Aerial Firefighters

by Ajay Prakash

Cockpit Video Screenshot California Aug 27, 2020 | © Fire Aviation

All over the world, each year, thousands of hectares of forests are destroyed due to wildfires. This year fires in California, US and Australia have been devastating. With every major fire, aerial firefighters risk their lives to contain the damage, reduce the loss of human lives and their properties. Aerial firefighters have an added risk of flying fast-moving aircraft at low altitudes in order to contain the fires and assist their ground crews.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), publishes a daily bulletin on the status of wildfires in the US. NIFC is located in Boise, Idaho and has work areas for the refurbishment of firefighting equipment, aircraft ramp operations, aircraft retardant tanker operations, as well as administrative functions serving the mission of wildland fires and other emergencies.

The table (August 30, 2020) below provides a glimpse of the extent of damage in the US due to wildfires this year.

NIFC Aug 30, 2020, Report on Wildfires in the US | Source NIFC

The Objective of Aerial Firefighting

Contrary to popular belief, aerial firefighters do not put out the fire directly. The aerial team is a support to the ground firefighters. The aircraft dumps red colour fire retardants at the periphery of the fire zone and help build a fireline around the flames. Similarly, smaller aeroplanes or helicopters are used to dump water in order to tamp things down so that the ground crews can work in the area to place firebreaks.

Helicopter using water bucket, Yellowstone National park 1988 | Source Wikipedia

As per a Canadian firefighting pilot –

“It is the men and women with boots on the ground that put fires out; we only operate in support of the ground crews.”

According to Frontline Wildfire Defense System, aerial firefighting is an expensive proposition. An aircraft tanker costs upward of $6,000 per hour to operate. Edward G. Keating, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation says, “Retardant costs about $3 a gallon. When you’re dropping 3,000 gallons per drop, that’s $9,000 every time.” In contrast, he says, water scooped from a nearby lake is free. Water scoopers are also but less expensive to own and operate when compared to helicopters and fixed-wing air tankers.

What Type of Aircraft Are Used in Aerial Firefighting?

The answer is just about any aircraft can be put to use in aerial firefighting – with modifications of course. The figure below shows the fleet employed by National Aerial Firefighting Center (NAFC), Australia.

National Aerial Firefight Centre, Australia Fleet © NAFC

This fleet of 130  aircraft, is contracted by NAFC on behalf of state and territory governments. They are supplemented by additional state-owned, and state-contracted aeroplanes and other aircraft hired to meet peak demand across Australia. In total, more than 500 aircraft, provided by over 150 operators, are available for firefighting across Australia. Starting from the smallest Cessna 1827 right up to a Boeing 737 Airtanker “Bomber” is used in aerial firefighting.

The 747-400 Super Tanker in operation | Source Wiki Commons

In the US, large aircraft are also used as tankers. A Boeing 747-400 Supertanker (dubbed as the Spirit of John Muir), is owned by Global Supertanker Services. It was certified for firefighting flights by the Federal Aviation Administration in September 2016. It fought fires in Chile and Israel before being contracted by US officials to fight California wildfires in 2017. It also took part in firefighting in Bolivia in August 2019. The aircraft is rated to carry up to 19,600 US gallons (74,000 L) of fire retardant or water. They are the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world.

DC-10 dropping fire retardant | US department of Agriculture | Wiki Commons

Another widebody aircraft converted into a Supertanker is a DC-10 Air Tanker. The turbofan-powered aircraft carry up to 45,000 Liters (12,000 US gallons) of water or fire retardant in an exterior belly-mounted tank, the contents of which can be released in eight seconds which can be spread over a mile.

(John Muir was also known as “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks”, and was an early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America in the 1800s – Wikipedia)

How Dangerous is to  Fly a Firefighter Aircraft?

The current California blazes now ranking as the second-largest fire in state history. The fires have claimed hundreds of homes and threatened tens of thousands more, forcing more than 100,000 to flee amid a coronavirus pandemic that vastly complicates evacuation decisions. Cal Fire is directing a force of 13,700 firefighters battling the blazes. That includes pilots dropping water or fire retardant, and 250 teams ground teams.

These aircraft are flown at extremely low altitudes of a few 100 feet above the terrain which in itself is challenging. The plane has to be held in a take-off configuration during the operation. Added to that is the uncertainties of wind, weather and visibility. A DC-10 or a B747 cannot fly at speeds less than 300 km per hour which is the landing speed of these aircraft.

Who are These Pilots?

According to AerialFire magazine – it takes years of flying experience to become an aerial firefighter. These pilots come from diverse backgrounds such as military, agriculture (field sprays) and corporate jet flying. In fact, agriculture flying experience is the most sought after since pilots are trained on flying of single-engine aircraft. Also, low-level flying experience is an added advantage. The experience with smaller stick and rudder or tailwheel planes without automation is critical because there’s no automation or autopilot in aerial firefighting. Point to remember is that an aerial firefighting pilot is a firefighter first and then a pilot.

At the end of this article, I have added a video that shows the thrills and dangers of aerial firefighting. (© 2013,

Recent Casualties

During the 49-day period that began July 7, there were six crashes of firefighting aircraft — three helicopters and three air tankers. The most recent causality was that of Tom Duffy, 40, who died in a helicopter crash on August 26, during a water bucket mission on the White River Fire in Oregon, when he was attending a call from the U.S. Forest Service.

As Bill Gabbert (Fire Aviation, August 27) writes –

As a former firefighter, I don’t view all firefighters as heroes, of course. Still, we should honour these men for their service, and pray that their families can find some sort of peace knowing that they were on a good, honourable mission in life, helping others and doing things that few people can.

May they Rest in Peace.

We look forward to your comments about aerial firefighters.

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Pankaj Sethi
Pankaj Sethi
10 months ago

Very informative.

Thanks for writing this piece.

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