of fire retardant, although its normal load would be approximately 1000 gallons. The S-2Ts are smaller than many air tankers and can be used in fast initial attacks on fires, often being Cal Fire's go-to aircraft at the outset of fighting any fires.
The S-2T has a fill spout in the tail, allowing it to be “’hot loaded’ with retardant without having to shut off its engines - meaning it can be back in the air within minutes, with a single S-2T capable of cycling through multiple missions before it needs to be shut down and refuelled.
10 Tanker Air Carrier to give it its full name, is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has been operating since 2006, its McDonnell Douglas DC-10’s leading the way in performance and efficiency - with the ability to deliver 9,400 gallons of fire retardant from its underbelly-mounted tank within 8 seconds. One drop from the DC-10 is equivalent to 12 drops from a S-2T; a line of retardant that is 300 feet wide by one mile in length, creating greater containment lines in less time, saving both wildlife and resources. 10 Tanker operate a fleet of four DC-10-30ER aircraft, each aircraft having a crew of three (Pilot, Co-Pilot, and Flight Engineer), and supported by seven Maintenance Technicians, who provide support with a truck and trailer unit, wherever the aircraft are located. Amongst the large tankers at McClellan during our visit was #910 wearing 10 Tanker's new livery. The water or retardant is carried in three centreline belly tanks - which have internal baffles to prevent fluid shift (and consequent shift in centre of gravity) while in flight, and sit with a 15-inch (38 cm) ground clearance. All three tanks can be filled simultaneously on the ground in approximately eight minutes.
For most of its operational life, McClellan was a logistics and maintenance facility for military aircraft. Known as the Sacramento Air Logistics Center, it had overhauled military aircraft for over 65 years before closing in 2001, leaving Cal Fire, alongside the U.S. Coast Guard. Now known as McClellan Air Tanker Base, alongside numerous flight crews, Cal Fire has 30 personnel on strength, with it surging to as many as 150 personnel in the summer months depending on which tankers are staging at the base.
AIR TANKER BASE
Currently operating a fleet of 15 aircraft, with a two-man crew (pilot, and air attack officer in the back), the pilot manoeuvres the aircraft to give the air attack officer a clear view, while the air attack officer coordinates all aerial assets with the Incident Commander on the ground. The Rockwell OV-10 Bronco is Cal Fire’s go-to aircraft for the air-tac role, the aircraft circling repeatedly around the active edges of a fire for long periods of time, managing resources and directing crews in the air and on the ground. Unlike air tankers, which need to make repeated short runs to refill with water or fire retardant after a drop, the OV-10s can stay airborne for hours and can also act as Lead Planes when necessary to guide large tankers into drop zones.
The latest addition to Cal Fire’s fleet is the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. On 24 July 2018, California secured approval for the acquisition of seven HC-130H aircraft, a provision which was included in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing the transfer of the aircraft from the United States Coast Guard, with the Federal Government footing the bill. The Hercules involved had originally been destined for service with the U.S. Forest Service upon the completion of modifications by the United States Air Force, but in early 2018 USFS stated that “The agency will seek the support of the appropriate Congressional committees to terminate the agency-owned HC-130H program in 2019. The agency has determined that the HC-130H program is no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required large air tanker needs.”
Twelve Grumman S-2As entered service with Cal fire in 1974, with an additional five built by Bay Aviation Services and put into the fleet for the 1975 fire season. Three separate leases from the U.S. Navy brought a total of 55 S-2s, allowing Cal Fire to keep the fleet going until the mid-90s, when it was decided to upgrade from the S-2A to the S-2T airtanker.
In 1987, Cal Fire entered into an agreement with Marsh Aviation of Mesa, Arizona, to build a protoype S-2T, which was placed in service and used at several bases.
Sikorsky S-70i FireHawk
right front seat. When not in the ATGS training role, it can be configured to carry cargo or up to 8 passengers. This particular aircraft (N461DF/A503) is a former U.S. Army C-12D, which was delivered to Cal Fire in October 2008.
