A DC-10 reloads at Castle Airport

Tanker 910 at Castle Airport

Tanker 910 at Castle Airport.

Yesterday we wrote about the DC-10 air tankers and how they frequently work out of Castle Airport, a former U.S. Air Force bomber base near Merced, California. Today we have some photos from the base contributed by Stanley Bercovitz who is serving as a ramp manager and public information officer at the base.

Tanker 910, a DC-10

Tanker 910, a DC-10, reloads with retardant at Castle Airport.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport

Once the tanker is stopped and the chocks are set the parking tender waves in the retardant loaders. The side of the tank has three ports and at least two are always used to fill the tank at Castle. After loading has started a mechanic will climb a ladder and monitor the level of retardant, eventually giving a signal to stop loading.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport

A mechanic talks to the flight crew through a wired headset, watching each engine as it starts. Once all three are running, he puts the headset into a compartment inside the nose gear and gives a thumbs-up to the pilot and the parking tender.

Retardant mixing operation at Castle Airport.

Retardant mixing operation at Castle Airport.

Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport

The flight crews prepares to receive a meal via a bucket on a rope.


DC-10 air tankers find a temporary home at Castle airport

Over its 73-year history Castle Air Force Base just northwest of Merced, California has hosted a variety of large aircraft on the 30 parking pads, including B-52 bombers and KC-135 refueling air tankers. After the base closed in 1995 it became known as Castle Airport, operated by Merced County.

In 2013 when the 257,000-acre Rim Fire was burning nearby, the airport started to host a different kind of air tanker, firefighting aircraft that drop retardant on wildfires. Last year and this year it was designated as a Call When Needed air tanker base, activated only when specifically needed. The taxiways, parking areas, and the 11,802-foot runway, all designed to support large bombers, make it a facility capable of handling quite a few Large and Very Large air tankers, including C-130s, MD-87s, BAe-146s, and DC-10s. The reloading base has been set up just northwest of the 30 B-52 parking pads. (map)

This year while hosting the 11,600-gallon DC-10s and other air tankers, the base has pumped almost half a million gallons of retardant into aircraft. A Very Large Air Tanker such as a DC-10 departing the airport in the center of the state could reach the Oregon or Mexican borders within about 45 to 50 minutes.

The two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers at Castle today, Tankers 910 and 911, have been there often over the last several weeks, however they do move around to other bases depending on the need. Occasionally this year they have both attacked the same fire, placing over 23,000 gallons of retardant on the vegetation as the pair assisted firefighters on the ground. The two aircraft both dropped on the fast moving Oregon Fire near Weaverville, California shortly after it started late in the day on August 24. Their air drops along with efforts from other aircraft and of course boots on the ground held the fire to 580 acres. Today it is 85 percent contained.

Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their third DC-10, Tanker 912, is in the process of being “carded” by the Interagency AirTanker Board at Albuquerque, New Mexico. Engineers are fine-tuning the computer programming for the three external retardant tanks. Next week, he said, it should be ready to go and will be brought on as an exclusive use air tanker under the “additional equipment” provision of the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest service.

The video below reports on the Junction Fire in California, and how air tankers played a vital role in minimizing the damage.

National Public Radio has an interesting article about air tankers. Below is an excerpt:

…Bill Hahnenberg, an incident commander with the Forest Service, was initially skeptical of this new generation of air tankers — he wasn’t sure how helpful they’d be in the fight against Western wildfires. Then, in August 2012, Hahnenberg was leading the fight against the Springs Fire in the Idaho mountains.

If firefighters hadn’t been able to get a handle on it quickly, there was a chance it would be unusually destructive: “There was a high likelihood we would have been managing that fire for, rather than a few more days, probably a few more weeks,” he says.

Hahnenberg says the fire was at risk of jumping over a mountain and burning into two small towns. He had just a few hours to get fire retardant on the ground.

“At that point we’re looking for the biggest, heaviest hammer we could bring to the table,” he says.

That hammer was sitting at the Boise airport, about 40 miles away. It was a giant DC-10 air tanker the government had just hired to fight such fires. Two retardant drops later, the fire was boxed in and ground crews began to get the upper hand. In the end, the Springs Fire turned out to be sort of a nonevent — a sign of success.

