Air tankers at Rapid City

An MD-87 and an RJ85 were at Rapid City for the Legion Lake Fire in the Black Hills

Air Tanker 163 RJ85

Above: Air Tanker 163, an RJ85, at Rapid City December 12, 2017.

(Originally published at 12:15 p.m. MST December 13, 2017)

When the Legion Lake Fire broke out in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota December 11 it grew quickly in strong winds. The Incident Commander didn’t hesitate to order additional resources, including two large air tankers. Tankers 101, an MD-87, and 163, an RJ85, responded from Southern California, arriving late in the afternoon. They were not used that day since the lead plane did not arrive until much later. The tankers also were not used the following day. But the fire blew up the night of the 12th, expanding from 4,000 acres to over 40, 000 acres. As this is written around noon on December 13, the Incident Management Team said they will be used if needed.

On December 12 we visited the Rapid City Air Tanker base while the tankers were parked there. We talked with MD-87 pilot Brent Connor who told us Erickson Aero Tanker expects to have their fifth MD-87 in service by the 2018 fire season. Tanker 101 was the first they built; the others are 102, 103, 105, and 107.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

Each of the recently developed jet-powered air tankers have unique retardant delivery systems, and the MD-87 is no exception. As you can see in the photo gallery (click on the photos to see larger versions) it has two imposing tubes (for lack of a better term) in addition to a tank under the cabin floor and a pod under the plane’s belly. Those three reservoirs hold 3,000, 1,000, and 700 gallons, respectively, for a total of 4,700 gallons.

To mitigate the issue of retardant dispersing over the wing, which introduced the possibility of it being ingested into the engines, they had an external tank, or pod, fabricated and installed below the retardant tank doors, lowering the release point by 46 inches.

Mr. Connor said that at this time they are limited to dropping 3,100 gallons, and they never have to download due to density altitude. After modifications are made to the system, they expect to be cleared to carry 4,000 gallons. He said that to get to the present stage of development the FAA required 80 hours of  flight testing.

Two scooping air tankers positioned at Rapid City

Two of the scoopers flew in today from an assignment at Gaylord, Michigan.

scooper air tanker rapid city

Above: Air Tanker 262, a CL-415, on the ramp at Rapid City Regional Airport, June 3, 2016. @BlackHillsNF photo.

Two air tankers with water-scooping capabilities are now positioned at Rapid City Regional Airport following an assignment at Gaylord, Michigan. Tankers 261 and 262 can skim the surface of a lake scooping up to 1,600 gallons of water into their tanks. If a scoopable lake is near a fire they can put large quantities of water on the blaze, helping the firefighters on the ground (who actually put out the fire). The CL-415 aircraft typically work in pairs, one following the other as they refill the tanks and make the drops.

CL-415 scoop
The water scoop on another CL-415, Tanker 260, that is lowered into the water as the aircraft skims over a lake. Photo by Bill Gabbert, March 23, 2016 at McClellan Air Field, Calif.

The agencies have previously scouted the lakes in the Black Hills and identified locations for the tankers to scoop, including Angostura Reservoir, Keyhole Reservoir, and Deerfield Lake.

The Black Hills National Forest (@BlackHillsNF) sent out a Tweet today asking recreationists to give them a wide birth:

Please allow CL 415 Scooper Planes using a lake or other body of water room to do work in wildfire suppression.

The air tankers are a national resource and are frequently moved around depending on wildfire potential. The assignment at Rapid City is only temporary.

It has been a fairly quiet fire season in the Black Hills so far, but the dispatch center has logged 69 wildland fires this year. Most were less than an acre but three of the more recent were 18, 20, and 193 acres. I imagine the firefighters working on the Storm Hill Fire near Hill City, South Dakota in April would have appreciated a little aerial support.

Storm Hill Fire
Storm Hill Fire near Hill City, South Dakota. Photo at 4:40 p.m. April 23, 2016 by Jim Burk, SDWF

Rapid City tanker base in 2001

Rapid City Tanker Base 2001
Rapid City Tanker Base during the 2001 Rogers Shack Fire.

During the Rogers Shack Fire in 2001 the Rapid City Air Tanker Base used almost every square inch of their ramp for parking five large air tankers fighting the fire between Custer, South Dakota and Newcastle, Wyoming.

The photo is courtesy of the South Dakota Wildland Fire Division.