The Lockheed Martin HC-130H Hercules will be Cal Fire's largest aircraft by far. At the time of our visit in October 2022 there were five Hercules present at McClellan, all of which had received their new paint scheme as seen in the image here.
McClellan has one Rockwell OV-10 Bronco assigned, along with two Beechcraft A200CT Super King Airs; and a single Beechcraft Baron training aircraft. Adjacent to the Air Tanker base is Cal Fire’s Aviation Management Unit (AMU), which sees the whole of Cal Fire’s fleet pass through its facility during the months of January, February, and March for winter maintenance, with over 120 mechanics working on the aircraft.
The larger Federal Tankers like the DC-10 we saw, move from state to state in line with fire activity, with McClellan considered a ‘Next Generation’ Tanker Base able to handle all aircraft, with a total of five reload pits, plus two additional portable ones; with some 8 million gallons of retardant used in 2021. At its busiest, McClellan has seen as many as 18 Large Aircraft assigned and reloading out of the base. Unlike the Cal Fire assets, which are operated on behalf of the state of California, the Federal Tankers are employed directly by the U.S. Government and work directly for agencies such as The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.
CAL FIRE’s fleet of 72 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft make it the largest civil aerial firefighting fleet in the world. Cal Fire’s aircraft are strategically located throughout California at 14 air tanker bases, most of which have one OV-10 Bronco and two S-2T Tracker aircraft, together with ten Helitack bases, with aircraft capable of reaching the most remote State Responsibility Area (SRA) fires in approximately 20 minutes, aiming to keep 95% of all fires to 10 acres or less. The Cal Fire Aviation Management Unit is also based out of Sacramento McClellan Airport, with the current support contractors DynCorp/Amentum and Logistics Specialties Incorporated (LSI). Cal Fire’s current aviation fleet includes 23 Grumman S-2T airtankers, one of which is kept as a spare at McClellan;
Cal Fire received the first of its new Sikorsky S-70i helicopters in October 2019, with 10 having been delivered by the time we visited in October 2022. Retrofitted by United Rotorcraft as a wildland firefighting aircraft, the FireHawks will replace Cal Fire’s aging fleet of 12 Super Huey helicopters. The FireHawls can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water in an external belly tank, feature a 9,000lb capacity cargo hook, 360-gallon fuel cell, night vision compatible lighting, rescue hoist, augmented reality mapping system, and a retractable drafting hose. The Cal Fire S-70s primary
We would like to thank everyone at McClellan Air Tanker Base for their hospitality and their help in making this article possible, but especially Battalion Chief Tim Stepanovich, and Firefighter Oscar Barahona.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is an emergency response and resource protection department. Cal Fire protects lives, property, and natural resources from fire; responds to emergencies of all types; and protects and preserves timberlands, wildlands, and urban forests. The department’s various programs work together using ongoing assessments of the condition of natural resources, while considering the challenges of an increasing population, to plan protection strategies for California. Department personnel and equipment are a familiar sight throughout the state with responsibility for
Now coming to the end of its life with Cal Fire, the Bell UH-1H Super Huey helicopter can carry approximately 1,200 litres (320 gallons) of water in Bambi-buckets hanging below the aircraft. Acquired in 1989, the UH-1Hs were amongst 100 released by the Department of Defense to the U.S. Forest Service for wildland fire fighting, with 12 finding their way to Cal Fire.
Replacing the UH-1H Super Huey is the Sikorsky S-70i FireHawk. N485DF/205 seen above, is based at Vina, a CDF helitack base located just north of Chico. #205 was the first Firehawk delivered, with Vina being the first Cal Fire location to take delivery of the S-70i in May 2020.
12 Bell UH-1H Super Huey Helicopters, which are currently being replaced by a similar number of Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks; and 15 North American OV-10A and OV-10D Bronco aircraft, with a further four recently acquired and undergoing re-build and conversion; and seven Lockheed HC-130H Hercules.
