Above: Neptune tankers 01 and 41 at Medford, Oregon, June 9, 2016. Photo by Kristin Biechler.
Kristin Biechler spent a couple of hours Thursday at the Medford air tanker base in southwest Oregon. She sent us this report and took the photos Thursday evening. Thanks Kristin.
“Base Manager Lonnie Allison was very cooperative and allowed me to talk with various staff, including ground crews, pilots and dispatchers and to take photos up close. The Medford base is really jumping these past three days with the Pony fire in northern California. Neptune tankers 01, 10, and 41 (all BAe-146s) are making turnarounds to the Pony fire in about 45 mins. From Medford it’s about 12 minutes of flight time to the fire. They drop their retardant, then return to Medford to fill up with retardant and refuel if needed.
The pilots were telling me they get about 3 hours of flight time per refueling. Pilot John Gallagher said the Pony fire had made a big run on Wednesday night. He noticed a significant difference this morning that the fire had gone down into the canyon almost to the river and up another flank. He was based out of Redmond yesterday, but the three Neptune tankers are in Medford today for the Pony fire.
It was like a ballet on the tarmac with all three planes on the ground at the same time. The Redmond airport is also busy with aircraft on several fires in Eastern Oregon. T-162 and T-163 (photos from 6/8/16) are now assigned to Eastern Oregon fires, rather than the Pony fire in California.
I was listening to the air traffic communications between pilots and the Medford tower plus the USFS tanker base. A few minutes after departure one of the Neptune pilots reported seeing a new wisp of smoke, single column, and circled around to give coordinates. That turned out to be a small grass fire, very near the USFS Applegate Ranger District office. The tower made appropriate notifications and an Oregon Department of Forestry hand crew was dispatched.
Also of interest was the report that the Redmond, Oregon airport had to be shut down due to a disabled air tanker on the runway. Tankers from there are currently assigned to Eastern Oregon fires (Owyhee Canyon and Akawana fires.) All tankers were being diverted to Klamath Falls, OR for refueling. There is also an air tanker base at Klamath Falls so refueling and retardant would not be an issue.
Also, note that VLAT T-912 is flying out of Castle AFB in California to the Pony fire. One of the dispatchers told me the turnaround on that DC-10 was about 53 minutes on the Pony fire.
I also met and talked with the ground crew that manages the retardant station. Cristina Serabia and her daughter, Jasmine Serabia are employed by Hunot Retardant Company out of Ramona, California and work on a USFS contract at Medford. Ms. Serabia indicated when the second, portable base is opened at Medford for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) she will assign a crew to that location and will also work shifts on that side of the airport. The scheduled date for opening that base is July 1 but with all the early fire activity it may be necessary to open it sooner.
Medford Air Tanker Base Manager Lonnie Allison wanted everyone to know, “we’re already kicking butt here at Medford.” As of noon today, they had just pumped 100,000 gallons of retardant for the season which began on June 5.”