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Aerial firefighting is the use of aircraft and other aerial resources to combat wildfires. The types of aircraft used include fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Smokejumpers and rappellers are also classified as aerial firefighters, delivered to the fire by parachute from a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, or rappelling from helicopters. Chemicals used to fight fires may include water, water enhancers such as foams and gels, and specially formulated fire retardants.
A wide variety of terminology has been used in the popular media for the aircraft (and methods) used in aerial firefighting. The terms Airtanker or air tanker generally refer to fixed-wing aircraft based in the United States; "airtanker" is used in official documentation. The term "waterbomber" is used in Canadian government documents for the same class of vehicles.
Air attack is an industry term used for the actual application of aerial resources, both fixed-wing and rotorcraft, on a fire. Within the industry, though, "air attack" may also refer to the supervisor in the air (usually in a fixed-wing aircraft) who supervises the process of attacking the wildfire from the air, including fixed-wing airtankers, helicopters, and any other aviation resources assigned to the fire. The Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS), often called "air attack," is usually flying at an altitude above other resources assigned to the fire, often in a fixed-wing plane but occasionally (depending on assigned resources or the availability of qualified personnel) in a helicopter.
Depending on the size, location, and assessed potential of the wildfire, the "air attack" or ATGS person may be charged with initial attack (the first response of firefighting assets on fire suppression), or with extended attack, the ongoing response to and management of a major wildfire requiring additional resources including engines, ground crews, and other aviation personnel and aircraft needed to control the fire and establish control lines or firelines ahead of the wildfire.
A wide variety of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are used for aerial firefighting. In 2003, it was reported that "The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management own, lease, or contract for nearly 1,000 aircraft each fire season, with annual expenditures in excess of US$250 million in recent years".
Helicopters may be fitted with tanks (helitankers) or they may carry buckets. Some helitankers, such as the Erickson AirCrane, are also outfitted with a front-mounted foam cannon. Buckets are usually filled by submerging or dipping them in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, or portable tanks. The most popular of the buckets is the flexible Bambi Bucket. Tanks can be filled on the ground (by water tenders or truck-mounted systems) or water can be siphoned from lakes, rivers, reservoirs, or a portable tank through a hanging snorkel. Popular firefighting helicopters include variants of the Bell 204 and the Erickson S-64 Aircrane helitanker, which features a sea snorkel for filling from a natural water source while in flight. Currently the worlds biggest helicopter Mil Mi-26 uses a bambi-bucket.
Mil Mi-8 of the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Situations taking on water near Nezhin
Airtankers or water bombers are fixed-wing aircraft fitted with tanks that can be filled on the ground at an air tanker base or, in the case of flying boats and amphibious aircraft, by skimming water from lakes, reservoirs, or large rivers.
Various aircraft have been used over the years for firefighting. In 1947, shortly after World War Two ended, the United States Air Force and United States Forest Service did an experiment in which World War Two aircraft dropped water bombs similar to those used in wartime napalm attacks. It was not found successful, and internal water tanks were found the solution. Though World War II and Korean War-era bombers were for a long time the mainstay of the aerial firefighting fleet, and are still in use newer purpose-built tankers are coming online. The smallest are the Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs). These are agricultural sprayers that generally drop about 800 US gallons (3,000 l) of water or retardant. An example is the Airtractor AT-802F, which can deliver around 800 US gallons (3,000 l) of water or fire retardant solution each drop. Another is the Ukrainan Antonov An-2 biplane which can be fitted with floats that can scoop water from the surface of a body of water. An advantage of the biplane is that it has a lower stall speed than a monoplane meaning it a can fly more slowly over a fire which enhances the accuracy of water or retardant drops. Medium aircraft include the S-2 Tracker (retrofitted with turboprop engines as the S-2T) as used by the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CDF), as well as Conair Group Inc. of Abbotsford, British Columbia, while the Douglas DC-4, the DC-7, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, P-2V Neptune, Lockheed P-3 Orion and its Canadian, commercial equivalent, the L188 Electra as used by Air Spray Ltd., of Red Deer, Alberta and others have been used as heavy tankers.
The largest aerial firefighter currently in use is a Boeing 747 aerial firefighter, known as the Evergreen Supertanker that can carry 24,000 US gallons (90,800 l) fed by a pressurized drop system. The Supertanker entered service for the first time in 2009, fighting a fire in Cuenca, Spain. The tanker made its first American operation on August 31, 2009 at the Oak Glen Fire.
