The Big Gulp
The world’s largest seaplane fights wildfires in California.
- By Tom LeCompte
- AirSpaceMag.com, July 30, 2008
Coulson Aircrane Ltd
(Page 2 of 3)
In contrast to most firefighting aircraft, which drop retardant ahead of the fire to slow its advance, the Mars bombers operate on a gallons-per-hour concept, Coulson says: dropping the largest amount of water or suppressant gel directly on the blaze in the shortest possible time. Depending on the proximity of a fire to a lake large enough to accommodate the Mars (one with at least three miles of clear area to allow for the approach, scooping, and climb out), the Mars can drop 7,200 gallons of water on a fire every seven minutes for six hours.
Recently, Coulson says, a review of air operations out of the Redding fire air base revealed that the Grumman S-2 Tracker and P-3 Orion operating from there dropped a total of just over 80,000 gallons in a day. In contrast, Hawaii Mars alone dropped more than 100,000 gallons.
The state of California also operates a DC-10 tanker that can unload as much 12,000 gallons of retardant per drop, nearly two-thirds more than the Mars. But the DC-10 requires a wide swath of airspace, making it tricky to integrate with other aircraft.
Each Mars carries 600 gallons of foam concentrate, which, when mixed with water, creates a heavier covering to penetrate dense tree cover. Thermo-Gel, a longer-lasting fire suppressant, can be used to protect structures. To switch from straight water to foam or gel, the pilot merely pushes a switch to begin the mixing process.
Even with the water tanks, there’s room to spare inside the Mars. The interior is as big as a 15-room house, and the flight deck could be a studio apartment. Flying the Mars requires a crew of four: a pilot, a first officer, and two flight engineers, who sit at a small station behind the cockpit.
So what’s it like to fly?
“Oh, it’s a pussycat,” says John DeBourcier, 66, who has been flying the Mars since 1977. “As you get into bigger airplanes you learn to anticipate more. In the Mars, you have that long, high-lift wing, and with those little ailerons it just doesn’t want to move, so going from a 30-degree right bank to a 30-degree left bank is a big turn.”
Because much of the flying is done at low altitude in often rugged terrain, as well as on public lakes where the obstacles range from boaters (who sometimes film the action) to exposed rocks or floating debris, “your eyes have to be on what’s in front of you,” says DeBourcier.