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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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.

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