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The Rainmakers

Once a fire starts, these airplanes are the fastest way to slow it down. So why are they endangered?

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In the rugged mountains outside Chico, California, workers swarmed over a sun-baked hillside, filling huge fabric bags with the shattered bits of a Lockheed P-3B: torn aluminum, blackened engines, broken propellers, and tangled wiring. Nearby, a small scuff showed where the airplane’s tail compartment, used to hold sonar equipment when the craft flew for the Navy, had struck. In a few feet, the scuff grew into a long “V” of soil scraped bare. Beyond, charred stubs of manzanita bushes stuck out of the torn earth. And then, a massive pile of wreckage. The warm air smelled of jet fuel and the sage-like aroma of ceanothus shrubs. “It’s like they just fell out of the sky,” says Michael McCart, an insurance adjuster managing the crash recovery for the airplane’s insurer, of the aircraft’s three-man crew.

Five days earlier, at 6:38 p.m. on April 20, Tom Lynch, 41, Brian Bruns, 45, and Paul Cockrell, 52, had taken off in the P-3B from the Chico Municipal Airport. As chief pilot of Aero Union, Lynch was responsible for training the company’s pilots in the demanding art of fighting fires from the air. Aero Union flies aircraft that have been modified to rain retardant on fast-moving blazes, and in preparation for the 2005 fire season, Lynch was evaluating the skills of Bruns and Cockrell. Bruns, who had flown P-3s for the U.S. Navy and still flew them for the Naval Reserve, was at the controls of the 39-year-old aircraft, its tanks filled with 2,550 gallons of water (retardant is not used for training missions). Bruns headed toward a mountain range north of the airport. Once there, the P-3B swooped low over hills and ravines so the crew could release water over the training area. The pilots had already made several practice runs that day, returning to the airport after each flight to refill the P-3B’s tanks. On the final flight of the day, Bruns began maneuvering over the drop zone. A transponder on the aircraft stopped transmitting at 6:50 p.m., and a few minutes later, witnesses called 911 to report seeing a fireball and smoke rising from the mountains.

The Aero Union crash unnerved the small community that fights big fires from the air. Grief over the loss of the pilots, who were known among the crews working for other aerial tanker operations, was mingled with worries that the tankers had simply grown too old and too hazardous to fly. Though the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may take more than a year to discover the accident’s cause, one initial determination has brought a small amount of relief to aerial firefighters: All of the wreckage was found in one 400- by 100-foot footprint. Had the P-3B suffered a structural failure, the aircraft would have come apart in flight, leading to two debris fields on the ground. So despite its age, the tanker probably did not have a structural failure.

Such was the fate two tankers met three years ago. On June 17, 2002, as a 46-year-old Lockheed C-130A tanker was dropping retardant on a fire in Walker, California, its wings folded like a butterfly’s and peeled off. The three crew members were killed in the ensuing crash. A month later, two more firefighters died when their 57-year-old Consolidated-Vultee P4Y-2 lost a wing—also during a retardant delivery, this one in Estes Park, Colorado. Both aircraft were owned and operated by Hawkins & Powers, a longtime aerial firefighting contractor based in Greybull, Wyoming.

The accidents threw the tanker community into turmoil. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service grounded the remaining C-130As and P4Y-2s, then formed a commission to examine tanker safety. The commission’s report, released December 2002, faulted the Forest Service for running aerial firefighting on the cheap, relying on aging aircraft, and not providing the oversight required to keep the flights safe.

A National Transportation Safety Board report, released in April 2004, was equally critical, citing a lack of maintenance standards and insufficient information about whether aircraft retired from the military were suited for firefighting. The NTSB investigations of the Walker and Estes Park accidents revealed that both tankers had fatigue cracks in the wings, flaws that visual inspections of the tankers’ exteriors had not detected.

