If you’re flying anywhere around the Western United States, you can probably navigate from state to state using nothing more than the plumes of smoke from the massive forest fires consuming the west. On the average, more than 100,000 wildland fires scorch between 4 million and 5 million acres in the U.S. every year. In more recent years, with an increase in drought conditions throughout the west, fires have torched upwards of 9 million acres a year.
As an integral part of fighting these massive conflagrations, the U.S. government employs a variety of aerial resources. These include both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
In 1956 former World War II bombers were fitted with water tanks and served as airtankers for fighting wildland fires. Since that time, a variety of military and civilian aircraft have been fitted with tanks for use as airtankers. The retardant in airtankers does not put the fire out, but rather cools and slows down the advance of the fire so that crews on the ground can construct a fireline. The typical airtanker carries up to 2550 gallons of retardant.
Lockheed P-3 Orion
This plane cruises at 380 mph and carries 3,000 gallons of retardant. Manufactured by Lockheed Corporation, the P-3 originally saw use with the US Navy as a maritime patrol aircraft. Its crew includes a pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer. Aero Union currently operates eight P-3As and leases them to various government agencies.
Lockheed P-2 Neptune
Another Lockheed aircraft originally built for the navy, the P-2 carries 2,700 gallons of retardant and cruises at just over 400 mph. Like the P-3, this aircraft has a three person crew and is fitted with six separate retardant tanks.
Bombardier 415 Superscooper
Manufactured by Canadair specifically for fire suppression, this aircraft carries up to 1621 gallons of retardant and cruises at 233 mph. This plane has a two person crew and is an amphibious aircraft which scoops water from lakes and reservoirs.
Another large aircraft capable of filling it tanks by skimming along a waterway, the Martin Mars is a heavy lift aircraft with a massive 7,200 gallon capacity. It holds a three person crew and cruises at a speed of 190 mph. With such a large load, the aircraft can drop retardant covering 4 acres.
Originally serving as an anti-submarine aircraft for the US Navy, the S-2T has been retrofitted with turboprop engines which make them fast and maneuverable. They have a capacity of 1,200 gallons and cruise just over 300 mph. The crew consists of a single pilot. They are used extensively by the California Fire service for initial attack.
This list is far from comprehensive. These are some of the more common fixed wing aircraft used for firefighting. Serving along with air tankers, lead planes circle the fire and direct the aerial attack. These smaller aircraft often fly over the area they want the retardant dropped on, leading the airtanker to its target.
Alan Carr is an avid aviation fan that enjoys writing about the aspects of the flying world from the business to the technical. He currently works with globalair.com to provide resources on aircraft related information.