Pilots with Air Spray Ltd. are accustomed to long flights. But the journey undertaken by a handful of them this year was a big step up from their usual travel over the forests of Alberta and British Columbia.
Air Spray sold three Canadair CL-215 aircraft to the Turkish Aeronautical Association early this year.
The twin-engine water bombers, which replenish their payloads by skimming over bodies of water, were no longer required for the Red Deer-based company’s operations.
But they fit Turkey’s fire-fighting needs.
After the deal was struck, it became apparent that the Turks needed assistance operating and maintaining the Canadairs, said Paul Lane, Air Spray’s chief financial officer. His company agreed to help, with six of its pilots and two of its engineers spending much of their summers in the Muslim country.
The first challenge was getting the planes to Turkey.
Air Spray crews flew the aircraft to Halifax, where they received special training to prepare them for oceanic travel.
They learned, for instance, the proper procedure for ditching in the sea, said Lane.
“We performed some modifications on the aircraft to give them a greater flying range,” he added.
“The ferry flight is literally hopping from point to point to point to get them to Turkey.”
That trip included stops in Azores, Portugal and Malta, which introduced the crews to the complexities of international travel.
“You get to these places and you have to have Euros and things like that to pay for fuel.”
Once in Turkey, the pilots and engineers set to work training their counterparts and assisting with fire-fighting duties.
“Adapting to the food, adapting to the culture, adapting to 38 degree heat, et cetera, were all things the guys had to get used to.”
Fire suppression in Turkey is different from Canada, where the Canadairs usually flew a circuit between lakes and burning forest.
“These planes are flying over the ocean, scooping and going onto the hillsides to drop it — it can be forest, it can be scrub land, it can be vineyards.”
Water bombers in Turkey also operate without the guidance of a “bird dog” plane, said Lane.
“They essentially send them out on what is known as the lone-wolf system, where these planes go out, spot fires and dump on them with no real direction.”
In addition to Turkey, the Canadairs spent time in Greece battling the intense summer blazes there.
The Canadians were treated very well, said Lane. The Turks even provided them with formal recognition for their performance.
“They just loved them, and they had an honouring ceremony for them over there.”
The last pilots came off base Sept. 30, said Lane, and are now in the process of returning home. The engineers will return to Turkey this winter to perform more work.
Lane anticipates that Air Spray will continue to play a role in Turkey. He explained that the pilots there require hundreds of hours of air time before they’ll be rated for a Canadair.
“You’re looking at possibly another three or four years before they’re fully operational.”
Learning how to maintain the planes is also time-consuming, said Lane.
“The engineers that have worked on those planes for Air Spray have worked on them for years and years and years. They know those things backwards and forwards.
“To impart that skill set, it’s going to take some time.”
Lane and other Air Spray officials are scheduled to travel to Turkey this month to discuss this ongoing relationship.
“It’s not a one-year commitment, it’s a multi-year commitment.”
Air Spray might look at other international opportunities, said Lane, although its priority remains serving the Alberta and B.C. governments that it contracts its services to.
“We’re looking to build out both those businesses first, but then look to places like Europe and even down in Australia.”
The South Pacific country, he observed, might provide opportunities for collaboration since its fire-fighting season is opposite that of North America.