Dousing Flames from the Sky: The Story of Aerial Firefighters
Living in Appalachia has enabled me to see some interesting things over the years. One of the most memorable was a fire that broke out on a hillside a few years ago. Though I was standing hundreds of yards away from the flames, I could still feel the heat of the blaze on my face. Watching the side of a mountain go up in smoke is quite an experience. Even more fascinating was the helicopter that the forest service used to control the inferno. Every several minutes it would fly directly towards the mountain, then swing away just before hitting it. As it did, it released hundreds of gallons of water from a bucket attached to its underside. The liquid hit the flames like a tidal wave each time. By that evening the fire was all but extinguished. But what I saw that day was just a small taste of what today’s firefighting aircraft, also known as “water bombers,” can do. RELATED: See Photos of the Terrafugia Flying Car Fighting Forest Fires with Aircraft
Combating woodland blazes from the sky has been common since 1947. Originally the forest service used huge elastic bladders - essentially giant water balloons. These didn’t work out very well, so developers created metal tanks for this purpose instead.
Years later they also built huge scoops that a helicopter could dip into a lake or other water source. A popular urban legend tells the story of a unfortunate swimmer who is caught up by one of the copters. Thankfully, there is no evidence that this has ever occurred. However, it does make a good story.
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The CL-415 Bombardier: the King of Firefighters
The current champ among aerial firefighters is this Canadian-built plane. Known in the US as the “superscooper,” it has been in service since 1993. Adapted from the older CL-215, it can carry up to 1620 gallons of water at a time. 76 of these bad boys are in use across the globe, including five in the United States.
Being a fixed-wing craft, the CL-415 requires 4400 feet of open area to operate. It normally flies about 50 feet off the ground, then dives towards the water source (usually the ocean or a large lake), skimming along its edge for as long as 12 seconds. It flies at a speed of 70 knots, or around 80 mph, while in diving mode, then heads backs to the fire to release its cargo.
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Other Firefighting Craft
Due to the extended distance the CL-415 needs in order to harvest enough water, the plane is generally employed along coastal areas, primarily in California. Much more common is the use of helicopters fitted with scoops that can dip directly into lakes, ponds, and open tanks.
The most popular scoop is known as the “bambi bucket.” Made by SEI Industries, these can harvest as much 2600 gallons at a time. They can be adapted for use by any helicopter with the required lift capacity.
Some copters are purpose-built for firefighting. One example is the S-64 Aircrane, which is fitted with a cannon that sprays heat-suppressing foam. The craft is the civilian version of the US Army’s CH-54.
While aerial firefighters don’t do battle with foreign armies, the foes they do tackle are just as deadly to human life and property as any terrorist group. For this reason, both the aircraft and their pilots are worthy of the utmost respect. We at Bold Ride are proud to spread the word about these amazing machines and the men who fly them.
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