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

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 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 OV10 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.
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CAL FIRE’s aircraft lineup for 2016

The agency will have 51 firefighting aircraft working this year.

Above: CAL FIRE OV-10s at McClellan Airfield March 17, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

This month the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is finalizing their plans for the management and deployment of their firefighting aircraft, with the total numbers being similar to last year:

  • S2T air tankers: 21 plus 1 spare
  • OV-10 Air Tactical, fixed wing: 12
  • OV-10D Aerial Supervision Module, fixed wing: 1
  • King Air 200 Air Tactical training platform, fixed wing: 2
  • Super Huey helicopters: 10 plus 2 spares

Below is the anticipated lineup of air tankers, provided by Dennis Brown, CAL FIRE’s Chief of Flight Operations.

CAL FIRE air tankers 2016

The reporting dates for the air tankers have not yet been established, but CAL FIRE is required to provide the information to DynCorp, the contractor that provides the pilots and maintenance for the S2Ts, by April 1.

CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Before CAL FIRE’s Tanker 81 crashed near Yosemite National Park in 2014, killing pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, the agency had 23 S2T tankers. The project to replace the tanker is underway at McClellan and is expected to be complete in about 18 months. The aircraft are provided by the Federal Excess Personal Property program which supplies fire engines and other firefighting equipment, including aircraft, to state and local fire departments. Most of the hardware originates with the Department of Defense before being transferred through the Forest Service to other agencies. The FS retains ownership of the equipment.

CAL FIRE, for the second year in a row, will have a BAe-146 large air tanker on contract provided by Neptune Aviation.

The agency will have a number of air tankers on Call When Needed contracts that will be activated only if the fire situation in the state is more than the 22 tankers working every day can handle. They will have one DC-10 very large air tanker from 10 Tanker, three DC-7 large air tankers from Erickson Aero, Electra L-188s from Air Spray, and single engine air tankers from Air Spray and Aero Spray.

There has been speculation that CAL FIRE would put a very large air tanker such as a DC-10 on exclusive use contract, which is something they have not done for several years. When we asked Mr. Brown about that he said, “A decision has not been made yet on whether we will be doing an Exclusive Use contract for one this year or not.” A 747 very large air tanker is in the final stages of being built and is scheduled to make an appearance showing off its new paint job at the Aerial Firefighting conference at McClellan in Sacramento on March 22.

The Super Huey helicopters will be based at Kneeland, Bieber, Vina, Howard Forest, Boggs Mountain, Columbia, Alma, Bear Valley, Hemet, and Prado. All of them now have hoists installed that can be used for extracting injured personnel.

CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16
CAL FIRE Helicopter 301 July 16 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.

CAL FIRE’s OV-10s grounded after prop failure

OV-10 at Redding, CA
OV-10D at Redding, CA August 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Press Democrat is reporting that CAL FIRE grounded their 15 OV-10A Broncos Monday morning after a propeller on one of the aircraft failed while the plane was still on the ground.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean said mechanics had been dispatched to check on the fleet and by the afternoon five had been cleared for flying.

The OV-10s are usually used as air attack ships, serving as a platform for the Air Tactical Group Supervisor who coordinates the aviation assets working on a fire.

Some of CAL FIRE’s OV-10s are OV-10Ds that have have upgraded, more powerful engines with about 1,000 more horsepower than the OV-10A, a ramp worker at the Redding Air Attack Base told me last summer. The OV-10D has four props instead of three.

About 360 Broncos were produced between 1965 and 1986 and were retired from the U.S. military in 1995.

One of the OV-10s can be seen in the blurry webcam image at Ramona Air Attack Base.

OV-10 Redding Aug 7, 2014
OV-10A at Redding Aug 7, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Barbara and Kirk.

An introduction to the Columbia Air Attack Base

OV-10
CAL FIRE OV-10s at McClellan AFB March 17, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Motherlode website has an article about the CAL FIRE Air Attack Base at Columbia, California that is full of facts and statistics. The airport is east of San Francisco, about 40 miles northeast of Modesto (map). Here is an excerpt:

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“Columbia, CA – The meters certainly run each time Columbia Air-Attack Base aircraft take to the skies, and this week units are in full response mode to an elevated drought-parched wildfire season, further intensified by triple-digit heat.