The NTSB report was the last straw for the Forest Service: On May 10, 2004, it canceled contracts for the heavy tanker fleet, taking 33 aircraft out of fire operations. By mid-summer, though, Aero Union’s P-3 Orions had been cleared to fly after DynCorp Technical Services, an engineering consulting firm, determined that the operational life of an adequately maintained P-3 was 19,000 hours (substantially more than the number of hours each Aero Union P-3 had logged). DynCorp was able to quickly determine an operational life for the P-3 because the craft is still in service with the Navy and data was readily available. (Since the P2V Neptune is no longer employed by the U.S. military, figuring out the number of hours that the type could be safely flown would take longer.)

Devastated by the 2002 crashes and the loss of fire contracts, Hawkins & Powers abandoned the business of flying tankers. Neptune Aviation, based in Missoula, Montana, and Minden Aviation of Nevada scraped by with one P2V each (the airplanes were cleared to fly because they were wired to collect information on the stresses they endured in flight). And Butler Aviation, an Oregon company that flies three DC-7s, made up for the loss of federal contracts by securing work with the state of Oregon.

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.

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.

Other aircraft types have been proposed as new retardant tankers: Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolts, Ilyushin 76TD jet transports, and the Canadair CL-215, an amphibian that can alight on a lake, fill tanks with 1,400 gallons of water, then fly to a fire. But those proposals have all foundered on technical problems or contract hurdles. Evergreen Aviation, an air transport company based in McMinnville, Oregon, is testing a 747 that could drop more than 20,000 gallons of water or retardant on a fire. Early tests of the giant tanker have shown promise, and the 747 may be flying over fires in California this summer. Unlike the current heavy tankers, which rely on gravity to draw retardant out of the tanks, Evergreen’s 747 has a pressurized application system that enables the tanker to release its load at a height of 800 feet above the fire.

Neptune Aviation is working with Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier to fit a Q200, a twin-engine turboprop regional airliner, with a tank that could hold 1,800 gallons. Aero Union, meanwhile, believes the Navy’s S-3 Viking, a twin-engine turbojet used as a tanker and an electronic countermeasures craft, has promise. The Navy plans to begin retiring a number of S-3s that are still relatively young (the first began flying in the 1970s).

Both projects require money. Timmons says that “tanking” a Q200 and running tests on a single aircraft could cost around $4 million. Aero Union would like to collaborate with the Forest Service in studying the S-3 Viking. Both companies hope the federal government chips in, but that money has not been forthcoming from the Forest Service or any other government agency. “We traditionally rely on commercial vendors to provide that [design and test work],” says the Forest Service’s Larry Brosnan. “We don’t have any plans right now to do any testing of commercial aircraft.”

That hands-off attitude frustrates air tanker operators. A single airplane may pull in more than $1 million in revenue during a busy season, but without firefighting contracts, these aircraft have few uses. Says Hank Moore, who operates three DC-7 retardant tankers out of Oregon and has been in the business since 1960: “You just can’t spend millions of dollars unless you know in advance there will be a profitable use for the airplane. And right now the Forest Service just hasn’t been clear on what they want us to do.”

The lack of urgency is due in part to the fact that multi-engine tankers don’t dominate aerial firefighting as they did in the 1960s and 1970s. “Heavy tankers provide a very small portion of retardant delivery,” says Brosnan. “It used to be about 20 percent, and that’s when we had a lot of air tankers. Today, helicopters are pretty much the workhorse.” Indeed, the vast majority of the nearly 800 firefighting aircraft on tap for this year’s fire season are helos and small fixed-wing aircraft.

So the multi-engine tanker fleet continues to dwindle, but the big craft are not going to disappear completely; they can still do what helicopters and smaller airplanes cannot. “Back when there were more tankers, we really relied on them, and we’re hoping that the aerial firefighting companies can start developing new aircraft soon,” says Rod Nichols, a spokesperson for Oregon’s Department of Forestry.

It took the 2002 accidents for the Forest Service and some heavy-tanker operators to start doing what should have been obvious: Ensure that the aircraft are well-maintained and safe to fly. But with efforts to genuinely modernize the big-tanker fleet moving slowly, if at all, one hopes another crash isn’t needed to spur the process. “We’d be foolish to understate the value of these aircraft,” says fire-crew manager Krugman. “A new-generation aircraft is not going to be anything but a benefit—for the pilots and those on the ground.” Until one comes along, though, keep your fingers crossed for rain.

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