A tour of Ramona Air Attack Base

Ramona Air Attack Base

On Wednesday CAL FIRE gave a live tour of the Air Attack Base at Ramona, California. They talked about the OV-10 Bronco, S2T air tankers, and the C-130 that the agency has under an exclusive use contract until the end of August which is serving as a training platform so their pilots will be ready for the planned acquisition of seven C-130 air tankers.

Here is the recorded version of the tour.

C-130 air tanker spotted at Ramona, California

The runway is too short for some large air tankers

It is unusual to see an air tanker larger than an S-2 at the Ramona Air Attack Base in Southern California, but a C-130Q under contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) was seen at the base yesterday, August 3. Kevin Pack, who took the photo below, said it had been dropping on a fire, possibly the Sage Fire, in San Diego County.

The relatively short runway restricts which types of aircraft can use the facilities at Ramona. When the U.S. Navy built the airport in 1945 to be used as an emergency landing field it was only 4,000 feet long and remained that length well after it was conveyed to the County of San Diego in 1956.

Air Tanker 134 C-130 Ramona
Air Tanker 134, a C-130Q, parked at Ramona Air Attack Base August 3 2019. Photo by K. E. Pack Photography.

CAL FIRE established an Air Attack Base there in 1957 and the U.S. Forest Service followed three years later.

The runway was lengthened in 2002 to 5,001 feet but it is difficult for some large air tankers and impossible for very large air tankers to work at the base. CAL FIRE has allowed BAe-146 air tankers under CAL FIRE contracts to use the runway, but currently the Forest Service prohibits their large air tankers from using the airport.

Air Tanker 134 C-130 Ramona
Air Tanker 134, a C-130Q, was still parked at Ramona Air Attack Base at 7:53 a.m. PDT August 4, 2019. HPWREN photo.

CAL FIRE bases two S-2 air tankers and an Air Tactical Group Supervisor at the airport, and the Forest Service bases a helicopter there.

The S-2s can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. In 2016 another Coulson C-130, T-131, completed 520 sorties averaging 3,404 gallons per drop. A BAe-146 has a capacity of 3,000 gallons.

The C-130Q at Ramona on Saturday was Coulson’s Tanker 134, the fourth C-130 the company has converted. Its first drop on a fire was around November 1, 2018 while on a contract in Australia. It had just finished being reconfigured as an air tanker after being rescued from storage in Tucson and had not yet been painted.

t-134 c-130Q
Air tanker 134 on the sortie when it was making its first live drop on a fire in Australia, around November 1 , 2018.

CAL FIRE is using Tanker 134 to train their pilots who are transitioning from the S-2 air tankers to the seven HC-130Hs the agency has acquired after the U.S. Forest Service lost interest in the aircraft which were previously operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

California: Brown Field is now an air tanker base

For the last couple of years San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob has criticised the U.S. Forest Service for not allowing the air tankers they hire under contract to use the Ramona Airport as an air tanker base. CAL FIRE usually has two of their S2T air tankers at the base and has reloaded at the base a BAe-146 that they have under contract from Neptune Aviation. But the USFS contends the runway, at 5,001 feet, is too short for a fully loaded large air tanker.

When the Border Fire was burning near Potrero in eastern San Diego County a couple of weeks ago just north of the US/Mexico border, some of the air tankers had to fly over Ramona on the way to the next closest tanker base, Hemet-Ryan, 80 miles north of the fire, about 50 miles past Ramona.

Brown Field map

As of Wednesday of this week there is an additional air tanker base in San Diego County — at Brown Field Municipal Airport, which is on the southeast side of the greater San Diego area 1.5 miles north of the US/Mexico border. It is 31 miles south of Ramona and has a 7,972-foot runway which according to information from the USFS “provides ample length to meet safe takeoff requirements for the size and weight of a Next Generation Air Tanker with a full payload”.

Brown Field has a portable unstaffed retardant base that is under contract until September 30, 2016. After that, according to Oliva Walker, a Public Information Office for the Cleveland National Forest, the equipment will only be positioned there when it is needed, on a Call When Needed basis. She said the facility will only be staffed with personnel to operate the equipment and fill air tankers when there is a going fire and air tankers are flying out of the airport.

The Cleveland National Forest also has a fairly new Type 1 Helibase 30 miles east of the outskirts of San Diego near Interstate 8 half a mile from Cameron Fire Station on Kitchen Creek Road.