Conrad Wood – Bushfire Biggles.

If ever anyone could claim (not that he ever would) to have pioneered modern aerial firefighting and forestry aviation in Australia it was Conrad Wood.

Woody graduated from the Victorian School of Forestry in 1957, and after postings with the Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) at Swifts Creek and Sirex surveys, he gravitated into the orbit of the Forest Protection Division in Head Office in the early 1960s.

From its earliest days, the FCV had led the use of aircraft for forestry and firefighting in Australia.

Much had already been achieved by the time Woody arrived, particularly under Chairman Alf Lawrence, so the newcomer was able to “stand and build on the shoulders of others”.

However, Woody himself held a grand vision and a passion for new ideas, innovation and technology.

An early recipient of a prestigious Churchill Fellowship, Woody travelled extensively throughout 1969 in North America and Europe studying aviation in forestry and firefighting. Afterwards he was very active amongst the Churchill alumni.

And Victoria still trades on some of the valuable international relationships that Conrad established during that time.

Over the decades there were many aviation milestones and, Woody, along with many others, took risks, showed remarkable leadership and made significant contributions to Get Stuff Done (GSD)…

  • 1928 – the Forests Commission undertook its first major aerial photography project over 15,000 acres of State forest, which was said to be the first of its kind in Australia.
  • 1930 – Using RAAF Wapitis from Point Cook, the Commission organised Australia’s first bushfire reconnaissance flights on 18 February. These annual arrangements stayed in place until 1964.
  • 1937 – The FCV began Australia’s first firebombing trials, but they lapsed because of the war.
  • 1939 – In the wake of the disastrous Black Friday bushfires, and Judge Stretton’s scathing Royal Commission report, Alf Lawrence was the natural choice to become the Chief Fire Officer. He immediately set about the huge challenge of rebuilding a highly organised and motivated fire fighting force, lifting staff morale, introducing more RAAF fire spotting aircraft, building fire towers, purchasing modern vehicles and equipment such as powered pumps, as well as a new statewide radio communications network, VL3AA.
  • 1939 – during WW2, large areas of Victoria were photographed for the FCV by the RAAF and used to produce orthophoto maps. By 1945 aerial photography of 13,000 square miles (3.4 M ha) was completed, including much of the inaccessible eastern forests. These proved invaluable for post war timber assessment.
  • 1946 – The FCV conducted a remarkable range of firebombing experiments at Anglesea with different aircraft such as heavy RAAF Lincoln four-engine bombers, P51 Mustang single-seat fighters and small agricultural aircraft with differing drop materials, techniques and equipment.
  • 1947 – Spectacular CSIRO cloud-seeding experiments near Sydney led to decades of attempts to increase rainfall. The FCV became involved operationally from the early 1960s.
  • 1949 – The FCV conducted the first helicopter trials in Australia using a RAAF Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly.
  • 1962 – CSIRO’s Alan McArthur published his foundation research into forest fire behaviour that transformed forest managers’ approaches and confidence in aerial ignition and fuel reduction burning.
  • 1963 – Athol Hodgson from the FCV led firebombing trials at Ballarat, using a CAC Ceres crop duster dropping bentonite slurry.
  • 1965 – Gippsland bushfires were the biggest test of the FCV’s capacity since 1939 and led to greater use of aircraft.
  • 1965 – A new retardant chemical, PhosChek, was dropped for the first time in Victoria.
  • 1965 – CSIRO begins aerial ignition trials in Western Australia, and later in 1969 the Forests Commission purchased one of their aerial incendiary machines.
  • 1965 – Snowy Range airfield north of Licola, still Australia’s highest, was built by the FCV for firefighting. Victoria Valley in the Grampians followed in 1967.
  • 1965 – FCV engages a small Bell 47G helicopter on permanent contract, an Australian first for any forest or bushfire agency.
  • 1965 – The first operational bushfire rappel crew was established at Heyfield using the small Bell 47G. The program lasted for two seasons but lapsed due to safety concerns about the small and underpowered helicopter.
  • 1967 – Alan McArthur’s Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) meter was first seen operationally in the field.
  • 1967 – Double-ended matches called Delayed Action Incendiary Devices (DAIDs), developed by the FCV, were used for the first time. A few months later DAIDs ignited a 20,000 hectare backburn in northeast Victoria – believed to be a world first
  • 1967 – After many years of experimentation, Ben Buckley and Bob Lansbury completed Australia’s first operational firebombing mission at Benambra on 6 February.
  • The mission at Benambra, now deemed a classic “proof of concept” encouraged many more innovations with new and more powerful aircraft over the next decade.
  • 1978 – Lightning struck across the eastern ranges on 15 January and started many bushfires. Most were controlled quickly but eight developed into major incidents. Stage 2 of the State Disaster Plan was enacted. It proved a major watershed as the RAAF collaborated and aerial bushfire technology coalesced.
  • 1978 – A FCV contract helicopter conducting routine aerial ignition using DAIDs crashed at Bright in April killing two FCV foresters, Peter Collier and Stan Gillett, along with pilot John Byrnes. Woody spent hours at the crash site trying to determine what had gone wrong.
  • 1978 – After the crash at Bright the use of DAIDS was suspended and the FCV developed a new “ping-pong” aerial incendiary machine at Altona
  • 1981 – A Modular Aerial Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) was borrowed from the US Forest Service and fitted into a RAAF C-130 Hercules. Woody and Athol Hodgson navigated the politics and gained the approvals. Woody even piloted the high-performance twin-engine command aircraft (birddog) and directed the retardant drops.
  • 1982 – After a lapse of 15 years, helicopter rappelling was recommenced with the NSCA at West Sale using larger and more powerful Bell 212s.
  • 1983 – The prolonged summer bushfire season, which included Ash Wednesday on 16 February, more than 30 aircraft were engaged, which was the most intensive air operations in the Commission’s history up to that time. It included:
    • Nine agricultural aircraft carried out hundreds of firebombing missions from strategic airstrips.
    • The MAFFS trial continued in 1982-83 and made 175 retardant drops.
    • A National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA) Bell 212 helicopter, fitted with a 1,700-litre bucket, was used successfully in making numerous water drops, mainly to protect houses and check spot fires.
    • A CSIRO Fokker Friendship fitted with infra-red linescan equipment, and a NSCA helicopter fitted with a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) viewer, greatly aided detailed mapping of fires in forests. Both enabled fire intelligence gathering by night and through smoke.
    • A RAAF Chinook helicopter deployed firefighters, relief crews and fuel for bulldozers in difficult terrain at Nug Nug near Mt Buffalo.
    • RAAF Iroquois helicopters and 11 commercial helicopters were used for rapid movement of crews and supplies and for detailed mapping and reconnaissance.
    • Across Victoria, light aircraft were deployed on detection patrols, and several helicopters were fitted with the new ping-pong ball incendiary machines to burn out forest fuels and backburn control lines.
  • 1983 – The upheaval and formation of the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL) led to major changes to aviation management and greater sharing with the CFA.
  • 1984 – The NSCA begins trials of helicopter belly tanks.
  • 1985 – Across Victoria’s north-eastern alps, 111 lightning strikes in 24 hours ignited widespread fires. Aircraft from the armed services were once again deployed, plus a major NSCA fleet.  It was the largest use of firefighting aircraft in Australia, and the first big test for the newly formed CFL. And Woody was right in the thick of it.