The OV-10G+ Bronco (N592NA/155492) in the photo above, right, is a new addition to Cal Fire's fleet and was noted alongside another similar OV-10G+ (N581NA/155481) at McClellan in October 2022. Both aircraft were waiting to go through Cal Fire's Aviation Management Unit for upgrade and conversion. The two former NASA aircraft had been part of a U.S. military program, led by U.S. Special Operations Command, known as Combat Dragon II, that explored light attack aircraft tactics, techniques, and procedures between 2012 and 2015, culminating with an actual combat field test in Iraq. Prior to that they had been used by the Department of State Air Wing on counterinsurgency missions in Colombia.
CAL FIRE's Fleet in detail:-
mission is responding to initial wildfire attacks, and rescue missions. When responding to wildfires, the helicopter can deliver up to a 9-person Helitack Crew for ground firefighting operations and quickly transition into water/foam dropping missions. The helicopters are also used for firing operations using either a Helitorch or a Chemical Ignition Device System (CIDS) on wildland fires or prescribed burns, transporting internal cargo loads, mapping, medical evacuations, and numerous non-fire emergency missions. The FireHawk is 50% faster, can travel 50% farther and holds 100% more water than the Huey it replaces. Also equipped with an external hoist for rescue missions, this specialized rescue technique involves highly trained firefighters being lowered from a hovering helicopter to an injured or trapped person below, and once secured to a harness or stokes basket, with both the victim and rescuer then being hoisted into the helicopter and flown to a safe landing zone.
Grumman/Marsh Avtn. S-2T Tracker
Beech 200 Super King Air
The modification process to the HC-130s included replacement of centre-wing boxes and outer wings, general programmed depot level maintenance, (PDM), painting, and Retardant Dispersal System (RDS) installation. The HC-130H will be used for rapid initial-attack delivery of fire retardant, with the constant-flow gravity delivery system installed in the C-130 airtankers being one of the best delivery systems in the industry. The C-130's speed, manoeuvrability, and capacity, as well as its ability to work from smaller airfields, will be an outstanding addition and force multiplier to Cal Fire's fleet.
Rockwell OV-10A/D Bronco
The success of the prototype led to the acquisition of 26 S-2E/G aircraft in 1996 - a contract for building 23 of the new S-2T airtankers was entered into, with deliveries completed by June 2005. As the workhorse of Cal Fire's fleet, the S-2T tanker can hold about 1200 gallons
protecting more than 31 million acres of California’s privately owned wildlands, and providing emergency services across the state to local government cooperators through agreements with districts, cities, and counties.
Lockheed HC-130H Hercules
The UH-1H aircraft were significantly modified to meet Cal Fire's specialized needs and were designated as Super Huey's. The Super Huey sports a larger, more powerful engine, transmission, and rotor system; the tail boom and tail rotor were also modified to accommodate the engine, all giving the aircraft greater performance in the hotter and higher conditions typically experienced in California. Used for fast initial attacks on smaller wildfires, the helicopters have proven invaluable when moving or evacuating firefighters and civilians. Cal Fire’s helicopter crews are trained to carry out short-haul rescues, which often involve a crew-member being lowered from a hovering helicopter, with a harness or basket used to carry the patient/injured person to safety.
Bell UH-1H Super Huey
Used as ‘Tactical Planes’- the OV-10 Bronco is used in the aerial command and control role in fighting wildfires, providing tactical coordination with commanders on the ground and other aircraft in the sky. The Rockwell OV-10 Bronco is a twin-turboprop, acquired in 1993, when Cal Fire obtained 16 OV-10A aircraft from the US Navy. The OV-10s replaced the Cessna O-2s that had been used for air attack up until that point - the OV-10 meeting Cal Fire’s need for a next-generation Air Attack platform.
The Beechcraft Super King Air 200 is used in the air tactical training role, providing Cal Fire with a pressurized all-weather platform, primarily used during fire season as an Air Attack training platform. It provides the same traditional aerial supervision capability as the OV-10 Bronco, with the main difference being that the instructor Air Attack Group Supervisor (ATGS) sits behind the ATGS trainee, who sits in the