Air tankers, retardant, and studies

The following  is written by Gary Barrett, also known as “Bean”, a former naval aviator who has contributed an article or two previously and regularly leaves comments on the website. He brings a different background and point of view to the air tanker issue.


This Australian technical report on tanker effectiveness is the one that the USFS has been unable to accomplish since 1968.

An illustration from the report on air initial attack alone:

Fire Danger-1st Attack Success

Combined attack vs integrated attack:

Decision Tree First Attack Success with air tankers

If the USFS had a similar document on the effectiveness of initial attack in 5 fuel hazard types by tanker/ crew arrival time [page 3 and 4 of referenced technical paper] , they would have been able to defend their requirements for tankers and ground equipment to congress, determine basing requirements, and contract availability requirements by type.

From previous experience in targeting for Navy tactical strikes, it is critical that the effectiveness of what you drop is known scientifically and described mathematically. The military has determined a munition effectiveness probability number for everything it has. It tells you how many aircraft of what type with what munitions you send on a strike against a particular type of target. The Naval Strike Warfare Center in Fallon NV stood up in the mid 1980’s to teach the tactical carrier Navy how to fight smarter, not harder … Google “Torpedo 8” and look at the battle of Midway to see a classic example of where fighting harder got us. We had plenty of other later examples of the same fight harder problem that indicated we were not a “learning organization”. We tended to use technology to enable us to do more of what we always used to do [fight harder].

It seems to me that the issue with using aircraft to fight fires in the US is in pretty much in the same place that Navy TACAIR was before the Strike Warfare Center stood up in the mid 1980’s. The usual answer from today’s firefighting community seems to be “fight harder” and more is better. You can’t fight smarter until you get smarter. If that means setting up canned experiments in controlled burns and collecting data, then do it. More contract studies with the dearth of information available today are useless.

The firefighting community should develop formal definitions of probability of success for each type of air tanker based on lets say 5 fuel types or hazard conditions, types of retardant, terrain slope, release parameters, and coverage levels or they will never get where they need to go when it comes time to decide how many tankers of what type carrying what kind of retardant, based where under what kind of contract is required to achieve a certain probability of success. When the time comes, you use what you have but if you have a “smarter program”, there is a better chance of having the right stuff where you need it when you need it.

Rhetorical question: What is the probability of success for a line of X level coverage of retardant [pick the type] on fuel hazard class Y in terrain of slope Z? Can’t answer? Your only solution then is to “fight harder and more is better”.

Congress and GAO have already demonstrated that they aren’t interested in the “trust me I’m a career firefighter with a zillion hours of experience and we need more” argument. One could say that the industry with the best track record for getting money from congress is the military-industrial complex and they never use the “trust me” argument.

Getting smarter enables the profession to escape from the apprentice … journeyman … master training cycle that requires a lifetime of experience, critically depends on the questionably cohesive informal knowledge held by the various “masters” and significantly limits the numbers that can be effectively trained in the profession. For all I know, if more was understood about retardant effectiveness under various conditions, different more effective tactics could be developed to deal with wildfires. Better ways of getting the job done could be developed. Firefighters could fight smarter not harder.

Where’s the published US tactics manual for aerial firefighting? It could start with the two graphs above and grow from there. All ex military aviators lived by their tactics manual for their particular aircraft. It explained what you did with the aircraft after you learned how to fly it.

Gary Barrett (Bean)


21 thoughts on “Air tankers, retardant, and studies”

  1. So Bill

    As us professional aviators and mechanics who have a background in forestry and true application of things aerial

    My question becomes

    How blue in the face does one have to become to be on the WO -FAM “Air Staff” with other than a Forestry or “NWCG ginned up aviation expectations”

    After reading this little gem……I now know BETTER why we are the shape we are in…..

    We have NOT hired enough true aviation backgrounded people in the LMA world…this and you have spoken volumes that has needed to be addressed to the Hill and MORE reason for a single aviation agency that the LMA have to request aerial resources from….obviously CalFire has it down whereas the Feds….

    Well… know how most of feel out here and even the one who have not written you

    Looking at a few airline type websites….there has been pointed commentary on the C130 and P3 program that maybe the Forestry and Forestry Tech world ought to look into a see how sometimes it is viewed by other professional pilots

    1. Leo,

      Just in case you think its a new unique problem, we screwed it up a long time ago and on a larger scale….

