Ever wonder how aerial tanker planes and helicopters came about? Hush-Kit asked industry professionals, like our own native AussieTy Bonnar, their take on what are the 11 best firefighting aircraft.
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The alternative aviation magazine
JANUARY 14, 2020
The world is burning. Infernos rage across the globe, and Australia is still in the grip of fires of biblical proportions. Facing these firestorms is a motley force of aircraft, crewed by heroic and exceptionally skilled pilots. Converted World War II fighter-bombers, helicopters, custom-made flying boats and even massive airliners have been sent into on the ‘War on Fire’. Flying directly into these smouldering hell-scapes to extinguish the flames requires supreme flying skills and nerves of steel. Here are ten of the best aerial firefighting aircraft.
As Hush-Kit’s Ted Ward noted: “Whilst looking for fire-bomber stuff I have come to the conclusion that the US’s approach to fire control was insane. Essentially they just left the madly dangerous world of aerial firefighting to a bunch of cowboys who flew any old thing and gave the contract to the lowest bidder with inevitably fatal results.”
“Have you checked out the death rate of firefighting pilots in the US? Anyway it all went tits up when that Hercules crashed in 2002, followed within two months by a Privateer operated by the same outfit. Incidentally, the Privateer’s wings apparently failed downwards due to metal fatigue causing the main spar to fail when the water was dropped. This led to possibly the only folk song I’m aware of about a civil plane crash:
“Massive maintenance oversights meant fixed-wing firefighting was stopped for a while until proper standards were put in place and that’s when most of the WWII stuff got sidelined, which is sort-of-good because otherwise those wankers would have crashed them all, but sort of bad because it was kind of exciting. Nonetheless 38(!) aircrew were killed between 2003 and 2012 (which is after standards were tightened), or 5% of active crews. Anyway, the upside of that is historically they converted anything they could get their hands on and there were some pretty ‘unconventional’ choices. I maintain that the sexiest of all the air tankers was the Tigercat. Pretty dangerous though – three crashed in 1973 alone, for example.”
11. Grumman TBF Avenger ‘The Roast Turkey’
Although the bigger aircraft like the B-17s and Catalinas garnered more fame, the portly Grumman Avenger was for a long time the most popular air tanker and formed the backbone of the US firefighting fleet throughout the 1960s and 70s. The Avenger was also used to systematically study the physics of freefall water-drops for firefighting in an effective and immensely influential 1954 study, imaginatively named ‘Operation Firestop’. Although firefighting by aircraft had been considered since the 1920s, attention had generally fixated on delivering water ‘bombs’ which did not work very well. All that changed when it was realised that dumping water ballast (used to simulate passenger load) from the prototype DC-7 saturated a wide area of runway, and the potential of freefall dropping a large amount of water was seriously considered for the first time. Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz and his Avenger were hired by the University of California’s School of Forestry to assess this potential new firefighting method. After trying a plywood water tank (which leaked) and dropping a weather balloon full of water from the Grumman, Mantz fitted a proper metal tank into the bomb bay of the Avenger and for Operation Firestop made many successful test drops at different heights and in different wind conditions, measured for dispersal, effectiveness, area covered and so on. The results were thoroughly collated and assessed and formed the basis for aerial firefighting techniques that are used to the present day. There was little delay before Operation Firestop saw practical results: Mantz himself made the first water drop by an Avenger against a genuine wildfire in 1958.
This was followed up by thousands upon thousands more and the Grumman bomber became the true workhorse of aerial firefighting. Peak usage occurred in 1971 when a colossal 43 were engaged fighting fires. Largest operator was Forest Protection Ltd (FPL) of New Brunswick who operated 12. FPL was also destined to be the last user of the type, retiring its last Avenger on 26 July 2012. In service the Avenger was reliable, spares were plentiful, the bomb bay was roomy, and like all Grumman military aircraft, the TBF was exceptionally strong. This is of considerable importance when dealing with the often violently turbulent air around a major fire – several air tankers have suffered catastrophic structural failure over the years but the Avenger never gave cause for concern. Compared to the very few aircraft that preceded it (mostly Stearman biplanes), it carried a far more meaningful payload, usually about 625 US gallons, and it was relatively fast compared to such alternatives as the lumbering PBY Catalina. Eventually, like the other warbird-derived tankers, the Avenger became uneconomical to operate and other aircraft were either cheaper, faster, could carry more water or a combination of all three. Nonetheless the sturdy TBF Avenger had made its mark, giving yeoman service for decades and laying the foundations of effective aerial firefighting that could be built on by newer, more potent aircraft.
