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.

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.
6. The radial engines in the S-2s were replaced with turbine engines by Marsh Aviation, changing the model name to S-2T. The turbine engines have far fewer moving parts, are much lighter, and are more powerful.

Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Photo by Bill Gabbert.
7. DynCorp International has been the provider of maintenance on the aircraft for years. The company currently has 147 employees associated with CAL FIRE’s aviation program. They also supply the pilots for the fixed wing aircraft, while CAL FIRE hires their own helicopter pilots.

8. The maintenance performed at McClellan includes major modifications, depot level maintenance, component overhaul, and routine maintenance. The facility has licenses from Lockheed to manufacture wheels for the S-2T, and from Honeywell to make new brakes for the air tanker. It is difficult or impossible to purchase those components on the open market.

S-2T wheel
S-2T wheels in CAL FIRE’s facilities at McClellan Air Field. Photo By Bill Gabbert.
9. Over 280 CAL FIRE employees are involved in aviation activities. This includes the specialties of Tanker Base, Helitack Base, Air Tactical Group, and upper management.

10. There is now a career ladder for a helicopter manager to move up the ranks through the aviation organization.

11. Barry C. Lloyd, the Helicopter Program Manager, told us CAL FIRE has a 98 percent availability rate for their aircraft. According to an aircraft maintenance manager at a private company we talked with, more than 97 percent is phenomenal.

12. The agency keeps spares of many things on hand which helps keep that percentage high. For example, they have two spare OV-10s, two spare S-2Ts, at least one S-2T wing, and two spare hoists used on the Super Hueys. (All of their Hueys now have hoists that can extract injured firefighters or other personnel from very remote locations. Installation began in 2011.)

helicopter hoist
A spare hoist at McClellan. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
13. The hoists have 250 feet of cable.

14. CAL FIRE spends about $55 million a year on fire aviation.

15. A CAL FIRE air tanker flies for 200 to 400 hours each year, while the helicopters are used for 150 to 400 hours. Some bases are much busier than others.

16. The base salary for a CAL FIRE helicopter pilot is $64,161 to $82,500. Last year one of their pilots earned $179,000. That included a large amount of overtime.

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13 thoughts on “16 facts you may not know about CAL FIRE’s aerial firefighting program”

      1. 1200 Gallons or less depending on location and climate / temp. My understanding is 1,000 is the most common load for the tracker.

        1. Climate/temp I.e. Density altitude does play into it, but it’s mostly a function of total payload relative to those criteria and fuel. Like a fire engine, Cal Fire aircraft sit loaded and ready, usually with more fuel than would allow a full 1200 gal initially. As they burn gas and get lighter, they’ll take relatively more and more retardant during the cycle before they shutdown and refuel.

    1. The UH-1N (212) has two P&W engines and the Super Hueys have a single -703 engine, among some other differences.

  1. Just looking at the flight hours for both the fixed and rotary wing aircraft is impressive. 55 million dollars is the annual budget for the largest civil (public) air force in the world? Very little fan-fair has been addressed about the nine Cal Fire helitack bases/crews distributed throughout California. It is not uncommon for any one of the Cal Fire helitack crews to land and take action on over 200 wildfires per season. Many of these fires are threatening and mad, ready to chew-up and destroy this elite team of 8 to 10 fire fighters. Working very closely with the S 2 air tankers and their foam dropping helicopter both resources assist in achieving containment rates in the first burning period of 96 to 98 %, not bad for action on all types of fuels. The achievement rates reflect lots of hard work by all air and ground resources and cooperating agencies.

  2. Question: Has anyone in California State Government ever done an honest retardant “Cost Per Delivered Gallon” comparison between state owned S2s, converted, maintained, operated and staffed year round versus vendor’s SEATs hauling equivalent gallons and contracted as needed?

    Answer: Probably not.

    1. State owned S-2’s, OV-10 & Uh-1H that were procured for $1 each as federal excess property….even with the costs of conversion and Mx, not sure Air Tractor or any other purpose built tanker can boast that.

      The fixed wing aren’t staffed year round, but on 4, 5, or 6 month contract to contract periods, with the ability to extend as dictated by the fire activity and potential. Good luck with a SEAT vendor providing current pilots and ready to go aircraft within a few hours during a December Santa Ana wind event after a slow season.

      “Cost Per Delivered Gallon” sounds some a bureaucratic disaster that would spend more money then the entire annual state air program telling the taxpayers that jet fuel is expensive, pilots have a skill set that should be valued, airplanes aren’t conjured out of thin air, but cut from a big checkbook, and if you want safe, effective and efficient emergncy service first responders, you’re going to have to actually pay to have them. Nobody complains when the fire dept (in a truck or an air tanker) shows up, they complain when it doesn’t. And it won’t show if it’s not there in the first place. CAL FIRE’s air program dealt with and solved the problem of having a well maintained, single fleet type, very effective initial attack air tanker without a break in service or coverage. That’s hard to say about the last 50+ years of aerial firefighting, and certainly not the case for all the agencies out there……..

    2. Interesting question and answer. I would like to know myself. When the DC 10 was on a CWN CDF contract a study was conducted on cost-per-gallon delivered on a fire about sixty miles from the airbase. Of all the aircraft assigned the least expensive (c.p.g.) was the DC 10. The role of the S2T is very different than a SEAT. Frequently the S2T are dispatched from California over the Sierras to I.A. fires on the east side (aka Sierra Front) including mutual threat zones inside Nevada. I.A. be over the fire in twenty minutes.

  3. 97 percent availability isn’t that impressive…at Erickson Aircrane Co. 100% was the norm for the 5 years I crewed S-64E’s and F’s…
    Anything less than 100% left you standing in the unemployment line!

    1. Erickson brags about their 97% ORR on the front page of their website (“Erickson sets the standard for operational readiness at 97% ORR”). Things must have really gone down hill for Erickson since you left.

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