Aviation History

CAL FIRE Aviation Management History

CAL FIRE Airtankers

100 years of CAL FIRE.

The possibility of using aircraft for fighting wildland fires in California was first proposed in 1931 and again in the late 1940's after World War II. In 1953 the Nolta brothers of Willows, California, proposed using their agriculture spray planes for fighting brush and grass fires. During the four fire seasons, 1954-1957, CAL FIRE used several small airtankers on a call-when-needed basis. These were primarily spray airplanes converted for use as firefighters. Also during this period, several enterprising aviation companies had been converting World War II TBM's for airtanker use. Thus, in 1958 CAL FIRE first contracted for airtanker services with private aviation companies. That year contracts were let for three N3N, four Stearman and four TBM airtankers. The N3N's and Stearman's were World War II biplanes used for pilot training and converted for use as agricultural spray planes. They were capable of carrying up to 200 gallons of fire retardant chemicals. The TBM, a World War II torpedo bomber, could deliver 600 gallons.

An early N3N airtanker.

During the ensuing years other aircraft were converted to airtankers and used by CAL FIRE. Among these were Twin Beech, Grumman AF, Boeing B-17, Consolidated PBY, and Grumman F7F. The airtanker program continued to expand until finally in the early 1970's a total of 14 TBM's, five F7F's, one PBY and one B-17 comprised the CAL FIRE fleet.

By 1970, concerns with maintainability and accidents occurring in the TBM fleet led to an evaluation of the Grumman S-2 Tracker as a new generation airtanker. Although they were still active in the Navy, four were loaned to CAL FIRE for the evaluation. The Army Aviation Test Facility at Edwards Air Force Base completed a test program that showed the S-2 was a suitable replacement for the TBM. Two S-2 prototype airtankers were placed in service in 1973 with the prototype tank being built at the CAL FIRE Mobile Equipment Facility in Davis and the S-2 modification being completed by Hemet Valley Flying Service. These conversions were accomplished using plans developed by Ontario Lands and Forests in Ontario Province, Canada.

Three TBM accidents in 1973 and three F7F accidents in 1974 accelerated the CAL FIRE S-2 modification program. As a result, contracts were entered into with four California contractors, Aero Union Corp., Sis-Q Flying Service, TBM Inc. and Hemet Valley Flying Service to modify and tank 10 S-2 airtankers during the 1973/1974 winter period. As a result, 12 "S-2A's" were placed in service in 1974 and five more were built by Bay Aviation Services and put into the fleet for the 1975 fire season.

Original S-2A tanker
One of CAL FIRE's original S-2A tankers in action.

Three separate leases with the U. S. Navy brought a total of 55 S-2's and 60 engines for the program. This allowed CAL FIRE to keep the fleet going until the mid-90's when it was decided to upgrade from S-2A to S-2T airtankers. In 1987, CAL FIRE entered into an agreement with Marsh Aviation of Mesa, Arizona, to build a prototype S-2T. This prototype was placed in service and used at several bases. The success of the prototype led to acquisition of 26 S-2E/G aircraft in 1996. The "E/G" series S-2 was larger and newer. It could haul 1200 gallons of retardant with two TPE-331 GR Turboprop engines at speeds in excess of 200 knots. A contract for building 23 of the new S-2T airtankers was entered into. Thirteen were delivered by the end of 2002. Seven additional were delivered and placed in service by the end of 2004. The final three are scheduled to be completed and delivered by June 30, 2005. As the new airtankers are delivered and placed in service the original S-2A's are retired.

The new S-2T tanker
The S-2T of today.

CAL FIRE Air Tactical Aircraft

In the mid 1970's CAL FIRE found that the contractor-owned air attack planes, mostly single-engine Cessna 182's and Cessna 210's, did not provide the airspeed and safety needed for the new airtanker program. In 1974, Senior Air Operations Officer, Cotton Mason, inspected 40 USAF Cessna O-2 aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The best 20 were selected and shipped to Fresno. These O-2's had been Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft in Vietnam and were shipped back to the United States in containers. They were disassembled and on pallets when they arrived at Fresno. A crew of California Conservation Corp (CCC) members under the supervision of a CAL FIRE Ranger I Battalion Chief who was a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certificated Mechanic with Inspection Authorization (IA), reassembled the aircraft. They were placed in service in 1976. The O-2 program was a success and served the Department for more than 20 years.

The O-2 & OV-10 tankers
CAL FIRE's original O-2 (top) and the sleek OV-10 of today (bottom).

In 1993, CAL FIRE obtained 16 North American OV-10A aircraft from the US Navy. The OV-10s replaced the O-2s that CAL FIRE had been using for air attack. The OV-10 is a twin-engine turbine-powered aircraft that meets the Department's needs for a next-generation Air Attack platform. CAL FIRE currently operates a fleet of 13 OV-10 aircraft.



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