“Once an air tanker has contained that fire, we never see that, because it doesn’t show up on the news,” says Scott Fisher, who oversaw the Forest Service’s air tanker program until his retirement this summer.

The DC-10 used on the Springs Fire was part of the agency’s effort to grow and modernize the tanker fleet. In 2000, the government had more than 40 air tankers on contract. But many of those were built during World War II and the Cold War, and two crashes of so-called “legacy” air tankers led many to be parked for good. The number of air tankers would later fall to just nine.

Fisher says that number was simply too low. “Not having sufficient resources caused the system to be stretched,” he says. “And certainly because of that there were fires that we just did not get to.”



Wildfire activity in the Northwest requires more aviation assets than in an average year

The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association has collected information about what some of their members are doing this summer.


“WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2014 — In what appears to be a record-setting year for wildland fires in the West, aerial firefighters are battling more wildfires in the Pacific Northwest states, and deploying their aircraft and crews accordingly.

For example, CHI Aviation has spent more time on wildfires in Washington State compared to previous years, according to Larry Kelley, the operator’s Director of Fire Operations in Boise, Idaho. In that regard, the company’s Ogden, Utah-based Bell 212 has been flying out of Wenatchee, Washington, for the past 30 days.

“We almost never got to Washington in previous years, but now we’re seeing more activity there,” Kelley noted. “In most years, the majority of our flying was in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Colorado.” Currently, CHI Aviation has three Bell 205s and one Bell 212 under US Forest Service (USFS) exclusive use contracts, the same number as last year.

Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, also cited greater fire activity in the Pacific Northwest. “The fire season in the Pacific Northwest began far earlier, and has been much more active to date this year, than in prior years,” he said. “That has contributed to a greater tempo of flying, and accounted for a 10 percent increase in the number of our flight hours, although part of that is because we are currently operating 10 tankers, versus the eight we operated last year.”

Snyder pointed out that the company’s fleet now includes four BAe 146 regional jets, modified for aerial firefighting as next generation tankers—along with six of its legacy P2Vs. “We are now fielding more next-generation airtankers than any other operator in the US,” he noted. “The reviews from the field about their performance have been extremely positive.”

Keith Saylor, Director of Commercial Operations for Columbia Helicopters, Inc., in Portland, Oregon, reported that the operator currently has five aircraft engaged in the Pacific Northwest, including four Vertol 107s and one 234 Chinook. Last year at this time, the number of helicopters deployed there was four.

“Because of the severe fire season in the Pacific Northwest, the Model 234 has been working on fires under an exclusive use contract, from Leavenworth, Washington for the past five to six weeks,” Saylor said. “We have also assigned one of the Vertol 107s to Winthrop, Washington, where it is operating on a call-when-needed agreement.”

He explained that, to date, the number of hours flown on wildland fires has about equaled what was flown at this time in 2013, although the company is preparing for a longer period of activity. “Last year’s fire season was very active, but it tapered off quickly by September. While I can’t say for sure—given what we have seen so far—we don’t believe the 2014 season will drop off as quickly,” Saylor said.

Columbia, he added, hired a few additional copilots to cope with increasing demand, along with the acquisition of six Army surplus CH-47D Chinook helicopters. “We anticipate two will be operational and possibly under wildland firefighting contracts next year.”

This year, Intermountain Helicopter of Sonora, California, began operating its Bell 212 for the first time in USFS Region 1, which encompasses the Northern Rocky Mountains and much of the Pacific Northwest. In prior years, the helicopter was used largely in Northern California, according to Drew Njirich, President of the Sonora, California-based operator. The helicopter, he reported has been flying from a base near Bozeman, Montana.

“Although we were on one small fire in Nevada, most of our activity has been in Montana, Oregon and Idaho because of lightning strikes,” Njirich said. In fact, the Johnson Bar fire near Grangeville, Idaho, was the company’s most recent assignment, which concluded with the release of the helicopter on August 19.

For this fire season to date, the company has flown about 100 hours on the fires—a number which Njirich called “a very low-end estimate.” That included initial attack missions which involved transporting firefighters, firefighting equipment, and back haul of smoke jumper gear, as well as water drops on some of the larger fires.

