A Salute to Aerial Firefighters, Part 1


Aerial firefighting is a crucial asset and a dangerous job; a recent event in Australia showed the worst case during an already tragic bushfire season in that country. A Coulson Aviation C-130 aerial tanker crashed while on a firefighting mission, tragically killing its three person crew.

The use of aerial platforms to help fight and/or contain a large land fire has roots that go as far back as the late 1920s in the United States, although the 1950’s saw widespread use of systems that are basically still in use today. Original air tankers – which were usually surplus military trainers, fighters, tankers and bombers – dropped water and fire retardants. The retardants were usually very corrosive and took its toll of aircraft aluminum rapidly. Luckily, there were large enough banks of military surplus aircraft (for parts and platforms) to equip the fledgling operators. Later retardants were developed to be less corrosive and included ingredients that help the tree/grass growth process after the fire had burned out too. Radial engine aircraft seemed to be the choice of most operators as well. Part II of this article will cover more historic firefighting aircraft, be sure to check back in a week or two for that story.

Note: Not Tanker 134, but still a Coulson Aviation EC-130Q

The Coulson Tanker 134, which crashed on January 22, 2020 (U.S. date) in New South Wales Australia, was a former U.S. Navy EC-130Q TACAMO turboprop communications and control aircraft which was refurbished by the Coulson Aviation (USA) company, and equipped with the company’s “RADS-XXL 4,000 gallon roll-on-roll-off tanking system”. Current firebombers are being equipped with the newest technology and more effective firefighting systems. Many of the newest large tankers aren’t even former military aircraft, but commercial airliners which can carry large loads and be operated economically… like the airlines’ specifications that used them prior to their firebombing career. Today’s Very Large Tanker aircraft are newer and larger in many cases than ever before.

Here is a look at many of today’s aircraft, equipment and systems, whether it be a helicopter, fixed wing water bomber, lead aircraft or a jump plane carrying “smokejumpers” that attack a fire. Please note that this is not meant to be an entire list, but just some of the options managers can call upon today to assist in fire fighting.

Global SuperTanker has converted this B-747-400 into the world’s largest tanker. 

10 Tanker Air Carrier operates four converted DC-10-30 as aerial tankers. A total of five aircraft have been converted, a DC-10-10 has been retired already.

C-130Q of Coulson Aviation has internal palletized tanks that can carry water or a mixture of fire retardants

Bae-146 Neptune Aviation Airspray, similar RJ-85 and RJ-100 jets have been converted to tankers too.

MD-87 converted by Erickson Aero Tanker. Gear down operation was part of the aircraft/tanker configuration certification specifications.

C-130J-30 MAFFS aircraft of the California Air National Guard

Convair 580s of  Conair, a Canadian company that shares duties in Alaska

CL-415 Super Scooper operated by the Province of Quebec 

Sikorsky CH-54 Skycrane converted into a heavy helicopter tanker

California National Guard/Sikorsky UH-60, which operates with a water bucket sling load. Other National Guard and Marine helicopters assist in firefighting using buckets too.

Bell UH-1 of the Maine Forestry Service with a water bucket.

Croman/Sikorsky S-61A carries water internally, and the hose below is used to suck up more water while the helicopter hovers over a water source.  

Conair Fireboss can scoop water from lakes as well as land on them.

Rockwell OV-10 Bronco lead aircraft, of the CDF.

CASA 212 with smokejumper packs, awaiting assignment in Alaska

Aero Commander liaison aircraft, Alaska State Forestry Department 



Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 35 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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