This Big Ol' Passenger Plane Is Perfect at Fighting Wildfires

Relief rides a phased-out airliner.

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Sep 16 2014, 5:25pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Friday night in Southern California's Silverado Valley, relief flew in on an old airliner. In  this summer of drought and fire the DC-10, an airplane phased out of passenger service in February, has been spotted from Idaho to Arizona delivering up to 12,000 gallons of fire retardant in a single acrobatic swoop.

The three-engine DC-10 entered service in 1970 as a passenger jet, and the last airplane working in that capacity, operated by Biman Bangladesh Airlines,  made its final flight on February 24. But some designs defy obsolescence. The DC-10 had already been converted to function as a mid-air refueling airplane for the Air Force, and in 2006, the first fire-fighting DC-10 was unleashed on the Sawtooth fire in San Bernardino County, California.

There are only three DC-10 "Very Large Airtankers" flying in the world, and they're operated by the New Mexico-based 10 Tanker. Both Tankers 911 and 912 were dispatched on the Silverado fire, and have since been sent north to McClellan for "yet another fire," according to company CEO Rick Hatton.

While airline pilots  called the DC-10, "a reliable airplane, fun to fly, roomy and quiet, kind of like flying an old Cadillac Fleetwood," 10 Tanker touts the modified DC-10's "very favorable thrust to weight ratio...low approach speed, engine installations that provide excellent performance and rapid spool up," exhibited in the video above. "As spectacular as it looks, it's a very controlled event performed in a way to minimize risk and advance the safety factor in the industry significantly due to the DC-10s performance characteristics," Hatton said. Much like the big ol' Boeing Dreamliner, there's something surprisingly nimble about the DC-10.

Fires had been fought with helicopters and much smaller, older planes for such a long time, but the single, giant airliner has some advantages. For one thing, it's fast—able to reach either the Oregon or Mexican border from an old Air Force base in Merced, California,  in just 45 minutes.

It's also simpler to operate one airplane that can carry and drop the equivalent load of four other planes. "Risk management goes down — you don't have as many aircraft working," Les Dixon, who manages an air tanker base in Idaho,  told NPR. And while the DC-10 may have aged out of passenger service, the alternative fire-fighting airplanes are often much older—World War II-era even. Recent accidents to Vietnam-era airplanes and C-130s have depleted the number of fire-fighting airplanes available to the Forest Service, increasing the need for another generation of jet-powered aerial firefighting, a niche that DC-10 seems to be filling capably.

Image:  Wikimedia Commons

"I don't know an incident commander who has ever run a fire and had a load of retardant come and say, 'You got here too soon and you brought too much,'" Hatton told NPR. "It's always the opposite."

The fire that the plane is swooping upon broke out along the Orange-Riverside county line Friday morning, sparked,  according to Orange County fire officials, by a sheet metal rodent barrier around a vegetable garden. It grew to 1,600 acres, fueled by triple-digit heat. The progression of the fire was stalled by aircraft, including a DC-10, and as of last night was 87 percent contained.

The DC-10 had just been up near Fresno last month, making four flights over the Junction fire and dropping 42,000 gallons of chemicals.

The videographer, watching the DC-10 coming in low over Silverado Canyon, captured more awe in his voice than the video could really convey: "It's nerve-wracking; it's incredible what this guy's about to do," followed by a chaste "Oh my gosh," and culminating in gigglingly euphoric "woo-hoo," is pretty fantastic. 

It taps several different, of at least my own, childhood fascinations at once: Fire-fighting is cool, and airplanes diving is always awesome. If only the weather could be as cool.