Everyone who encountered Woody seems to have an amazing and amusing anecdote to tell.

Forestry folklore has it that he, along with another aviation legend, Ben Buckley, were on Ben’s moonshine at Benambra late one night and, having run out, decided to fly to the moon to get some more—where else would you get it?  Fortunately for all concerned Ben’s Cessna apparently ran out of puff at around 20,000 feet.

And then there were the epic, and probably embellished, tales of oyster foraging forays to East Gippsland and Tasmania with his best forestry mates.

Every organisation has a few unique characters, and the Forests Commission had its share, but in 1985 it lost one of its greats when Woody chose to retire early, aged 50, as the first forester to leave under the generous Emergency Services Superannuation Scheme.

Along with bushfire aviation, Conrad was an ardent enthusiast of literature, convivial conversation, left-wing politics, noisy parties, apache dancing, his smelly pipe, food, drink, pub life, beachcombing, snooker, dogs, eclectic music, British motorbikes, vegetable gardening and the St Kilda Football Club.

Woody was also a committed campaigner on social justice issues and for many years read for vision-impaired people on public radio.

Conrad Wood… inspirational pioneer of Australian forestry and bushfire aviation, all-round good bloke, friend to many, terpsichorean, raconteur, poet and pilot, passed away in January 2014, aged 75, after being cared for during his long illness by devoted partner, Clare.

And by any measure, Woody left a huge legacy in his prop wash…

Posted on Facebook – 27 February 2022.

Source: Woody’s World: Wit on Wings. Ed. Rob Youl, 2008.

The VSF graduation class of 1957 – Kevin Wareing, John Wright, Conrad Wood, Bob Graham, Malcolm McDougall, Ted Stuckey, Andy Banks. FCRPA Collection
Woody at the controls.
At the office – sans pipe and note there is also no desktop computer. c early 1980s.
Richard Alder, Bryan Rees, Con Wood (happily retired at that point), Peter Cuthbertson, Andrew Mathews, Nick Ryan. Altona workshop. c 1996.
Victoria Valley – Grampians
Woody in fine voice.1980. Source: FCRPA Collection
Advances by the Forests Commission in aviation and aerial ignition can be seen in the steady climb in the average area burnt from the mid-1960s. Source: Morgan, Tolhurst et al. (2020). Prescribed burning in south-eastern Australia: history and future directions

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