S-2 air tanker used on wildfire in Kansas

It is believed to be the first time a large air tanker has been deployed on a non-federal wildfire in Kansas

Kansas S-2 air tanker
File photo of Bill Garrison’s S-2 air tanker. Screenshot from KWCH video July, 2019.

In what is believed to be the first time a large air tanker has been deployed on a non-federal wildfire in Kansas, a privately owned S-2 was used on a fire in Cheyenne County in the northwest corner of the state November 9.

The Kansas Forest Service said Air Tanker 95 and two aerial ag applicator aircraft helped firefighters on the ground by dropping water. The assistance to local agencies was made possible by state funding for fire suppression approved in the last legislative session.

Cheyenne County was under a Red Flag Warning Saturday for strong winds and low humidity.

KSN reports that the aircraft is stationed at Hutchinson Airport northwest of Wichita, becoming the state’s first permanent base for an air tanker.

Bill Garrison, owner of Ag Air Service out of Nikerson, Kansas, acquired the aircraft formerly operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection from an aviation museum. CAL FIRE operated it as Tanker 81 and 93 with registration number N477DF. Later in its career the tanker number changed to 95, still used today, and was owned by Yesterday’s Flyers and then Cactus Air Force, both in Nevada. The current registration number is N508JR under the ownership of Mr. Garrison with a certificate issue date of February 14, 2019.

The aircraft can carry up to 800 gallons and still has the radial engines unlike the S-2s operated by CAL FIRE today that have been converted to turbine engines.

Mr. Garrison said he used one of the company’s aerial ag applicator planes in 2017 to drop 20,000 gallons of water on the Highlands Fire in Reno County, chipping in to help when the Kansas National Guard Blackhawk helicopter pilots ran out of duty time.

S-2 air tanker N477DF
CAL FIRE Air Tanker N477DF at Hemet, CA October 23, 2003. JD Davis Photos.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

One fatality in air tanker crash in France

Sécurité Civile S-2 Air tankers
Sécurité Civile S-2 air tankers. Screenshot from the video below.

Friday afternoon at about 5:20 local time, August 2, an air tanker pilot, the only one on board, was killed in the crash of an S-2 in France near Généracx while working on a wildfire.

The accident was confirmed by the Prime Minister. The name of the pilot has not been released.

Sécurité Civile turbine-powered S-2s can be seen in the video below.

For years Sécurité Civile had been pondering what to do about replacing their nine S-2s that are approaching their structural life limit of 25,000 hours, according to the agency. Their plans announced in 2016 were to retire the S-2s between 2018 and 2022 which would require a two-year extension of the type certificate. The goal was to acquire aircraft that could carry more water or retardant, would reduce operating costs, and would be multi-role. On June 18, 2019 Conair delivered the first of six Dash 8-Q400MR air tankers to the Sécurité Civile base at Nimes-Garons in France. The Q400MRs will slowly replace the aging S-2 air tankers. Initially the newly arrived aircraft will be handled by the Direction Générale de l’Armement for acceptance procedures prior to beginning active duty. Securite Civile has operated two Q-400 air tankers since 2005.

In addition to the nine S-2s and two Q-400s, France also has twelve CL-415s and 40 helicopters. Like CAL FIRE, Sécurité Civile replaced the radial engines on the S-2s with turbines.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and co-workers of the pilot.

An S-2 air tanker is ready to fight fire in Kansas

Kansas S-2 air tanker
Bill Garrison’s S-2 air tanker. Screenshot from the KWCH video below.

The owner of a crop dusting service in Kansas has acquired an S-2 air tanker formerly operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

Bill Garrison, owner of Ag Air Service out of Nikerson, Kansas, said that after he used his crop dusters in 2017 to aid firefighters by dropping water on wildfires, he decided he wanted a bigger airplane.


KWCH reported that the Kansas Forest Service has a call when needed agreement to use the plane on fires for $4,000 an hour.

The aircraft was constructed as an S-2A, according to aerialvisuals.ca, with the BuNo 136508. CAL FIRE operated it as Tanker 81 and 93 with registration number N477DF. At some point the tanker number changed to 95, the number still used today, and was owned by Yesterday’s Flyers and later, Cactus Air Force, both in Nevada. The current registration number is N508JR under the ownership of Mr. Garrison, with a certificate issue date of February 14, 2019.

