Wildfires have been particularly nasty in 2015. Flames turned an LA freeway into a post-apocalyptic wasteland last month, and many other parts of the American west are currently a gigantic conflagration. Fortunately, there are some highly specialized aircraft on call to take down the fires from above.
This video shows a total of six aircraft recently engaged in suppressing the Sitkum/Duhamel Creek fire in Nelson, British Columbia (watch a timelapse of the fire here). Four of the six aircraft are a special type made by Air Tractor, known as the AT-802F Fire Boss. Originally designed for spraying chemicals on farmland, these single-engine amphibious airplanes are also extremely effective in a firefighting role due to their maneuverability and ability to operate off of just about anything, from austere airstrips and dirt roads to lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and even the ocean (if waves are three feet or less).
A Fire Boss viewed from the cockpit of another Fire Boss while en route to making a drop
Fire Boss aircraft often work in flights of four or more, flying in a “daisy chain” pattern, which puts water on a fire on a near-continuous basis. Because the aircraft are light and nimble, they’re able to scoop water from sources closer to the fire, such as the narrow bend of a river. This strategy was employed very successfully in 2010 by firefighters in Edmonton, Alberta, in which as many as twelve Fire Bosses were engaged on the same fire at a single time.
The Fire Boss is powered by a 1,350 horsepower Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F engine, variants of which are used in dozens of aircraft ranging from the Piaggio P.180 Avanti to the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II to the Piper PA-46 Malibu. When skimming across the water to fill its tanks, the Fire Boss operates at around 75 miles per hour. Typical working speed for the Fire Boss is around 125 miles per hour when fighting a fire and 172 miles per hour when cruising.
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In the span of 12 to 15 seconds, the Fire Boss is able to scoop 820 gallons of water into its fiberglass hopper from dual 3-inch bottom-loading valves in the Wipaire floats. To put that number in perspective, most conventional showerheads flow at approximately five gallons per minute. The Fire Boss can carry enough enough for a shower that lasts nearly three hours!
A Fire Boss in service with the Croatian Air Force waits dockside for the next mission
The Fire Boss also has a separate tank to carry fire retardant chemicals. Fire Boss flights often take off with a load of fire retardant to use on an initial drop, and proceed to fly a circuit pattern between a water source and the target blaze. The main tanks are capable of dispersing water, foam, gel or fire retardant.
A Fire Boss in flight over Spain in 2010
When the firefighting tanks are empty and the aircraft is cruising with maximum fuel economy, the Fire Boss has a range of 800 miles. This gives the aircraft a fuel endurance of around three hours. Not only is the Fire Boss is able to quickly deploy throughout a region as needed, it can also loiter in the vicinity of a fire for substantial duration.
Compared to much larger air tanker aircraft such as the 10 Tanker, the Fire Boss is relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain. Over the last ten years, the U.S. has spent approximately $1.7 billion per year fighting wildfires, so more affordable solutions such as the Fire Boss that can provide commanders with versatile, effective capabilities are exceedingly welcome.
Fire Boss aircraft are deployed all over the world, from Canada to Macedonia to Montenegro to Argentina. Although the aircraft is remarkable for many reasons, it is also the type that you hope you never have to see working near your own community. Remember, only you can prevent forest fires... but if you can’t, call in air support.
Photo credit: Gif via embedded YouTube video, Fire Boss in flight viewed from another Fire Boss screenshot via YouTube, Croatian Air Force Fire Boss dockside - Ex13/Wikicommons, Fire Boss in flight - Jordi Payà/Wikicommons, Fire Boss making drop screenshot via YouTube
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