The next largest aerial firefighters currently in use include two converted Martin Mars flying boats in British Columbia (one of which was brought to southern California in September 2007 to help battle the wildfires there). Each Martin Mars can carry approximately 7,200 US gallons (27,300 l) of water or fire retardant each, and the Tanker 910, a converted McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that can carry 12,000 US gallons (45,400 l) of water or retardant. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations operates convertible-to-cargo IL-76 airtankers that can carry up to 15,000 US gallons (56,800 l) but have been operating with 11,000 US gallons (41,600 l) tanking systems, and a few of Beriev Be-200 amphibians.
Bombardier's Dash 8 Q Series aircraft are the basis of new, next-generation air tankers. Cascade Aerospace has converted two pre-owned Q400s to act as part-time water bomber and part-time transport for France's Sécurité Civile, one of which is registered F-ZBMC, while Neptune Aviation is converting a pre-owned Q300 as a prototype to augment their P2V aircraft. Air Spray Aviation is also in the process of converting a BAe146 to the role of air tanker at its maintenance facility in Chico, California.
Similar in configuration to the World War II–era PBY Catalina, the Canadair CL-215 Scooper, and Bombardier CL-415 SuperScooper are designed and built specifically for firefighting. The "Super Scoopers" are not common in the United States where only 2 operate seasonally in southern California. Los Angeles County leases two CL-415s from the Province of Quebec during the fall when the Santa Ana winds are at their worst. 6 American owned CL-215s operate for various State and Federal agencies. Critics of scoopers in the US claim that there is not enough suitable water in fire prone states. CL-215s have been employed with success in North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington, Alaska, Northern Idaho, and Montana.
French "Sécurité Civile" owns 12 Canadair CL-415, 9 Conair Turbo-Firecat and 2 Dash 8. Most pilots are retired navy aviator, less often regular air force pilots or even ex members of acrobatic teams like "La Patrouille de France". It is a high-risk job that requires very skilled pilots.
Another amphibian is the Russian Beriev Be-200. It can carry a maximum payload of about 3,170 US gallons (12,000 l) of water, making "scoops" in suitable stretches of water in 14 seconds. It was successfully used to fight fires in the southern European countries such as Greece and Portugal. Also in Asian countries like Israel.
A PZL M-18 Dromader drops water near Mobridge, SD
Comparison table of fixed-wing, firefighting tanker airplanes 
all links, citations and data sources are listed in the paragraph above. For accident and grounding citations, see paragraph below table.
|Make and model||Country of origin||Category||Water/Retardant capacity (US Gallons)|
|PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromader||Poland||Light||00,570 US gallons (2,200 L)|
|Air Tractor AT-802F||USA||Light||00,807 US gallons (3,050 L)|
|Air Tractor AT-1002||USA||Medium||01,000 US gallons (3,800 L)|
|Grumman S-2 Tracker||USA||Medium||01,200 US gallons (4,500 L)|
|Douglas B-26||USA||Medium||no longer in service|
|Douglas DC-4||USA||Medium||no longer in service|
|Douglas DC-6||USA||Medium||02,800 US gallons (11,000 L)|
|Douglas DC-7||USA||Medium||03,000 US gallons (11,000 L)|
|Lockheed C-130 Hercules||USA||Medium||National Guard MAFFS units; 03,000 US gallons (11,000 L)|
|Lockheed L-188 Electra||USA||Heavy||03,000 US gallons (11,000 L)|
|P-2V Neptune||USA||Medium||02,362 US gallons (8,940 L)|
|P-3 Orion||USA||Medium||03,000 US gallons (11,000 L)|
|Evergreen 747 Supertanker||USA||Super Heavy||20,500 US gallons (78,000 L)|
|Martin Mars||USA||Medium||07,200 US gallons (27,000 L)|
|Douglas DC-10||USA||Heavy||12,000 US gallons (45,000 L)|
|Ilyushin Il-76||Russia||Heavy||11,419 US gallons (43,230 L)|
|Beriev Be-200||Russia||Medium||03,173 US gallons (12,010 L)|
|Bombardier Dash 8 Q400-MR||Canada||Medium||02,600 US gallons (9,800 L)|
|PBY Catalina||USA||Medium||01,000 US gallons (3,800 L) (or 01,500 US gallons (5,700 L) for the Super model)|
|Canadair CL-215||Canada||Medium||01,300 US gallons (4,900 L)|
|Bombardier CL-415||Canada||Medium||01,621 US gallons (6,140 L)|
|BAe 146||United Kingdom||Medium||03,000 US gallons (11,000 L)|
|AN-32P Firekiller||Ukraine||Medium||02,113 US gallons (8,000 L)|
Category legend: Light: under 1,000 US gallons (3,800 L), Medium: under 10,000 US gallons (38,000 l), Heavy: under 20,000 US gallons (76,000 L), Super Heavy: Over 20,000 US gallons (76,000 L) - currently only used for the B747 Supertanker.