      “In the long run, lack of U.S. government purchases of airplanes and airships resulted in atrophy of the manufacturing industry. Coupled with the interminable patent litigation and the depressing impact the Wright patents had upon aeronautical development, these economic factors were most significant in American lack of preparedness to fight World War I in the air. The years from 1907 through 1918 were a time of failure–failure to prepare for war, failure to exploit an American invention for national defense purposes, failure to build a harmonious and functioning flying unit, and failure to establish effective discipline and organizational structure within the Aeronautical Division, Aviation Section, and Air Service. Undoubtedly, many of those who failed had the best of intentions, but in the cold retrospect of history, their shortcomings can scarcely be considered either a justification or a valid excuse.”
      Wingless Eagle , Herbert A. Johnson 2001


  2. Where is the tactics manual for firefighting?

    Were not the contract operators doing that? You mean there were not enough Fed employees already establishing that?

    Maybe the contractor an military ought to get a curriculum together ahead of the LMA’s and then include EVERY hour of training gets included in ALL contracts and make sure the LMA folks are not in charge of flight profiles …observation and suggestion only.

    Again there have been many years to develop and establish a world class operations, seemingly like the Aussies, but 13 previous studies have wasted precious time and money the US will.never get back

  3. I hope the Forest Service doesn’t see this report. Australia a world authority on air attack? “better way getting the job done” It starts with having air tankers, the tool. In the last twelve years the arrival of a Fed air tanker within the first hour (or first day was a “gift”. So in saying that why even discuss studies and graphs if you don’t have the “tool. Top right of graph one hour attack one ha burning. Sounds like the fires going to go out. How about five acres up slope, heavy cured brush S.W. exposure 4 p.m. To tankers (1200 gallons ea.) and a type two helicopter with crew arrive in the first fifteen minutes, spread stopped at twenty five minutes. This scenario will repeat its self probably several hundred times this summer. Maybe it will make page four of the local paper. Dozers, fire crews, engines are equally part of success. Total acres 14. Dr. Gabbert’s Rx!

  4. IMO, too many variables involved, such as slope, drift, drop height, etc. Scientifically makes sense under ideal conditions, but not real life.

    1. I agree with Jeff…add to the variables he listed the type and number of ground resources available to tackle an incident (and the time it takes to respond) and one could argue those are a factor in the effectiveness of retardant as well.

      I’m not sure if it has been mentioned on this site before, but as of at least 2013, the Forest Service had assembled field teams to travel to wildland fires to measure the use and effectiveness of retardant (the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness “AFUE” study). I’m not sure of the status of their work but more info about the teams is here: I think measuring retardant capability on a prescribed fire as Gary suggests would produce inaccurate data. The burning conditions on a RX fire contradict conditions on most major fires where full control is the objective. Gary, I’ve witnessed several agencies fighting fire “smarter” for some time. Tactics have changed to exclude use of aerial resources on fires when they were not effective or when they did not support a modified suppression strategy such as managing a fire for resource benefits. Although a lot of these decisions on fires occur without much publicity they are documented as a part of the decision making process incident commanders utilize on wildfires.

      Leo – there is a “tactics manual” for fire fighting called the Fireline Handbook. It includes a summary of the principles of aerial retardant use that fire fighters learn through syllabi & coursework in fire fighting. Fire fighting tactics are also supported by several FS documents including: the Firefighters Guide; Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations; the Incident Response Pocket Guide; and the Annual Fire and Aviation Management Operations Plan.

      1. Steve,

        I’m very glad that fighting smarter is on the rise and I certainly hope the AFUE program produces results fairly soon. Here’s a way AFUE could get effectiveness data from real fires using IR imaging: [link no longer works]

        I looked for the Fireline Handbook [ its been superseded by PMS 210]. PMS 210 has 148 pages of info. Only one page is devoted to aviation and that one just describes tanker types. There are 7 pages of good info on ground operated pumps and hydraulics, 3 on ground foam employment, and 7 pages of excellent tactical data on line production rates for 20 person crews. It seems to me that initially determining line production rates might have had the same problems associated with it as determining air success probabilities. Not exact, but good enough.

        I looked at the 10 Principles of Retardant Application [NFES 2048] the only tactical aviation information is how to keep retardant out of water ways. I looked at the “Red Book” too. There’s not much tactical air information there either.

        From a military aviators view point, if the air tanker operation is pretty much a “bomb my smoke” call from the lead plane, why have a manned air tanker? If there are reasons for having brains in the tanker cockpit, what are they and where can I find comprehensive guidance for tanker tactics and employment?

