Pilot shortage keeps some CAL FIRE air tankers grounded

Air tanker 73, an S2T, flown by Mike Venable, July 15, 2013 on the Mountain Fire in southern California. USFS photo by Steve Whitby.

James Barnes wrote the article below for the Associated Aerial Firefighters’ Facebook page September 2, 2018. We asked and received permission to use it here. Mr. Barnes retired after flying S-2T air tankers for CAL FIRE and DynCorp.


A reporter from the Sacramento Bee called me the other day and told me that she was advised, by unnamed persons, that I may be able to shed some light on the problems that are resulting from the pilot shortage CAL FIRE is now experiencing. As a retired, former airtanker pilot, I am not encumbered by any affiliation to any organization, employer or agency. That being said, I still follow my own protocol or personal code with regard to statements that I make that could be harmful to persons or organizations or programs that in my opinion are doing a great service for our Citizens and Taxpayers.

In my experience in dealing with the press I have found that there is always “the law of unintended consequences” looming in the background. It must always be considered before and during any interview where your opinion could potentially be used as a weapon in a salacious report. In speaking with this lady during the preliminary discussion before the interview it was my determination that her intent was to get the story right and get it out to the public. That left me with two choices; to refuse the interview and hope that someone else would get the facts straight or tell the facts as I understand them and accept the consequences. I chose the latter.

In the beginning of our discussion she demonstrated that she had already gained a substantial understanding of CAL FIRE’s Aviation Program and the current situation. She cited the worldwide pilot shortage and I agreed that, yes, it had finally come. She inquired about why CAL FIRE quite suddenly was unable to staff all of their airtankers and air attack ships. She even mentioned some names of management personal that she had heard might have contributed to the current situation. My reply was simply this; “I cannot confirm allegations concerning individuals and the fact is, it isn’t that simple”.

“For years The California Fire Pilots Association, the IAM, our Union, and the Associated Aerial Firefighters have advocated for the development of new and better aircraft and an air program that stabilizes both the pilot and maintenance workforce. Many times, dedicated agency officers worked with us to accomplish these goals. They realized that improvements in “quality of life” issues and job security are essential to retaining skilled employees. Sometimes, individuals in management did work against our efforts but for the most part we prevailed and together developed an air program that is light years ahead of anything that came before. The pilots and maintenance technicians in CAL FIRE’s air program are today now better than ever.

She was aware of the high dropout/attrition rate of airtanker pilots in training and she wanted to know what was causing it. I gave her a very lengthy response.

“First aerial firefighting is far more complex today than it was when I started thirty years ago. A fatal accident every other year in the S-2 airtankers convinced us we were doing something wrong. We needed better training. New training programs were developed and instituted and our casualty rate was greatly reduced. Greater demands and expectations were placed on our trainees. This resulted in an intensive training regimen that spans one to two fire seasons no matter what walk of aviation the trainee came from. During these grueling sessions some trainees decide that tanker flying isn’t for them. In other cases, trainees have trouble adapting to the environment. Multi-tasking in conditions of low visibility, at very low altitudes, at minimum safe airspeed can produce very high stress levels for even the most seasoned airtanker pilot. Still others find that the life style of an airtanker pilot is not compatible with their life style or the needs of their families.

All these situations point to the need for a better screening program of applicants before they are accepted in the training program. It would help to have them ride along or act as a co-pilot to introduce them to the environment and see if they are adaptable before being designated as a trainee. Impressing upon them that the demands placed upon them will be very great requiring a dedication to the mission that may be beyond what they are willing to deliver.

Secondly, the current situation is a result of circumstances. Three tanker pilots retired, one of our best tanker pilots died suddenly of natural causes, two pilots are temporarily out of service for illness and one of our young, skilled tanker pilots quit to fly a large airtanker for another industry company.

Until recently there were enough reserve and relief pilots that could fill the seats as needed. With such a high turnover in such a short time all the relief pilots were absorbed forcing them to fly the line. Now on any given day at least three S-2 airtankers are parked because there are no pilots to fly them”.

She asked me “if having three airtankers parked would make a significant difference in fighting a fire?”