The Lead Plane function directs the activities of the airtankers by both verbal target descriptions and by physically leading the airtankers on the drop run. The leadplane is typically referred to as a "Bird Dog" in Canada or "Supervision" aircraft in Australia. The O-2 Skymaster, Cessna 310 and OV-10 Bronco have been used as spotter and lead plane platforms. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has also used the Cessna 337. The Beechcraft Baron was long used as a leadplane or air attack ship, but most were retired in 2003; more common now is the Beechcraft King Air and the Twin Commander 690. A Cessna Citation 500 jet owned by Air Spray Aviation was used by the British Columbia Ministry of Forests beginning in 1995 and used for two fire seasons to lead the very fast, Electra L188 air tanker to the fires. This was the first time a jet aircraft was used as an lead plane or "bird dog". The Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), in Western Australia operates a fleet of nine American Champion Scouts 8GCBC during the summer months as spotter aircraft and Air Attack platforms. The Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia contract Air Spray Aviation to supply Twin Commander 690 as bird dog aircraft for their air tanker fleets. Air Spray owns 9 Twin Commander 690 for use as bird dog aircraft.
Fleet grounding 
In the United States, most of these aircraft are privately owned and contracted to government agencies, and the National Guard and the U.S. Marines also maintain fleets of firefighting aircraft. On May 10, 2004, The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that they were cancelling contracts with operators of 33 heavy airtankers. They cited liability concerns and an inability to safely manage the fleet after the wing failure and resulting crash of a C-130A Hercules in California and a PB4Y-2 in Colorado during the summer of 2002. Both aged aircraft broke up in flight due to catastrophic fatigue cracks at the wing roots. After subsequent third-party examination and extensive testing of all USFS contracted heavy airtankers, three companies were awarded contracts and now maintain a combined fleet of 23 aircraft.
Fire retardant 
Borate salts used in the past to fight wildfires have been found to sterilize the soil and be toxic to animals so are now prohibited. Newer retardants use ammonium sulfate or ammonium polyphosphate with attapulgite clay thickener or diammonium phosphate with a guar gum derivative thickener. These are not only less toxic but act as fertilizers to help the regrowth of plants after the fire. Fire retardants often contain wetting agents, preservatives and rust inhibitors and are colored red with ferric oxide or fugitive color to mark where they have been dropped. Brand names of fire retardants for aerial application include Fire-Trol and Phos-Chek.
Some water-dropping aircraft carry tanks of a guar gum derivative to thicken the water and reduce runoff.
Tactics and capabilities 
Helicopters can hover over the fire and drop water or retardant. The S-64 Helitanker has microprocessor-controlled doors on its tank. The doors are controlled based on the area to be covered and wind conditions. Fixed-wing aircraft must make a pass and drop water or retardant like a bomber. Spotter (Air Tactical Group Supervisor) aircraft often orbit the fire at a higher altitude to coordinate the efforts of the smoke jumper, helicopter, media, and retardant-dropping aircraft; while lead planes fly low-level ahead of the airtankers to mark the trajectory for the drop, and ensure overall safety for both ground-based and aerial firefighters.
Water is usually dropped directly on flames because its effect is short-lived. Fire retardants are typically dropped ahead of the moving fire or along its edge and may remain effective for two or more days. This can create artificial firebreaks where the terrain is too rugged or remote for ground crews to cut fireline.
Aerial firefighting is most effectively used in conjunction with ground-based efforts, as aircraft are only one weapon in the firefighting arsenal. However, there have been cases of aircraft extinguishing fires long before ground crews were able to reach them.
Some firefighting aircraft can refill their tanks in mid-flight, by flying down to skim the surface of large bodies of water. One example is the Bombardier CL-415. This is particularly useful in rural areas where flying back to an airbase for refills may take too much time. In 2002 an Ontario CL-415 crew was able to refill 100 times within a 4-hour mission, dumping an astounding 162,000 US gallons (613,240 l) or 1,350,000 pounds (612 t) of water on a fire near Dryden Ontario.
- August 13, 1994, a Lockheed C-130A, N135FF, operating as Tanker 82, impacted mountainous terrain near Pearblossom, California. All three crew members, Bob Buc, Joe Johnson and Shawn Zaremba sustained fatal injuries.
- June 21, 1995: a McDonnell Douglas C54G, N4989P operating as Tanker 19, and a Beech B58P, N156Z, Operating as Lead 56 collided in mid air in Ramona, California.(Tanker 19 crew members Gary Cockrell and Lisa Netsch as well as Pilot Michael Smith of Lead 56) were killed in the collision.
- 2002 airtanker crashes Loss of Tanker 130 and Tanker 123
- May 21, 2011 a Bell 212 helicopter went down just offshore in Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, killing the pilot.
