The 2015 fire season has been brutal so far, and relief for many parts of the U.S. can’t come soon enough. Last month, the National Preparedness Level for wildfires was elevated to Level 5, which is the highest possible rating. One of the most effective weapons against Mother Nature’s fiery wrath comes from firefighting aircraft, also known as air tankers and water bombers.
This is the Flight Club guide to the most awesome firefighting aircraft ever deployed. Some are purpose-built for the task of extinguishing blazes, while others have received an exciting new lease on life pulling firefighter duty. Some are huge. Some are small. All are awesome.
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber was one of the most widely-used heavy bombers of World War II, serving every branch of the American military as well as several Allies. The model eventually spawned an improved navalized variant, called the PB4Y-2 Privateer ,which remained in military service through the Korean War. Having proven their ability to effectively drop munitions in anger all over the world, many Liberators and Privateers were converted for aerial firefighting use. Liberators and Privateers carried a variable amount of bombs when they were in military service depending on range, from 2,700 pounds of bombs all the way up to 8,000 pounds. But in firefighting guise they fell right into the middle, carrying somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 gallons worth of water or retardant.
Fairchild’s C-119 “Flying Boxcar” is a cargo hauler developed shortly after World War II. C-119’s saw service with militaries all over the world, and many eventually made it into civilian hands, as well. Powered by twin Pratt & Whitney radial engines producing 3,500 horsepower each, C-119’s were capable of hustling 10,000 pounds of cargo as transporters. This ample carrying capacity made them ideal candidates for air tanker conversion. Many C-119s were also fitted with a Westinghouse J-34, a turbojet from the 1940s, mounted on top of the fuselage.
Sikorsky’s S-61 helicopter is a derivative of the company’s SH-3 Sea King helicopter, the platform of which is one of the most successful rotorcraft ever. Despite the fact that the design is over 50 years old, highly specialized versions serve the President of the United States as Marine One to this day.
As a firefighting aircraft, the S-61 excels due to its powerful twin 1,350-horsepower General Electric engines. The S-61 also offers operators a range of over 500 miles with cruising speeds of over 130 miles per hour.
The Convair CV-580 is a derivative of the company’s CV-240 family of twin engine airliners and transport aircraft, which spawned many variants, and is serving a wide variety of passenger, cargo and military missions all over the world. One particularly interesting use of the CV-240 family was by none other than President John F. Kennedy, who operated one named Caroline (after his daughter) during his 1960 campaign for the White House.
The CV-580 is powered by a pair of Allison turboprop engines mated to four-bladed propellers, the CV-580 offers operators a range of over 1,200 miles and a cruising speed of about 280 miles per hour. The CV-580 has seen extensive use as an air tanker, notably with the Conair Group of British Columbia, because of its noted excellent performance under hot and high conditions. Specifically, the CV-580 has exceptional steep descent capability which gives it better performance in mountains and valleys where wildfires often start. Its delivery system can carry 2,100 gallons, which places it in the middle to lower end in terms of capacity.
You probably think of the legendary B-17 as a tough World War II-era heavy long-range bomber, but some were also converted for firefighting duty following the war. The same traits that made the Flying Fortress one of the most notable bombers of World War II, like the ability to sustain incredible amounts of battle damage and somehow return to base, also made it a successful aerial firefighter. These modified B-17s usually carried around 1,600 gallons of retardant and were used extensively in California, as well as other regions throughout the country.
One of the last remaining airworthy B-17s in existence today, known as “Aluminum Overcast,” briefly served as an air tanker in the southeastern U.S. prior to its full restoration. The aircraft now belongs to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and is widely known for making rounds on the air show circuit every year.
The Firehawk helicopter is a variant of the ubiquitous UH-60 Blackhawk, which has served in countless roles with a litany of operators. You’ve probably seen it doing assault raids, or heard of specially-modified variants supporting special operations units. But the Firehawk model has an apparatus integrated beneath the fuselage that contains a snorkel and tank system for rapid collection of water from a nearby source. The Firehawk retains the same twin General Electric turboshaft engines as the other Blackhawk variants, with a normal cruise speed of around 170 miles per hour.