The aircraft can carry up to 800 gallons and still has the radial engines, unlike the S-2s operated by CAL FIRE today that have been converted to turbine engines.

Mr. Garrison said he used one of the company’s planes in 2017 to drop 20,000 gallons of water on the Highlands Fire in Reno County, chipping in to help when the Kansas National Guard Blackhawk helicopter pilots ran out of duty time. Below is an excerpt from Hutch News published March 12, 2017:

Because of the high winds he was forced to fly into – the same winds whipping the fire out of control – he had to fly as close to the ground as possible, or the wind would blow the water off the fire, he said. “At times, I had fire above the aircraft,” Garrison said. “We were pushing the upper limits with the wind Monday night.”

Click here to see the CAL FIRE air tanker that today has the T-95 designator.


(UPDATED at 2:05 p.m PDT July 31, 2019)

After we posted this article, JD Davis sent us the two photos below of CAL FIRE air tankers with registration number N477DF. Thanks JD!

S-2 air tanker N477DF
CAL Fire Air Tanker N477DF at Hemet, CA June 10, 1979. JD Davis Photos.
S-2 air tanker N477DF
CAL Fire Air Tanker N477DF at Hemet, CA October 23, 2003. JD Davis Photos.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Interview with Shem Hawkins, BC at Chico Air Attack Base

One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport

BC Shem Hawkins
Battalion Chief Shem Hawkins. Screengrab from video below.

Action News Now interviewed Shem Hawkins, the CAL FIRE Battalion Chief at the Chico Air Attack Base. One S2T air tanker and an Air Attack ship are stationed at the airport.

CAL FIRE is in the process of replacing their aging fleet of 12 Super Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks from United Rotorcraft.

The interviewer misquoted Chief Hawkins in one respect. CAL FIRE is getting seven HC-130H aircraft which will be converted to air tankers, but they are 31 to 35 years old — not “brand new”. The U.S. Coast Guard gave them to the U.S. Forest Service, but the FS quickly changed their mind before the conversions to air tankers were complete, and regifted them to CAL FIRE. Much work still needs to be done to perform heavy maintenance on the ships and install retardant delivery systems.

Chief Hawkins’ fire career began as a volunteer  firefighter at Magalia, CA in 1992. After being hired at CAL FIRE, he served as a Firefighter, Paramedic, Engineer, Fire Captain, and Field Battalion Chief. His father is John Hawkins who retired in December as the CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Chief.

An electrifying retardant drop

This has been around for a couple of years, but it’s worth seeing again. Google translates the caption as, “Fire in Corsica, EDF forgot to cut the line”.

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 protecting Santiago Peak during the Holy Fire

air tanker Santiago Peak Holy Fire MD-87

There are millions of dollars worth of electronic equipment on Santiago Peak, which I believe is the highest point in the Santa Ana Mountains in Southern California. The sites serve as transmitters for radio and TV stations, repeaters for emergency management agencies, and private radio systems. On August 8 there was quite an air show working to protect the site as the Holy Fire burned nearby. The live camera operated by HPWREN streamed live on YouTube and I took the opportunity to obtain some screen grabs. The aircraft you will see include an MD-87 and an S2T. Then below there is a shot of the 747 at Santiago Peak taken by Evver G Photography.

The DC-10 made some drops in this area too but while I was watching it was mostly out of the camera frame. One of its passes left retardant on the camera lens.

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

MD-87 air tanker Santiago Peak Holy Fire S2T air tanker Santiago Peak Holy Fire

Continue reading “Air tankers protecting Santiago Peak during the Holy Fire”

Aircraft at McClellan, March 26

OV-10 Bronco MCC

Above: Air Attack 140, an OV-10 Bronco, at MCC March 26, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.

Sergio Maraschin, always on the alert for firefighting aircraft, took these photos March 26 at Sacramento McClellan Airport.

S-2T MCC
Air Tanker 85, an S-2T, at MCC, March 26, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.
T-23 MCC
Air Tanker 23 being worked on outside the AirStrike hangar at MCC, March 26, 2018. Photo by Sergio Maraschin.