“From the instant of ignition, the window of opportunity for stopping the fire is beginning to close. CAL FIRE’s primary strategy is Rapid Response Initial Attack. During the extreme burn conditions, we are now experiencing air support for our ground firefighters is crucial. in some cases, an air response will be the only response in the first critical twenty minutes. The loss of three airtankers puts big holes in our tactical spread that delivers that air response in the first 20 minutes. Any delays in our ground and air forces will cause some fires to escape the initial attack resulting in more large fires”.

She asked about the fatigue levels of pilots because off the intensity of this fire season and the lack of any relief pilots to give them a break.

“The stress and fatigue levels our pilots are experiencing are currently off the scale. The only comparison would likely be tactical military pilots in time of war.”

She expressed concern for the safety of our pilots. “Is the fatigue the pilots are experiencing affecting their ability to fly?”

“I can only speak from my past experience. When I was assigned to fires that caused me to time out day after day and fatigue set in I began to make more and more little mistakes.”

“Like what kind of mistakes?”

“Things like omitting an item on a check list or having trouble changing a radio frequency but it is the little things that add up and ultimately result in a mishap or an accident.”

I expressed my opinion that it is imperative that everything possible be done to give those pilots a break. Current demands are keeping our southern bases open year-round. Under these conditions the six days on, one day off schedule is untenable.”

“Is anything being done to resolve this problem?”

“Both CAL FIRE and the CFPA have been working together to find a solution. Firefighting pilots make their entire annual income during the period of the contract. Flying a southern contract involves demands beyond what the standard four-month contract requires. They shouldn’t receive a penalty in pay to achieve the necessary adjustment in duty schedule but something must be done soon”.

She asked me if there were other factors affecting pilot recruitment and retention.

“It’s the little things that count. One example of a small thing that caused a large reaction from the pilots was a newly implemented state policy to have pilots who were working away from home base to find a motel room that cost no more than $90.00 per night and that if one couldn’t be found to price three motels and choose the cheapest one. After flying for seven hours on fires and finishing a ten-hour duty day it doesn’t seem reasonable that a pilot should have to shop around for the cheapest possible motel room. I guess the Comptroller didn’t know the difference between a computer operator and a tanker pilot. It wasn’t the money so much as it seemed to be a lack of respect. No one would ask every individual firefighter to go out on their own and find the cheapest room available in town after fighting a fire all day. Fortunately, that policy was discontinued this year”.

“Our highly skilled, young airtanker pilots are a coveted item for many other industry companies. Offers to fly a large, four engine jet airtanker for more money are very tempting. Too many little things or quality of life issues can sway a young Tanker Pilots judgement from staying in CAL FIRE’s air program or moving on to what looks like greener pastures”.
We talked about the terrible problem with vegetation management in California. She said that the Bee is doing a story on that issue too. She commented briefly on that story.

“The U.S. Forest Service told us that they only have a budget to address vegetation management on one percent of their responsibility area.”

Then I got on my soap box again; “Vegetation management is the single most important thing we can do to alleviate the threat of wildfire. They could mitigate the threat in some areas by allowing selected logging to both generate revenue and reduce the fuel load in areas that are trigger points. The USFS is also only one of thousands of firefighting agencies in the United States. To have any meaningful results action must be taken by all stakeholders beginning with property owners and on up through local fire departments, County, State and Federal agencies.”

I got a little off the track but I thought she had done a comprehensive study on the issues and I can only hope that her story has a positive effect.


Art Prints

Air tankers at Jeffco, September 2, 2018

Above: Air Tanker 15, a BAe-146, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.

Andrew Morton took these photos at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) yesterday, September 2, 2018. Thanks Andrew! It is likely that some or all of these air tankers were working on the Britania Mountain Fire in southwest Wyoming.

BAe-146 JEFFCO
Air Tanker 01, a BAe-146, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.
Air Tanker 01, a C-130, at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JEFFCO) September 2, 2108. Photo by Andrew Morton.

Photography Prints

Former B-17 air tanker spotted in Mississippi

The aircraft was used by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s

B-17 air tanker fire firefighting airtanker Mississippi Golden Triangle Airport
B-17, #44-83785, at Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Mississippi September 2, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published on September 2, 2018. Updated on September 3, 2018 to add a photo of the aircraft taken in 1980)

Today I was surprised to see a B-17 Flying Fortress in an unexpected location — the Golden Triangle Regional Airport near Starkville, Mississippi. The old warbird had a paint scheme similar to air tankers — red at the top of the tail and red stripes on the wings. The tail and nose of the aircraft were covered with tarps, indicating work in progress.

