Aviation History Month

Submitted by George Garnett, USFS - Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests

Lockheed C-130

Lockheed C-130

National Aviation History Month is celebrated during the month of November and is dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the contributions and achievements of aviation. Looking back on aviation history, many may think of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers are credited with producing the world’s first successful airplane. Now aircraft is an integral part our lives and few can imagine a world without aviation.

Celebrating aviation history month is a great opportunity to focus on aircraft used by the Forest Service to combat wildland fires. No one would be surprised that the Forest Service relies on aircraft to accomplish this mission. During wildfire season, firefighters use various types of aircraft to manage wildland fires.  Planes and helicopters are critical tools in managing wildland fire. Firefighters rely on different types of aircraft to deliver the needed equipment and supplies.

The Forest Service operates an Air Tanker Base at Winslow–Lindbergh Regional Airport, built in 1929 by Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT). Aviator Charles Lindbergh; famous for making the first solo transatlantic airplane flight in 1927, chose Winslow as one of twelve critical refueling stops on the nation's first transcontinental passenger line. Jerry Sullivan, Forest Service Tanker Base manager who works at Winslow explains, “Since there are multiple types of large aircraft used by federal agencies throughout the country to fight fire, the Forest Service uses several airtanker bases throughout the country to accommodate these large aircraft that carry tons of water and fire retardant.” The Forest Service crew at the Winslow Air Tanker Base mixes and loads the fire retardant onto the airtankers. “It takes approximately 10 minutes to load three to four thousand gallons of retardant mix into an airtanker at Winslow,” says Sullivan.

MD-87 Boeing

Boeing MD-87

USDA Forest Service’s Region 3 encompasses Arizona and New Mexico. In Arizona, there are airtanker bases in Prescott, Mesa-Gateway and Sierra Vista. New Mexico has airtanker bases in Albuquerque, Silver City, and Alamogordo. Roswell also has an airtanker base operated by Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These bases accommodate Large Air Tankers (LAT) which can carry up to 4,000 gallons of fire retardant mixture. A Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) can carry up to 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of retardant mixture. Roswell and Gateway are the only VLAT airtanker bases in Region 3.

The new generation airtankers are retrofitted to hold fire retardant tanks. Examples include the BAE-146 and the popular RJ-85 built by British Airways. The MD-87 and the DC-10 are both built by Douglas Aircraft Company. The Forest Service also contracts with private companies to provide airtankers to drop fire retardant as part of wildfire suppression efforts.

BAE-146 British Airways

British Airways BAE-146

The C-130 is a (LAT) based on the four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed and built by Lockheed. The C-130 was originally designed as a troop and cargo transport aircraft. The versatile airframe has been found to be beneficial in aerial firefighting. The C-130, also known as the Hercules, is the longest continuously produced military aircraft, serving for more than 60 years.

“During periods of high wildfire activity, there aren’t enough contracted airtankers to meet demand. That’s where Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) come in.” Explains Sullivan. “MAFFS are portable fire retardant delivery systems that can be inserted into military C-130 aircraft without major structural modifications to convert them into airtankers when needed.”

King Air - Lead Plane

King Air Lead Plane

Jerry Sullivan explained, “Airtankers don’t go into fires alone. Federal Agencies use what are called “lead planes” or aerial service modules to guide the very large aircraft into a fire. The Arial Service Modules carry a pilot and an Air Tactical Supervisor to lead the airtanker into a wildland fire site. An example of a lead plane that agencies use is the King Air 200.

Sullivan also commented that, “Most of the aircraft used by the Forest Service for wildfire suppression are contracted. The Forest Service may contract with a company to supply the aircraft and the pilots to maintain and service the aircraft. The standard contract length usually lasts for a 90 to 120 day period, but that period can be extended if needed. The contractor guarantees the Forest Service exclusive use of the aircraft during the contracted period. During times of severe fire activity.” Says Sullivan.

Single Engine Air Tanker

Single Engine Air Tanker

Smokejumpers are specially trained wildland firefighters, who provide an initial attack response on wildland fires by parachuting into remote and rugged terrain. Smokejumpers extinguish small fires before they become established. The Forest Service and BLM deploy smokejumpers and into wildfires using planes and helicopters.

“The Helitack crew is transported to fires by helicopter. The Bell 407HP can carry up to four people (including the pilot). The capacity is determined by the conditions for the day; however, the Bell 407HP can carry up to six people maximum (including the pilot). It also carries firefighting tools and equipment that the crew uses once they land at an incident. This helicopter is especially useful due to the variety of missions it can perform,” explains RG Soderberg, Helitack Manager at Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.


Bell 407HP

Helicopters carry water in either a bucket or a tank attached to the belly of the aircraft. Buckets are usually filled by submerging or dipping them in lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs, or portable tanks. Tanks can be filled on the ground or water can be pumped from lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs, or a portable tank through a hanging snorkel. People cannot be carried at the same time as water or external cargo. Load calculations for weight, temperature and altitude determine how much weight the helicopter can carry to ensure a safe flight.

 “The aircraft hosted on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest are an integral part of the Forest Service’s arsenal of rapid fire emergency response. The aircraft are usually hosted at a strategic location such as Winslow Air Tanker Base in Winslow, Arizona during fire season. However, the Forest Service can deploy contracted aircraft anywhere they are needed.” Says Sullivan.

Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are becoming increasingly popular. Recreational and commercial users need to be aware that use of drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). When you fly your remote controlled aircraft around a wildfire, you are endangering lives and property. Remote controlled aircraft pose a serious danger to the emergency aircraft and firefighting crew both in the air and on the ground. When you fly, we must ground our aircraft to keep from further endangering the lives and safety of fire fighters, pilots, and everyone else in the area. Remember, if you fly – we can’t.