10. BAe 146‘The Whispering Firefighter’
Famed as the last ever all-British jet airliner and also blessed with more nicknames (‘Four hairdryers in close formation’ ) than ANY other aeroplane – the BAe 146/Avro RJ passenger jet has now entered a second life as an airborne firefighter. One of the original regional jet generation, the 70-110 seat ‘Baby Jumbo’ was first introduced into service in 1983 before production finally ceased in 2002. Nearly 400 were produced – making it the most successful all-British jet airliner ever built. However, due to a mix-up in the design office when a blueprint was photocopied twice, the 146 ended up having double the number of engines as its regional competitors – making it increasingly difficult to market to airlines as time went on. Overtaken by newer twinjets from Bombardier and Brazilian upstart Embraer, the ‘Jumbolino’ has soldiered on in service thanks to its quietness and its ability to get in and out of airports with restricted terrain or buildings nearby – such as London City. Cargo conversions have also been popular.
Manufacturer BAE Systems, acutely aware that the type’s passenger airliner career was coming to an end, had throughout the 2000s been promoting spin-off conversions for the quad-jet – including military transports, aerial refuelling tankers and VVIP corporate jets with custom interiors or even luxury ‘safari’ style built-in awnings for the extremely well-heeled. All of these came to naught – but one area where the aircraft has seen success has been in conversion to the aerial water-bomber role. After tragic accidents in 2002 involving a C-130A and Catalina which broke-up in flight, the US Forest Service (USFS) set out to modernise the aerial water-bomber fleet with newer, jet-powered firefighting aircraft. Flight tests with the 146 were conducted in 2004, where the type’s slow-speed handling and steep approach made it a perfect fit for the water-bomber mission. With support from BAE Systems for the conversion, a wraparound belly tank can be fitted, giving a capacity of 3,000 gallons of water/fire retardant. As well as the type’s legendary steep approach capability, it is dirt cheap to acquire and there are plenty of airframes as feedstock available for conversion. Meanwhile, the type’s four engines (‘4 oil leaks connected by an electrical fault’ being another nickname) – a maintenance nightmare for commercial airlines – turns out to be a welcome safety feature for aerial firefighting role, where pilots will fly dangerous low-level water attack runs in minimum visibility over hills and even mountains.
So far now there are 14 146/RJs in service in the US with Canadian-headquartered Conair and Neptune Aviation – with more aircraft reportedly being converted by another operator Air Spray. As well as firefighting missions in the US, 146 water-bombers have flown firefighting missions in Chile and most recently Australia – where Conair water-bombers have joined over 60 fixed-wing and 45 rotary-wing aerial firefighting aircraft in an effort to stem the extreme wildfires.
The butt of many an aviation joke (‘Smurf Jet’, ‘Fisher Price Starlifter’) around crewrooms and pilot bars the world over, the hard-working BAe 146/RJ is set to have the last laugh in its twilight years with a critical aerial firefighting mission – one that will only increase in importance if the current wildfires are anything to go by. A fitting finale for the Baby Jumbo from Hatfield.
By Tim Robinson, Editor in Chief of AEROSPACE – the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
9. Beriev Be-200 ‘T-tailed Taganrog Turbine’
Jet seaplanes are among the most exotic types of aircraft, with only a handful of designs ever having entered actual service. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can name them all from memory: the Beriev Be-10 and Beriev Be-200 – wait, I think that’s it… only two? That’s even rarer than I first thought. Despite a first flight in 1998, so far only 15 of these sexy amphibians have been built. The first operational use of the Be-200 was in 2004, when a Be-200ES was operated from Sardinia by SOREM, the official operator of firefighting equipment of Italian Civil Defence Department.
The aircraft, flown by a joint Russian-Italian flight crew, performed more than 100 flights – the aircraft dropped 324 tons of water while attacking four forest fires. In 2005, the partnership was renewed, this time the Russian aircraft delivered a total mass of over 3,175 tonnes (3,500 tons). Since then the aircraft has fought fires around the world, in Azerbaijan (the only export operator), Israel, Portugal, Greece, Serbia and Russia.
