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A Salute to Aerial Firefighters, Part 1

A Salute to Aerial Firefighters, Part 1

By: Category: AirtankersHelicoptersMilitarySeaplanesTransports

This is the first part of two… looking at current and past aerial firefighting machines.

Aerial firefighting is a crucial asset and a dangerous job; a recent event in in Australia showed the worst case during an already tragic bushfire season in that country. A Coulson Aviation C-130 aerial tanker crashed while on a firefighting mission, tragically killing its three person crew.

10 Tanker DC-10 unloads fire retardant near a blaze

The use of aerial platforms to help fight and/or contain a large land fire has roots that go as far back as the late 1920s in the United States, although the 1950’s saw widespread use of systems that are basically still in use today.

Piston-engine P-2V Neptune anti-submarine/patrol bombers have recently been retired

Original air tankers – which were usually surplus military trainers, fighters, tankers and bombers – dropped water and fire retardants. The retardants were usually very corrosive and took its toll of aircraft aluminum rapidly. Luckily, there were large enough banks of military surplus aircraft (for parts and platforms) to equip the fledgling operators. Later retardants were developed to be less corrosive and included ingredients that help the growth process after the fire is burned out too. Radial engine aircraft seemed to be the choice of most operators as well. Part II of this article will cover more historic firefighting aircraft, be sure to check back in a week or two for that edition.

This is not a photo of the Coulson C-130Q aircraft – Tanker 4 – that crashed.

The Coulson Tanker 134, which crashed on January 22, 2020 (U.S. date) in New South Wales Australia, was a former U.S. Navy EC-130Q TACAMO communications and control aircraft which was refurbished by the Coulson Aviation (USA) company, and equipped with the company’s “RADS-XXL 4,000 gallon roll-on-roll-off tanking system”. Current firebombers are being equipped with the newest technology and more effective firefighting systems, and the aircraft that are flown are newer and larger in many cases than ever before. Here is a look at many of today’s systems, whether it be a helicopter, fixed wing waterbomber, lead aircraft or a jump plane carrying “smokejumpers” that attack a fire.

A Bombardier CL-415 lands behind a converted Convair 580 tanker aircraft

Here’s a list of many aircraft in use today, by various State and Federal governments:

Global SuperTanker has converted this B-747-400 into the world’s largest tanker. Prior to this, Evergreen International had converted an earlier B-747 version into a Supertanker too

10 Tanker Air Carrier operates four converted DC-10-30 as aerial tankers. A total of five aircraft have been converted, a DC-10-10 has been retired already.

Coulson EC-130Q was originally a Navy communications aircraft, now converted into a firebomber.

BAe-146 operated by Neptune Aviation, pulls up after unloading on a fire… similar RJ-85s are also newly-converted tankers.

Erickson Air Tanker MD-87 leaves its landing gear down due to the flight aerodynamics used for certifying the aircraft as a tanker

C-130H/J MAFFS system is comprised of a large internal tank and these nozzles – which can be fitted to any C-130, but the crews must be specially trained and certified to use it. 

Convair 580s of Conair deployed to Palmer Alaska to fight the Willow fire just south of Danali National Park.

CL-215/415 Super Scooper fire bombers specialize in refilling from bodies of water near a fire… like these Province of Quebec aircraft are doing.

Erickson Air Crane’s CH-54 Skycranes are fitted with a swivel-mounted hose to refill its externally-mounted tank.

National Guard Sikorsky UH-60s can be fitted with a sling-load bucked for water drops

Venerable Bell UH-1 still does duty with the Maine Forestry Service, as well as CAL FIRE and other government operators

Conair Fireboss is an AT-802 fitted with floats and can scoop water like a CL-415 Supr Scooper

Marsh S-2F3AT Turbo Tracker of the CDF launches towards a fire… the belly of this aircraft isn’t stained so it is a good bet that it is on its first mission of the day


USFS Shorts 3-30 aircraft with smokejumpers aboard.

CASA 212 with smokejumpers’ gear assembled in Palmer Alaska.

Aero Commander liaison/lead aircraft at Palmer Alaska.

CDF’s Rockwell OV-10 Bronco can operate as a lead aircraft, carry an -on-scene commander over a fire, and has room for 3 parachutists or cargo that can be dropped from the rear fuselage.

Croman SH-3D can suck up water from a portable supply container, into an internal storage tank.

USFS Beech Super Kingair support aircraft