        1. I know the National Advanced Fire & Resource Institute (NAFRI) has guidance on aerial suppression tactics. They sponsor the Aerial Training Academy for pilots and agency aviation personnel.

          As for the manned versus unmanned cockpit debate, I don’t think current technology can replace aircrews in fire fighting aircraft. I think there is a certain amount of zeal about unmanned aircraft use for wildland fires that is premature. I’ve expressed my opinion on the subject in another article on this site so I’ll leave it up to someone else to argue.

        2. Fixed wing air tankers aren’t a “bomb my smoke” proposition based on a leadplane. Fixed wing tankers offer initial attack capability, working entirely independent of leads and ASM’s.

          Leads and ASMs over the fire, as well as dedicated air attacks, offer a lot more than selecting a spot to drop. There’s a lot of coordination that takes place between the fire personnel and each unit on the fire; the lead/ASM does a LOT more than simply call the drop. Likewise the tanker platform does a lot more than simply drop the retardant where he or she is told.

          Almost all of us flying fixed wing tankers are experienced firefighters and have been doing this a long time. I have ground fire experience, too, as well as air attack, fire patrol, SEAT, and heavy tanker flying. The operation is about safety and effectiveness; there are very valid reasons for having manned tankers over the fire.

          Bear in mind that we’re not there to put the fire out. We’re there to support personnel on the ground. That’s our function. Ground fire support. That may mean pretreating fuels, closing gaps or building line, creating safe zones, protecting structures, or whatever else the personnel on the ground request; it also means filling other roles that are requested, including recommendations, input, communications, and even guiding other resources into the fire. It’s a team effort, and the best description of fixed wing tankers is that of the proverbial tool available to the incident commander. The IC isn’t just getting the retardant, but a capable platform and the benefit of experience and judgment in the cockpit at the disposal of the fire management team.

    2. I agree that there are too many variables, even with munitions there are too many variables. But the military came up with reasonable probability estimates of munitions effectiveness anyway. If you don’t develop some kind of reasonable effectiveness probabilities based on real world analysis, you can’t make your case to Congress for the total number of required assets: tankers, helos, lead planes, ATGS platforms, surveillance assets, communications, and basing schemes. A defined probability of success can be worked backwards to help define / justify an aviation program.

      The better the numbers get, the more they will be useful for tactics analysis and planning cells.

      1. You’re right, and I think the AFUE study will validate increased use of aerial assets. Just not sure what phase the study is in.

  5. Steve

    Understand all those “tactics manuals” Read em and still read em for assisting different agencies…

    What I am getting at is aerial tactics ….other than Link Alexander and Wolfgang Jendsch.

    By now with all that thar aviation knowledge the LMA’s have you d think they would have 1396 pages of “puuuuuuurfect drops” with all the requirements that pilots should live as seen by ground folk..

    So yes…I have read the Fire line Handbook and I have bought the agency their very first copies 6 to 10 of em back in 2006 with MY money so they had a reference. And all those other documents. ..I am well aware of

    1. Leo,

      I’m not familiar with Wolfgang Jendsch’s work, but the 1972 publication “Air Attack on Forest Fires” by Linc (not Link) Alexander was a book, not a manual. He wrote of the ‘history and techniques’ of air attack. The history portion is simply that – a recount of what had happened until that date, and the technique portion was not Mr. Linkowich’s original work. He copied what were in his opinion (one I tend to agree with) the most effective methods of using aerial fire suppression aircraft based upon the manuals written in the places he most worked: Alberta, British Columbia and California. Not surprisingly, those same jurisdictions are still considered the leaders and most progressive agencies in the air attack industry.

      Linc’s success may have been that his work was the first encompassing publication on effective air attack that wasn’t a proprietary government manual. He added info about the best ancillary equipment at the time (such as retardant tanks, without which the aircraft platform is near useless) and discussed flying techniques from a pilot’s perspective – which were for obvious reasons not contained within any government strategic or tactical documents.

      We’ve seen great gains in firefighting technology: better aircraft, tank design, product effectiveness etc, but in some places, all those gains are rendered moot due to territorial arm-wrestling, inept contracting, political pandering and a host of other ills.

      All the fancy graphs and formulae above can be represented by a most simple concept: that of common sense based upon introductory fire suppression courses. Common sense is not exclusive to naval aviation, but it sure seems to elude many land agencies.

