The wet spring may have delayed the fire season, but the DC-10 supertankers aren’t catching a break. Southeast Idaho has seen several fires already, but thankfully none was too serious. DC-10s are Very Large Air Tankers. Most of them are retired commercial airliners, but now, they’re fighting wildfires.
“It’s all about helping firefighters on the ground,” said Robert Barnes, aviation officer for the Bureau of Land Management.
The V-LATs carry a liquid ammonium polyphosphate solution, a fire retardant that prevents wildfires from spreading. Most planes carry nearly 10,000 gallons (about 38 cubic meters) of fire retardant on any given drop.
“The retardant salts are what inhibit the combustion process when it takes place,” Barnes said.
This stops the fire in its tracks, enabling firefighters to get ahead of the flames. Unfortunately, pilots for V-LATs are not a dime a dozen.
“Not everyone can do it. It’s a different flying low-level in a fire environment. It takes years of experience,” said firefighter pilot Gage Lowery.
Pilots are required to fly 200 feet (about 61 meters) above ground in often mountainous areas. At the same time, they have to coordinate with firefighters on the ground to know when and where to drop the retardant. Every drop is calculated to the foot.
“I would say there’s always a stress level, but to me, stress makes you a little sharper. I will say it’s quite exciting, and it’s definitely the most challenging flying I’ve ever done,” Lowery said.
It’s a challenging job that only a handful of people can do.