Firefighting by air— challenge and triumph

Niche activity uses everything from helicopters, warbirds and airliners to purpose-built airtankers.

Carson S61 Fire King uses its snorkel to fill its 1000-gal belly tank. Carson Helicopters holds multiple STCs for the Sikorsky S61, including composite main rotor blades.

The Q400MR (for multirole) couples what is effectively a stock airframe with a 2600-gal capacity of water, foam or retardant.

In addition, the Q400MR can be converted back to passenger or cargo configuration in as little as 3 hrs.

The quick-change aircraft greatly expands the firefighting capability of a dedicated airtanker fleet. While not a new concept in firefighting, Aero Union’s MAFFS II—a development of the original modular airborne firefighting system (MAFFS)—is a new twist.

Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar equipped with sling-loaded Bambi Bucket stops by the local pool during firefighting operations.

MAFFS is a self-contained unit designed to be rolled quickly into the cargo bay of a standard C130 E or H, turning the aircraft instantly into an airtanker.

While the original MAFFS was designed to expel retardant with the aircraft cargo door lowered, MAFFS II, developed in 2007, allows the 3400 gal of retardant to be expelled through tubes in the side paratroop doors, and keeps the aircraft’s skin clear of the somewhat corrosive fluid.

In future years, although the UAV seems poised to play a part in many aspects of aviation, its applicability to aerial firefighting remains unclear. Given the larger retardant capacities needed to fight major wildfires, and thus the size of aircraft required, and the acquisition costs of UAVs versus retired ex-military aircraft, UAV involvement in the initial attack phase is unlikely in the immediate future.

Los Angeles County Fire Dept Bell 412 makes an attack on a fire. Several county, city and state agencies, as well as private firms, assist in firefighting efforts during California’s extensive wildfire season.

However, UAVs are ideally suited as observation platforms for data gathering. Though the future of firefighting aircraft is hard to predict, the trend in embracing OEM-supported aircraft in lieu of maintenance-intensive WWII bombers is an evolution worth noting.

The Air Tractor 802 Fireboss, Boeing 747 Supertanker, Bombardier CL415 and Dash 8-Q400MR are just a few examples.

Yet, even as aerial firefighting aircraft evolve, a few veterans still ply the airways. At least 4 original PBY5A Catalina/Cansos still see active firefighting service with Buffalo Airways of Yellowknife NWT, Canada.

Such fleet diversity means that future aerial firefighting aircraft may reasonably include anything from airliners to UAVs and war veterans. In all cases, the best years are still ahead.

Douglas Wilson started as a lineman at JGG (Williamsburg VA). An active pilot, he now serves as director of business development and marketing for Galvin Flying Services at BFI (Boeing Field, Seattle WA).



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