Air Assault By The "Heavies"

Mike Meadows gives a first-person account of wildfires and the invaluable service rendered by the firefighting "heavies."


Some readers probably remember the late 1950s and early '60s, before the jet age, when the sky was filled with Douglas DC-4s, DC-6s and DC-7s. Most major airlines used these huge, four-engine propeller-driven planes to transport passengers from city to city and across the oceans. I can...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

Some readers probably remember the late 1950s and early '60s, before the jet age, when the sky was filled with Douglas DC-4s, DC-6s and DC-7s. Most major airlines used these huge, four-engine propeller-driven planes to transport passengers from city to city and across the oceans.

I can remember my dad driving me to Los Angeles International Airport, where we watched these monsters roar down the runway, feeling the vibration from their engines through my feet and watching them soar into the sky, wondering where they were going.

Today, I still marvel at these huge beauties as they again fill the sky but mostly during the summer months. That's when brushfires burn in Southern California.

11_96_air1.jpg
Photo by Mike Meadows
A DC-6 "heavy" makes a live run on the 22,500-acre Castaic fire along Interstate 5 in California.


11_96_air2.jpg
Photo by Mike Meadows
A ground crew member positions a huge C-130 "heavy" for loading of fire retardant.

On Monday, Aug. 26, 1996, a brushfire was reported at Castaic in the northern end of Los Angeles County. I spent the entire day on the fire lines and watched as the flames ripped through thousands of acres of prime forest land. Calls went out for numerous strike teams of engines and camp crews and all available aircraft. That evening I made up my mind to go to Fox Air Tanker Base the following morning, as I knew more tankers would be brought in to fight this huge blaze, which destroyed over 10,000 acres in its first 12 hours.

Fox Air Tanker Base is about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the city of Lancaster, near Edwards Air Force Base, and is located at the east end of Fox Field, a public airport. I arrived around noon and met with two U.S. Forest Service representatives, Clay Myers and Rosie Massiet, who were busy in the tower. The tanker base was alive with activity as tankers were arriving, loading and taking off every few minutes. Additional tankers were enroute from other bases in the state. The fire was more than 40 miles from the tanker base but a huge column of smoke that rose 10,000 feet into the sky was visible. By the color of the smoke, it was apparent there had been a blow-up on the fire line.

At the same time, another blaze was burning in the forest above Azusa in San Gabriel Canyon; it had burned 1,400 acres but was being contained. Tankers that had been working the Azusa fire were being diverted to the new, more dangerous blaze in Castaic.

Tanker bases vary in their size and in the number of tankers based at each. Fox Air Tanker Base has two DC-4s on stand-by at all times. At Fox, up to four tankers ranging in size from small twin-engine planes to huge four-engine "heavies" can be loaded with retardant at the same time. Off the apron are two huge tanks, each loaded with 40,000 gallons of a pre-mixed fire retardant. This sticky, gooey, chemical fertilizer is pumped underground from the tanks to the four aprons. Next to the tanks is a semi-trailer loaded with 40,000 pounds of powdered retardant ready to be automatically mixed with water and pumped into the tanks as they get low. The 40,000 pounds of retardant, when mixed, will make 36,000 gallons. Additional powdered retardant can be ordered as needed, based on the size of the fire.

At each loading area is an empty 2,000-gallon tank. These are used to quickly off-load a plane in case a problem arises. A ground crew of 10 to 12 people positions the planes for loading, fills the planes, then washes down the apron of spilled retardant after the aircraft pulls away.

The twin-engine aircraft used by the Forest Service are the Grumman S-2, P2V and SP2H. The S-2 carries between 800 to 1,000 gallons of retardant. The P2V can carry up to 2,450 gallons because it is jet assisted and the SP2H carries up to 2,000 gallons. The S-2s belong to the California Department of Forestry (CDF) and were brought in from all over the state to help with this fire.

11_96_air3.jpg
Photo by Mike Meadows
A C-130 waits to take off with a load of close to 3,000 gallons of retardant while a DC-7 lands after "bombing" the fire.


11_96_air4.jpg
Photo by Mike Meadows
A PB4Y-2 makes a live run to protect a camp crew from advancing flames.

This content continues onto the next page...