TBT: 16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program

For ThrowBack Thursday we’re revisiting a piece we wrote in March, 2016.


The aerial firefighting program in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has grown over a couple of decades into a highly respected, professionally managed organization. After spending some time at their aviation headquarters at McClellan Air Field on Thursday  [March 24, 2016] in Sacramento, I developed as list of 16 facts that you may not know about the program:

1. CAL FIRE has 22 S-2T fixed wing air tankers that can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. They are presently converting an aircraft to replace the one destroyed in the October 7, 2014 crash that killed Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt. That process should be complete in 18 to 24 months.

S-2T air tanker
S-2T air tankers at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

2. They have 15 OV-10 Air Attack fixed wing aircraft.

OV-10
A lineup of OV-10 air attack ships at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

3. And 12 Super Huey helicopters.

super huey
Super Huey at McClellan Air Field, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

4. All of the above aircraft were discarded by the military.

5. The S-2T air tankers were designed to be based on aircraft carriers, and therefore have wings that fold. They still retain this feature, which makes it possible to cram more aircraft into a hangar.

S-2T folded wings
An S-2T with the wings folded. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

6. The radial engines in the S-2’s were replaced with turbine engines by Marsh Aviation, changing the model name to S-2T. The turbine engines have far fewer moving parts, are much lighter, and are more powerful.

Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Photo by Bill Gabbert.

7. DynCorp International has been the provider of maintenance on the aircraft for years. The company currently has 147 employees associated with CAL FIRE’s aviation program. They also supply the pilots for the fixed wing aircraft, while CAL FIRE hires their own helicopter pilots.

8. The maintenance performed at McClellan includes major modifications, depot level maintenance, component overhaul, and routine maintenance. The facility has licenses from Lockheed to manufacture wheels for the S-2T, and from Honeywell to make new brakes for the air tanker. It is difficult or impossible to purchase those components on the open market.

S-2T wheel
S-2T wheels in CAL FIRE’s facilities at McClellan Air Field. Photo By Bill Gabbert.

9. Over 280 CAL FIRE employees are involved in aviation activities. This includes the specialties of Tanker Base, Helitack Base, Air Tactical Group, and upper management.

10. There is now a career ladder for a helicopter manager to move up the ranks through the aviation organization.

11. Barry C. Lloyd, the Helicopter Program Manager, told us CAL FIRE has a 98 percent availability rate for their aircraft. According to an aircraft maintenance manager at a private company we talked with, more than 97 percent is phenomenal.

12. The agency keeps spares of many things on hand which helps keep that percentage high. For example, they have two spare OV-10’s,two spare S-2Ts, at least one S-2T wing, and two spare hoists used on the Super Hueys. (All of their Hueys now have hoists that can extract injured firefighters or other personnel from very remote locations. Installation began in 2011.)

helicopter hoist
A spare hoist at McClellan. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

13. The hoists have 250 feet of cable.

14. CAL FIRE spends about $55 million a year on fire aviation.

15. A CAL FIRE air tanker flies for 200 to 400 hours each year, while the helicopters are used for 150 to 400 hours. Some bases are much busier than others.

16. The base salary for a CAL FIRE helicopter pilot is $64,161 to $82,500. Last year one of their pilots earned $179,000. That included a large amount of overtime.

5 thoughts on “TBT: 16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program”

  1. Not only does Cal Fire have an award winning aviation program, but is continuing to be open minded about new private sector products. Most recently the GST Boeing 747, ten years ago, Ten Air Carrier (who-what) DC 10? Immediate need heavy lift helicopters, Martin Mars, PBY scooper in Southern California, Military Helicopter Manager Program, and other fire aviation products that began as an idea and issue paper.

  2. Good reporting on CaL Fire’s preparedness . Some of the other Western states should sit up and take notice. States should not always rely on the Feds [ USFS ] to bail them out ,when the Wildfires start raging! Lots of decent refurbishable ,military and civilian airframes out there .

  3. In early winter of 2003 during my last week as Chief of Shasta County Fire Company 50 we had 3 hikers stranded on a ridge atop one of the peaks in the “Trinity Alps”. To get my crew to them and to get them out of an area where the night time temps would fall into the teens required a helicopter. Normally we would use Mercy Air or CHP’s helo based in Redding. Neither were available. A call to dispatch got us a CDF helo out of Chico CA and the rescue was made. Worked a lot with their S2 Air Tankers during wild fire season. Great response, great pilots!

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