Fighting Fires From The Sky

Turn on the news today and you’re sure to hear about the massive wildfires out west.  The immense acreage of forests being consumed by flames is devastating.  How these fires started is of little importance right now.  Containing and extinguishing them is top priority.

Aerial Firefighting

While crews on foot work endlessly to combat the wildfires, much needed support is being provided from up above.  Thanks to crop-dusting technology that evolved in the 1990’s, planes and helicopters can be used to help battle the fires. 

Specially equipped with large tanks, these aircraft drop thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant to reduce the spread of the fire.  This, in turn, allows the firefighters to continue their efforts to get the fire under control. 

Surprisingly, the primary goal of aerial firefighting is not to extinguish the fire, but rather, provide invaluable support to the ground team.  In many cases, it is simply too hot and dangerous for those facing the flames to continue their work in areas without the assistance of the aerial firefighters.

The Fleet

The three main types of aircraft used in aerial firefighting are tactical planes, air tankers and helicopters.  Each has their own designated role but working together they form one impressive and indispensable unit.

Tactical Planes

Twin Commander 500 and 600 are the most commonly used air tactical planes.  They can stay airborne for hours and serve as the eyes in the sky for the team on the ground. 

Air attack planes ensure safe aviation operations through constant communication with other aircraft.  If needed, they can also act as lead planes to guide large tankers to their designated drop zones.         

Air Tankers

Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) are small airplanes such as the Air Tractor AT-802 that has the capacity to carry up to 800 gallons.  SEATs can reload and operate in areas where larger air tankers cannot.

Large Air Tankers (LATs) can carry 2,000-4,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.  These include aircrafts such as the P2V, HC-130H, RJ85 and C-130. 

Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs) can carry much larger loads – up to 12,000 gallons.  A single load dropped by a VLAT is equivalent to roughly three loads dropped by a LAT.

DC-10 Tanker

The second largest firefighting air tanker currently in use is the DC-10.  With three jet engines, it can travel much faster than other air tankers.  It holds up to 12,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in its exterior belly-mounted tank.  Its entire contents can be released in a mere eight seconds.

747 Supertanker 

What was once an easily recognized passenger jetliner has become the world’s largest firefighting aircraft.  To accomplish this, the Boeing 747 Supertanker’s interior was retrofitted with enormous tanks that stow roughly 19,000 gallons. 

The aircraft has a special pressurized system that allows the water or fire retardant to be sprayed out of the aircraft with force.  It can also drop its load all at once, thus falling to the ground like heavy rain.  

To refill this jumbo tanker on the ground, it takes roughly 30 minutes.  This is certainly a longer time than with others, but the total volume that can be dropped in one run is significantly more effective. 

Air tanker loads are not usually dropped directly on the fire.  But rather, they are released in front of it in an attempt to direct its course or slow its advance.  Ideally, this gives the ground team the opportunity to control or extinguish the fire. 

Regardless of its size, air tankers must make incredibly low flights – no higher than 200 feet above the treetops to be effective.  Low flights such as these are difficult and extremely dangerous.   

Water Scoopers

Whereas air tankers receive their liquid cargo while on the ground, amphibious aircraft such the Air Tractor Fire Boss and the Bombardier CL-415 skim the surface of a lake or bay to load their onboard tanks.  These “Super Scooper” planes then release the water above the fire and repeat the process until refueling is needed. 

They can store up to 1,500 gallons of water at a time and it takes only a mere 12 seconds to fill their tanks.


For fast initial attacks on small wildfires, helicopters such as the Bell 204 and Boeing Vertol 107 are put to work.  They can carry about 320 gallons of water, usually in buckets that hang below the aircraft. 

In addition to fire control, helicopters are used to transport equipment as well as helitack teams (wildland firefighters transported by helicopter) to the field.    

Back in NW Ohio

Wildfires are certainly not common here in Ohio.  And while we have not had the pleasure of welcoming an aerial firefighter on our ramp, our full service FBO is open 24/7/365. 

If your travels bring you to KTOL, know that we are here with an extensive list of aircraft and passenger services available.  Visit us online or give us a call at 1-800-70-GRAND.