California is a US state known for its big-budget movies and wine, but also scorching droughts and massive wildfires. It expends more money and resources combating wildfires than any other state in America, with its annual firefighting budget peaking at $524 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year. That year, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency as so-called dry thunderstorms swept through the state, sparking thousands of fires across 26 counties. Since the turn of the century, California has allocated $230 million per year, on average, to fighting fires.

Many of the state’s deadliest wildfires were recorded in the past 16 years, including the “Cedar Fire” of October 2003 in San Diego, which claimed 15 lives, burnt through 1,105km² of land and destroyed 2,820 homes and buildings.

The US Department of the Interior (DOI) says countrywide, America spent approximately $13 billion on wildfire suppression over the past decade. During that period 164 firefighters, many aviators, died and more than 279,230km² of land was charred.

As the state most at risk of wildfires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has developed perhaps the world’s most formidable aerial firefighting force, comprised of more than 50 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters operating from 13 bases.

CAL FIRE's inventory is aging, however. Its primary waterbomber is the Grumman S-2T Turbo Tracker; a popular submarine-hunting turboprop fleet acquired in the 1970s, re-engined starting in 1987, and converted to the S-2T standard by 2005. The state has been using aircraft to drop water on fires since the 1950s and introduced its first "very large" airtanker – a repurposed McDonnell Douglas DC-10 – in 2006. Its observation and command-and-control aircraft are ex-US Navy North American OV-10A "Broncos", purchased in 1993 to replace the Cessna O-2 Skymasters.

California's helicopter force includes 11 bucket-carrying Bell UH-1 Super Hueys. CAL FIRE also receives aviation support from the California National Guard, which owns more aircraft than most nations, and has employed aircraft such as the fixed-wing C-23 Sherpa, C-130J Hercules, MQ-1 Predator and RC-26B in support of domestic aerial firefighting operations. The guard’s rotary-wing fleet is comprised of the UH-72 Lakota, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook.

Speaking at the annual Tangent Link aerial firefighting symposium in Sacramento, California on March 23, the guard’s director of the joint staff for state military operations, Col Robert Spano, said: “In California, our most dangerous course of action is a catastrophic earthquake. Our most likely course of action, which is done every year, is to support wildfires.

“Our California National Guard, both army and air and state military reserve, can be called up for any sort of hazard. The four seasons in California are fires, floods, earthquakes and riots.”

California also counts on federal support from the US Forest Service, which has a fleet of ex-Coast Guard HC-130Hs but also hires large tankers for the season through exclusive-use contracts.

Lockheed P2V

This Lockheed P2V from Montana's Neptune Aviation worked a 2015 fire in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains

Stuart Palley/REX/Shutterstock

Firefighting operations are co-ordinated by the National Interagency Fire Centre (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, which also receives support from US Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard C-130s equipped with Forest Service-owned roll-on, roll-off Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS). Wildfire season in America runs from now until July, says the 2016 forecast published by NIFC on 1 April.


Prior to fire season kicking off, just about every type, model and series of airtanker flew into Sacramento's McClellan Airfield for the firefighting convention. CAL FIRE naturally has the largest presence, but contractors Air Spray and Aero-Flite – and helicopter maker Airbus Helicopters – also presented assets. The symposium lured 280 aviation professionals from 14 nations, particularly from firefighting veterans like France, Spain, Israel, New Zealand and Australia.

The star attraction was the world’s largest aerial firefighting aircraft, the newly outfitted 747-400-based Global SuperTanker. It arrived direct from the paint shop, where it was being primed for action.

The Colorado Springs-based aircraft will begin commercial operations this year after receiving the necessary amended supplemental type certificate from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

A modified crop-duster, the single-engine Air Tractor 802F, and its water-scooping Fire Boss derivative, also left an impression.

The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-powered turboprop’s nimbleness, reliability and low operating cost has made it the darling of the aerial firefighting scene and even prompted Israel to adopt it over the Bombardier CL-415 "Superscooper".


As illustrated by California's aviation inventory, governments and contractors alike have for many years used 1950s and '60s vintage airplanes in the firefighting role and some, like Coulson's Martin Mars flying boat, date back to World War II and the Korean War. These slow, lumbering aircraft are typically cheaply acquired and ideally suited to the role. That's beginning to change, following deadly mishaps in 2002 and 2012 involving an early-model C-130 Hercules, PB4Y-2 Privateer and two vintage Lockheed P-2V Neptunes – built in 1955 and 1957. Now, state and federal firefighting agencies are beginning to adopt so-called "next-generation airtankers" based on 1980s and '90s-model airliners.

