Fire Fighting Aircraft

I photographed my first fire-fighting aircraft at the 1998 Andrews air force base airshow in Maryland, about six months after I moved from New Zealand to the United States.   Unfortunately neither my equipment nor my skills were much good back then, and the strong backlighting at the show didn't help either.   New Zealand has a lot of forests so there must be fire-fighting aircraft there but I don't remember ever seeing any, let alone photographing them.

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The terms "fire bomber" and "water bomber" are both used to refer to fire-fighting aircraft, but within the industry "air tanker" is the normal usage, though it's a bit ambiguous since air-to-air refuelling aircraft are also tankers.

The fire bomber in these two photos is a military C-130 Hercules with a removable water or fire retardant tank fitted in the cargo hold, and a simple nozzle arrangement which feeds straight out the open back ramp.   It's a fairly crude setup but has the advantage that the plane can be converted back very easily to ordinary cargo or troop carrying duties.

Just a year later and I had an opportunity to see fire-fighting aircraft in action on a real-life blaze.

I had moved by this time from Virginia to Chicago and then from Chicago to the New Jersey town of South Bound Brook.

In September of 1999 Hurricane Floyd, one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, came up the east coast of the United States and dumped huge amounts of rain, causing the Raritan River which runs through South Bound Brook to rise 40 feet and put a stream of water ten feet deep through Main Street.

So, I can hear you saying, why were fire-fighting aircraft sent to The Great Bound Brook Flood of 1999?

Well, somehow the Harley-Davidson motorcycle store on Main Street caught fire and, with ten feet of water around it, the only way to put the fire out was by helicopters using what are called "monsoon buckets" or "Bambi buckets".

Fast-forward now to the 2004 Jacqueline Cochran airshow in the southern California desert city of Thermal, near Palm Springs.   This isn't too far from Hemet, where the California Department of Forestry has a major fire bomber base.   Here's one of their S-2 Trackers showing what they can do.   The Tracker is a retired naval aircraft which used to operate off aircraft carriers, though this is the S-2T version with turbo-prop engines instead of radials, and other modifications for its new role.   In Canada this variant is called the "turbo firecat".

Here's the Tracker with another ex-military type, this time an OV-10 Bronco, an aircraft developed by the US navy, marines and air force as a forward air controller and light ground attack aircraft.   You can see a Bronco in military configuration flying during the 2005 Nellis air force base "Aviation Nation" airshow.

The Bronco was specifically designed with excellent visibility so that its crew could watch what was happening on the ground.   This also makes it a perfect fit for the firefighting role, and so it serves on in that capacity today, long after the American military retired the type.   The Bronco doesn't drop water or retardant on fires, instead it's used to assess what's happening and oversee operations by the fire bombers.

The CDF put on quite a display at this show, bringing two of their fixed-wing aircraft as well as this Huey helicopter.

As of 2003 there were nearly a thousand aircraft fighting fires during the US fire season, with over $US250 million dollars spent on operations each year.

Fires have become increasingly bad over the last ten years, perhaps because of changes caused by global warming.

Here's the same Huey, with snow-covered Mount San Jacinto in the background.   It might look as if it has a giant bath plug on the line dangling beneath it, but in fact that's the end of the hose used to suck water from a lake or other source.   Helicopters are very useful for this type of work since they don't need an airport to operate from and they can use small bodies of water which might be very close to the fire.   They're also able to drop water much more precisely than fixed-wing aircraft, though of course the helicopters are limited in how much they can carry.

And here's what it can do!

Of course if you want more bang for your buck, then bring a heavy lifter in!   This is an S-64 Skycrane, the civilian version of the Vietnam era CH-54 Tarhe, and it's still one of America's most powerful helicopters.   This one was based out of Palm Springs airport while fighting a fire on Mount San Jacinto.

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In its firefighting role, the Skycrane can lift 2,650 US gallons (10,000 liters), using the impeller at the end of the hose to suck water from any source deeper than 18 inches.   It can also be fitted with an attachment to allow it to scoop water as it moves across the surface of a pond or lake.   This helicopter has been so successful in this role that Erickson Air-Crane bought the rights to it from Sikorsky in 1992 and today even builds new aircraft, rather than just refurbishing old airframes.

The Skycrane is impressive, but the Russians were and still are the champions of heavy-lift helicopter design.   This photo is from the Russian Air Force museum at Monino, outside Moscow, which has a wide variety of helicopters on display, including these two Mil Mi-6s, a type which was assigned the NATO reporting name "Hook".   The Mi-6 is only the fourth most powerful helicopter at Monino, the others being the Mi-10 "Harke", the Mi-26 "Halo" and the extraordinary V-12 "Homer", which has two Mi-6 rotors side-by-side, powered by four jet engines.   Nevertheless, even the lowly "Hook", which first flew in 1957, can lift more than any American helicopter ever has.

