Airplanes are invaluable to lots of operations in the modern world, and firefighting is one area that keeps them very busy in the hot summer months in some parts of the world. There are different types of firefighting planes for different purposes and budgets. Let’s take a look at seven different types of firefighting airplanes

Although many people think of large water tankers when they imagine firefighting airplanes, there are in fact a variety of different aircraft that can be used for this purpose. Some planes carry huge amounts of water and can extinguish fires quickly, while others use specialized equipment to put out fires in difficult-to-reach places. In addition to fighting wildfires, these planes can also be used for rescuing people and putting out smaller fires.

Combating wildfire without a firefighting plane is like building a castle in the air. Firefighting planes use a variety of chemicals to extinguish the wildfire. These chemicals include water, foams, and gels. These planes also utilize a chemical mixture of water, salt, thickening agent, and coloring, known as a retardant.

Some firefighting planes have the capability of reloading over water bodies, leaving out the need to land for a refill.

Planes are always customized to meet specific needs. Hence, a single operation may require two or more types of these aircraft. Firefighting planes are usually classified by the capacity of retardant they carry and their application.

Not all planes get directly involved in the dugout. Some are tactical, supplementing others. Let’s examine the different types of firefighting planes in use today.

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1. The Single Engine Airtanker (SEAT)

Fire Boss Air Tractor AT 802F
Bidgee Fire Boss Air Tractor AT-802F

The single-engine air tanker, also called the type III SEAT, is the smallest category among firefighting planes. The plane holds not more than 800 gallons of water. Their small size makes them very easy to maneuver in rugged terrain. Besides, they do not require a long runway for them to take off.

These aircraft are best for wildfires caused by light fuels in small areas. They function mainly by targeting the fire hotspots, immediately checking their spread. Mostly, these planes utilize a retardant agent known as LC 95, which has a strong penetrating power to reach the soil. That slows down burning from the treetop to the bottom.

Some models of SEATs, particularly the Fire Boss Air Tractor AT-802F are amphibious. This means they can land and take off both on water and land. The water tanks of SEATs can be either external or internal.

As expected, a pilot makes up the crew for these planes. What they do and the instructions they follow would depend on the SEAT pilot’s ratings. Some can perform both recesses and take action, while others follow instructions as charged from the base. 

2. Large Airtankers (LATs)

Butler Aircraft Services DC 7 Tanker 66
Akradecki Butler Aircraft Services DC-7 ‘Tanker 66’

Large Airtankers are very efficient in putting out the fire even when there is a forest canopy due to their higher coverage. They have a larger capacity than the SEATs, holding between 2000 to 4000 gallons of fluids for firefighting.

They cover a much larger area than its preceding type and offer good support to firefighters on the ground. Areas with no refill stations pose a challenge for these aircraft since they may have to return to base after each delivery.

Despite their less maneuverability, some of the planes are specially modified, allowing them to continue operating in adverse conditions. They are the majority in the collection of firefighting airplanes and work simultaneously with other planes. The flight crew consists of the pilot, the co-pilot, and a flight engineer.

A major disadvantage of this type and larger ones is the need for larger landing spaces. Moreover, the logistics involved in their takeoffs means the response time is not as quick as smaller-sized planes.

Examples of these types include the Lockheed series C-130, P-2 Neptune, P-3 Orion, as well as the Douglas DC-6 and DC-7.

3. Very Large Airtankers (VLAT)

B747 400 Supertanker cropped
Editorial Team B747 400 Supertanker

Firefighting planes in the Very Large Airtankers category come in handy when fighting wildfires in countrified environs. They carry a massive quantity of water and fire retardants above 8000 gallons.

Some, like the Boeing 747 Supertanker can even hold up to 24,000 gallons of fire suppressants!

These planes have superior and powerful engines, with robust structures to support the enormous weight of fluid they carry and fly fast at the same time. Some models like the DC-10 have a cruise speed of 600mph. Weird! Isn’t it? 

They are high flying and can drop their payload at heights not less than 250ft above ground level or the canopy cover. VLATs fly to augment the actions of other firefighting planes during an operation.

Most times, these planes have as many as three tanks. So the combined volume is what we often refer to in its holding capacity.