It was Sunday and the facility was closed, so I could get no closer than 700 to 800 feet away, and the only camera I had was an iPhone 8.

B-17 air tanker fire firefighting airtanker Mississippi Golden Triangle Airport
B-17, #44-83785, at Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Mississippi September 2, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I grabbed some shots using the 2x lens and still had to crop them extensively, so the resolution is poor, but good enough to read the serial number: 483785. A minute of research on the internet revealed that the full number is 44-83785, and its FAA number N-207EV is currently registered to Fortress and Fighters LLC out of Stow, Massachusetts. For 15 years it was on static display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum and according to Aerodynamic Media was acquired by the Collings Foundation in 2015 to join their popular “Wings of Freedom” tour.

B-17 air tanker fire firefighting airtanker Mississippi Golden Triangle Airport
B-17, #44-83785, partially obscured by two small aircraft at Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Mississippi September 2, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

However since this B-17 was operated by the CIA for 10 to 15 years the original serial number may be lost to history since the agency routinely changed the painted numbers on their aircraft in order to confuse the casual observer.

It served as an air tanker for about 10 years beginning in 1969 when Intermountain Aviation converted it into a firefighting resource. At various times it used tanker numbers 22, C71, B71, and 71.

Evergreen Tanker 22 B-17
JD Davis sent us this photo of the aircraft operated by Evergreen as Tanker 22, N207EV, operating out of Hemet, California on November 26, 1980.

The aircraft has an extremely interesting history.

It was built in 1945 and never served in combat. In the mid-1950s the Air Force transferred it to the CIA where it was reportedly one of five B-17’s painted black. It worked out of Taiwan and was used for dropping agents into China and to support other secret operations. In 1960 the CIA’s cover story was that it was operated by Atlantic General Enterprises, and two years later was transferred to Intermountain Aviation. Both companies had ties to the CIA. Evergreen Helicopters took it over in 1975 and later Evergreen Equity/747 in 1985.

One of its more interesting missions was in 1962 when it was used on a secret mission, code-named “Project COLDFEET” to exfiltrate two agents from an ice floe where they had obtained information at an abandoned Soviet Union drift station, NP 8, that was part of an acoustical surveillance network in the Arctic collecting information about American submarines.

B-17 Skyhook
A B-17 equipped with a Skyhook by the CIA.

The agents had parachuted onto what remained of the floating ice after it had cracked rendering the airstrip unusable, which was the reason it was abandoned by the Soviets. After a few days the B-17, working with a P2V that had better navigation equipment, used a “Fulton Skyhook” attached to the nose to swoop up the agents who were attached to the bottom end of a rope suspended into the air by a helium filled balloon.

The video below sheds some light on how the Skyhook works.

In the 1965 movie Thunderball, James Bond was rescued by a Skyhook-equipped aircraft.

Project Coldfeet has been declassified by the CIA, which has a lengthy and fascinating description of the Skyhook developed by Robert Fulton and the training and execution of the effort to collect what turned out to be very valuable information.

Here is how the CIA summed up the results of Project COLDFEET:

Valuable Intelligence
Operation Coldfeet, [commander of the operation Captain John] Cadwalader reported, produced intelligence “of very great value.” ONR [Office of Naval Research] learned that the Soviet station was configured to permit extended periods of silent operation, confirming the importance that the Soviets attached to acoustical work. In addition, equipment and documents obtained from NP 8 showed that Soviet research in polar meteorology and oceanography was superior to US efforts. “In general,” Cadwalader summarized, “the remarkable Soviet accomplishments in their drift stations reflect their long experience in this field and the great importance that their government attaches to it.”

Operational Success
Beyond the intelligence obtained, Cadwalader wrote, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Coldfeet “was to prove the practicality of paradrop and aerotriever recovery to conduct investigations in otherwise inaccessible areas.” Certainly, Coldfeet had been an outstanding operational success. The recovery of Smith and LeSchack had been especially challenging. As Admiral Coates wrote to Thorsrud, the pickup had been conducted “under stronger winds and lower visibility than had previously been attempted; nonetheless, through the exceptional skill of pilots and the coordination and efficiency of the crew, all pickups were made without a hitch, and in the best time (6 1/2 minutes) yet achieved.”(17)

“While the Skyhook system provided an important asset for all manner of intelligence operations, its utility as a long-range pickup system was somewhat undermined during the 1960s by the development of an aerial refueling capability for helicopters. Still, it appears likely that Fulton’s Skyhook did find employment in a number of specialized clandestine operations following Coldfeet, although its subsequent use by CIA and the military services remains shrouded in secrecy.”