8. de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver ‘Beaver patrol’
The endearing de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver is the imperishable aviation product of Canada’s busy twentieth century. Equipped with two external rotary drums, the Beaver Mk III was a pioneer of aerial firefighting too. Later models would capture water in their floats and in Ontario they had ‘bomb racks’ for dropping supplies to firefighters on the ground.
Before the Grumman Avengers, bucket-slinging helicopters and retired Cold War types and before the brush-drenching rockstar the Canadair CL-215, the Beaver was fighting fires. If low, slow and noisy flying is the most enjoyable kind – just ask Harrison Ford – the Beaver is without equal in several niches and firefighting came naturally to the type. Unlike the hulking Boeing 747s now slathering this overheated world with water and chemicals in amounts as much as eighteen thousand gallons at a time, the stupefyingly utilitarian little Beaver (coincidently my nickname in school) seems to have been simply born in the right place at the right time for aerial firefighting.
Operating out over Canada’s profitable forests without much public attention, they were also a staple of Toronto’s waterfront Labour Day air show right through to the late 1970s. In front of Canada’s largest city, they did low-altitude water drops onto demonstration fires to the pure 1940s sound of their Pratt & Whitney Wasps. Bright yellow, to contrast the deep green and blue of Ontario in summer and her winter white, that province’s Ministry of Natural Resources Beavers were the visual opposite of the expensive and lethal jets whose afterburners blast them to high altitude invisibility in seconds. The Canadian embrace of nature as a thing to cherish and protect whilst brutally exploiting it led to the DHC-2. The rugged glamour of bush flying was bound to blend almost immediately with water bombing.
With just ninety gallons in those open-topped cable-actuated tanks, the Beaver proved the principle of rapid, concentrated air attack on fires before they get out of hand. The Beaver might do little against fires at the scale we’ve seen them this century in California, Siberia and now Australia. Yet, it’s also hard to imagine having aerial firefighting at all without them.
A place in our hearts for the Beaver? Always!
— Stephen Caulfield
Stephen Caulfield cleans limousines around the corner from what was once the Avro Canada plant. He appreciates writing, art, aeroplanes and the tragic nature of modernity in pretty much equal parts these days. His blog is www.suburban-poverty.com
7. Air Tractor Fire Boss ‘Sex Tractor Fan’
Designed as a tough-as-hell crop-spraying aircraft, the Air Tractor took on the role of firefighting with aplomb. In addition to the 820 US gallon standard fuselage-mounted retardant tank, the Fire Boss can have optional 35 US gallons foam tanks when fitted with floats. When equipped with amphibious floats, the AT-802F becomes the Fire Boss Scooper Air Tanker, able to land on and scoop water from lakes, rivers or reservoirs. From a local water source, then Fire Boss can deliver up to 14,000 gallons per hour for “extended attack or ground support”, according to Air Tractor, noting that “an unimproved runway or water-side ramp and fuel are all it needs to be a highly cost-effective forward attack air tanker”. The Fire Boss can be considered the A-10 of the firefighting world: cheap to operate, able to withstand extremely dangerous conditions and return again and again right where the enemy doesn’t want it.
6. Douglas DC-10 ‘The Size Queen’
Take an airliner with a maximum weight of half a million pounds and turn it into a hotrod flying fire engine (or ‘firetruck’ to our American friends). One drop from the DC-10 is equivalent to 12 from a Grumman S-2 Tracker. Dropping 12,000 US gallons of anything onto a fire is going to have a big effect. A beast.
5. Lockheed C-130 Hercules (with MAFFS kit) ‘You do the Maffs’
The C-130 is the Dame Judi Dench of aviation: much-loved and able to excel in every role it’s given. That the C-130 Hercules’ origins as a tactical transport able to operate in austere conditions give it the benign low-altitude slow-speed performance required for ‘low down and dirty’ firefighting.
To be effective, aerial firefighting aircraft must operate at very low altitudes and slow speeds, often over rugged terrain in reduced visibility due to smoke. This creates a very high risk environment for any aircraft.
