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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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.”

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