulators reveal barriers to the helicopters being used to plug a gap in the agency’s ‘‘operational capability’’.
Because the helicopters were designed for the military, there are restrictions under federal law on them being used to fly civilian passengers.
The first Black Hawk was originally due to be transferred to the RFS last year. But the delivery of both has been delayed until 2022, once they are decommissioned by Defence.
The RFS has instead decided to spend $6.5 million – which was originally committed to refitting the Black Hawks – on two Bell 412 helicopters, which will be operational this bushfire season.
Three months after plans for the Black Hawks were unveiled in June 2018, Mr Rogers, then deputy commissioner, emailed the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to confirm there were no ‘‘showstoppers’’ from a ‘‘regulation point of view’’.
In a sign of his growing frustrations with the regulator later, Mr Rogers emailed CASA in February last year to say he needed to ‘‘understand we can work through the issues’’ before accepting a helicopter and committing NSW government funds.
The emails and letters, released to Labor under freedom of information laws, show Mr Rogers requested further clarity from CASA in July last year so he could advise the NSW government ‘‘as to viability of the gifted helicopters to meet our gap in operational capability’’.
But in a letter to Mr Rogers in September last year, a senior CASA official said the body was of the view that the regulations did not permit a restricted category aircraft such as the Black Hawks being used to fly people from one location to another for ‘‘ground firefighting’’.
The RFS continues to face hurdles to using its flagship water bomber to transport firefighters this bushfire season. The Boeing 737, named the Marie Bashir, has been fitted to ferry up to 72 firefighters but cannot because CASA is yet to give regulatory approval. Black Hawks are used extensively in the US to help with bushfires, the RFS said.