Forest Service sets up fire bomber base at Mojave Air and Space Port

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
The U.S. Forest Service moved their aerial firefighting operations to Mojave Air and Space Port in 2020 because the runway at Wm. J. Fox Airfield in Lancaster is under construction.

The plan to make the temporary move has been in the works for a long time. Hopefully, a more permanent solution can work out for the future at Mojave.

Al Hansen had an opportunity to ride out to the tanker base with John Himes, Airport Operations Manager.

“Although these tankers are capable of landing and taking off on shorter runways, it seemed to be a luxury to have the long 12,500 runway at Mojave,” Hansen said.

Hansen asked one of the USFS crew how long it takes to fill the Aero-Flite RJ-85 with water and they replied, “Seven to eight minutes.” Hansen also noticed that the water hose had wheels attached at close intervals so that one man could pull it up to the aircraft for quick connection.

“It’s good to know that Mojave Air and Space Port is playing a role in trying to save our wild lands, homes and property,” Hansen said.

According to USFS and Cal Fire, the fire season in California seems to be year-round, so it is imperative to have facilities able to accommodate all of the types of aircraft that have contracts with USFS. Aircraft flying from MASP include: Coulson C-130Q and 737-300; Aero Flite RJ-85 (Bae-146); Ericson MD-87; Cal Fire S2F Tracker and P2V Neptune.

These aircraft worked on the Stagecoach Fire that started near Lake Isabella on Aug. 3 and are still working the enormous Lake Fire that started Aug. 12, near the intersection of Lake Hughes Road and Pine Canyon Road in the Angeles National Forest.

The extreme dry brush allowed the fire spread quickly, and winds have pushed it to explode and destroy over 10,000 acres, tragically burning homes and eventually jump across Pine Canyon Road west of Lake Hughes Road. Several hundred firefighters have battled the blaze from both the ground and air as large tankers dropped Phos-Chek fire retardant on homes and land. The loss of homes, out buildings and acreage has grown to more than 25,000 acres at last count. No cause has yet been determined.

Phos-Chek tank at Mojave. (Photograph by Al Hansen)

Coulson Aviation
Coulson Aviation has a fleet of operational C-130 air tankers for aerial fire-fighting. They purchased six 737-300s from Southwest Airlines to be converted into air tankers. Their 737 at Mojave is the first former Southwest 737-300 passenger jet that has been modified for fighting wild land fires. It that holds up to 3,000+ gallons of water mixed with Phos-Chek fire retardant. It was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration in June 2018.

According to the U.S. Forest Service website, fire retardant is used to reduce the intensity and rate of spread of wildfires and enable firefighters on the ground to access the area and construct containment lines more safely near the fire.

World’s largest flying boats ever flown operationally
In 2007 Coulson Aircrane Ltd. purchased the Hawaii and Philippine Mars to expand its firefighting capabilities and establish itself as the only operator worldwide to operate the world’s largest water bombers.

The Martin Mars Flying Boats were retired in 2013 after 52 accident free years of distinguished firefighting service in British Columbia Canada and beyond. As a matter of fact, one of Coulson’s Flying Boats was at Lake Isabella approximately ten years ago working a fire. It was the most majestic aerial firefighting aircraft I had ever witnessed flying.

The Hawaii Mars was powered with four Wright 3350 Duplex-Cyclone, twin-row, supercharged, air-cooled, radial engines that developed up to 3,700 horse power each. The Mars Flying Boat could scoop up 7,200 gallons of water in 32 seconds. It skimmed the water’s surface at about 80 mph, extended two 16-inch diameter scoops and filled up its tanks to prep for a water bombing drop.

Aero-Flite RJ-85 on ramp being filled with water at Mojave. (Photograph by Al Hansen)

AeroFlite BAe 146/Avro RJ-85 Airtanker
AeroFlite, headquartered in Spokane, Washington is one of the most experienced aerial firefighting companies in the U.S.
They have more than 57 years of fire management experience in aerial forest fire fighting, according to their website.

AeroFlite has grown from flying converted military planes to operating modern, purpose-built and engineered firefighting aircraft.
The RJ-85 carries a 3,100 gallon payload of fire retardant, with a speed of 375-knots (431 mph).

Many people undoubtedly remember seeing a long row of BAe-146s stored at Mojave Airport in the early 1980s.

The Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87 (Erickson Aero Tanker photograph)

Erickson Aero Tanker – MD-87
Two Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines are mounted on the tail of the MD-87 aircraft. When converting the aircraft to an aerial firebomber there was a concern that the retardant may affect the engines if released from a standard opening in the belly like other aircraft. Erickson added an external tank on the bottom of the fuselage which produces an additional four feet of separation between the flow of the exiting retardant and the engines.
The exit point of the retardant is in clean air well below the slip stream. Standard retardant capacity for the MD-87 tanker is 4,000 gallons.

The MD-87 fire tanker is loaded using one or two (individual or simultaneously) 3” coupled loading ports on each side of the fuselage, just forward of the wing. These ports can sustain up to 600 gallons per minute flow maximum. Loading using a single port at an average flow rate of 450 gallons per minute, giving the load time of under 7 minutes.

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