The Forest Service is receiving seven Lockheed Martin C-130Hs and 15 Short C-23 Sherpa aircraft from the US Defense Department under an interagency airplane swap approved by Congress in 2014.

The Air Force is upgrading those C-130s with new centre wingboxes and MAFFS equipment, Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said at a congressional hearing on 6 April. A C-130 supported firefighting operations in 2015 and another will fly during the 2016 season. Tidwell says the air force will deliver four Hercules in 2018 and the balance by 2019. The establishment of this agency-owned fleet is an organisational upheaval for the department, which normally only hires contractors.

As of April, the Forest Service has exclusive-use contracts in place for 20 airtankers, excluding its own C-130. It also has two Bombardier CL-415 “Superscoopers” on call.

Neptune Aviation is providing six Lockheed P-2V Neptunes and five British Aerospace 146s. Aero Air is providing two McDonnell Douglas MD-87s, each capable of dropping 15,140l (4,000gal) of water or retardant. Aero-Flite has been put on contract for four modified Avro RJ85s and the two CL-415s. Coulson will fly its Lockheed C-130Q.

Most of these aircraft were sought as part of the agency's next-generation airtanker initiative. Although "next-generation" isn't a term typically associated with the Bae 146, RJ85 or MD-87, these airframes are decades newer than the antiquated aircraft the aerial firefighting community normally flies.

Jeff Berry, director of business development at Canadian firm Conair Aerial Firefighting, says the company's RJ85s and two Q400 airtankers delivered to France have been well-received.

“We started developing the RJ85 about five or six years ago and we now have five operating through Aero-Flite, our US subsidiary, on contract with the US Forest Service – four on exclusive-use contracts and one on a call-when-needed [contract type],” he tells Flightglobal.

“We’re also developing another two as we speak; two are being re-engineered in Abbotsford, British Columbia – our headquarters – for operations this year. The aircraft have had a complete ‘C’ check done on them and they’re being adapted to the air tanker role. We’ll have the first one online on 5 May and the second one should be ready in the middle of June.”

Berry says the company’s RJ85s were built in the 1990s and bought exclusively through Falko for conversion into airtankers. The RJ85 has a maximum takeoff weight of 44t (97,000lbs) and can deliver 11,355l (3,000gal) of fire suppressant at a drop speed of 120kts. Conair selected the platform for its greater takeoff weight, payload capacity, relatively modern engines and fully electronic cockpit. The company is also pursuing more sales of the Q400 and is buying a second-hand model for conversion in Abbotsford to begin that process.

Air Tractor 802F

Rapid response: what the Air Tractor 802F lacks in volume it makes up for in work rate

James Drew/Flightglobal

"We’ve got some interest within some markets," he says. "It’s quick, fuel-efficient, carries a good load, and is very manoeuvrable and provides us a good platform for firefighting."


One question on everybody’s mind at the symposium was whether Bombardier could resume production of the CL-415 or at least continue supporting the type and its re-engined predecessor, the CL-215.

Victor Devouge, aerial division chief at France's Department of Civil Protection, raised eyebrows at the conference when he said France is seeking a replacement for its nine 58-year-old S-2F Tracker aircraft and might consider the 415. Devouge said France, which already owns 12 Superscoopers, could gauge interest from other European nations to see if there is some type of joint requirement for 415 waterbombers.

Bombardier ceased production of the former Canadair type in 2015 after running out of orders. The amphibian had been assembled in Montreal and completed in North Bay, Ontario, but production "paused” in October after the final delivery. Bombardier continues to market the type, company officials say.

“Yes, the sales team is still promoting the aircraft in the market,” Stéphane Villeneuve, vice-president of specialised aircraft at Bombardier, confirms by email. “Bombardier will consider each business opportunity on its own merit.”

If a sales opportunity does come along, Bombardier will “take into account all parameters of a particular opportunity” including the cost and schedule of restarting assembly, says Villeneuve.

He adds Bombardier remains committed to supporting the 415 and “it is business as usual”.