- June 3, 2012 a Lockheed P2V-7 operating as Tanker 11 Crashed into mountainous terrain while fighting a wild fire in Utah. Pilots Todd Neal Tompkins and Ronnie Edwin Chambless were killed in the crash.
- July 1, 2012 a Lockheed C-130 operated by the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing crashed in western South Dakota while supporting efforts to contain the White Draw Fire. Four airmen were killed, Lt. Col. Paul K. Mikeal, Maj. Joseph M. McCormick, Maj. Ryan S. David and Senior Master Sgt. Robert S. Cannon. Two Airmen survived the crash but sustained serious injuries.
Urban legends about aerial firefighting 
- An urban legend arises sometimes about a water bomber, or a helicopter with a dangling water bucket, scooping up a scuba diver and dumping him on a wildfire site. Urban legend debunking site Snopes.com reports there are no proven cases of this happening in reality.
See also 
- "USDA Forest Service Wildland Fire Chemicals". Retrieved 2008-11-13.
- Transcript of USA vs Fuchs, case 9810173, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
- Aviation Services - Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
- The popular media also frequently use the terms water bomber, fire bomber or borate bomber. Helicopters often are used to drop retardant or water on a wildfire, whether they're functioning as helitankers (a heavy helicopter outfitted with a belly tank for dropping water or retardant on a fire), or medium- or light-weight helicopters equipped with buckets for smaller drops on fires). Some helicopters are used on fires for cargo (helitack) delivering supplies to firefighters, usually with netted cargo slung under a helicpter, and other helicopters are certified for and used for personnel transport -- ferrying wildland firefighters to remote locations where ground transport is either difficult or impossible. "Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations 2007, Chapter 17" (PDF). National Interagency Fire Center. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-08-31.
- "Statement of Larry Hamilton National Director, Office of Fire and Aviation, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center Oversight Hearing: Blue Ribbon Panel Report and Aerial Firefighting Safety Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests". March 26, 2003. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
- "Water Bombs for Forest Fires" Popular Mechanics, October 1947
- Giant air tanker drops water on Mount Wilson, Associated Press story, September 1, 2009, published in AT&T on-line news
- ABC - El 'superavión' bombero no fue efectivo en incendio Serranía de Cuenca (in Spanish)
- "Incident Report". Rimoftheworld.Net. Retrieved 2010-05-28.
- "InciWeb the Incident Information System: Oak Glen". Inciweb.org. 2009-08-30. Retrieved 2010-05-28.
- Martin Mars, Home page
- "DC-10 to Drop Retardant in TX". KXAN (NBC). 7 September 2011. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
- Q400 Airtanker Conversion
- Photo of the De Havilland Canada DHC-8-402Q(MR) Dash 8 at the Marseilles-Provence Airport in July 2005 on airliners.net.. Retrieved 2010-03-12.
- Gabbert, Bill (2). "Air Spray moves into California, will convert BAe-146 into air tanker". Wildfire Today. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
- September 1998 issue of WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine. Retrieved 2010-03-12.
- "UDSA Forest Service Specification 5100-304c Long-Term Retardant, Wildland Firefighting". June 1, 2007. p. 2. Archived from the original on 8 November 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-24.
- "LAX94FA323". NTSB. Retrieved 1 July 2012.
- "27 Deaths in Air Tanker Crashes Since 1991". Associated Press. Retrieved 1 July 2012.
- "LAX95GA219A". NTSB. Retrieved 17 June 2012.
- "Firefighting helicopter crash in Slave Lake, one fatality". wildfiretoday.com. Retrieved 25 June 2012.
- "Pilot dies in helicopter crash near Slave Lake". cbc.ca. Retrieved 25 June 2012.
- Whitfield, Bethany. "NTSB Issues Preliminary Air Tanker Crash Report". Flyingmag.com. Retrieved 17 June 2012.
- Carver, Lt. Col. Robert Carver. "ANG announces C-130 crash victims". US Air Force. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
- Bailey, David. "Air Force C-130 crashes fighting South Dakota wildfire". Rueters. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
- Mikkelson, Barbara (2007-01-20), Corpus Crispy, retrieved 2010-02-03
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Aerial firefighting|
- The Effectiveness and Efficiency of Aerial Firefighting in Australia
- Wolfgang Jendsch: "Aerial Firefighting", detailed book about international aerial firefighting
- Wildlandfire.com fixed-wing gallery
- Bambi Bucket Systems
- Associate Airtanker Pilots website. Retrieved 2010-03-12
- Peuch, Eric "Firefighting Safety in France", Eighth International Wildland Fire Summit, April 26-26, 2005
- Drop Testing Airtankers: A Discussion of the Cup-and-Grid Method
- How to Conduct Static Tests of Aerial Retardant Delivery Systems
- Aerial firefighting in Victoria Australia