With the firefighting helicopters gathering at Snohomish to cover the local fire activity, I was able to chat to the crews a little while they waited to see what was to come. Northwest Helicopters had brought in a Black Hawk to support the fire if needed. It was a 1984 build airframe and had been painted in a blue scheme. The guys were complaining about the paint, though. It was a matte finish and the soot from the exhausts was discoloring the surface and was, apparently, impossible to clean up. The rest of the airframe looked fine for something that is nearly 40 years old.
They had a Bambi bucket with them for the firefighting side of things and were quite happy for me to check out the interior of the cockpit. Having shot their arrival, it was a shame that the visibility was so bad that they could not do what they had come to do and were stuck on the ground while I was there. A nice pair of guys to chat with, though, and I appreciate the time and access that they gave.
Erickson currently flies a bunch of MD-87s are firefighting jets. However, these are a relatively recent addition to the service and they have replaced Douglas DC-7s. The DC-7s were still in service when I first made a visit to Madras in 2015 but they have now been retired. However, three of the airframes are stored on the ramp at Madras and we took a look around to see how they were fairing.
They looked in great condition. The dry atmosphere at Madras is good for storing aircraft. Some engines have been removed but the three jets are in the most recent paint finish and parked in a line. They make for an interesting subject. I have no idea how far from airworthy they are should anyone want to get any of them flying again (aside from the engines that have been removed) but they look like they have been taken care of. I would have loved to have seen one airborne but sadly, that time has passed.
Some of the news clips I have seen recently were showing the firefighting activities underway in South America at the moment. With their summer in full swing, wildfires have been springing up and they have brought in a variety of aircraft to fight them. One of these is the Global Supertanker, a converted Boeing 747-400. I saw this aircraft at the aerial firefighting conference that was held last year in Sacramento. It was very close to approval at that time and we were allowed to check it out.
The systems had previously been used on a 747-100 airframe but they had been migrated to the 400 series jet. The airframe was an ex-JAL aircraft that had undergone the freighter conversion program and seen some further service before being acquired for the firefighting role. The tanks and piping had been installed and we got to see a bit of the interior during the event. Unlike the 100 series prototype, this one had been given a nice new paint job and it looked great being straight out of the paint shop.
It dwarfed everything else on the flightline and ended up being the backdrop for the group photo of the conference attendees. I don’t get to appear in that shot since I was taking it. I can live without having my presence recorded I guess. Now it is in operation, there are some rather more dramatic images being captured. For the time-being, I will have to make do with these shots.
Every other year the Aerial Firefighting conference comes to North America. This year it was held at McLellan Field near Sacramento. A tow day conference, I originally was going to attend on both days. Unfortunately, I had a work conflict and had to miss the first day. Fortunately I was able to be there on the second day which was the day that included a demonstration session on the airfield. An internal exhibition of products and services was open for the entire time but the demonstration included a wide number of airframes – far too large to fit indoors.
There was a wide variety of types on display. Helicopters are a big part of aerial firefighting and there was a number on display. Airbus Helicopters had brought their H215 demonstrator along as the conclusion of their North American tour. This version of the Super Puma is a derivative of the AS332 (and indeed this airframe had a data plate that listed it as an AS332) and is designed to be a simplified and cheaper version providing a more affordable utility type. It was alongside a new Bell 412 and some refurbished airframes including a Bell 205 and a freshly refurbished UH-60 Black Hawk.
Fixed wing types came in all shapes and sizes too. Air Tractor AT802s were on display in both wheeled and amphibious configurations and these two aircraft put on a number of water drop demonstrations. A Pilatus PC-12 provided a demonstration of management of a fire with down linked information. Calfire had a Bronco and a Tracker on the ramp while a bunch of Broncos were busy in a flying program to get ready for the season. MAFFS had a P-3 on the ramp while another took off early in the program. A Bombardier CL415 shared ramp space with a Neptune conversion of the BAE Systems RJ85.
However, the ramp was dominated by one aircraft. Global Supertanker had brought their converted Boeing 747-400 to show off. They have taken the system from the 747-100 airframe previously in use and added it to a more modern version of the airframe. Fresh from the paint shop and shortly to receive approval of the STC, they were keen to show off the aircraft. I am not sure how well it will fit in with the needs of firefighting agencies around the world but it certainly is an impressive beast.
I didn’t get to take as many stills as I had planned. The organizers asked me to shoot some video for the, which I did. Hayman was working with me so he made sure we had the necessary shots for the GAR feature. After a few passes, I was able to switch and get some stills anyway. I also got roped in to taking the group photo for the conference attendees. If I had known that was required, I would have made some arrangements to get a better vantage point. Still, it was a good day out and the conference sessions I saw were similarly informative. Next year it is in France. Perhaps we shall have to go!
A US Army Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk taxis in at McClellan Field in Sacramento CA.
My trip to Madras involved flying in to Redmond airport, about half an hour south of Madras. Hayman and I came in on the same flight and shared a ride to Madras. As we drove out of the airport, something interesting caught my eye on the other side of the field so we did a little exporting before heading off. Redmond has a base for Airtanker operations in support of firefighting. The aircraft that I had first seen was a DC-7 that had been converted for tanker operations and was painted up in Erickson colors. It looked immaculate and the activity suggested it might be preparing to depart. With fires in the surrounding hills, there was plenty of work.
While we waited for it to start up, a BAe146 tanker conversion landed and taxied in to the base. It was the first time I had seen one in person. Sadly the fencing around the base was rather touch to shoot through. Hayman made good use of the gap under the gates but my camera shape did not allow that. I had to make do with shooting through the fence where possible.
Shortly after the 146 came in, the DC-7 fired up and taxied out. With it gone, we figured it was time for us to continue on our way too.
Canadair were a company that put together some odd projects. Before they became part of the Bombardier family, they produced a business jet and a water bomber. The Challenger (which came from an earlier Bill Lear project) has gone on to spawn a large number of production aircraft of various types. The CL-215 is a different story.
Water bombers are a very useful tool in fighting fires. Within that sphere, the CL-215 has been a great success. That is not a huge world, though, so production has been modest. Even so, the original piston powered aircraft has gone through a turboprop conversion program and the current production model, the CL-415 has turboprop engines as well as airframe and systems enhancements. Production is at a low rate but they do still come out of the factory.
I was quite pleased to come across a couple of the planes that are still fitted with the original radial engines. The already chunky lines of the plane go quite well with the bluff profile of the piston engine – something the turboprop lacks a little. These planes weren’t flying. They were awaiting their next project. With the fire season approaching, I imagine it won’t have been too long after I saw them before they were back in action.