  6. Is there a problem with how fixed wing air tankers deliver retardant? Mountain out of a mole hill? F.S. AFUE team should chase Cal Fire around for a season. Plenty of good stops, different coverage levels, different fuel types, all the components. If I was to present a plan to congress for Federal air tankers I would suggest look at 1995 air tanker contracts. The air tanker bases are already in place. Think I.A. (interesting concept) with a maximum of twenty minutes within their (bases) zones of influence. Move-up and cover airbases immediately if assigned base air tanker(s) are committed. Or another way of saying it, try to deliver retardant on the Fed fires before the tee shirt vendors arrive.
    As backward thinking as planes need a days off, this plan will never work too expensive. Don’t smother Congress with studies and data. Be a credible knowledgeable spoke person and act like you know what you are talking about, give them (Congress) the straight scoop. If that doesn’t work start crying and throwing a fit. Make sure the cameras are rolling.

  7. Calfire does have the right model, but how to convince congress on a much bigger scale would be the issue. They would need justification to make an informed decision. Hopefully afue will provide that. Since there isn’t much info out there on aviation tactics, especially for ground folks, retardant effectiveness can’t be evaluated thoroughly. Feedback to pilots, atgs, leadplanes, and asms is critical to improving effectiveness, and since very few ground folks have the tools to do this accurately, it’s going to be tough to improve. Don’t get me started on aviation tactics and strategy for ground personnel, because there isn’t any, except briefly in s270.

  8. It’s one thing to to circular areas of probability for a bomb run based on repeatable factors, or to plug in specifics regarding dissimilar types of aircraft and weaponry. it’s entirely a different matter to put out a liquid medium under rapidly changing conditions (such as rotors and winds adjacent to a fire, in terrain), with variables such as fuel type and moisture, and unknown which are part of the fire dynamic.

    While I appreciate the sentiment, trying to suggest that “this is how we did it in the fighter community so it will work for you in the fire community” is deeply flawed at best, and non-sequitur.

    I recall a session with Tony Kern, while he was still at the USAFA, when he was initially dabbling in the fire world. It was immediately apparent that while he had ample qualifications in the military, he was very much out of place in the fire world, and no amount of tossing around theoreticals about safety would change that. I have copies of his books on my shelf, but they’re better suited for the corporate pilot than fire operations.

    Beware those who say “we did it this way, so should you,” if they’ve no experience in your arena. This appears to be the case. I’ll be watching with interest to see what transpires.

    1. Just trying to point out that others have successfully used probability analysis methodology to analyze fire fighting effectiveness. Here’s a follow- on analysis based on the original probability work done by Australia. This one on the cost effectiveness of air tankers. By the way CEP is not Pk.

      Having defended a few budgets in D.C. I can assure you that it is this kind of analysis that is required by the “bean counters” in order to get funding and avoid the budget cutters. Thats what the GAO pointed out.

      On a personal level, I don’t think things are working very well. I would like to see something better than business as usual or more of the same. I owned my present house for 16 years with no significant fire problems. Since the Buffalo Creek fire in 1996 [10 miles away] we’ve had the Hayman fire [15 miles away], Snaking, High Meadows, Black Mountain, and Lower North Fork fires [all within 5 miles] and a few smaller ones just as close.

      I think it’s time to try something different. I’m not too impressed with the track record of the present system.

  9. Re Kern and fire knowledge…

    Same goes for an organization who plans to “own”C130’s. …

    Beware of those who say “We do/ did it this way ‘cuz we own MAFFS”

    THAT will be something to see when the military and some civilian operators have had long standing C130 operations and how well the “new owners” will listen to industry and the military who know these aircraft inside and out

  10. I welcome the call for a robust scientific approach to the use of aerial assets. Without that all you got is your best guess on what worked, which can be deceptive and can be hard to share with others widely. I agree that the tactical advice for the use of air resources for ground pounders is pitiful. No classes I’ve ever taken ever address the topic. Even getting folks to give accurate feedback on whether a drop was on target or not can be a challenge. For some every drop was “great” even if it was way off. Not too helpful to be telling the pilot that. Given how much we use aircraft there should be better tactical guidance for IC’s, especially on initial attack. Rigorous study to identify best practices and transmit them widely is the way to go. Just because it might be complex is no reason not to attempt it.

  11. Well Steve

    IF NAFRI has this ” guidance” then it ought to be up on the website USFS or Interagency…..for all interested parties and contractors

    I would imagine this was information done on the Government time and Government dime….therefore it is not just trademark information and IF it is…is there proof of that?….otherwise either info is not there or does not exist

    1. Well Leo…give NAFRI a telephone call and make the inquiry. They’d be glad to talk to ya.

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