Conair – Firefighting from the Sky

For over 50 years Conair has been leading the way in aerial firefighting.

Conair began in 1969 with the purchase of Skyway Air Services, an aerial spray and firefighting operation in western Canada. Over the next two decades, the organization grew exponentially, transitioning to focus solely on aerial firefighting to support wildfire agencies.

Today Conair has a presence in Canada, the USA, France and Australia, providing support to customers fighting forest fires. The operation has grown to include 70 aircraft, 400 aerospace specialists and a state-of-the-art Training + Tactics Centre, the only one in the world of its kind. Conair partners with government agencies supplying aircraft and operations on contract during wildfire seasons. In addition to offering the largest privately-owned fixed-wing aerial firefighting fleet in the world, the company also supports governments who own their own fleets, providing annual maintenance, operations and training.

“I think what sets us apart is our people and our relationship with our customers. We do a lot of listening, trying to understand what our customers need, what attributes our planes have to have,” explains Barry Marsden, CEO of Conair. “We have very skilled engineering and maintenance teams that give us the opportunity to convert the aeroplanes we select into forest fire fighting aircraft. We have especially refined retardant and suppressant delivery systems to meet customer needs, and we’re very customer-facing.”

This is essential given the nature of the challenges facing the firefighting community.

“The firefighting community is a close-knit community and I guess our strength has always been our relationship with the customer and our employee relationships,” Marsden says.

Taking Flight

While their team might be Conair’s strongest asset, operating a modern fleet is an essential part of the business, and the company has recently invested in their future with the purchase of 11 de Havilland Dash 8 Q400 turboprops to be converted into aerial firefighting tankers.

“We’ve always tried to be a leader in our field and have the best tools for firefighting communities,” says Marsden.

Of course, buying the plane itself is only the beginning.

“There are no purpose-built land-based firefighting aircraft,” Marsden points out. “So, our job is to select an aeroplane we think has the right attributes and that has long-term OEM support as a candidate for conversion.”

The Dash 8 Q400 turboprop in particular is one that Conair has had its eye on for a while, first looking into the planes 17 years ago.

“At the time, they were expensive for our contract opportunities, but we did sell two converted multi-role Q400MR to France,” Marsden recalls. “They were very successful, confirming our view that when it was time to replace our fleet that the Q400 would be a good addition to our mix, well-supported by the OEM, with an excellent Conair tank and retardant delivery system.”

These planes are 30% greener than anything else Conair has flown, releasing fewer emissions at a time when it has become increasingly important to be mindful of the climate and fuel consumption. Marsden also praises the plane’s solid airframe and healthy history.

“It’s worked out well for us,” he reflects. “We won’t convert them immediately but will convert at least two or three this year and two or three each year until we’ve replaced our legacy fleet and added additional capacity.”

Ready for Anything

Conair is committed to providing top-quality aircraft powered by its team’s extensive expertise. In their work, the stakes are high, with lives at risk, so Conair’s standards must be unassailable.

“The firefighting world is a challenging business. It is exacting work. We’re comfortable with those challenges but you’re always looking ahead to see what the next best tool is to meet the customers’ needs,” says Marsden. “We have to compete for our work but one of our real strengths is our team, our people. We’re 400 strong in British Columbia, the US and France, and our team is very committed to our mission.”

While Marden is always interested in new technologies and the latest solutions, the watchword he keeps returning to is “reliability”, for extremely understandable reasons.

“Dispatch reliability is always a challenge in any aircraft operation. We sell availability through contracts to our various customers, and when the horn goes for a fire, we have to be ready and serviceable,” Marsden says. “We have a very strong team to support that. We do a lot of maintenance to bring our dispatch reliability up. We live in the 99% dispatch reliability zone and we are proud of that, and it is our team here that gets us to that. They’re dedicated, part of our family.”

Taking care of and retaining that team is one of Marsden’s top priorities.

“We have great retention,” he says proudly. “People stay here for a long time. We have very low turnover and it allows us to provide the service our customers need, and maintain good operating techniques over the fire.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, focusing on taking care of Conair’s existing staff has turned out to be a powerful recruitment tool.

“A lot of our recruitment is through word of mouth. People come to us looking for work. We don’t do a lot of searching but our employees are our best emissaries for attracting other people to come to Conair,” says Marsden. “We try to treat them as well as we can, celebrating with them when we can with get-togethers, although not much of that is going on at the moment with COVID. Our employees are just an integral part of our operation and we’re very proud of them and we’re well thought of by our customers, so our challenge is to keep that up always.”

For Conair valuing its staff also means investing in their skills, and training is a huge part of the company’s strategy going forward.

“We invest in training for all people, particularly on the pilot side. We’re the only firefighting organisation with our own Training +Tactics Centre, teaching firefighting tactics as well as basic training, and we’re continuing to build that out as we speak,” explains Marsden. “I think that’s a big part of our future. It’s a competitive edge for us.”

Indeed, Conair’s training facilities in both flight and firefighting tactics are unrivalled in the sector.

“We have a Level 5 Air Tractor Fire Boss simulator which we’re looking at providing training for other operators on when it’s available, and we have another simulator we use for airline customers. It’s the only one of its kind in the firefighting world,” says Marsden. “Probably one of the most important aspects of training is the Tactics Centre, where we will spend more time as we get our simulators and training facilities built out, training aircrews and Air Attack Officers in mission scenarios. It gives us a common purpose and we work side by side with the customer. In the Canadian operation, we have bird dog or air attack aircraft with agency professional firefighters in the right seat and our pilots in the left. The Air Attack Officer develops the strategy and tactics for fire control operations, which our pilots execute.”

Looking forward, Conair is in a strong position. It is the largest fixed-wing air tanker operator in the world by a large margin and the company is not done yet.

“We’ll continue to grow,” Marsden says. “We’re on three continents now, North America, Europe, and Australia. We want to continue our growth plan and look at keeping our eyes on new and interesting technologies that will fit our capabilities and the customers’ needs, maybe broadening our offering in future.”

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