Aerial Firefighting, Part 2 – Some Older Airframes


P-2V Neptune at Alamogordo New Mexico

Aerial Firefighting has changed in many ways during the past 90 years or so, since its inception here in the U.S.. In other ways it hasn’t changed very much.

Coulson’s Martin Mars unloads during a demo at EAA AirVenture

Delivery of water or other liquids from an aircraft is still the preferred method of fighting a fire from the air, but other aerial applications have arrived within the last half century. The employment of smokejumpers with a limited, but very useful amount of equipment has been a notable accomplishment in fighting fires from the air. Aircraft for reconnaissance and lead planes that help tankers drop with improved precision are now an integral part of an air attack on a major fire.

As far as liquids being used for firefighting, water is still the main answer. Water drops cool the area of a fire, and the sheer force at which the water falls will push needed oxygen away from the drop, starving the fire too. Fire retardants are now used in an increasing amount, laying a barrier down next to a blaze that will (hopefully) stop the spread of a fire and starve it through denial of additional fuels.

ARDCO Douglas C-54 tanker

After the Second World War ended, a huge amount of U.S. military aircraft were left surplus. Many of these found their way into airborne spraying operators’ hands… first for crop and anti-pest spraying, and later for firefighting. Larger transports that were ruggedly built were converted with an internal tank and external doors to facilitate dropping of water or other payloads.

Tired and parted-out S-2/CS-2 Trackers at Abbotsford British Columbia

Many airframes were bought up, and spare parts like engines and control surfaces were available in large amounts, helping to support these transports and bombers for decades. Unfortunately, several major accidents in the early 21st century which involved wing spar metal fatigue, which ultimately led to many a propliner’s demise after older types were inspected, and grounded as the FAA scrutinized maintenance logs (if any were found) of former military aircraft.

Dirty with red fire retardant, this C-54 arrives for more at Fox Field, California

Still operating several years later, the P2V Neptunes and several Douglas transports soldiered on until the second decade of the 2000s, when almost all aircraft built in the 1940s and 1950s were not contracted by the Government due to liability concerns of older airframes.

Grumman S-2 Tracker with residual retardant on its belly

Early turboprop aircraft, such as the Lockheed P-3 Orion/L-188 Electra also came under scrutiny due to their age and earlier operating environment (P-3s spend long hours in the salty air close to the sea surface searching for submarines). Earlier Grumman S-2 Trackers operated in the same environment, and any aircraft still operating today have been overhauled and converted to turboprop power.

Rockwell OV-10 leader plane was an observation aircraft during the Viet Nam war.

Here’s a look at many of the older airframes that are either no longer in use today… or rarely seen. Some were scrapped after these photos were taken, others reside in museums or operated as warbirds. Surprisingly, the Douglas C-47/DC-3 wasn’t widely used as part of the firebomber ranks, although a few were used to airdrop smokejumpers and transport equipment into an active fire area.

Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon

Grumman S-2F Tracker (Conair Firecat)

Lockheed P2V Neptune

Douglas DC-4/C-54 Skymaster

Douglas DC-6/C-118 Liftmaster

Douglas DC-7

Consolidated PB-4Y Privateer

Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar

Convair 580

Martin JRM Mars

Bell UH-1 “Huey”

Lockheed P-3 Orion

Croman SH-3 with Bell UH-1


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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