Ironically, just ahead of yesterday’s Big Creek Fire break out near Groveland, the Mother Lode’s first major wildfire this season, Clarke Broadcasting checked in with Columbia Air Attack Base Battalion Chief Frank Podesta about how the season is going so far. At the time, he indicated an air tanker was actively assisting the Willow Fire, southeast of Bass Lake, in Madera County, and personnel had earlier provided back up on the Lowell Fire, west of Alta, in Nevada and Placer counties.

“It’s a fire season that we had expected with the dryness and severity of the drought,” Chief Podesta remarks, a bit grimly. He adds, “Fortunately, we are getting on top of them as quickly as possible.”

Crunching Columbia Air-Attack Numbers

With so many of the base aircraft out and about, we asked how much it might cost to run those units. The chief was happy to provide some numbers to crunch. First of all, fire retardant, according to Podesta, runs $2.94/gallon for the first 100,000 gallons; $2.13 after that. As the base drops somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 gallons per year on average, the cost for that line item runs somewhere between $933,000 and $1.4 million. By the way, he estimates, as of yesterday, the unit is “real close” to hitting that 100,000-gallon benchmark.

Built into the hourly rate for each aircraft type are their related firefighting costs, Podesta explains. Each of the two tankers, 82 and 83, cost $2,649/hour to operate and spend 180 to 200 hours in service per year. Subsequently, the average cost to operate both normally runs between $953,640 and $1,165,560 per year. At $743/hour, the Air Attack control or “spotter” plane, in use 250 to 300 hours per year, costs between $185,750 and $222,900. The unit helicopter, at $1,582/hour, which chalks up between 150 to 200 service hours per year, totals between $237,300 and $316,400.

So, annual firefighting costs, considering the above operational aircraft and fire retardant numbers, roughly ranges between $2.3 and $3.1 million per year…”

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Troy.

Aircraft at Redding, August 7, 2014

We spent some time yesterday at the Redding Air Attack Base in California and shot photos of the aircraft and will be posting them over the next few days. Here are a few to get started. Click on the photos to see slightly larger versions.

T-94 and T-95 at RDD 8-7-2014
T-94 and T-95 at RDD 8-7-2014
AA-240 and AA 505 and Coulson rig at RDD 8-7-2014
AA-240 and AA-505 (OV-10s) and the Coulson support rig at RDD 8-7-2014
AA120 landing at RDD 8-7-2014
AA-120, an OV-10, landing at RDD 8-7-2014
Chinook at RDD
California National Guard Chinook at RDD
Cobras and a Sherpa at RDD
Two Cobras and a Sherpa at RDD , 8-7-2014

All of the photos were taken by Bill Gabbert and are protected by copyright.

Photos of aircraft at Aerial Firefighting conference

CAL FIRE OV-10
CAL FIRE OV-10

We took these photos last week, March 20, at the Aerial Firefighting conference in Sacramento. There were about 90 minutes set aside for displays of firefighting aircraft at McClellan Air Force base, as well as live demonstrations of water and water pellet drops from a helicopter, and the use of the AirTEP Airborne Tactical Extraction Platform marketed by Aerial Machine Tool. We have photos of Coulson’s C-130Q in another article.

CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
CAL FIRE T-83, an S2T
Croman S-61 dropping water
Croman S-61 dropping water
Croman S-61 with modified tank for water pellets
Croman S-61 with modified tank for water pellets

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Aircraft on the Rim Fire

MAFFS C-130 drops on Rim Fire
MAFFS C-130 drops on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013

Mike McMillan took these photos of aircraft working on the Rim Fire in California on August 29, 2013 for the U.S. Forest Service. Earlier we posted some photos of UH-60 Blackhawks and HH-60 Pave Hawks arriving at Columbia Airport to be used on the fire.

OV-10 on Rim Fire August 29, 2013
OV-10 on the Rim Fire August 29, 2013
CD-10 Rim Fire drops
DC-10- drops on the Rim Fire below Pilot Peak August 29, 2013

Below are two videos posted by J N Perlot showing the DC-10 dropping on the Rim Fire. In the first one, on August 24, the approach to the drop begins at about 1:50.

In the next video, shot on August 31, the approach to the drop begins at about 1:00.