The French Ministry of Defence is issuing a request for proposals for the Tracker replacement this year with the hope of awarding a contract in 2017 for first delivery by 2018. The S-2F conducts loaded patrols and initial attack of wildfires, but will be phased out between 2018 and 2022.


Meanwhile, the humble Air Tractor is becoming something of a weapon of choice for the aerial firefighting community, having been successful adopted by Spain, Israel, Australia and many others. Quick-strike tactics like loaded patrols, for which the 802F excels, are preferred over containment because they lessen a fire's intensity before fighting it becomes dangerous and expensive. Air Tractor executives tout their platform's low operating costs and quick turnaround times.

One 802 Fire Boss can deliver anywhere from 14,453l (3,818gal) to 52,996l (14,000gal) of water per hour depending on the proximity to the target of a scoopable water source. That factors in 2.5h of endurance and scooping loads of between 2,271l (600gal) and 800gal (3,028l).

“If you can get that circuit going, all of a sudden you can make eight-plus loads per hour,” Air Tractor president Jim Hirsch tells Flightglobal.

“Some guys have made over 20 loads per hour. Imagine, that’s 20-something scoops and dumps per hour. You can move a lot of material in an 800gal airplane.

“Even though this is a small airplane, it is a very productive airplane,” adds Air Tractor sales consultant Jamie Sargent, of AirCrafts. In 2015, he notes, 33 on-contract, conventional 802s delivered 9.5 million litres (2.5 million US gallons) of water or retardant. Meanwhile, seven contracted Fire Boss scoopers delivered 15.9 million litres (4.2 million gallons).

This “productivity” was noted at the convention by an Israeli Air Force squadron commander, who manages a firefighting fleet of 14 quick-response 802s. Hirsch also points to Spain as one of the early adopters of the Air Tractor and Fire Boss.

“They would do loaded patrols to attack fires as immediately as they sprang up because the Air Tractor was economical enough to do that,” he explains. “They’d extinguish it ASAP in an initial attack and finish it off before it became a problem.”

Type certified in 1993, the 802-series is assembled in Olney, Texas. WipAire produces the Fire Boss floats in South St. Paul, Minnesota and received its supplemental type certificate in 2001.

Most widely used by farmers for crop dusting, the firefighting market accounts for 30-40% of Air Tractor sales today. Air Tractors have also been weaponised for US Special Operations forces and IOMAX USA is marketing its “Archangel” attack variant around the world, with the United Arab Emirates as a launch customer.

Hirsch expects to deliver 85-90 airplanes in 2016, adding to the 650 or so delivered since the type’s introduction. He is hoping to build on the recent sale of eight firefighting examples to Canada’s Northwest Territories province by going after requirements domestically and in Australia, Indonesia, China, Latin America and elsewhere.

WipAire president Chuck Wiplinger says 77 Fire Boss scoopers are in operation today, and he hopes innovations such as manufacturing material changes and a landing gear advisory system will keep orders flowing.

“One of the more common problems for an amphibious aircraft is landing with the gear up on the runway, which hurts your ego more than it hurts anyone else, or the more dangerous gear-down landing in the water, which can flip the airplane over and create a dangerous situation,” he says.


When contractor-owned airtankers aren’t fighting fires in the northern hemisphere, many fly Down Under to support operations there.

Though state governments in Australia mostly employ helicopters and light waterbombers like the Air Tractor, the New South Wales (NSW) government funded a "large and very large airtanker" (LAT/VLAT) trial during its 2015-2016 fire season with some success. The government is bringing those tankers back this next season, which typically starts in September and runs until December or January.

Assistant commissioner Stuart Midgley, of the NSW Rural Fire Service, says the trial is helping establish the business case for hiring larger firebombers, which are generally better than light aircraft at creating long wildfire containment lines in remote areas.

The fire service trialled one Lockheed L-100 aircraft dubbed "Thor" from September to January and a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 named "Southern Belle" from October to January. Operating from Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Richmond, Southern Belle completed 17 missions and fought nine fires. Thor could operate from more bases and therefore was able to support firefighting operations in NSW as well as the towns of Albury, Dubbo and Avalon in Victoria, and Palembang in Indonesia. It conducted 34 missions and serviced 14 fires.

Bombardier CL-215 Sueprscooper

Los Angeles County Fire Department Bombardier CL-215 Superscooper, 2015

Stuart Palley/REX/Shutterstock

Midgley says the volume of water and retardant afforded by large airtankers proved to be a valuable compliment to the state’s 27 other contracted aircraft, 4,500 ground-based firefighting appliances and 74,000 rural firefighting volunteers.

