We would like to express our utmost gratitude to all who work in this field, keeping the ever-increasing wildfires at bay. Additionally, we would like to especially thank Norman Baker, David Phillips, and Mitch Hokanson for taking time out of their day to give us this exceptional tour and tell us about their line of work.
While photographing the English Electric Canberra at Redding Airport, I spied an interesting collection of aircraft parked at the other end of the airfield, in the livery of Cal Fire. Looking behind them, there was a rather large hangar with the emblem of the United States Forest Service (USFS). After we finished photographing the Canberra, we headed closer to see if there were any better opportunities to see the firefighting aircraft.
Redding Air Attack Base
Entering Redding Air Attack Base, we made our way as close as we could to the ramp. From behind the fence, we were able to see a Rockwell OV-10A Bronco, as well as two Grumman S-2T Trackers. While struggling to take quality pictures of the aircraft, a man sporting a USFS shirt approached us, later introducing himself as Norman Baker. He asked us if we’d like to take a closer look at the aircraft. Obviously, we couldn’t pass up such an opportunity and enthusiastically agreed. After a quick background check consisting solely of “Are you a terrorist”?, he took us onto the ramp, and proceeded to give us an hour-long tour of the facility and all the specialized, heavily modified aircraft there.
Rockwell OV-10A Bronco
This began with the Bronco, which we were told is utilized as an air tactical aircraft, acting as a ‘mobile control tower’ for a fire. Consisting of a crew of two (pilot and an air tactical group supervisor), the Bronco is the first aircraft over a fire, determining what resources are necessary to fight the fire effectively, as well as working together with crews on the ground to coordinate all air tankers and other aircraft. Broncos were originally used in the US Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps for gathering intelligence and close air support. Cal Fire acquired thirteen Marine Corps Broncos and six from the Bureau of Land Management. Baker pointed out one of the most visible modifications to the Bronco (save for the demilitarization of the airframe), new five-bladed propellers intended to minimize noise.
Grumman S-2T Tracker
Moving on, we came to the two Trackers, parked on fire retardant loading pads, loaded with fuel and retardant, ready to fly as per Cal Fire policy. Initially serving in the US Navy as carried-based anti-submarine aircraft until 1972, the Trackers were decommissioned and then 26 of them were acquired by Cal Fire in 1996. They underwent a reconfiguration for their new role, in addition to having new engines outfitted. Within the Navy, Trackers are piloted by a crew of two. Here, one crew member is responsible for all: piloting, navigation, communications, and the actual drop itself. These firefighting Trackers are capable of ‘hot loading’ the retardant with engines still on, drastically decreasing the time that the airplane must be at the loading pad, before heading out for another sortie. Next to the loading pads were large storage tanks where the uniquely red-dyed retardant powder is mixed with water and then stored for future use.
Past the two Trackers was a much larger, four engine jet aircraft we could not initially identify, but were told by Baker that it was an Avro RJ-85. Despite appearing to have a livery similar to Cal Fire, it is owned by a third-party private company, Conair Aerial Firefighting. The RJ-85 had a large visible bulge on the underside of the fuselage, where all the retardant tanks and plumbing are located. This was a unique design, as compared to the Trackers and various other tankers, no storage tanks or plumbing is actually inside the regular fuselage. Despite this large bulge on the underside of the aircraft, pilots supposedly do not notice a change in the performance of the aircraft. Two mechanics were working inside of the aircraft, installing an AC system, and they graciously allowed us to step into the aircraft to take a look.
Bell AH-1 Firewatch Cobra
While heading to the USFS hangar, we passed an AH-1 Firewatch Cobra, where under the guiding eye of David Phillips, two Cal Fire crew members were undergoing training on the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) turret system that the Cobra is equipped with. Twenty-five Cobras were acquired by the USFS from the US Army in 2003 when they were retired. The helicopters were then converted into the variants seen today and redesignated as Bell 209s. The Cobra, just like the Bronco, serves as an Air Tactical Aircraft. The FLIR turret on the Cobra houses the infrared camera, low light camera, spotter, laser range finder, and laser pointer, all which allow the helicopter to inform ground crews about the fire they are battling, as well as assisting water tankers in making accurate drops. Twenty-five Cobras were acquired by the USFS from the US Army in 2003 when they were retired. The helicopters were then converted into the variants seen today and redesignated as Bell 209s.
Short C-23 Sherpa and the Smokejumpers
After Phillips gave us a brief tour of the Cobra, we headed to the main hangar embossed with the USFS emblem. He then handed us off to Mitch Hokanson, who brought us inside the hangar that serves as the base for the Region Five Smokejumpers. Hokanson gave us a tour of the interior of the building, detailing all the logistics of smokejumper operations. This included parachute preparation, fixing, and packing, as well as telling us how they train new jumpers. Afterwards, we went back outside and Hoksanson opened up the side door of the Short C-23 Sherpa and invited us inside. The Sherpa can drop eight to twelve smokejumpers as well as two days worth of food, water, and firefighting supplies for them. Additionally, they can drop larger loads of cargo and equipment. Hokanson told us they soon would get new parachutes for cargo drops that can guide themselves to a GPS-set target. These Sherpas were originally owned by the US Army and refurbished for the USFS by a third-party company specializing in firefighting aircraft, Neptune Aviation Services. As of May 2018, they had a contract to repurpose fifteen Sherpas for the USFS. We headed back after finishing the tour and another Sherpa was just coming in to land from a practice run dropping off jumpers.