The blinding white light on the nose of a fast-approaching air tanker means salvation is on the way for wildland firefighters feeling the hellish heat on the ground.
With a capacity for 800 gallons of water, fire retardant or repellent, the sleek Air Tanker 802 is a critical tool for battling forest fires.
Guided in by firefighters with radios, the pilot drops to 60 feet off the deck, unloads the cargo on its fiery target, then acrobatically swoops away to reload.
This fire season, the San Juan National Forest, BLM, National Park Service and local counties will have access to the planes – dubbed SEAT, for “single-engine air tanker.” Two will be dedicated to Colorado, one stationed in the east and one in the west.
The Cortez Municipal and La Plata airports are equipped with an Interagency SEAT Reload Base to fill the plane with water or fire-control fluids during a fire.
The planes, pilots, and support are under contract from Aero Tech, of Clovis, N.M., to the Division of Fire Prevention and Control, a branch of the Colorado Department of Public Safety.
And while it has a profile of a crop duster, the single prop AT 802 packs a punch because of its maneuverability, high-tech avionics and powerful 1400 horsepower engine that can handle flying in mountainous country. It has a price tag of $1.5 million.
Firefighters from the BLM, Forest Service, and local districts participated in a training simulation Wednesday at the Cortez Municipal Airport and nearby BLM land.
“It is a great tool to assist guys on the ground, and is excellent for an initial attack on a remote fire that would take a fire engine hours to get to,” said Ryan McCulley, CDPS southwest fire manager. “This area has the highest fire danger in the state, so we are anticipating needing air support.”
Air tankers can douse a fire if it is small, but mostly they help to slow larger ones down, giving firefighters time to clear fire lines and save structures. The view from above is a valuable asset as well, said SEAT pilot Parker Lucas.
“We can communicate which way the fire is running, and what kind of terrain and vegetation there is, structures that are nearby. We’re the eyes in the sky,” Lucas said.
After crews load the airplane with water, adding 8,000 pounds, it flies to a target on nearby BLM land. It makes multiple drops as fire personnel take turns guiding the pilot in on the radio to hit the ideal spot.
“If he misses, tell him he missed,” shouts a trainer identified as Boomer. “The pilot needs feedback to be more accurate on the drops.”
Depending on need, the pilot can stretch out a drop 800 feet or more, or can divide a load three times and lay down a triangle of retardant around a fire.
The practice is important for the firefighters to be familiar with the air tanker protocols and communication. And for pilots as well so they stay sharp.
Lucas has 14 years of flying experience, five with air tankers, and has advanced degrees in avionics.
“It is an intense situation,” he says of his missions. “When the load is dropped at low elevation, pilots have to push the nose down to counteract the upward rebound.”
Pilots train on a BLM air tanker simulator to get the knack for pushing the stick forward at that moment, a counter-intuitive move when flying at high speeds in mountain terrain 60 feet from the ground.
The maneuverability of the AT802 means it does not require a lead plane to guide it into a fire drop zone like the larger C-130 tankers require. Recent crashes of the larger tankers triggered a preference for smaller planes.
Their use is likely in southwest Colorado this year, said Zane Muhonen, assistant engine captain for the San Juan National Forest.
“Low elevation piñon-juniper forests got no snow this year so it is very dry,” he said. “The SEATS do a lot of good because they can get low to the ground and can help stop a fire that is running, but we will always need boots on the ground.”
It is ideal for SEATS to work in pairs, McCulley said, in order to cover more of the fire in a shorter time. BLM has contracted SEATS as well, and they cover multiple Western states, but can be called on by Colorado when needed.
“We could always use more to better serve firefighters and the public. When there are fires we can hopefully keep them small,” he said.