The MD-87 is a variant of the MD-80 series of twin engine narrowbody jets, but with a shortened fuselage. It is a widely-used airliner that is now seeing its sundown serving the U.S. Forest Service’s “next generation” air tanker initiative. Capable of carrying 4,000 gallons of retardant, the MD-87 is a highly effective modern aerial firefighter. Its twin turbofan engines are mounted at the rear of the fuselage, which provide the thrust to give the MD-87 a speed advantage (it can cruise at 504 miles per hour) unseen by many other aircraft in this line of work.
Grumman’s Avenger torpedo bomber from World War II earned a reputation for toughness in battle. In the late 1950s, crews began modifying the single engine Avengers to make retardant drops on wildfires. Even though they are antiquated by modern standards, the Avenger air tankers possess an awesome nostalgia by continuing the warbird tradition far beyond their original purpose.
Bombardier’s Dash 8 (also known as the Q-series) is a popular twin turboprop medium range airliner with outstanding performance characteristics, namely fuel efficiency and speed approaching that of jet aircraft. It’s also one of the newer air tanker conversions. In firefighting guise, the Q400 version of the Dash 8 can carry 2,600 gallons of fire retardant, water or foam while traveling at around 390 miles per hour. Dash 8 aircraft are known for excellent maneuverability as well as slow speed performance. Additionally, they’re capable of operating from austere locations like unimproved runways, making them ideally suited for the aerial firefighting role.
First introduced in the late 1940’s, the Douglas DC-6 prowled the skies as an airliner and cargo transporter for decades. The DC-6 (technically, a military variant known as the VC-118A) was the first aircraft to serve as Air Force One, and two DC-6s also served as the original Janet aircraft, shuttling workers to and from Area 51 and other secretive military installations.
Today, DC-6 aircraft continue to serve in the aerial firefighting role in a limited capacity. They’re no longer equipped to make retardant drops, but they can carry between 2,300 and 3,000 gallons to a fire as water bombers. Their four Pratt & Whitney radial engines each make over 2000 horsepower, giving the DC-6 a cruise speed just shy of 250 miles per hour.
The Douglas DC-7 was developed from the DC-6, featuring a stretched fuselage and larger Wright radial engines. In similar fashion to their DC-6 cousins, some were repurposed for air tanker duty after serving as airliners for many years.
Lockheed’s venerable C-130 Hercules airlifter has been a worldwide symbol of American aviation since it first entered production in 1954. Over the years they have taken on many roles, including working as aerial refueling tankers, flying gunships and many others, but they’ve also been successfully employed as aerial firefighters.
C-130 aircraft benefit from the ability to use the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS), which is a palletized system that can be loaded into the aircraft’s cargo hold. This flexible capability is highly useful, given the big inventory of C-130s in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve fleets.
A MAFFS system being loaded into a C-130.
Essentially, the C-130’s can be quickly converted for use as air tankers to supplement civilian firefighting forces, making them capable of dispersing 3,000 gallons of retardant per flight. MAFFS modules can also be refilled in just 12 minutes, which enables the C-130 to make more sorties.
Unfortunately, early C-130 dedicated air tankers (not MAFFS-equipped models) are grounded due to a terrifying incident that occurred in 2002 when a C-130 air tanker’s wings experienced a structural failure due to fatigue cracks at the point where the wings attach to the fuselage, causing both the left and the right wings to snap off in mid-air. Sadly, all three crew members aboard at the time perished in the accident.
Please be advised, the video below is a recording of the incident that resulted in the deaths of all three.
Air Tractor’s Fire Boss is the smallest aircraft featured here, but it’s also one of the most nimble. Often operating in flights of multiple aircraft, Fire Bosses work in a “daisy chain” to keep water persistently dropping onto hot spots. Because they’re amphibious and can scoop water from places larger aircraft can’t access, they’re also able to stay close to the action. Despite their small size, in certain situations they are one of the most effective tools for extinguishing wildfires from the air because of their overall agility and flexibility.
Lockheed’s P-2 Neptune served the U.S. Navy and others as a patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, but the 1940’s design now lives on as an aerial firefighter. Neptunes can carry 2,362 gallons to a fire, hustled along by an unusual engine configuration. Main power comes from twin Wright radial engines turning propellers, each making 3,700 horsepower, but the aircraft can also be assisted on takeoff by two Westinghouse J34 turbojets, each making an additional 3,400 pounds of thrust. The video below shows the weird combination of sounds that the P-2 Neptune makes with all four engines running.