I took the image below around 1972 at a fire on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.

Photography Prints

Photos of air tankers at McClellan

Above: Air Tankers 102 (MD-87) and 134 (C-130)

Don Hosford took these photos of firefighting aircraft at Sacramento McClellan Airport August 31, 2018.

air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tankers 23 (P-3) and 944 (747)
air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tanker 914, a DC-10
air tankers sacramento mcclellan airport
Air Tanker 118, an HC-130H

Continue reading “Photos of air tankers at McClellan”

Air show at Santiago Peak as Holy Fire wakes up

(Originally published at WildfireToday.com at 1:09 p.m. PDT August 27, 2018)

S-2T air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An S-2T air tanker makes a drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, at about 1 p.m. PDT August 27, 2018. Image from HPWREN camera. Click to enlarge.

The Holy Fire has been relatively quiet for the last 12 days, with the reported size of 22,986 acres remaining the same since August 15.

But that changed today when a spot fire ignited across the fireline and once again threatened the numerous electronic sites at Santiago Peak. Those facilities supply many of the television, radio, and communications links for the greater Los Angeles area, along with other sites in the area.

The fire originally started August 6 near Holy Jim Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains southeast of Los Angeles.

The fire was burning quiet well, as you can see in these photos, but by noon or 12:30 p.m. local time the intensity had decreased, due in part to drops by air tankers and helicopters.

These images were captured from live cameras on Santiago Peak, HPWREN and KWAVE.

(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Holy Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.)

S-2T air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An S-2T air tanker makes a drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. Image from HPWREN camera. Click to enlarge.
S-2T air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An S-2T air tanker makes a drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. The image is from a HPWREN camera that has droplets of fire retardant on the lens. Click to enlarge.
BAe-146 air tanker Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
An RJ85 or BAe-146 on final to drop on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. Image from HPWREN camera. Click to enlarge.
Holy Fire Santiago Peak California
Flare up on the Holy Fire at Santiago Peak in Southern California, August 27, 2018. Image from KWAVE camera. Click to enlarge.

Photos of P-3 Orion air tankers at McClellan

Also: A DC-10 and Coulson’s most recently converted C-130

Above: Air tanker 23 testing at McClellan.

When Sergio Maraschin saw our article about Airstrike Firefighters signing a call when needed contract with Colorado for their P-3 air tankers, he realized we needed some more current photos of the recently refurbished aircraft. He took these at various times over the last six weeks at Sacramento McClellan Airport.

The article linked to above has the details about Airstrike’s recent projects.

Thanks Sergio!

P-3 Orion air tanker T-23 T-17 T-912
Air tankers 17, 23, and 910.
P-3 Orion air tanker T-23
Air tanker 23, over McClellan.

Coulson’s T-134, a C-130Q, has come a very long way since April, 2017. Check out these photos, here and here, taken as the project was just getting started. It is amazing what private industry can do in 16 months when they want to convert an aircraft into an air tanker. The Air Force dithered for almost five years when they were supposed to be converting seven former Coast guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers for the U.S. Forest Service, and never fully completed any of them. Now it appears the state of California will get the reborn air tankers, when and if the USAF completes the work.

T-134 C-130 Coulson
This is T-134, Coulson’s most recently converted C-130Q air tanker. Brett Coulson told us as far as they are concerned it is ready to fight fire. They intend to wait until after the fire season to paint it.

Colorado signs CWN contract for P-3 air tankers

Airstrike Firefighters has made Tanker 23 fire-ready and plans to do the same for six more P-3’s

Tanker 27, a P-3
Tanker 27, a P-3, on the Middle Fork Fire, Oregon, 2009. Todd McKinley.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) has signed a call when needed (CWN) agreement with Airstrike Firefighters to provide large airtanker services for wildland fire suppression.  The agreement will allow the State of Colorado to access Airstrike’s P-3 airtankers to help combat wildfires in the State.