“There is no question that the wildland fire danger is increasing in areas of the country where the risk had historically not been as great,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “The privately operated aerial firefighting industry has long demonstrated that it has the resources to meet the wildland fire threat anywhere, especially we are experiencing longer, more destructive fire seasons.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are members of AHSAFA, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the privately owned and operated aerial firefighting industry in the US.”


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kelly.


Video of Hughes NH 500 helicopter during firefighting activity in Italy

The video shows an Italian Forest Service Hughes NH 500 filling a Bambi Bucket from a variety of water sources, and then finally at the end shows it dropping water on a wildfire.

Here is a description of their firefighting helicopter program:


“Among the Italian Armed Corps, the Corpo Forestale dello Stato (CFS, Italian for Forestry Service) acts as a police and ranger force, responsible for protecting Italy’s natural and environmental resources and eco-systems. Its duties include the prevention of environmental violations and wildfires, safeguarding animal species, ensuring antipoaching and habitat protection, and providing SAR in mountainous areas.

The CFS has a fleet of helicopters which includes NH-500Ds, AB-412s, Erickson S-64Fs and AW-109Ns used for fire-fighting, early spotting of wildfires, and coordination of other aircraft or with ground-based firefighters.

The Service also owns a P.180 fitted with a forward looking infra-red (FLIR)/TV camera system for ground surveillance in anti-pollution monitoring and geological/wildlife control, which can easily be configured as an air ambulance by means of a medical kit, and can ferry specialized teams or VIPs to various helicopter stations.

In summer, the aircraft are strategically deployed in areas where wildfire risk is higher.”


Park Police helicopter crew receives awards for actions in DC Navy Yard shootings

Park Police awards

Left to right: ALEA President Kurt Frisz; Pilot Sergeant Kenneth Burchell; Rescue Technician Sergeant David Tolson; and Airbus Helicopters Law Enforcement Market Sales Manager Ed Van Winkle. (Airbus Helicopters sponsors the Gus Crawford Award). Photo provided by Ryan Mason – Airborne Productions, courtesy of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.

On Friday, July 18th, United States Park Police Pilot Sergeant Kenneth Burchell and Rescue Technician Sergeant David Tolson received the Airborne Law Enforcement Association’s Captain ‘Gus’ Crawford Memorial Aircrew of the Year Award for 2014.

The award acknowledges a pilot and/or crewmember(s) whose flying efforts and proficiency characterize ALEA’s motto, “To Serve and Protect from the Air.”

[The U.S. Park Police is a division within the National Park Service.]

For the nomination period of April 1, 2013 – March 31, 2014, the United States Park Police were nominated twice for flying efforts during the Navy Yard shooting on September 16, 2013.

On that date, a lone gunman entered Building 197 at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, and began shooting people, creating an active shooter incident. As calls for help were received, multiple law enforcement agencies responded.

United States Park Police helicopter Eagle I, crewed by Burchell and Tolson, was asked to assist by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. The Navy Yard is located directly across the Anacostia River from their hangar, also known as “the Eagle’s Nest.” Tolson in turn asked for additional aircraft due to the possibility of a mass casualty incident.

Due to the proximity of the Washington Navy Yard to Washington/Reagan National Airport, Eagle I notified Washington Tower, which in turn diverted air traffic from the immediate area and designated Eagle I as “air bos,” for aircraft coordination in the Navy Yard area.

On this tragic day, the crew of Eagle I initially assisted with aerial reconnaissance and perimeter control, simultaneously performing air traffic control. The crew then switched roles for the deployment of SWAT personnel and reconfigured for the extraction of a critically injured woman, which resulted in a medevac transport.

The crew returned to bring in another SWAT officer and extract the final three survivors. In the final phase, they returned to reconnaissance and perimeter control. Air operations terminated with a total of 5.5 hours flight time. All of these operations were conducted with an active shooter below them.

For these acts, the Airborne Law Enforcement Association awarded Burchell and Tolson the 2014 Captain “Gus” Crawford Memorial Air Crew of the Year Award. Officer/Rescue Technician Michael Abate was also presented an ALEA Presidential Citation for his roles in the incident.

(From the NPS Morning Report)


Our original report about the Park Police flight activities during the shooting incident.

More information about the National Park Service’s Park Police fleet of helicopters.


