Perfect photography of an air tanker drop

The DC-10 was dropping on the La Tuna Fire in Southern California on September 2, 2017.

Helicopter photographer Kevin Takumi shows the perfect technique for filming an air tanker drop. He zooms in close at first on Air Tanker 910, a DC-10, then at the completion of the drop zooms out so you can see where the retardant lands.

Here’s a few more aerial firefighting videos:

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Lead plane pilots evaluate the DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker

With the national media reporting on the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) and the Interagency Airtanker Board’s refusal to issue a meaningful interim certification or Exclusive Use or Call When Needed contracts to the 747 Supertanker, which can hold 19,200 gallons of fire retardant, we looked back on some of the history of Very Large Air Tankers, a category that includes the DC-10 and 747.

While CAL FIRE embraced the DC-10 and used it extensively until the state ran out of money, the USFS was very skeptical, to say the least. The agency is extremely slow in making any changes to their aerial firefighting program. They appear to have a bias against Very Large Air Tankers, like the DC-10 and 747, and water-scooping air tankers, even though they have all been used very successfully by other agencies. Finally after it had proven itself over a few years, a DC-10 received a Call When Needed contract, and later an Exclusive Use Contract, and Incident Commanders and Air Operations personnel were often very happy to see it in the air over their fires.

A lot of people, including some who leave comments on this site, have viewpoints about the effectiveness and performance of specific models of air tankers. Some of them are based on indisputable facts, and others are opinions developed from…. something else. So, like reading political news, be careful when consuming information.

On July 24, 2012 we wrote an article on Wildfire Today with quotes from evaluations of a DC-10 that were written by lead plane pilots hours after they had directed it on fires. The DC-10 almost always carries at least 11,600 gallons of retardant, rarely having to reduce the load because of density altitude issues.

Here’s the article:

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Evaluations of Tanker 911, one of the DC-10 very large air tankers

Tanker 911 dropping Poco Fire
Tanker 911 dropping on the Poco Fire in Arizona, 2012. Photo by Ian James.

We have seen the written evaluations of Tanker 911, one of the DC-10 very large air tankers, for some of the retardant drops the aircraft completed on fires in Arizona and Utah in June and July. The forms were signed by individuals identifying themselves as lead plane pilots.

The evaluation form consists of two parts; a narrative section, and assigning a grade for specific aspects of performance: Reload Turn Times, Maneuverability, Steep Terrain Operations, Drop Patterns, and Uniformity of Coverage. All of the grades were “Above Average” or “Exceeded Expectation”.

Here are the details that were hand written in the narrative section on the forms:

Poco Fire, Phoenix, Arizona; Gallons Delivered 11,700 x 6; June 16-19, 2012

  • Six loads
  • All drop patterns were good and uniform. Flat and steep terrain – excellent performance in all profiles.
  • CL [Coverage level] 6 utilized in timber and mixed brush.
  • Quantity and mass of load delivered allowed for higher than standard drop altitudes to minimize exposure in challenging terrain and still achieve good pattern on the ground.
  • Quantity delivered also means 1 pass, 1 exposure instead of 7 from a legacy platform carrying 2,000 gallons!
  • Very uniform and consistent pattern on the ground. Very accurate starts. Performed some split loads as needed.

Fox Fire, Tucson, Arizona; Gallons Delivered 11,700 x 2; 2 loads; 3 drops; June 18, 2012

  • 1 – CL 6 – Split Load – Started and stopped to tie in a road in front of structures. Very accurate start and stop. Last 2,000 gal reinforced first drop.
  • 2 – CL 4 – One drop. Excellent coverage! It would have taken 6 or 7 loads from a legacy platform to get same length of line.
  • Quick effective line production.

Six Shooter Fire, Globe, Arizona; Gallons Delivered 11,700; 1 load; 8 drops; June 17, 2012

  • This was an initial attack fire. The location of this 5-acre fire, 1,500 to 2,000 ft below a ridge line, necessitated a substantial decent profile to get over the target on speed and altitude. The DC-10 was very capable and provided excellent coverage on and around the entire fire. The fire was successfully stopped at the same perimeter when the tanker dropped!
  • Excellent drops and performance.

Shingle Fire, Cedar City, Utah; Gallons Delivered 11,700 x 4; 4 loads; July 2-3, 2012

  • CL 6
  • Good coverage and line production. Excellent pattern on the ground and saved lots of time vs utilizing smaller aircraft. We would not have been able to get the line needed done without this tool.
  • Long turn arounds loading at [illegible; looked like “IVA”, “IWA”, or “IUA”]. 2 hour flights but dollars/gal still comperable considering speed and gallons!

