For the price of one Canadair, Portugal could purchase 10 Fire Boss planes

Portugal to buy two Canadair water bombers

…but Air Force and firefighters think it’s wrong choice

Portugal spends €50 million per year in air operations for the combat of fires.

Only in 2023 will the country have its first plane specifically designed for the combat of rural fires – and ironically firefighters are already criticising Portugal’s choice.

Expresso returns today to the thorny issue of purchase of national firefighting aircraft.

Last year, the Council of Ministers approved a resolution to purchase 12 helicopters and two ‘heavy duty’ amphibian airplanes – the choice being Canadair Cl 415s, with a capacity for 5,000 litres of water each.

Each Canadair costs €30 million, a source for the Air Force has explained (the Air Force being the service that will be buying them).

But Canadairs, for all their capacity and promise, are unwieldy: they need a large area to take off and land: scooping water from dams and rivers is fraught with issues, particularly if those dams and rivers are running low…

Alternatives are Fire Boss – planes produced by Air Tractor – more nimble, and much less expensive to purchase (“a plane costs €3 million”).

Fire Boss can be filled with water on land (up to 3,000 litres) and needs only 300 metres for take off.

Practically, the purchase of one Canadair could buy 10 Fire Boss, ensuring ‘a carousel attack, a manoeuvre in which several aircraft carry out successive discharges, with 30,000 litres of water”, said the Air Force source.

The plan has another advantage: a Canadair needs two pilots, a Fire Boss only one.

This is where objections lie: João Marques, president of the association of Portuguese Volunteer Firefighters, also explains that Canadair “need 20 minutes to take off; the period of time between discharges in greater (than Fire Boss) and there is less flexibility.

Fire Boss “are more adaptable to the Portuguese landscape; allowing closer movements of proximity, and quicker take-offs”.

There is another ‘issue’ with the purchase of two Canadair… what happens when one has maintenance issues? “It is not enough to have two, we need a reserve for times when there are faults”, says Marques.

The ‘lack of reserves’ and ‘poor choices’ of the past (witness Portugal’s hugely expensive purchase of essentially clapped out Kamov helicopters in 2006: these have spent more time on the ground than in the air).

Certainly, from Expresso’s ‘exclusive’ today, it looks like both the Air Force and the firefighters themselves would be much happier with Fire Boss, than with two Canadair. This would not be the first time that a political decision, in the face of experts on the ground, ended up landing like a lead balloon.

The Council of Ministers’ resolution that approved of the purchase of the two Canadair, chose to finance the operation with PRR money coming from Brussels, and from money available through the European Mechanism for Civil Protection.

“While the State’s own planes have not yet arrived, the Air Force has not responded to Expresso’s questions”, says the paper – stressing the Air Force currently has €143 million to continue hiring aircraft.

In the meantime, Spain and France have been supplying help in the form of Canadairs (one Spanish plane is back working on national territory today).