Meanwhile, in the province of New Brunswick, where 83 percent of the land is forested and wood products are a mainstay of the economy, annual infestations of budworms threatened stands of spruce and fir. Forest Protection Limited was formed in 1952 and initiated a spraying program. In 1960 the company began to replace the fleets of slow Stearman biplanes it had been hiring on a seasonal basis with the more effective TBMs, and by 1977, FPL owned 23 Avengers. Around 1990 the budworm hit the bottom of its natural population cycle, and the TBMs were devoted almost exclusively to firefighting.
Today there are only seven TBM tankers left flying in New Brunswick. Three more are at the company hangar in Fredericton being readied for delivery to buyers, one a private collector in France. David Davies, the genial general manager of FPL, discusses the economics of their long survival: “We had a real public debate here in 1990 when we put these TBMs on as fire tankers,” he says. “They were saying these were old aircraft. We’re saying these are young aircraft. There’s three to six thousand hours on the airplane. That’s it. We’ve got 11 good years out of them. One more year and they’ve done their job. These were all purchased in the 1970s for twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. Even when you add a $130,000 per airplane conversion, what’s that against these new aircraft in the $1.2 million range?”
Miramichi Airport, the summer base for FPL’s Forest Fire Air Tanker Operations, is 45 minutes by Cessna 172 to the northeast of Fredericton. From 800 feet above the terrain, all you can see of New Brunswick looks like a forest. Here and there are a small village, an isolated house or a stump-filled patch of clear-cut, and a highway along a meandering river. The green landscape rolls gently away on both sides.
At Miramichi, two flights of three TBMs are parked in rows facing each other across the ramp. They look sleek and well-cared for, but no longer very warrior-like. The gun turrets have long since been removed, and the canopies faired to cover the gaps. Aft of the cockpit, the windows of the navigator’s compartment have been painted over.
Chief pilot Eric Bradley explains how they work: “Initially, someone will spot a forest fire in New Brunswick somewhere and they’ll call in to the dispatcher at this base and request tankers for air support. We’re sitting around goofing off, joking and pretending everything is normal. When the siren goes off, everybody goes into action.”
From here, you can jump in a TBM and fly anywhere in the province in less than an hour. If the fire is far enough away, the aircraft will shift operations to one of 11 satellite airstrips, most of which are equipped with storage tanks filled with aircraft fuel, retardant, which is dropped on the unburned vegetation surrounding a fire to make it fireproof, and foam, which is used to douse a blaze. Each firefighting flight includes three TBMs and two support aircraft: a Cessna 337 Skymaster and a Cessna 210 or 206.
FPL’s strategy is to attack a fire quickly before it gets out of hand. The Skymaster is airborne ahead of the others. An air attack officer, a forester with expertise in fire behavior, sits in the right seat. He will reach the fire first, size it up, make contact with the ground crews if they are there, and direct the TBMs when they arrive. The Cessna 210, carrying a mechanic and two crew members to refill the retardant tanks, heads for the appropriate satellite field, which will usually be within 10 or 15 miles of the fire.
“It takes only two or three minutes to load [retardant],” says Bradley, “and a total of about six minutes to get airborne, including the time for warmups and runups.”
Around three in the afternoon, the fire siren sounds. I run for the Skymaster. This is my chance to see the TBMs in action. Pilot Glen MacDorman is already in the Skymaster’s cockpit, preparing to start up. He motions me to the rear seat. Air attack officer Bob Steeves sits beside him.
The dispatcher tells us the fire is at Little Sevogle River, about 22 nautical miles from the airport. Even as the Avengers are being filled with retardant, we are on our way, heading northwest at about 1,000 feet. MacDorman starts to enter the coordinates relayed by the dispatcher into the Global Positioning System unit when we spot the smoke ahead. The GPS, a Garmin GNC 250 navcom, is the most sophisticated piece of equipment on the TBMs. The readout can give the pilot the heading, track, distance off course, ground speed, and estimated time of arrival, as well as bearing and distance to the fire.