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And here is an excerpt from another article we wrote in 2012 about the DC-10:

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DC-10 air tanker delivers 373,600 gallons of retardant

One of DC-10 gallons retardant deliveredthe DC-10 air tankers has dropped about 373,600 gallons of retardant during 33 sorties on seven wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico over the last 10 days. The fires were: Little Bear fire, 257 fire, Grand fire, Poco fire, Six Shooter fire, Fox fire, and 177 fire.  They were all in Arizona except the Little Bear which was in New Mexico.

Eight of the nine air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service are 50+ year old P2Vs designed for maritime patrol. Their average retardant load is 1,948 gallons according to a 2007-2009 air tanker study. If all of those 373,600 gallons the DC-10 dropped in those 10 days had been delivered by a P2V it would have taken about 192 round trips to the fires.

Loading the DC-10’s at Phoenix

The video describes the process of reloading the DC-10’s with fire retardant at Phoenix Gateway-Mesa airport while they were fighting the Goodwin Fire 80 miles northwest of the airport. For a while this week all three DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers were working out of the tanker base and dropping on the Goodwin Fire.

Small squadron of VLAT’s attacked the Goodwin Fire Wednesday

Three very large air tankers, DC-10’s that carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant, assisted firefighters on the Goodwin Fire in Arizona Wednesday, reducing the fire’s intensity around endangered structures.

As of Thursday morning the fire had burned 24,828 acres at Mayer, Arizona.

The DC-10’s are often used on wildfires, but there are only three of the “Very Large Air Tankers” on contract with the federal government, and it is unusual for all of them to be working the same fire. They were reloading with retardant at Phoenix Mesa-Gateway airport 80 miles southeast of the fire.

Rick Hatton, President and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their three DC-10’s completed a total of 14 sorties to the Goodwin Fire during 16 total hours of flying Wednesday. He said the facilities and crews at the air tanker base accommodated the three huge aircraft very well.

Two of the aircraft are on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service, and a third is on a call when needed contract.

Even though $2.4 million was spent in 2014 to improve the apron and plumbing at the air tanker base at Prescott, 15 miles from the fire, it was not designed to handle Very Large Air Tankers. But it can accommodate the “large” or “heavy” air tankers, such as the aircraft that can carry 2,000 to 3,500 gallons, including the P2V, BAe-146, RJ85, MD-87, 737, and C-130.

To improve the tanker base, the City of Prescott agreed to accept a $1.44 million grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) which was combined with $1 million from the U.S. Forest Service. The USFS funds were used to add new plumbing infrastructure and a taxiway.

The changes increased the number of loading pits from two to three. The ADOT grant covered 90 percent of the cost of the apron project, and the City of Prescott supplied the additional 10 percent.

Below are photos of the Prescott air tanker base ramp before and after the modifications.

Air tanker base ramp Prescott Airport
Air tanker base ramp at the Prescott Airport, June, 2010. Google Earth.
Air tanker base ramp Prescott Airport
Air tanker base ramp at the Prescott Airport, November, 2015. Google Earth.

As you can see below, Prescott makes a good temporary home for the helicopters working the Goodwin Fire.

An illegally operated drone flew into the fire area Wednesday, forcing all firefighting aircraft to be grounded for safety reasons. Law enforcement responded and is investigating the incident. Hobbyist drone operators are reminded that “if you fly, we can’t fly.” There is a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the fire area and it is against federal law to fly a drone within the restricted area. This also happened on the Brian Head Fire in Utah Wednesday, as well as the Lightner Fire in California.

In the video below you will see what appears to be a privately owned Blackhawk helicopter, a Firehawk, dropping retardant on the Goodwin Fire. Most of the time helicopters drop water directly on the flames, but the long term retardant can be effective when applied ahead of the fire.

Another helicopter dropping retardant:

New South Wales expects to continue to use DC-10 and C-130 air tankers

Above: A DC-10 drops on a fire in Australia. New South Wales Rural Fire Service photo.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service apparently thinks their two year trial of two air tankers, a DC-10 and a C-130, was a success, and expect to keep using them for several more years.

The state of Victoria also has been using air tankers from North America during their down under summer for the last two years, an RJ85 and another C-130. Both states have been using single engine air tankers and helicopters for a long time to aid firefighters battling bush fires.