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What does it cost to wage an airborne fire campaign?

Illustration for article titled What does it cost to wage an airborne fire campaign?
Photo: Global Supertanker Services (Other)

It costs money. No doubt about that. There are planes owned by states, such as California’s Cal-Fire and their S-2's which can be ready and off the ground and at the fire in a canyon in twenty minutes, and then planes run by seasonal contracts services. But then there is the “call as needed” services such as the Global Supertanker Services 747 above, or the 10-Tanker guys DC-10's as well. But you gotta bring several briefcases of cash for that sort of air-show, plus they are so wide, they cannot be used inside canyons, more ridge drops, and wider prevention line areas. You had also better justify the cost, as the cost to fight the fire vs. letting it burn naturally is hard to compare in the heat of the moment but is a more natural way of the earth cleaning itself, in the end. (bad pun, I know)

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So let us look at the costs involved.

DC-10: 
Should you require, it demands a $50,000 per day readiness rate, plus $22,000 per hour flight costs. To put that “why” question into perspective, I talked with some DC-10 guys while riding their jumpseat at 5am, and asked about fuel burns. They will burn 220,000 pounds of fuel from Japan to Louisville (UPS) and it does not have an economy cruise speed. There was no such thing when they designed it. It burns a lot of fuel, but the best part is the spare parts are numerous and cheap since only cargo services operate them these days. But if you need 10,800 gallons of retardant right now, it is good.

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There are also relatively newer bombers from Erickson and Coulson,

the md-87

Illustration for article titled What does it cost to wage an airborne fire campaign?
Photo: Erickson Air Tanker
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and 737ng, both still used by airlines.

Illustration for article titled What does it cost to wage an airborne fire campaign?
Photo: Coulson Aviation
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The Bae-146 primarily from Neptune aviation.

Illustration for article titled What does it cost to wage an airborne fire campaign?
Photo: Jeff Reynolds
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All carry from 3,000-4,000 gallons and have similar costs to operate at somewhere around $30,000 per day ready and $10,000 per hour to fly.

It takes Coulson about 60,000 man-hours to convert a 737 into a bomber, and they are finishing or have finished their 7th example recently. And back in 2016, Erickson was working out kinks in their MD-87 based systems, engine surges, etc. but that is all working well now.

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And let us not forget their c-130!

Illustration for article titled What does it cost to wage an airborne fire campaign?
Photo: Coulson Aviation
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Which costs more...but it is highly flexible in application systems.

But, if you want the big stick, the big middle finger to the fire, there is the 747, fielded by Global Supertanker Services. It was a Japan Air Lines plane first, then converted to cargo by Evergreen, who built it into a tanker saying they were ready to convert four of them, but they went out of business. Global Supertanker took over the project and now, it can paint a retardant path 1 mile long. It also costs a minimum $165,000 for three days, plus $16,500 per flight hour. (Weirdly less than a dc-10 ??) A kicker here is there is only one.

Add to all of these planes the cost of retardant at $2.50-$3.50/gallon, and you have big price tags all around, especially when over a million gallons get dropped in three days day.

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Additional costs are wear and tear, not just on planes, but on pilots. The cockpit is extraordinarily busy. Ground proximity, airspeeds, but also planning the exit strategy from the steep descent to target a fire, and someone to watch that aspect while the pilot tries to avoid fixation and tunnel vision to hit that fire real good.

......so they don’t hit the ground on the way out....(language warning at end)

That is exactly what happened to the near-crash of the Bae-146. Fixation. The crew filed a report on it and got to work training themselves to prevent that happening again. but sometimes, things do get hit, such as a Lockheed Electra four-engined turboprop (P3.orion anyone?) Hit a tree on September 6th this year, operating out of Chico, CA. They had no idea they hit a tree until they landed and a mechanic pointed out damage their outboard left wing.

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Seen here is a different L-188. When in it, it is a dangerous and low visibility place.

The crews today have many layers of operating procedures and it is very hard work to stay safe. Gone are the days like what the movie Always showed. Yeah, they wanted to be safe, but they weren’t exactly that safe in that example.

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So the total cost to fight a fire had better be worth it if the big guns are brought out, which brings the question of whether to fight it or not. Letting it burn may be best, but monitoring is always necessary. which is why Cal-Fire maintains over a dozen OV-10a broncos to spot fires, and also lead in the big newer faster jet bombers we have today.

There is no simple solution which means many solutions from direct application helicopters and smaller planes are required in addition to these larger planes that lay down prevention lines so the fires won’t cross over into towns and neighborhoods. It means expense. a lot of it. Money flows here, but the people providing the services don’t see that much of it. The DC-10 firebomber pilots might make $60-70k. A FedEx/UPS dc-10 pilot makes orders of magnitude more. You might say all of the cash to fight the fire gets....wait for it....

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burned up!

slap me in the comments.

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