MAFFS air tanker experiences a hard landing

MAFFS 3 hard landing

The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

One of the military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers experienced a hard landing Sunday. The crew detected a potential malfunction with the nose landing gear and executed an emergency landing at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah. Upon landing at 2:53 MDT, there was a small fire and the aircraft, designated as MAFFS 3, sustained damage, but there were no injuries, according to the United States Northern Command.

The Fox 13 TV station in Salt Lake City reported that the air tanker was scheduled to “refuel and resupply” at Ogden when the problem was first detected.

Greg Brubaker sent us the photo below. He said he noticed the aircraft was flying in the area for over an hour and he observed that the nose gear was not visible.

MAFFS 3 nose gear problem

MAFFS 3 circling in the Ogden area before it landed with a nose gear problem. Photo by Greg Brubaker.

In the photo, the doors that cover the nose gear appear to be partially, but not fully open. Click on the photo to see a larger version.

On July 19, two MAFFS C-130s, MAFFS 1 and 3, from the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne were activated to assist with the firefighting effort and have been deployed ever since, working out of Boise and other bases while rotating fresh crews in and out.

There have been three other hard landing incidents involving privately owned contract air tankers with failed landing gear or brakes since 2010. No injuries were reported in these accidents:

  1. 2010, June 26: Neptune’s Tanker 44, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado.
  2. 2012, June 3: One of the main landing gears did not lower and lock on Minden’s Tanker 55, a P2V. The aircraft landed at Minden, Nevada and slid off the runway.
  3. 2014, June 15: Minden’s Tanker 48, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure, resulting in the nose gear collapsing while it landed at Fresno, California.

On July 1, 2012 a MAFFS C-130 air tanker, MAFFS #7 operated by the North Carolina National Guard crashed. The accident occurred July 1, 2012 as the aircraft was attempting to drop retardant on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota. There were four fatalities.

MAFFS at Helena

File photo of MAFFS 1 and 3 at Helena Regional Airport August 3, 2014. Photo by Jeff Wadekamper.


NIFC warns that drones could cause serious injury or death to firefighters

The National Interagency Fire Center released a statement on Friday about unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, saying they could cause “serious injury or death to firefighters”. And, the devices could “have midair collisions with airtankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions”.

Drones have come within or near the Temporary Flight Restrictions in place over wildfires three times this year, NIFC reported.

Here is the complete press release:



BOISE, IDAHO — Federal, state, and local wildfire managers are cautioning individuals and organizations that unauthorized operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), often referred to as “drones,” within or near wildfires threatens the safety of both aerial and ground firefighters and hampers their ability to protect lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources.

Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are typically put in place during wildfires that require most aircraft, manned or unmanned, other than those engaged in wildfire suppression operations to obtain permission from fire managers to enter specified airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior and other wildland fire management agencies consider UAS, including those used by hobbyists and recreationists, to be aircraft and therefore subject to TFRs. This year, there have been at least three instances of a UAS being flown within or near a wildfire TFR without appropriate authorization.

Regardless of whether a TFR is implemented, individuals and organizations should not fly UAS over wildfires without prior permission from fire managers. Unauthorized UAS flights could cause serious injury or death to firefighters on the ground. They could also have midair collisions with airtankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions.

“We understand and appreciate the interest of UAS pilots in obtaining video and other data by flying over wildfires,” said Aitor Bidaburu, Chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. “It would be a real tragedy if a UAS pilot were to cause an accident that resulted in serious injuries or deaths of firefighters.”

Unauthorized UAS flights within or near wildfires could lead fire managers to suspend aerial wildfire suppression efforts until the UAS has left the TFR airspace and they are confident it won’t return. This could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives and property.

UAS operations by individuals and organizations must be authorized by the FAA or comply with the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Section 336 of P.L. 112-95). Information is available online at www.faa.gov/uas. Individuals who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution.”


SEAT sinks in British Columbia lake

An Air Tractor 802 Fireboss crashed and and sank August 14 while scooping water on Chantslar Lake in British Columbia, Canada about 30 kilometers west of Puntzi Mountain. Jeff Berry of Conair said the pilot was able to exit the Single Engine Air Tanker, but was held overnight in a hospital in William’s Lake and released Friday morning.

The Fireboss was brand new. Recovery operations are underway at the lake.