In California, Air Tanker Pilots Help Keep Wildfires At Bay

Oct 29, 2019
Originally published on October 30, 2019 7:18 am

High winds are in the forecast this week for all of California as fires burn up and down the Golden State. Near the Bay Area, the Kincade Fire has charred over 100 square miles, destroyed more than 120 structures and forced thousands to evacuate in the state's famed wine country. To the south, firefighters in Los Angeles are battling a number of blazes, including the Getty Fire in the hills near UCLA. Helping teams on the ground as they fight the flames is an arsenal of air support. The fires have prompted authorities to call in some of the biggest firefighting planes in operation.

About an hour east of Los Angeles, the three engines of Tanker 914 whine and fade as the jet comes to a halt on the tarmac at the former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, Calif. The onetime military facility is now partially used as an air operations center for the U.S. Forest Service and hosts both firefighting helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Inside, pilot Kevin Hopf explains why the main cabin is so roomy.

"You're standing in a Douglas DC-10 made in the mid-to-late '80s," Hopf says. "In its original passenger configuration it had about 350 seats."

Hopf is the lead pilot with 10 Tanker, a private company based in Albuquerque, N.M., that operates four of the firefighting jets. It contracts with government agencies such as the Forest Service and Cal Fire.

Taking in the plane's interior, it's ... spartan. No seats. No overhead bins. No nothing, really. Three big tanks attached to the outside of the plane hold the fire retardant. The minimal interior paired with a light fuel load makes for a pretty nimble jet.

"We're flying this airplane at about 200,000 pounds lighter than we normally did, which makes it very maneuverable," Hopf says. "Are there places that the helicopter can get to that we can't? Sure, absolutely. But it's a pretty small margin there of places that we can't put this airplane."

Some of the most remote terrain in canyons and on hillsides is where the plane shines. It drops its load of up to 9,400 gallons of Phos-Chek, the sticky red gel that helps keep fire at bay, from only a few hundred feet above the ground.

Over 9,000 gallons of Phos-Chek, an orange-red gel that slows the spread of fire, can be stored in three huge tanks attached to the bottom of the aircraft. All of the fire retardant stays outside the plane; what was the DC-10's cargo hold is now the home of hydraulic equipment that opens the tanks when the plane makes a drop.
Matt Guilhem / KCRW

"We get a lot of input as far as, 'How can you get that big of an airplane down that low to the ground?' " Hopf says. "The airplane doesn't know what's below it; it has no idea what kind of terrain we're flying over. We just need to keep it at a certain airspeed, which we do."

That airspeed is about 160 mph.

Hopf is passionate about his job; he has flown firefighting jets for 10 Tanker for more than a decade.

"I would not give this up to go back and fly the airlines," the longtime pilot says. "Airlines was fun, I enjoyed that, but now having done this, there's nothing that I'd rather do in an airplane than what I'm doing."

Outside the plane, standing in the jet's shadow, is Diego Calderoni, the co-captain of Tanker 914. Calderoni, too, relishes the harrowing profession he is in, but he is not sure how much the danger of his job registers with his family.

"I think they don't know what I do," Calderoni says. He pauses, then, says in fits and starts, "I mean, they'll see it on TV, but they don't know all the ... I mean, they do know it's dangerous. I've always been in forms of aviation of this sort, so they've gotten used to it. They know what I do, and they know I'm happy doing it."

He loves the work, knows the risks and gives up any sort of regular schedule to battle blazes across the country. Could he see himself in any other job?

The 30-something Calderoni heaves a sigh.

"Yeah? I don't know," he says with an uncertain chuckle. "I mean, once fire's in your blood, and you enjoy the mission of fire — it's hard to, it's hard to leave it."

Tanker 914 made several drops on the Getty Fire in LA on Monday morning before heading to Northern California to join suppression efforts there.

Strong winds that could rapidly push flames into homes are in the forecast for the rest of the week across the state, meaning more busy days for Calderoni and the crew.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In West Los Angeles, more than 7,000 homes have been evacuated due to the Getty Fire. It's burning in the Santa Monica Mountains. That is tough terrain for fire crews, so large jets are dumping retardant on the wildfires. Reporter Matt Guilhem spoke with the pilots of one of the biggest air tankers fighting the flames.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: The three engines of Tanker 914 whine and fade as the bright orange-and-white jet comes to a halt on the tarmac in San Bernardino, Calif. From the outside, it looks pretty similar to a commercial passenger jet. It's a different story from the inside, says pilot Kevin Hopf.

KEVIN HOPF: Yeah, you're standing in a Douglas DC-10 made in the mid-to-late-'80s. In its original passenger configuration, it had about 350 seats.

GUILHEM: Hopf is the lead pilot with 10 Tanker, an Albuquerque company that operates four firefighting jets on contracts with government agencies. Inside - no passenger seats, no overhead bins, no nothing really. Three big tanks attached to the outside of the plane hold up to 9,400 gallons of fire retardant. That makes for a pretty nimble jet, says Hopf.

HOPF: We're flying this airplane at about 200,000 pounds lighter than we normally did, which makes it very maneuverable. Are there places that the helicopter can get to that we can't? Sure, absolutely. But it's a pretty small margin there of places that we can't put this airplane.

GUILHEM: Remote terrain in canyons and on hillsides, like what's burning in LA, is where the aircraft shines. Drops are made from only a few hundred feet above the ground.

HOPF: We get a lot of input as far as how can you get that big of an airplane down that low to the ground? The airplane doesn't know what's below it. It has no idea what kind of terrain we're flying over. We just need to keep it at a certain airspeed, which we do.

GUILHEM: That airspeed is about 160 miles per hour, by the way. Standing outside the plane, co-captain Diego Calderoni (ph) says this kind of flying can be hard on the crew's family.

DIEGO CALDERONI: I mean, they do know it's dangerous. I've always been in forms of aviation of this sort, so they've gotten used to it. They know what I do, and they know I'm happy doing it.

GUILHEM: Wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour are expected tomorrow and could push flames into homes quickly, which likely means another busy day for Calderoni and the crew.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in San Bernardino. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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