4 . Evergreen 747 Supertanker ‘Jumbo on a gap year’
The largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world is also one of the largest aircraft in the world full stop. It is somewhat bizarre that the much-loved 747, famously known as an airliner, should take on such a gritty harsh role, but it has — and it brings a lot to the party – 18,600 US gallons to be precise. Developed by Evergreen International Aviation in Oregon, the first operational Supertanker was based on a 747-100 manufactured in 1971 for Delta Air Lines. It entered service in 2009, fighting a fire in Cuenca, Spain. Its first American operation was August 31, 2009 at the Oak Glen Fire in California. It has since been retired. The other operational 747 Supertanker was converted by Global Supertanker Services (which had acquired most of Evergreen’s assets). The Global Supertanker is a Boeing 747-400 named the ‘Spirit of John Muir’ (a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, and pioneering advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the USA). It was certified for firefighting flights in September 2016 and has since travelled the world fighting fires in Chile, Israel, California wildfires in 2017. In August 2019 it fought forest fires in Bolivia.
3. Sikorsky/Erickson S-64 Aircrane ‘Aircrane in the membrane’
Variously compared to a giant grasshopper, a stick insect or a dragonfly, the Aircrane is in increasing demand around the world as a serious ‘go-to’ solution for fighting forest fires – particularly when these are threatening built-up areas.
From California to the Mediterranean and down to Australia, the Aircrane is in year-round demand worldwide. The somewhat extreme appearance of the Aircrane is a classic case of form following function. The aircraft has to lift the maximum load possible from the hover, requiring an efficient rotor (of large diameter and significant blade twist) and a lightweight and robust structure. In this case, the structure is essentially reduced to a series of box beams.
Speed is unimportant, so the engines and gearbox are essentially uncowled, saving weight and cost and providing maximum ease of access for maintenance and inspection – tasks that may well be carried out under very basic conditions. Less obviously, the gearbox and rotor shaft are tilted three degrees to the left, cancelling the side thrust of the tail rotor, so that the aircraft hovers with the cockpit level when picking up cargo (or water, in the case of firefighting operations).
The aircraft has a characteristic forward crew pod that, critically, provides all-round vision for the crew. It is designed around up to five crew. The upper cabin contains a forward-facing cockpit for pilot and co-pilot. While the lower rearward facing cockpit has an additional pilot station facing the slung load (or water pick-up and delivery system) and two further seats for mechanics. The provision of the mechanic seats reflects the likelihood that the aircraft may operate in remote locations for extended periods.
The Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane started life as a load carrier for the US Army. After the piston-powered Sikorsky S-60, the company invested in three private venture prototypes of the turbine-powered Sikorsky S-64A. Evaluation of four YCH-54As by the US Army (and two in Germany) led to production of 54 CH-54As (Sikorsky designation S-64E) for the US Army, followed by 35 CH-54Bs (S-64F). Sikorsky sold seven S-64E aircraft for civil use.
In 1992, Sikorsky sold the Skycrane Type Certificate to Erickson Air Crane Inc. This included all manufacturing and support rights for both the S-64E, with a 20,000lb payload, and the S-64F, with 25,000lb payload. At light weights, the S-64F has high power reserves, reflected in it gaining a number of helicopter time-to-height records and a record for sustained flight at an altitude of 36,122ft. Erickson has built-up 35 Aircranes since purchasing the Type Certificate. These are created by the conversion of ex-US Army machines, which are stripped down and rebuilt in three modules: the cockpit, central fuselage, and a new-build tail boom.
Erickson says that almost a third of the Aircrane fleet is occupied year-round on long-term firefighting contracts, cycling between the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons in Greece, Italy, Turkey and Australia. Erickson operate a fleet of 20 Aircranes. The Erickson S-64F is fitted with a 2,650-gallon water tank. Its ram scoop hydrofoil attachment refills from freshwater or saltwater sources in as little as 30 seconds and the original ‘hover snorkel’ (my nickname in school) design refills within 45 seconds from freshwater sources as shallow as 18 inches.
One of Erickson’s important customers is the Korean Forest Service, which is acquiring a fleet of eight Erickson-built S-64Es. As part of Erickson’s continuing development of the type, the latest build standard includes firefighting tanks, sea snorkel, foam cannon, glass cockpit, composite main rotor blades and full night-vision compatibility.
Erickson acquired the Type Certificate for the 4,800hp JTD12A-5A from Pratt & Whitney in 2013, allowing it to develop further enhanced support capabilities for S-64 operators.
