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.
2. They have 15 OV-10 Air Attack fixed wing aircraft.
3. And 12 Super Huey helicopters.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.