Air tanker training for local firefighters

By Keith Boles - bio | email feedback

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) --All the ice storm debris in Arkansas forests still presents a fire hazard especially this year as it has had a year to dry out.

Aerial tankers play a major role in fighting wildfires.

One of these flying fire trucks was in Jonesboro today for some training with the fire department.

It may look like the aircraft you see spraying the rice fields but if this airplane's load hits you, you're going down, and going down wet.

This Air Tractor hauls it to the hot spots.

Beryl Shears the President of Western Pilot Service described Tanker 899 to me.

"It's the largest crop duster, it's built for low level operations. Its dispersal system is built exclusively for fire fighting."

Tanker 899 is one of 5 aerial tankers based in Arkansas contracted from Western Pilot Service by the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

Mark Reed, the Fire and Aviation Management Officer for the Arkansas Forestry Commission spoke to the gathered firefighters about the use of the tankers and the Forestry Commissions history with the parent company.

"We've been contracted with them since 1994 to provide aerial water for Arkansas."

The purpose of 899's visit was to familiarize local firefighters on procedures used to fill the tank of the aircraft from a fire truck. Even though the planes are based in 3 locations in Arkansas they can be dispersed anywhere there is a long enough runway and a fire truck to fill the tank. Hence the reason for today's training.

Reed, "We'll let somebody from the Fire Department, whoever you want to, put a load in it."

There are 3 types of aerial tankers used in Arkansas. They carry anywhere from 500 to 800 gallons of water or foam. 899 is the largest type of aircraft. It carries 800 gallons.

Before we went to the ramp, Reed gave a quick operational safety briefing for "Hot Loading", when the engine is running or for any engine off loading.

"Always keep eye contact with the pilot and stay behind the wing. Always keep eye contact and stay behind the wing."

Firefighters gathered around 899 as the pilot Wayne Reynolds explained hand signals and hammered a point home.

"Now you gotta keep your eyes on the pilot."

JFD Tanker 1 was hooked up to 899 and they began to fill the tank. I asked Division Chief Larry Tosh if these ground to aircraft connections were normal to have.

Tosh, "This will be the first class we've had on it. All of our guys will be qualified to do it from the training we've had. It's using standard Fire Department fittings so that won't be any problem."

The water tank filled up and prop spinning, 899 took slowly to the air to make a drop.

The plane approached from the West, opening the drop doors about 200 feet in front of us. The water raining down for about 100 yard path.

For the second run I went up in another Forestry Plane piloted by Michael Sellers and tried to catch the drop from the air....Not overly successful we got just a little ahead. Oh well, Sellers assured me that he had never been able to get a good drop video shot yet.

Once fire season is over in Arkansas 899 will head West.

Shears. "All of the Western states the airplanes will be spread out. And the BLM Department of the Interior will move the airplanes according to fire need.  It's the same concept as the city. You have multiple engines spread out through a city and we have multiple airplanes spread out through the United States. And they move them as they need them to the fire areas."

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