If you’ve seen the movie Swordfish, then you already know that the Erickson Air-Crane is an exceedingly capable machine, and 2001 was a weird time for John Travolta’s hair. With what looks like only half a fuselage and spindly legs, it’s one of the most distinctive-looking helicopters in operation anywhere in the world. Originally developed by Sikorsky as the CH-54 Tarhe for military heavy lift missions in the 1960’s, the twin-engine heavy lift helicopter is capable of carrying 2,650 gallons of water at a time. The Air-Crane’s “hover snorkel” is able to refill its tank in just 45 seconds from sources as shallow as 18 inches, allowing it to drop around 25,000 gallons of water per hour.
When we think of airliners with four engines, usually the enormous Boeing 747 or Airbus A380 widebody jumbo jets come to mind. The Boeing 747-8 measures 250 feet in length, while the BAe 146 measures 93 feet in length. That’s a big difference! The BAe 146 (BAe is short for British Aerospace) and its Avro RJ twin are four engine, light-haul airliners designed and built in the United Kingdom. A military version also exists, serving as a VIP transport in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Bolivian Air Force as a transport jet, among others.
When converted for firefighting duty, the BAe 146 can haul 3,000 gallons of retardant, which is just about average for firefighting aircraft. It can also cruise at 380 miles per hour even when fully loaded, and is capable of operating from compacted gravel airstrips. The reliability of its four engines also lends an additional measure of safety to crews flying the BAe 146 into wildfire areas.
The successor to Lockheed’s P-2 Neptune mentioned previously, the P-3 Orion was originally developed for long range maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare, serving several militaries and government agencies. Navalized Orions carry a potent mix of weapons and sensors (including Harpoon and Maverick missiles) and has been in service with the U.S. Navy for over 50 years.
Eight Orion airframes that had previously served the U.S. Navy have been converted to air tanker configuration and have seen use by the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (“CAL FIRE”). Although the P-3 can carry 3,000 gallons at a speed of 345 miles per hour, many are currently sitting idle in flyable condition while they await a new operator. Aero Union, the outfit that originally converted the now-grounded Orions for air tanker use, has declared bankruptcy due to the cancellation of their contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
The CL-215 “Scooper” and improved CL-415 “Superscooper” are flying boats made by Canadair and Bombardier, respectively. They are purpose-built amphibious firefighting aircraft that feature a high wing and twin engines situated on the upper wing surface. The CL-215 is able to carry 1,300 gallons of water at a time, while the CL-415 has a slightly larger capacity at 1,621 gallons. The CL-415 also offers upgraded Pratt & Whitney Canada PW123AF turboprop engines, which are more powerful, efficient and reliable than the CL-215’s Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial piston powerplants.
The PBY Catalina is probably the most iconic amphibious aircraft ever. The first version of the aircraft flew in 1935 and several thousand were eventually built, serving a wide variety of roles, such as convoy escort and anti-submarine warfare, during and after World War II. Catalinas have performed transport, search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare and many other missions for a long list of both civilian and military operators.
Depending on their exact configuration (of which there are numerous) Catalinas can haul between 1,000 and 1,500 gallons of water in a single run to the drop zone, and some were capable of scooping water from nearby lakes. This allows them to return to the action quickly, instead of needing to reload at an airport.
The Il-76 is one of the biggest aircraft in the aerial fire business and capable of carrying one of the heaviest loads. The Soviet-era Ilyushin four-engine jet is best known for performing strategic airlift missions but has excelled in a variety of other roles, including aerial firefighting. There are several designations for Il-76 aircraft in the firefighting role, but each can carry 13,000 gallons of water or retardant (that’s 3.5 times more than a C-130 Hercules can handle) in addition to 40 firefighters and their gear. A special kit is available for any Il-76 airframes which can convert them for firefighting duty in about 90 minutes. This flexibility, plus the ability to operate from unimproved runways makes the Il-76 one of the most effective aerial firefighting machines in the world.
The Evergreen Supertanker 747-100 is awesome because of its sheer size and super heavy carrying capacity. Based on Boeing’s original jumbo jet, it can take 20,500 gallons of water or retardant over an area threatened by fire, which is the greatest capacity in this guide by a wide margin. It’s also capable of deploying around the globe at a moment’s notice because of the 747’s long range, all while carrying critical supplies and even offering command and control functions to fire commanders.
