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 3 of 4)
For tanker pilots, the season begins mid-spring with checkouts in aircraft, a review of fire tactics, and training runs with loads of water. From May through October, most crew members are on the road: first in New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, then northward as states such as Montana and Idaho heat up and dry out. A typical day starts when the air crews report for duty at a reload base, an airfield set up to mix and load retardant. A duty day lasts 14 hours, a long time to cool one’s heels on a sun-toasted, wind-swept airfield if there are no fires to fight. “You have to find a hobby or read to kill the time,” says Bob West, a tanker pilot who joined Neptune Aviation last year after flying for many years with Hawkins & Powers. “That time can be more stressful than flying.”
Most fires in the West are started by lightning. A big thunderstorm can ignite 15 to 20 fires, and during July and August, it’s not unusual for 400 fires to break out in a single day. When that happens, air crews fly continuously during their shifts, stopping only to refuel and take on retardant, logging 20 or more flights in an aircraft that is noisy and hot (many tankers are not air-conditioned).
Because of the volatile nature of wildfires, each run poses different risks. Says West: “You can’t concentrate on just one thing; if you get a fire fixation, you start looking at the fire and lose track of everything else. So you keep your scan going. First: Are you really sure you have a good idea of where they want you to drop? When that’s satisfied, I make sure that I have a good exit. I want to know what the air is like: Are there downdrafts or rotor wash or updrafts once I cross over a ridge? Are there any snags [dead trees] in the area? They can stick above the live trees and are hard to see. Then, if it’s a big fire, there will be a lead airplane to join up with. I want to know what that pilot’s experience is, and whether the information he’s giving me jibes with what I’m seeing.”
West takes a breath: “You never commit yourself to a run until you’ve taken all that into consideration.”
Tanker pilots drop retardant at speeds of around 140 mph, with the aircraft flying as low as 150 feet above the trees. The retardant tanks in the bellies of P2Vs contain six chambers, each with a door that is controlled by toggles in the cockpit. The pilot selects the number of chambers to open in one pass and whether to release the retardant in a dribble (better over light fuels such as brush or grass) or a heavy spray (to punch through treetops and hit the ground in front of a fire). Retardant, the bright pink stuff that makes for such dramatic television footage, isn’t meant to extinguish a fire. Instead, it contains chemicals that interrupt combustion. The idea is to slow the fire so that ground crews have time to finish digging fire lines, strips of bare earth that deprive fires of the trees and brush that fuel them.
Crews try to avoid flying directly over the fire because a big blaze can throw a column of hot air into the troposphere, and no pilot wants to get caught in the updraft. Instead they come in from the sides, skimming the trees in front of the fire, then banking up and away. Summer temperatures add to heat from the fires to create terrific turbulence. And smoke cuts visibility, increasing the likelihood of the tankers colliding with the helicopters and spotter aircraft in the area.
Despite the harrowing conditions, most pilots stay in the business for years. For Holm, flying an aerial tanker is a matter of service to fellow firefighters. “I really want to do the best job I can for the guys on the ground,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be down there in 100-degree heat, climbing up hills with all your gear on your back.” Pilot Bob West likes the freedom to work hard in the summer and take much of the winter off. But he also knows the hazards: He got started fighting fires at Hawkins & Powers back in the 1970s because one of the company’s pilots had been killed.
Everyone in the industry agrees the fleet must be modernized. But how? In April, Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who is in charge of the Forest Service, suggested that more P-3 Orions could be salvaged from the surplus-aircraft boneyard at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. But tanker operators aren’t interested in repeating the old pattern of trying to squeeze life out of tired airplanes.