Once a fire starts, these airplanes are the fastest way to slow it down. So why are they endangered?
- By Douglas Gantenbein
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
(Page 2 of 4)
Within two years of the Walker and Estes Park crashes, the heavy tanker fleet had fallen from more than 40 to only a handful. That alarmed many in the fire business, who have seen summer fires grow increasingly aggressive in recent years. As it turned out, despite an early drought and the potential for a severe fire season, the summer of 2004 saw few fires, and, outside Alaska, the United States had one of the mildest fire seasons in years.
Still, the question remains: Are heavy tankers really necessary to fight fires? Certainly, other aircraft can do the job. Smaller, single-engine tankers, such as the Air Tractor AT-802F, which can carry 800 gallons of retardant, are becoming increasingly popular. And then there are helitankers, some of which can drop up to 2,000 gallons of retardant. Helicopters, however, are maintenance-intensive, and even more costly to operate than big aircraft; in many cases, they must work from refueling bases that need to be established near a fire. As for single-engine tankers, they lack the range of their multi-engine brethren, and their smaller payloads don’t offer the impact of a 3,000-gallon dousing.
For speed of response and attacking a fire aggressively, nothing is as good as a heavy tanker. “They’re great when you need a lot of retardant delivered quickly,” says Jim Krugman, a longtime “incident commander,” a role in which he oversees federal fire crews of 1,000 or more working some of the West’s biggest fires. “For the job, they’re crucial.”
When the fleet of heavies numbered more than 40, fire managers often retained two or three aircraft to protect a particular area or assigned an aircraft to work a big fire for days. But with a smaller fleet, the focus is back on what multi-engine tankers do best: taking the first crack at a fire. With their speed, range, and payload, aircraft such as a P2V or P-3 can cross two or three states in one sortie and drop enough retardant to stop a newly detected fire in its tracks. “I’ve been fighting fires over 25 years, and I’ve seen [heavy tankers] retard fires many times,” says Jim Ziobro, a fire aviation specialist with Oregon’s Department of Forestry.
Despite the heavies’ effectiveness, their troubled history had left them in limbo. But in May, a little certainty returned, with the Forest Service announcing that 25 heavy tankers would be brought back for the 2005 season. The reinstated fleet includes Aero Union’s remaining seven P-3s, some of which battled blazes in Nevada in June. Tucson, Arizona-based Ardco has a federal contract for one of its three C-54s (the other two retained contracts with Oregon). And the Forest Service retained nine P2V Neptunes from Minden Aviation and Neptune after an engineering consulting firm finally pegged the service life of a P2V at 15,000 hours—far higher than what any of the current Neptunes have logged. Rounding out the fleet are eight Lockheed C-130s—fitted with removable modular tanks—flown by Air National Guard units. “This is definitely good news,” says Larry Brosnan, assistant director of aviation for the Forest Service. “We traditionally had as many as 40 air tankers, and when we terminated contracts on the fleet last year, we were left with eight. We got by, but last year was a relatively easy fire season. The addition of the P2Vs back to the fleet is very welcome.”
It’s clear, though, that in the history of aerial firefighting, a page has turned. It wasn’t that long ago that a tanker base looked like a museum, with World War II-era airplanes scattered around the runway. Mark Timmons, the president of Neptune Aviation, recalls walking onto the airstrip at Alamogordo, New Mexico, a popular base for tankers, and feeling catapulted back in time. “I expected to see Howard Hughes walk out from under a wing,” he says.
But Timmons’ Neptunes are no spring chickens either. His office, attached to a spacious hangar at Missoula’s airport, is lined with photographs of the company’s P2Vs roaring low over burning forests. Inside a roomy hangar, two Lockheed Electras (the airliner on which the P-3 Orion is based) are midway through conversions to tankers. Rows of Wright Cyclone R-3350-24W radial engines sit in a corner, ready for installation in just a few hours. Outside, nine of the P2Vs, neatly painted silver and red, fill a parking area. On a Friday, when maintenance crews are off, it’s quiet.
The P2V’s military background translates well to firefighting. “The Navy did the same maneuvering to chase submarines that we do around a fire—making short turns at low level,” says Christian Holm, Neptune’s director of aviation safety. “It’s a great platform—very stable on the approach.” Holm, who joined Neptune in 1998 after a career in ground-based firefighting and flying drug interdiction missions, climbs up through the nosewheel hatch of a P2V and into the cockpit. The airplane was built in 1954, but its instruments and controls are new, making it look factory-fresh.