However, the 747 Supertanker has been mired in controversy ever since the aircraft became operational. The US Forest Service elected to use smaller air tanker platforms in lieu of the giant aerial water bomber because it is too large to fly between some valleys and other places where precision drops are necessary. Because of this, the Supertanker has sat idle for several seasons, but a new effort to revive the idea with an even larger 747-400 airframe is well underway.
Another purpose-built air tanker, the Beriev Be-200 Altair is a jet-powered amphibious aircraft designed in Russia in the early 1990s. It is powered by two Progress D-436TP high bypass turbofan engines, each of which produce over 16,500 pounds of thrust. Jet engines don’t normally interact well with water, but the D-436TP is mounted on pylons high above the wing so they don’t ingest water during takeoff and landing.
The Altair can carry 3,170 gallons of water, or can be configured to carry up to 76 passengers. In addition, it can also perform air ambulance and search and rescue missions. This versatility has caught the eye of a Colorado company called USA Firefighting Air Corps, which announced its intent to build Be-200s in the United States last year.
The B-25 Mitchell bomber, legendary for its use in the Doolittle Raid, is one of the most respected aircraft of the World War II era. Nearly 10,000 copies were produced, and it has the unusual distinction of serving American, Soviet and Chinese forces. They’re powered by two Wright 14-cylinder radial engines which produce 1,700 horsepower apiece, which gives the B-25 a cruising speed of 230 miles per hour and a range of 1,350 miles. B-25s continued their legacy as water bombers throughout the 20th century.
The Douglas is another World War II-era bomber, albeit with lighter capabilities than some of the other aircraft of similar vintage featured here. As fast attack aircraft, Invaders excelled in the Korean War and elsewhere. They’re powered by twin Pratt & Whitney “Double Wasp” radial engines, each making 2,000 horsepower, which provide a range of 1,400 miles and a cruising speed of around 285 miles per hour. Invaders were first used as air tankers beginning in the 1950s, eventually gaining widespread use, and were especially popular with Canadian operators up through the early 2000s.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 tri-jet is a widebody airliner that served with airlines and cargo companies for decades, but has more recently been converted into air tanker duty. This aerial firefighter proved that big jets could make accurate drops at low altitudes, which makes for incredibly dramatic video. They’re capable of carrying 12,000 gallons at a time and can disperse retardant or water over a mile-long by 50 foot wide stretch of ground in a single run.
Air tanker DC-10s are operated by a company called 10 Tanker Air Carrier and have been seen frequently in the western United States in recent years. On August 12th of this year, all three of the company’s aircraft combined to drop over 132,000 gallons of retardant on four fires in three states, which is the first time that the entire fleet had worked concurrently. This is a testament to both the severity of this year’s fire season, as well as the aircraft’s capabilities.
Originally developed as a World War II-era heavy cargo transport flying boat for the U.S. Navy, the massive Martin JRM Mars has a wingspan of 200 feet (four feet longer than a Boeing 747). The gigantic amphibious aerial firefighter can scoop water from lakes near the action, as demonstrated in the videos below. Power comes from four Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone supercharged 18-cylinder radial engines, each cranking out 2,500 horsepower. Today, only one of the seven Martin JRM Mars aircraft ever built remains in operational condition (its surviving twin sister aircraft was retired in 2013).
When the Martin JRM Mars makes a drop, it can cover four acres of threatened land. Hopefully the final Martin JRM Mars will continue to combat wildfires from the sky for years to come despite its age, because it can carry 7,200 gallons of water at a time, plus 600 gallons of foam.
This firefighting aircraft is a pure workhorse. Like many of others, the Grumman S-2 Tracker was originally designed for anti-submarine warfare but was later converted for firefighting use. In the war on wildfires, the S-2 is precision bomber, able to muscle in close to the action and hit its targets with extreme accuracy. When converted for firefighting duty, their torpedo bays were replaced with a fire retardant tank capable of holding 1,200 gallons. While this certainly isn’t the most capacity among the aircraft we’ve featured, the tough aircraft carrier-capable twin engine airplane is still #1 to us.
