The Israeli Ministry of Defense has recently taken delivery of six more Air Tractor AT-802F air tankers as a part of a multi-million dollar contract with Elbit Systems Ltd., the company contracted to operate the country’s firefighting squadron under the command of the Israeli Air Force. With these new aircraft in its firefighting fleet there are now 14 Air Tractor single engine air tankers in active operation across Israel.
The story of this firefighting squadron begins in early December 2010, when the Israeli Air Force, the most combat-experienced air service in the Middle East, found itself on the losing side of a new kind of battle: wildfire. The massive fire began north of Haifa in the Mount Carmel Forest and spread quickly. Before it could be controlled and extinguished four days later it had consumed much of the Mediterranean forest covering the region, forced the evacuation of 17,000 inhabitants, and claimed 44 lives — making it the deadliest forest fire in Israeli history.
The human and environmental tragedy of the Mount Carmel forest fire brought home to the Israeli people and their government a stark, new awareness of the nation’s overall lack of readiness in combating the dangerous wildfires that have become more frequent following years of unseasonably high temperatures and prolonged drought. A response came quickly in the establishment of the Elad Firefighting Squadron.
Named in honor of Elad Riven, a sixteen-year-old Fire Scout volunteer who died tragically while battling the Mount Carmel wildfire, the Elad Firefighting Squadron was officially launched by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in May 2011. As a part of his remarks, the Prime Minister spoke directly to the young man’s grieving family when he said, “We salute you and the wonderful son you raised. One cannot always say about a boy who was taken after 16 years that he leaves us a legacy, but we can say it in the case of Elad—a legacy of infinite devotion to nation and state, a legacy of purity of heart and of clear, simple heroism.” Elad Riven was the youngest fatality of the Mount Carmel wildfire.
Since its inaugural flights in 2011, the Elad Riven Squadron of AT-802Fs has completed more than 4,600 missions, accumulated more than 2,500 flight hours, and helped extinguish more than 500 forest fires and wildfires throughout Israel.
The squadron’s AT-802F air tankers are manufactured by Air Tractor Inc., at its Olney, Texas manufacturing facility. Designed from the ground up for aerial firefighting duties, the AT-802F combines agility, performance, high reliability, and computer-precise accuracy.
The AT-802F ’s Pratt & Whitney Canada turbine engine gives the aircraft ample power to nimbly maneuver in hot, high elevations and fly at speeds approaching 200 mph. That speed, combined with the flexibility to operate from remote strips, dirt roads, or small airports near the fire, allows the AT-802F to make a major impact on a fire very rapidly.
A fast, high-volume loading system shortens turnaround times and makes it possible for the 802F to take on a full 820-gallon (3,100-liter) load and return to the air in as little as five minutes. Once over the fire line, the AT-802F can deliver a payload of retardant, foam, or water with extreme accuracy. The AT-802F’s agility and maneuverability in rugged terrain allows it to provide critical support to the overall firefighting effort by filling in gaps in the fireline and by making drops into deep ravines, narrow flight corridors and wildland-urban interface areas. Speaking shortly after a May 2011 wildfire in Jerusalem Forest, the Elad Squadron’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Rami stated that, “The smoke gave police and firefighters on the ground a lot of trouble, and that’s why our planes made such a significant contribution. This is an event that could have continued well into the night had it not been for our firefighting aircraft.”
Elbit Systems’ operational contract with the Israeli Ministry of Defense will be performed over an eight-year period, and covers flight hours, infrastructure upgrades, maintenance, airstrip operation, handling of fire retardants and other aspects of operating the fleet of firebombers. The aircraft are flown by pilots of CHIM-¬NIR Group, an Israel-based specialized flying services subcontractor.