Wildfire Air Force

During the first week of May, with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, the newest addition to the wildland firefighting fleet was unveiled in Colorado Springs, CO. Global SuperTanker Services, LLC’s Spirit of John Muir, a converted 747–400, now the largest firefighting tanker

It is capable of flying to any fire in the western U.S. within three hours and anywhere in the world within twenty. This flying behemoth can deliver 20,000 gallons of water or retardant at variable drop rates which is almost double the next most capable system, the DC-10 tanker which has a capacity of 11,600 gallons. The Spirit of John Muir is not the first use of a 747 as a firefighting tanker. Evergreen International Aviation first proposed converting the large aircraft for wild land firefighting use in 2002. A converted 747–200 was demonstrated in 2004 but aircraft never entered service. A second Evergreen 747–100 was in service from 2006 to 2013 when the company filed for bankruptcy. The tanks and drop system from the Evergreen tanker have been refurbished and now reside in Global Supertanker’s aircraft.

Wildland firefighting tankers in federal service are contracted through the U.S. Forrest Service (USFS). For the 2016 fire season, there are 21 large air tankers (LATS) and very large air tankers (VLATS) from five different companies, although Global Supertanker has not secured a contract as of yet. For many years air tankers consisted primarily of retired military bombers, cargo, and patrol aircraft that have become increasingly more unreliable and unsafe. The USFS has been making a concerted effort to update the tanker fleet over the last few years with a program known as next generation air tanker. However, the first available VLATS for the 2016 season are the oldest aircraft. Six Lockheed P2 Neptune 2,000 gallon capacity tankers, which are converted naval patrol aircraft that entered military service in 1947, had contracts activated in March.

The remainder of the LAT fleet for this season is a mix of six different types of aircraft. Five BAe-146s, and four RJ85 3,000 gallon tankers were brought into service as part of the Next Gen Air Tanker program. Older converted airliners and transport aircraft — two MD 87 4,000 gal, two DC-10 11,600 gal, one C-130 4,000 gal, and one USFS C-130 3,000 gallon tanker — will become available by June. The final addition to the fleet will be two CL-415 amphibious “scooper” tankers that can use nearby bodies of water for refilling tanks. USFS also has agreements with Alaska, Canada, and other non-exclusive use contractors for additional tankers if required.

The USFS also has one more large air tanker resource it can call upon — the U.S. military. The USFS has developed a modular airborne firefighting system second generation, or MAFFS 2 which can be utilized in a minimally modified military C-130.

There are seven systems currently employed by Air National Guard units in California, Wyoming, North Carolina and one Air Force Reserve unit in Colorado. An eighth system is being employed by a USFS C-130 operated by a contract crew. The MAFFS aircraft can be utilized by the Governor, with USFS permission, for state fires. This has frequently happened in California, or in federal status when requested by the National International Fire Center. In 2013, the Coast Guard was directed to transfer seven C-130s to the USFS. These aircraft, include the one being utilized this year with a MAAFS 2, are being modified with a newly designed gravity drop system and should enter the tanker fleet over the next 3 years.

LATS/VLATS may be the most visible tankers in the wildland firefighting inventory, but the real workhorses are the single engine air tankers (SEATS) and helicopter systems.

There are literally dozens of SEAT aircraft, which are similar in size to crop dusters, available to not only the USFS, but all Federal and State firefighting agencies. For 2016 the USFS has exclusive contracts with 34 large Type 1 and 31 Type 2 helicopters in addition to those contracted by other agencies. Other organizations and agencies, like California Fire (CALFIRE), have their own or contracts for tankers, helicopters, and other equipment.

While air assets are the cool and most visible face of wildland firefighting, they do not put out wildfires no matter what the air community public relations and media would want us to believe. Air assets, whether LATS, VLATS, SEATs, or helicopters, are just one resource or tool in the box used to assist the firefighter on the ground. Like the Premier of Alberta, CA has recently stated during the Fort McMurray fire, “Tankers do not put fires out, firefighters do.” Ground firefighting crews must do the dirty work of establishing fire lines and control wildfires. They are the true rock stars of wildland firefighting. Sorry Global SuperTanker Services.