The grey Mi-6 in the background of the previous photo has wings with a 15 meter span fitted, which provide about 20% of the total lift when the aircraft is in forward flight.   However fire-fighting versions like the one in this photo don't have the wings, since they are a hindrance when hovering over a fire.   Unlike most Western fire-fighting helicopters, the Mi-6 is fitted with a directable nozzle so the water can be aimed very precisely at the fire.   Many Russian firefighting aircraft do share the some color scheme as American planes, the red making them easier to spot against the green of a forest or brown soil.

The Mi-6 is very old for a helicopter and there are very few of them still operating in Russia, so I've never seen one flying, however here's a modern eastern European type, a Polish designed W-3A Sokol operating with the Czech air force and doing a fire-fighting display at the 2006 Czech International Air Fair.

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Back to the USA and back to fixed-wing aircraft, a C-130A Hercules at the 2004 Prescott Air Fair in Arizona.   This is the 18th Hercules off the production line, and the oldest one which is still flying, however it has a more sophisticated water delivery system than the military Hercules at the top of the page.   Tragically, in 2002 a C-130A crashed while fighting a fire in California, both of its wings folding upwards as the plane made a run.   The whole event was caught on video, and together with another crash a month later caused the US to ground its entire fleet of large water bombers.

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One of the victims of this grounding was the fleet of DC-7 tankers, including this one owned by International Air Response, the same company which owns the Hercules.   The DC-7 was the last piston-engined airliner developed by the Douglas corporation; this one operated with Delta Airlines but when it was returned to that color scheme Delta complained, so their name was removed, leaving the rest of the paint job intact.   As a tanker, this DC-7 carries 3,000 gallons of retardant in an external tank under the belly.

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The 2005 Prescott Air Fair included one of the few aircraft designed specifically with fire-fighting in mind, a Canadair CL-215 known popularly, though not officially, as a "Scooper", the later turbo-prop CL-415 variant being the "Super Scooper".   Unlike the previous aircraft on this page, the CL-215 is a seaplane (or flying boat if you're from the British commonwealth), able to scoop up 1,400 gallons (5,300 liters) of water in just 12 seconds while making a high-speed run across a lake.   The extremely large tail and other control surfaces make this a very maneuverable aircraft, a critical commodity when flying at low altitude in canyons and other obstructed areas.   Like all aerial fire-fighting, it's still a very hazardous occupation, and there have been 21 fatal accidents around the world involving this aircraft type.

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The CL-215 and CL-415 are not the only seaplane water bombers, and they're certainly not the largest; the beast pictured below holds that title.   It's a world war two era Martin Mars, operating on Lake Elsinore in southern California during the horrific series of fires in September of 2007 which resulted in somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people being evacuated from their homes.

Only six were ever built and two now remain in service as fire bombers, based at Sproat Lake in Canada.   They were brought all the way down to this lake south of Los Angeles, but they didn't fly very often on the two days I visited.   I was only able to capture one landing run, as this huge aircraft with a 200 foot (61 meter) wingspan came in low over the town, no doubt scaring the life out of more than a few residents!

Of course there were also others like myself who were very pleased to see it flying.   I was amazed to see it come in so low while still over land, but it needs the entire 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) of lake to scoop water and then very slowly gain altitude.   It can carry by far the most water of any fire bomber, 7,200 gallons weighing 60,000 pounds  (27,250 liters, which is also 27,250 kilograms); however because of the lack of space at Lake Elsinore it was only able to pick up about 5,000 gallons at a time, and that was possible only because they carried less fuel than usual.

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They touched down scarcely past shore, where the lake is still very shallow, a real tribute to the skill of the pilots and crew.   Although each engine generates 2,500 horsepower, this is a relatively underpowered aircraft and not particularly maneuverable.   Fires generate a lot of turbulence and the hot air doesn't provide as much lift as regular air, so flying such a huge aircraft under these conditions is physically demanding, particularly since the flight controls don't have hydraulic boost.

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But here's a fire-fighting seaplane with power to spare!   It's a Beriev Be-200 Altair, one of the latest products from a long line of seaplanes produced by this pioneering Russian design bureau.   I photographed it at the 2006 Gidroaviasalon (hydro-aviation exhibition) at the Russian Black Sea resort town of Gelendzhik.   It can only carry 3,170 US gallons (12,000 liters) of water compared to the Mars' 7,200 gallons (27,250 liters), but it does it relatively effortlessly and can fly at much greater speeds between the water source and the fire.   This very aircraft is said to have hit a tree while taking off from a lake fully loaded with fuel and water, branches went into one of the engines and knocked it out but the aircraft was still able to climb out and execute a safe landing, a testament to its ruggedness.

The accident happened while operating under lease as a firefighter in Portugal, and it's also served in this way in Italy.   The Russian interior ministry owns a few, and it looks as if Indonesia might be buying some.   Beriev touts its flexibility as a cargo transport and airliner, and its ability to operate without runways, a major advantage in undeveloped maritime nations.   However a jet is relatively expensive to operate and since seaplanes are designed as much for hydrodynamics as aerodynamics, they're not as efficient fliers as regular aircraft.

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Still it would be great to see Beriev make a success of this aircraft, with the decline of the Soviet Union they've been operating on a shoestring for many years, while hoping to capture some market share with their innovative designs.