2. Martin JRM Mars ‘Mars attacks’
If an aircraft’s success is measured solely by longevity of service then the Martin Mars ranks as one of the greatest aircraft ever to fly. Conceived as a maritime patrol aircraft and first flying in June 1942, JRM Mars remains potentially operational as of 2020. Regarded as obsolescent in its designed role, the US Navy decided to operate this massive aircraft as a transport aircraft and although the end of the war meant only the prototype and six production aircraft were ever built, the Mars was used extensively -– in the process setting a passenger-carrying record in 1949 by carrying 269 people from San Diego to Alameda, California. After about a decade, the remaining examples were retired in 1956, and there the story would have ended were it not for Forest Industries Flying Tankers, a consortium of British Columbian forestry companies, which bought all four Mars survivors in 1959. Converted for the firefighting role by Fairey Aviation, the Mars was by a considerable margin the largest air tanker in the world. In the 1960s and 70s, PBY Catalinas were the most common flying-boat air tankers and could carry 1,000 US gallons of water or retardant. By contrast, the Mars carried the awe-inspiring load of 7200 US gallons. Like the Catalina, the Mars was equipped with scoops to allow it to refill its tanks from any sufficiently large body of water whilst skimming the surface, the full 7200 gallons (30 tons) being taken on in 22 seconds. The sheer size of the aircraft and its huge capacity proved its worth in service. Most air drops are conducted in the path of a fire to contain it, and the Mars could cover three to four acres in a single drop, and then continue picking up and dropping more water for as long as the fuel lasted. Normal duration of operations was around five and a half hours, potentially dropping hundreds of tons of water and retardant into the path of a wildfire.
Of the four JRMs to enter firefighting service, Marianas Mars was lost in a fatal crash in 1961, Caroline Mars was written off when it broke free from its moorings during Typhoon Freda in 1962, but Philippine Mars and Hawaii Mars II served constantly until 2006 when Philippine Mars was withdrawn (it remains stored in an airworthy condition). Hawaii Mars II last fought a fire in 2015 and was offered for sale or lease in 2016, however, no buyer was found. The aircraft remains in the ownership of Coulson Aviation, who applied a great deal of effort modernising the Mars in the early 2000s with a glass cockpit, updated safety standards and various drop aids and equipment. At present the aircraft is being advertised for familiarisation purposes to aspiring Mars pilots, though the $25,000 per person for a two-day course with an hour’s flying time might discourage the less wealthy flying-boat enthusiast. However, Coulson still lists the Mars as part of their active firefighting fleet along with their more prosaic C-130s and 737s and it is quite possible that this, the greatest of the Second World War vintage firefighters, could yet see action again.
1. Bombardier 215 and Viking 415 ‘Fire Berserkers!’
The best aerial firefighter is the only one that was built for the job – the heroic ’15 series. It was the first and only aircraft created to do the job and Canadair certainly delivered. The ’15s are tough, reliable amphibious flying-boats that can go anywhere and kill fires with aplomb. It started life with the two of the mighty R-2800 radials – the engine of the wartime Thunderbolt and Corsair – giving it well over 4,000 horsepower. Today, turboprops give it close to 5,000 horsepower, and a wealth of modern avionics adept at both detecting and suppressing forest fires.
According to the Spanish association for the promotion of sociocultural activities (a group as averse to hyperbole as their drab name suggests), “This is the most efficient tool for the aerial combat of forest fires, key to the organisation of firefighting in a large number of countries. The continuous improvements to meet the needs of forest firefighting have made these aircraft the aerial means most in demand over more than 30 years.”
Any excuse to include the coolest aircraft in production
Some used in France and the US.
Alenia C-27J Spartan
Love the Spartan, love that they’re giving it a waterbomber option. To be seen in the sky above Transylvania soon in Romanian air force service.
Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey
“Why? Because it’s badass, fitted with PCADS or Bambi, this VTOL type has the ability fly like a helicopter or a plane. It can hover and drop or airdrop like an air tanker. The V-22 can provide a rapid direct attack asset that can pre-position firefighters to remote or hard-to-access areas, deliver, set up filling stations and operate out of a Fire FOB (Forward Operating Base) until reinforcements can join up. Having highly trained crews flying fire missions is the name of the game. Rapid Insertion and Direct Attack, take the fight to the fire…” Not in service yet, but still impressive idea.
Grumman S-2 Trackers/Turbo Firecat
Should have made top ten, but space didn’t allow- worthy.
Consolidated PBY Catalina
Mi-8/Mi-24 and many helicopters
Too many to mention.
Douglas A-26 Invader
Currently doing its bit in Australia.
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