Most VLATs are efficient and utilize gravity to empty the content in the tank within the twinkling of an eye. For instance, the DC-10 dispenses content within eight seconds. 

Like the LATs, no less than three crew members take part in a flight. The pilot and co-pilot are constants, and sometimes, two flight engineers are on board, making them four in all. Unfortunately, despite the high functionality of this plane, it is less maneuverable so it is not best for rugged terrain.  

4. Water Scoopers

Canadair CL 415
Gérard JOYON Canadair CL-415

Water scoopers can hover over a water body for as long as they need to refill their tanks. In other words, they do not have to return to their base or a refilling station for a refill.

Some refill using pumps let down into the water as they hover over a water body. While some like the Air Tractor Fire Boss use probes on either side of their keel to catch water. This method involves the pilot cutting down flight speed to half as it soars over the water. The process takes approximately 12 seconds, and the plane is ready for another deployment.

Water scoopers are highly maneuverable, enabling them to dodge obstacles and draw in water from water bodies at least 6.5ft deep and about 300ft wide.

Their holding capacity is about 1600 gallons, which is perfect for quick refilling and multiple bombardments of fire. The aircraft’s special build allows it to fly for up to four hours in a single mission.

They do not fly too high as they have to soar not more than 150ft above ground level to release their contents. They do this to be as accurate as possible since their target is often the head of the fire or burning fuel to curtail the spreading flame as quickly as possible. Apart from the Air Tractor Fire Boss, another brand of water scooper is the Bombardier CL-415.

5. Smokejumper Aircraft

Smokejumpers Smokejumpers

Unlike previously listed aircraft, the smokejumper aircraft does not directly get involved in quenching wildfires. You can sum up their activity to transportation and support.

They carry the specially trained unit for wildfires where there is a need. These planes are most needed when there is no means of accessing the fire scene except by flight. As many as twelve smokejumpers can get to a fire scene at once riding in this plane. The cockpit crew consists of the pilot and co-pilot.

Meanwhile, they also deliver cargo to the firefighters on the site during operations using a parachute. On some occasions, firefighters have to stay longer than planned. These aircraft are the go-to for providing continuous supplies.

The aircraft is high-flying, attaining up to 3000ft above ground level. Shorts Sherpa series C-23A and SD3-60, Dornier 228, and DeHavilland DH-6 300 series Twin Otter are some planes popular in this category.

6. Lead Planes

Lead plane leading large airtanker Lead plane leading large airtanker

You can call them spotter or first respondent in a wildfire operation. As their name implies, they are crucial when there is a need to assess a fire situation.

Lead planes are small aircraft with dual engines. They are highly maneuverable and can fly over different terrains. Sometimes, they soar in circles as the pilot accesses the situation below before clearing the larger planes to deposit their payload.

These planes are handy in getting the technical information that other aircraft need for the firefighting mission. You’ll find them ahead of other aircraft conducting the way to the site, thanks to their maneuverability. A trained lead pilot is the only crew.

They also mark the region where the air tanker pilots will need to drop suppressants. They do this by releasing white smoke or providing coordinates when the pilot judges it safe for the water bombers to get involved.

The most commonly used planes for this operation are the Beechcraft King Air series and the Twin Commander series 500 and 600.

7. Air Attack Planes

Twin Commander 500 wildfire command and control aircraft Twin Commander 500 wildfire command and control aircraft

Air attack planes are primarily for tactical purposes. Apart from the pilot, the planes also carry the person who calls the shots in the firefighting operation (Air Tactical Group Supervisor). That makes a crew of two.

This plane does not only help with aerial reconnaissance surveys, they also dictate the point of accessing the fire as well the point where the retardant must be dispensed. Quickness and lightness are prime characteristics of these planes. 

Thanks to their small size, they are highly maneuverable and have a quick altitude gain. These attributes enable them to circle over mountainous areas with ease.

Again, fuel consumption is minimal compared to others. This allows the plane to survive throughout the firefighting operation. The most commonly used planes are the Twin Commander 500 and 600 series.

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About the Author

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Salomon Marco
Salomon has been interested in aviation ever since his parents took him on a Boeing 720 to see his relatives. When he’s not writing his latest aviation article, he can be found planespotting, reading up on on aviation news or in the cockpit of his favorite aircraft!