Fighting fire with air tractors

By Gary Mitchell

When the summer wildfire season breaks out in the western states, one Clovis man and his crew get involved.
Ted Stallings, owner/operator of Aero Tech in Clovis, has five firefighting aircraft called “air tractors” heavily involved in fighting fires in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.
“Right now, we’re fighting fires big time,” he said. “I’ve got five air tractors and they’re all working fires. I have one plane in Ruidoso. It’s on call to protect Lincoln National Forest and the surrounding area. I have one airplane in Las Vegas, Nev., and one airplane in Springerville, Ariz., and one airplane en route to Durango, Colo. I have one air tractor that just returned from Las Vegas, N.M. We just had maintenance done on it, and we’ll send it back out again.”
Mark Bickham, national program manager for single-engine air tankers, dispatches Aero Tech’s Air Tractors to fires across the nation.
“His five planes (are) part of the 72 we have on contract, but not all of them are air tractors,” Bickham said. “They’re available to us throughout the United States and Alaska.”
Aero Tech’s air tractors have worked the Monument fire near Las Vegas, N.M., which has burned approximately 800 acres and was about 50 percent contained, according to the last incident management report.
“I was in Arizona last week all week,” Stallings said, “but the fires I was working are all out now. I was on the Sprucedale fire. Last year, we were on several major fires. We were helping with the Rodeo fire — we were out there five weeks. We also fought fires in Montana, Oregon and Nevada until it snowed.”
In the past, most wildfires were fought — at least, in the air — by air tankers and helicopters, but an incident last summer demonstrated what an important role the newer, faster air tractors may play in future wildfire scenarios.
In two incidents last year — one in California and the other in Colorado — the wings of the air tankers literally snapped off, resulting in the deaths of five aerial firefighters.
The two tankers that crashed were a number of years old — one was built during World War II and the newest one was more than 30 years old.
The much smaller air tractor is just as effective but plays a slightly different role in some cases, Bickham said.
“Because of their size and their agility, they are most effective — and very effective — as initial attack resources,” he said. “When fires first start, they can come in and contain and protect any residences in the area.”
The plane is the largest single-engine plane manufactured, travels at 200 mph, and at takeoff, it can carry more than its own weight of 16,000 pounds, according to manufacturer specifications.
“In the canyons and mountains we work in, it can turn tighter than the larger air tankers,” said Aero Tech pilot Dan Rinner.
The new tankers are expensive. They cost about the same as one F-15 — more than $1 million each.
“We’re the largest owner of the AT-802s (air tractors),” Stallings said. “The country of Spain has 12, and we have five. They’re a great airplane — they’re just real expensive. The heavies (larger, older air tankers) are great. They did a good job, but they’re just getting old and tired.”
Heavies can haul more retardant at one time, but the newer air tractors can haul 800 gallons each time and make several trips in the time it takes one heavy to make a run, Stallings said.
“It takes them forever to get to where they’re going and come back,” he said. “They haul between 2,000 and 2,800 gallons. We haul 800, but our gallons per hour is a whole lot more. We put on more retardant per hour.”