S-2 aircraft originally flew with a pair of Wright radial engines, but over the years, CAL FIRE has upgraded its entire fleet of 23 S-2 Trackers to Garrett TPE331-14GR turbine engines, making 1,650 horsepower apiece. This increased the Tracker’s speed up to 305 miles per hour and also made them more maneuverable and safer to operate. The Tracker is used to make initial attack runs on wildfires, and with a loaded range of 500 miles, they’re able to reach new hot spots quickly.
The final entry in our guide isn’t an actual aircraft, but rather a technology which totally revolutionized aerial firefighting by enabling many different aircraft to make water drops. Its overall impact on aerial firefighting can’t be denied. Bambi Buckets are in use practically everywhere, because they transform almost any helicopter into a full-fledged firefighter.
The Bambi Bucket is an adaptable system that comes in several sizes. One of the best benefits of Bambi Bucket-equipped helicopters is that they can refill with hundreds of gallons of water in a matter of seconds. This significantly improves their ability to return to the action quickly for successive drops. Bambi Buckets can be configured and ready to operate in just a few minutes, making the system easy and convenient for crews to install. This also means it can be rapidly switched between aircraft if necessary.
And by mating the unparalleled positioning capability of a helicopter with a bucket, water can be scooped up from pretty much anywhere. Including swimming pools:
Year after year, aerial firefighting aircraft work tirelessly to save threatened communities. In a time of squeezed firefighting budgets and merciless historic drought conditions, the need for these amazing aircraft has likely never been greater. Yet despite their amazing histories and incredible capabilities, they are still not the kind of machines you should ever hope to see anywhere near your own home.
Are there any aircraft we didn’t mention that you think should’ve made it? Let us know in the comments!
Photo credit: Top shot - Staff Sgt. Karl Johnson/U.S. Army/Wikicommons, Consolidated P4Y-2 Privateer parked - Tyler Rogoway, C-119 parked - Alan Radecki/Wikicommons, S-61 hovering - Johnny Sundby/AP, Convair CV-580s parked - Adam Dubrowa/FEMA/Wikicommons, B-17 color making drop - Evergreen Museum, B-17 black and white making drop - USFS/Wikicommons, LA County Fire Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk - Andre Wadman/Wikicommons, MD-87 in flight making drop screen cap via embedded YouTube, USFS Grumman Avenger parked - Bill Larkins/Wikicommons, Bombardier Dash 8 in flight over Israel making drop - Sebastian Scheiner/AP, Bombardier Dash 8 in flight over France making drop - Gérard Joyon/Wikicommons, DC-6 parked in Redmond, Oregon - Ted Quackenbush/Wikicommons, DC-7 over The Dalles, Oregon - Spc. Matthew Burnett/Oregon National Guard/Wikicommons, C-130 MAFFS system test - Ed Andrieski/AP, MAFFS system loading in C-130 - Tech. Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen/USAF/Wikicommons, Croatian Air Force Fire Boss dockside - Ex13/Wikicommons, P-2 Neptune in flight over Oregon making drop - Don Ryan/AP, P-2 Neptune in flight over Texas making drop - Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/USAF/Wikicommons, Erickson S-64 Air Crane over Greece - Kostas Tsironis/AP, BAe 146 landing screen cap via embedded YouTube, BAe 146 in flight making drop - USFS/Wikicommons, P-3 Orion taking off - Alan Radecki/Wikicommons, P-3 Orion in flight making drop - Thomas Hays/Wikicommons, CL-215 in flight making drop - Contando Estrelas/Wikicommons, CL-215 parked - Pedro Aragão/Wikicommons, PBY Catalina in flight over Germany making drop - Clemens Vasters/Wikicommons, PBY Catalina in flight over Washington making drop - Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates/US Navy/Wikicommons, Il-76 in flight making drop - Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikicommons, Evergreen Supertanker taxiing - Peter Bakema/Wikicommons, Be-200 in flight making drop - Aktug Ates/Wikicommons, B-25 in flight - Ken Fielding/Wikicommons, A-26 Invader parked in British Columbia - Bzuk/Wikicommons, DC-10 in flight making water drop - Tech. Sgt. Joselito Aribuabo/USAF/Wikicommons, DC-10 in flight making retardant drop - Mark J. Terrill/AP, Two Martin Mars aircraft - Flickr Commons, S-2 Tracker in flight making drop - Thomas Hays/Wikicommons, Bell 212 carrying Bambi Bucket - Brocken Inaglory/Wikicommons
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