The RADSII constant flow tank design can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant. Since May, 2017 Airstrike has been refurbishing Tanker 23 at Sacramento McClellan Airport concentrating on inspections and the structural integrity program.

“This new agreement ensures that we could have the appropriate suppression resources available to protect the citizens of the State of Colorado for years to come,” said Vince Welbaum, DFPC Aviation Unit Chief. “The P-3 Orion is a proven aerial asset that can operate efficiently in our high-altitude and high-temperature conditions.”

Scott Schorzman, Vice President of Airstrike Firefighters said “We are excited about our new partnership with the State of Colorado. Our P-3’s are proven performers in Colorado’s challenging environment and we are committed to responding to the State’s needs quickly and efficiently.  In addition, as more P-3 firefighting airtankers come online we will make them available to the State of Colorado as they need them.”

retardant tank control panel
The retardant tank control panel on T-23.

Airstrike hopes to get carding inspections scheduled by the U.S. Forest Service in the near future for Tanker 23 which has undergone the inspections and maintenance to make it fire-ready. Since it is using the same retardant delivery system the P-3’s utilized for years, they do not have to do the grid test, but they did complete a conformity test that included 60+ ground-based static drops to verify the tank was working as it did in the past.

In April of 2011, Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P-3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

P-3 air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From Zion Helitack.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.  Some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners. The cancellation of the contract left only 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, all P2V’s, down from the 44 on contract in 2002.

The P-3’s changed hands when UAC/Blue Aerospace acquired seven of them after the bankruptcy proceedings. Buffalo Airways then purchased T-22 in 2014 which for much of this year has been parked at McClellan. Airstrike is leasing it and bringing it back into compliance. They just finished the Nondestructive Testing and are moving forward with the Structural Integrity Program, Programmed Depot Maintenance, and the Annual.

In addition to buying and updating T-23, Mr. Schorzman said Airstrike is planning on acquiring the remaining five P-3’s. Their schedule calls for Buffalo’s T-22 and T-17 to be done in the Spring of 2019, then T-27 and another P-3 to be named later will roll out at the end of 2019.  Mr. Schorzman expects all seven to be “working for a living” by mid-2020, he said.

Air Attack aircraft lands without landing gear lowered

After the mechanical malfunction, the crew walked away

Above: photo from the preliminary report

A malfunction of the landing gear system on a Cessna 337 resulted in the Air Attack crew having to land without the landing gear lowered. The incident occurred August 8, 2018 at the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport in Idaho.

Thanks to excellent crew resource management everything turned out about as well as it could have, considering the pilot had to land the aircraft on its belly.

Below is the text from the preliminary report:


At approximately 1730 hrs Nxxx was on a 3 mile final for runway 30: while on final the pilot initiated extending the landing gear. Both the pilot and I had a routine of verifying gear extension/retraction by looking out the window and verifying the correct color of the landing gear lights on the instrument panel. While on 3 mile final we did not observe our landing gear through the window or have “3 green” lights indicating that our landing gear was down and locked.

The pilot cycled the landing gear lever and checked the circuit breaker: our landing gear did not extend. We notified XXX air traffic control tower that we were experiencing an issue with our landing gear and requested a low level fly by to have the tower provide visual confirmation of the status of the landing gear. The tower reported that our gear doors were open: however out landing gear was still retracted. Nxxx gained altitude and requested clearance to remain within the XXX airspace south of the field.

As we gained altitude we verified that we had approximately 1.5hrs of fuel remaining. I offered assistance to the pilot by asking “what can I do to help… what do you need from me?” the pilot handed me the emergency procedure checklist and asked me to find the “landing gear fails to extend” checklist. I located the checklist and began to read the checklist to the pilot over the ics system: actively participating in the emergency checklist trouble-shooting process. The emergency checklist instructed us to pull the circuit breaker for the electric hydraulic pump, extend the manual gear pump handle, pump 95 times and look for the landing gear to “extend”. Both the pilot and I attempted pumping the handle several 95+ pump cycles and the manual handle pumped easily without resistance. Based on the lack of resistance during the pumps we determined that we were not building hydraulic pressure. Continue reading “Air Attack aircraft lands without landing gear lowered”