The trial has drawn interest from Australia’s other states and territories and strengthened the civil firefighting service’s relationship with the RAAF, which operates 12 C-130J Hercules from Richmond.

The National Aerial Fire Fighting Centre has been tasked with producing an interim evaluation report to “inform the future use and selection of LAT and VLAT capabilities” and the second phase will begin in September for the 2016-2017 fire season.

The DC-10-30 airliner can deliver 43,900l (11,600gal) of retardant from its five underslung tanks. Powered by three CF6-50C2 turbofan engines, the 55m aircraft has a maximum takeoff weight of 190.5t and requires a very long runway, upwards of 6,600ft (2,000m). The L100-30, however, delivers 15,450l (4,080gal) of retardant from its RADS-XXL constant-flow firebombing system. Powered by four Allison 501 D22A turboprops, the L-100’s maximum runway length when fully loaded on a hot day is 6,400ft (1,950m). Australia also employs Coulson C130Q (15,450l) and Avro RJ85 (11,350l) large airtankers.


In terms of safety, Mark Bathrick, who heads the US Department of the Interior’s (DOI) aviation services office, says annual fire seasons in America are lasting 20% longer, on average, than in years past. Last year saw the largest number of wildfires since records began in 1960, he says, with more than 40,500km² of land scorched. Operations have been marked by the death of 78 pilots and crew since 2000.

Aviation incidents account for the majority of firefighter fatalities in America, followed by vehicle crashes (70 deaths since 2000), heart attacks (69) and entrapment by fire (47). Of the aviation-related deaths, 54% were aerial contractors and 32% were state or federal government employees, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

They mostly occurred during direct support of wildland fires (52 deaths) and a dozen aviators have died in training accidents since 2000. There were 41 separate mishaps recorded – including two mid-air collisions – involving 42 firefighting aircraft (23 fixed-wing aircraft and 19 helicopters). The leading cause was a failure to maintain safe clearance followed by loss of control, mechanical failure and hazardous weather conditions.

Drone incursion

The USA's aerial firefighting apparatus is also confronting new safety challenges, and opportunities, from unmanned air vehicles. The DOI counted 700 incursions by unmanned aircraft in 2015 alone, including 21 during wildfire incidents. Aviation operations had to be suspended or ceased a dozen times.

However, Bathrick calls the introduction of UAVs or remotely piloted aircraft into the DOI's firefighting operations a “potential game-changer” as long as a regulatory and policy framework is established.

The California National Guard has been using the MQ-1 Predator for aerial surveillance of wildfires since 2013, operating from 18,000ft for about 24h. “This is the future, it’s where we’re heading,” says Spano.

The DOI, for its part, has been studying the use of UAVs in aerial firefighting since 2006, starting with small unmanned aircraft weighing less than 25kg (55lbs) and all the way up to Lockheed’s optionally piloted Kaman K-MAX aircraft, for direct firebombing.

The agency has tested the Boeing Insitu Scaneagle (24h endurance) and Textron Systems Aerosonde Mark 4.7 (18h), which have operating ceilings of 19,000ft and 15,000ft, respectively. It also wants to trial the hand-launched Lockheed Stalker XE (8h of endurance).

The primary missions for large unmanned aircraft are surveillance, cargo delivery and water drops. Bathrick says unmanned systems equipped with infrared sensors can fly at night and through smokescreens, allowing firefighters to transition from approximately 8h of direct aviation support to 24h.

Small UAVs are being considered for hotspot detection, fire behaviour monitoring, relaying communications signals, atmospheric monitoring, mapping and traffic management, among other things. The DOI is working through several logistical challenges, like deciding if line-of-sight or satellite control is best, managing spectrum allocations and sensor automation.

Bathrick says the DOI is creating several on-call test and evaluation contracts to trial more unmanned aircraft during this year's fire season.

He expects UAVs will be fully integrated into national firefighting operations “within three to five years”.

“We didn’t start flying until 2009, and that’s because we needed to develop our policies and we needed to bring our culture along and help people understand the intricacies of flying UAS [unmanned air systems],” he says. “We’ve been flying them in the US Army since [the Iraq War] but we needed to bring the rest of our folks along to understand their special capabilities and considerations.”