Manitoba

Unique dual-purpose Manitoba plane can dust crops, fight fires with ease

Rural Manitobans are very familiar with the term crop dusting — spraying fields with chemicals from a small low-flying aircraft — but how about fire dusting?

Agile plane can target more accurately than a traditional water bomber

Canada's first dual-controlled H-80 Thrush at work in Manitoba. (Submitted by Janet and Randy Sandstrom)

Rural Manitobans are very familiar with the term crop dusting — spraying fields with chemicals from a small low-flying aircraft — but how about fire dusting?

After years of feeling helpless watching from the sidelines as emergency crews battled grass fires and forest fires, one Manitoba company now has Canada's first-ever dual-duty aircraft.

"You'd see all these fires popping up and you see the guys fighting it and we couldn't respond because it wasn't allowed," said Randy Sandstrom, who owns Prairie Dusters along with his wife Janet.

"So it was just kind of a natural thing for us to look at how could we incorporate our business into their efforts."

In 2015, the Sandstroms visited the factory for U.S.-based agricultural aircraft company, Thrush, in Albany, Georgia. During the tour, they saw a "pile of parts" sitting in the corner and asked what they were about.

Janet and Randy Sandstrom pose with their fire duster. (Submitted by Janet and Randy Sandstrom)

Turns out they were for a new technology that would allow for exactly what the Sandstroms had been visualizing. Called a switchback, it would allow planes to shift between crop dusting and fire suppression.

The technology was still being completed so the Sandstroms kept tabs on its progress and "eventually it came to light and we jumped on it," Randy said.  

In 2017, the Sandtroms became the proud owners of a newly remodeled craft bearing serial No. 1.

"It's a multi-role airplane. We can swap back and forth from ag work to fire suppression just immediately," Randy said, explaining the craft has two storage tanks for whatever chemical or liquid is required.

The company's main base of operation is the Shoal Lake airport but has satellite bases in Birtle, Virden, Moosomin, Russell and Dauphin.

The airplane has two storage tanks for whatever chemical or liquid is required, depending on the job at hand. (Submitted by Janet and Randy Sandstrom)

"Both Randy and I feel it's important to give back to communities in order to build stronger communities," said Janet.

"We have volunteer fire departments and it's awesome to think that we could be part of that volunteer response team to help somebody who needs us."

Fire departments subcontract the company, which has already helped out a wide swath of the province — and even into Saskatchewan.

The plane is highly computerized so it can drop water alone or add fire-suppression foam, injecting it into the system at whatever rate the fire department needs, Randy explained.

The Thrush airplane cruises over a forest fire scene. (Submitted by Janet and Randy Sandstrom)

"It looks and acts like a typically spray plane because that's essentially what it is," which enables it to target more accurately than a traditional water bomber used in firefighting, said Randy.

"Because of the hydraulic doors and and the technology that's in the computer system, we're able to target a building inside of a block," he said.

"If there is a school on fire or something like that we could just target that one building or we could do a wider area, cover a whole block and cool it down.

"It's very quick, very agile. We can get down into the ravines and back up out of them where other guys can't can do it."

The plane can get a fire under control, making it safer for ground crews to then move in and finish up, Randy said. 

The couple admits the plane was an expensive one, but well worth it. 

"The value of the airplane, if we can save one yard then it's paid for itself," Randy said.

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About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

With files from Laurie Hoogstraten

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