Relationship between BC aviation firm and Province strained by 'politics'

| May 28, 2024 in Wildfire

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The president and chief operations officer of the world’s “largest aerial firefighting company" has said not a single one of its aircraft is being contracted out in its home province of BC.

Britt Coulson sat down with NowMedia this week to discuss the recent announcement that Coulson Aviation will be converting its first Boeing 737-700 into the world’s highest capacity Large Air Tanker (LAT).

Last week, Bruce Ralston, minister of forests, told NowMedia all the leases were signed for aircraft for this year’s wildfire season.

On Monday, NowMedia asked Coulson if the Port Alberni-based company had any aircraft contracted to BC.

“We do not,” Coulson said, adding that they had 38 aircraft in their fleet.

He said that BC traditionally focuses on smaller aircraft but Coulson Aviation sees the most value in larger aircraft.

“I think you know BC has traditionally focused more on smaller aircraft. We don't run any small aircraft. We see the best bang for your buck and the best results out of large aircraft.”

“Canada is, I'd say, unique in that it doesn't have any large ones. They focus more on higher numbers of small aircraft (...) it's just a very different tool.”

Once complete, the newly converted Boeing 737-700s will have an increased capacity of 19,000 litres, something Coulson said was double the size of what was typically seen in Canada.

Photo Credit: Coulson Aviation

NowMedia asked Coulson why he thinks the province does not employ his company more often.

He said that based on historically political issues with past provincial governments led the company to “go where we're wanted,” which includes contracts in the US and Australia.

Coulson said in the past there was “a negative stigma” attached to the use of the Martin Mars bombers in the early 2000s because they were owned by a private company.

“After we bought them, we thought, Hey, this is amazing. We're going to be able to work with the BC Forest Service. We're going to be able to do a great job for the taxpayers of BC and support wildfires better, get those fires out early, and what we were told was the Mars had a negative stigma attached to it in the government,” Coulson said.

NowMedia asked Coulson what his hopes were going forward and whether he thought the current government could employ his company's assets for firefighting in BC.

“We used to work with BC foresters quite a bit on our rotary wing side. We always had helicopter contracts with them. It was really when we got to (the Martin Mars bombers) that I'd say some of that negativity really stepped in,” Coulson said, adding that it wasn’t like that now but was in the past.

“We don't really support one government or the other because fire is bigger than that. It kind of crosses all party lines, right? Everybody is supportive of that.”

NowMedia then asked if any of the new firefighting aircraft, which will eventually be 10 converted Boeing 737-700s, would actively work in the province in the future.

“Well, put it this way, the last bid we did when BC Forest Service tendered for a bunch of their air tankers, we did not get any award and we were told by the government that our company did not have the experience required to fight fires in BC,” Coulson said, referring to previous governments.

“We do it all over the world and they said, ‘Well, in our opinion, you don't meet the requirements.’”

However, he did not indicate if that relationship had changed over the years. 

On Monday, NowMedia reached out to the Ministry of Forests for a comment on the future of the relationship with Coulson Aviation.

Our request was forwarded to the BC Wildfire Service who said that Coulson Aviation is currently on the list of vendors for “several” helicopter services and have been for several years.

A statement from the BCWS to NowMedia said Caulson helicopters were deployed to support wildfire operations in 2021 and 2023, however, they did not provide a reason for why their aircraft weren’t contracted out this year.

Last year, the province contracted out Coulson's Chinook CH-47 helitanker in late August after posting to social media that said the helicopter was in Kelowna on standby.

However, the helicopter sat on the Kelowna airport’s tarmac for about three days before signing onto a five-day contract with the BCWS. However, it remained on standby before moving onto another contract.

“The BC Wildfire Service is always interested in new and innovative tools for wildland firefighting,” said the wildfire agency in an email to NowMedia.

“Aviation contracts are awarded through a competitive process. The BC Wildfire Service welcomes any future proposals from Coulson Aviation, which may include the planned Boeing 737-700 converted firefighting aircraft.”

The emailed statement says the BCWS will continue to upgrade its existing aviation fleet this year to include more planes and helicopters with “a focus on a diverse and modern set of aircraft suited for BC’s vast and challenging terrain.”

The statement said the BCWS will continue to trial night-vision technology this year to fight fires after the sun goes down.

Photo Credit: Coulson Aviation

However, Coulson suggested there was likely a budgeting issue for the government as well.

“You know, bigger, more capable, newer airplanes cost more money,” he said.

He said his company would be “happy” to build some aircraft for BC but he said the types of helicopters and planes they built were not meant for short-term contracts.

He said planning with customers ranged from two to four years out from the contract start date.

Coulson said he was hoping to see more outreach programs between Canadian agencies and foreign agencies to learn more about different aircraft types for firefighting.

“We're seeing fires get worse and worse; hopefully there can be some additional learning,” he said.

“I think that there are tools that are available in the market that would greatly benefit Canada, specifically BC, that could be better than it is now.”

Coulson finished by adding that the company will officially be retiring the two Martin Mars bombers later this year and that the company was excited to “give them a good final resting place.”

Earlier this year it was announced that the Hawaii Martin Mars water bomber will be enshrined in the  British Columbia Aviation Museum.

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