The article below is written by Jim Barnes, a former pilot of CAL FIRE S-2T air tankers.
It is a low-down dirty shame that the decision was made to cancel the 747 Super Tanker this fire season. Especially in the light of another potentially catastrophic fire season for our western states ahead of us. Some-how we never seem to heed the hard learned lessons of the past. The failure to be prepared is to prepare to fail. The 747 is not cheep for sure but the great work and many great saves it has made cannot be measured merely in dollars but potentially in the lives and property that might be lost by not having that capability.
In the week before I retired from tanker flying, I was relieving in Grass Valley. I woke up in a motel room just before daylight and flicked on the television on the way to the bathroom. I was shocked to learn that several fires were burning in the Grass Valley and Nevada City area. It was hot and it was windy so I got dressed, threw my s*** into my car and headed for the base with a short stop at Jack in the Box for of one of their delicious breakfasts.
When I got to the base it was still dark and I was the only one there. Looking out toward the city you could see the orange glow. I started pre-flighting with my flashlight when the base pilot, Colin Rogers showed up. He was soon followed by the Chief and his Air Attack Pilot who ran out to the OV-10, kicked the tires and blasted off toward the fire. Within minutes he called for both tankers to respond. Colon took the lead and I taxied into position to do a section go. Colon started his roll and within seconds aborted takeoff because of a mechanical problem. That put me first in.
The Chief wanted me to start a protective line in front of a house at the top of a steep hillside. The wind was terrible so I used two wingspans for correction. That wasn’t enough and the entire load was blown down into the canyon. On the way back to base I heard tanker 88 checking in with Air Attack. His mechanical problem was fixed and Colon was back in the hunt. I briefed him on the effect of the wind as we crossed paths. On my way back out I heard Colon in tanker 88 calling the tanker base.
“We better get prepared to operate eight tankers out of Grass Valley all day long.”
But we never saw any more S-2s at our fire. They were already committed to project fires all over the state like the one that was devastating Santa Rosa. We did get one C-130 out of Chico and he did a great job but because he was in Chico his longer turn arounds gave us about two drops an hour.
So, we had two S-2Ts hot lapping making about 13-minute turnarounds, all the helicopters and ground forces that they could muster and the fire was still outproducing us badly. The fire now posed an imminent threat to several communities, including Grass Valley and Nevada City. One residential area was about to be over burned which would have resulted in catastrophic losses.
Somehow CAL FIRE got a hold of the 747 Very Large Air Tanker. Air Attack assigned him the job of picking up an entire flank that was about to impinge on homes, a school and businesses. Without the aid of a lead plane the 747 lined up on the target, made a perfect drop and covered the entire flank with a massive load of retardant. We never saw him again for the rest of the day but that one drop made the difference between success and failure on a devastating wildfire. We will never know what would have happened had he not been there. Unfortunately for our Citizens and Firefighters we may find out this year. My prediction is that when the s*** hits the fan the powers that are will be scrambling to get the 747 back on contract. I have seen this story play out many times in my thirty-five years of aerial firefighting. Damn, I’m sure tired of being right.
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