Thursday, 5 January 2023

Fire Boss - Türkiye’s S-2 Tracker Aerial Firefighter

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Türkiye's rich aviation history spans far more time and projects than most people are presently aware of. Unfortunately, many of the country's indigenous aviation projects have received little attention outside of Türkiye, and even in the country itself some designs remain completely unknown even to seasoned aviation enthusiasts. Of course, it doesn't help that many of the country's early aircraft designs were destined to remain limited to the drawing board – as was the case with the 1930s-era Nu.D.40 fighter aircraft by Turkish aircraft manufacturer Nuri Demirağ – or limited to prototypes only before being cancelled due to a lack of political commitment. [1]
This was also the case for Türkiye's firefighting aircraft project based on the Grumman S-2 Tracker anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. Initiated in the late 1990s with much anticipation, the project unfortunately never progressed beyond the conversion of a single prototype. The 2021 Türkiye wildfires once again raised awareness to the benefits of operating own dedicated firefighting aircraft rather than relying on leased aircraft and helicopters. By now too late to resurrect the S-2 project, in October 2021 it was announced that four firefighting aircraft would be purchased instead. [2] In the meantime, six of the nine CL-215 amphibious firefighting aircraft will return to operational service.
Two decades earlier, in 1997, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) conducted a feasibility study to see whether it was possible to convert some of the country's S-2E ASW aircraft to firefighting aircraft. These aircraft were readily available for conversion after the Turkish Navy had retired its entire Tracker fleet some three years earlier. It was estimated that after receiving new Honeywell TPE331 turboprop engines (in similar fashion to the S-2T Tracker upgrade programme that entered service with the navies of Argentina and Taiwan), the aircraft could be used for at least another twenty years at an upgrade cost of around $3 million per plane. [3]

The Turkish Navy (Türk Deniz Kuvvetleri) received a total of 39 S-2 Trackers between 1971 and 1987, starting with the delivery of one U.S. Navy S-2A and eight S-2As received from The Netherlands in 1971. [4] [5] These entered service with the 301st Naval Air Squadron (301 Filo) at Bandırma air base and were mostly used for training. In 1972 the Turkish Navy acquired twelve secondhand S-2Es from the U.S., later followed by another eighteen examples received between 1978 and 1987. In 1976, 301 Filo relocated to Cengiz Topel air base from where it continues to operate ATR 72 MPAs and CN-235MPs today. [6] [7] A tragic accident with an S-2 in July 1993 led to the retirement of the S-2 fleet from Turkish Navy service. Seven S-2s still survive today as gate guards or in museums throughout the country. [4]

After the retirement of the S-2E Trackers from Turkish Navy service, TAI purchased an S-2T Turbo Tracker upgrade kit for conversion of one of the now redundant S-2E Trackers. [3] After its successful conversion in 1999, the aircraft could immediately put its new abilities to the test during the 1999 Antalya wildfires and the Tüpraş Oil Refinery fire that occurred in the aftermath of the deadly 1999 İzmit earthquake. Although the conversion of up to fifteen aircraft was planned, nothing came of the plan and the project was shelved in 2002 for unknown reasons. [3] TAI's Flight Test Engineering Group continued flying the sole converted aircraft until the mid-2010s as a testbed for new technologies. 
It would take another ten years before Türkiye finally possessed its own twin-engined firefighting aircraft, consisting of some ten secondhand CL-215s amphibians acquired from 2009 onwards. [9] The nine CL-215s and eleven Dromader PZL M18s have all been retired over the past years, leaving a fleet of chartered Russian Be-200 amphibious firefighting aircraft and Mi-17 and Ka-32 helicopters to take over much of their work until newly-acquired firefighting aircraft enter service in the near future. [10] For the intervening period, a decision was made to return six of the nine CL-215s back to operational service. [11] It can only be hoped that their reactivation remains a precautionary measure only.

Even though TAI's S-2 Tracker conversion remained limited to just one prototype, the aircraft has rightfully earned its place among the rich history of Turkish aircraft designs and upgrades. The country is currently pushing the boundaries of modern aviation technologies by using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help with locating new wildfires and directing firefighting assets towards them. [12] Türkiye could call on its indigenous aircraft industry once again to renew its fleet of firefighting aircraft. Past experiences with projects like the S-2 conversion are certain to provide valuable experience in this regard. Given Türkiye's role at the forefront of modern UAV design, perhaps one day not too far in the future when it launches its first indigenous firefighter, it too will be unmanned.

[1] From Nu.D.40 to Bayraktar Akıncı: Demirağ’s Legacy
[2] Turkey to buy 4 firefighting planes following summer wildfires
[4] S2F / S-2 Trackers currently registered in Turkey
[5] Netherlands Netherlands Naval Aviation
[9] Aircraft and Helicopter Usages in Forest Fires in Turkey (A Case Study: Antalya Region)  
[10] An Unmanned Firefighter: The Bayraktar TB2 Joins The Call
[11] Four tanker planes added to ‘firefighting fleet’ after maintenance