Fighting Fires from the Air
By Rick Hatton Founder, 10 Tanker Air Carrier
Photos Courtesy 10 Tanker Air Carrier
10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC (10 Tanker) has successfully introduced a superior capability to the fixed-wing sector of aerial firefighting and has become recognized as a world leader in this industry. The company’s mission is to produce and operate large jet air tankers that enhance safety, effectiveness, and efficiency in the worldwide application of aerial suppressants on wildfires.
10 Tanker commenced research and development of next generation airtankers in 2002. Industry leading personnel from OMNI Air International with an extensive history of heavy jet operations, modifications, and aircraft ownership were assembled. After two years of research into aerial firefighting requirements and the future direction of the industry, 10 Tanker began to modify and certificate its first DC-10 for this dedicated purpose. As OMNI transitioned to 767s and 777s, 10 Tanker was formed as a separate company and acquired OMNI’s highly-maintained DC-10s. Firefighting operations commenced in 2006 and continued to increase in effectiveness and geographic scope as professional fire fighters and agency managers became familiar with the benefits of increased airborne suppression loads. As demand for more capability grew, 2018 saw 10 Tanker introduce its fourth aircraft to the fleet. Client agencies now fully endorse this innovative and proven next generation product and its utilization trends upward annually.
Wildfire indicators—temperature, drought, human activities, and the deteriorated condition of forested lands—point in the direction of more, not fewer, future wildfires. Wildfire threat awareness, not only in the US but throughout the world, is at an all-time high. A body of independent research shows not only an increase in the number of wildfires but an increase in acreage burned and the inherent economic costs. Worsening trends are universally predicted. More resources are needed for suppression and protection, and are increasingly a subject of political awareness and concern. The fixed-wing aerial firefighting segment was in need of significant upgrades, a process currently being implemented or planned by numerous worldwide government agencies. Wildfire preparedness and suppression budgets are stretched increasingly thin, but measures are being taken to better address the devastating effects of uncontained wildfires where human safety and untold economic loss far outweigh apparent fiscal shortages.
As with many innovations, 10 Tanker faced significant barriers to entry in developing and implementing the aircraft into its new role. At significant expense these challenges have been systematically addressed by 10 Tanker in its 16 years of existence and now 13 years of operations.
These challenges included:
- Risk capital
- Technical risk of product design & testing
- Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) certification
- FAA Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) operating and repair authority
- US Forest Service (“USFS”) Interagency Tanker Board (“IAB”) technical approval
- USFS & other fire agency contract awards
- Crew training, certification & experience
- Acceptance of aircraft in the insurance market
- Institutional and user agency integration into operations
- Continual product improvement
Using private risk capital, 10 Tanker’s research and development of a suppressant tank system for a modified DC-10 aircraft to create modern jet-powered aerial firefighting capability took five years. Since fire operations commenced, 10 Tanker has had a dramatic impact on wildfire aerial suppression efforts.
The modification of the aircraft is certified by FAA under a Supplemental Type Certificate (“STC”). Certification of 10 Tanker’s management, maintenance, flight operations, training, and safety programs are endorsed by FAA, the OEM (Boeing), USFS, CalFire, and CASA. The company is authorized to operate under FAA CFR 14, Parts 137 and 145. USFS has issued Interagency Tanker Board (“IAB”) approval to the aircraft’s external, gravity-propelled, computer-controlled drop tank system. A NASA study initiated by USFS found 10 Tanker’s operations, engineering and maintenance suitable for firefighting applications. 10 Tanker’s aircraft are cleared to suppress fires on federal land irrespective of the controlling agency.
Over the course of its fire operations, 10 Tanker has flown over 4,000 missions on more than 700 wildfires in fourteen states and two foreign countries. Professional fire fighters from numerous local, county, state, and federal agencies—the User Community—have increasingly recognized the value of the step change in capability afforded by the DC-10.
The DC-10’s contribution to wildfire suppression is due principally to four breakthroughs:
- CAPACITY – 9,400 US gallons (3,600 liters) per load – three to ten times that of alternative aircraft
- SPEED/RANGE – Jet speed to and from a fire location, putting the asset within one hour of fires at a distance of up to 400 nautical miles from numerous aircraft bases
- COST EFFECTIVENESS – Lowest cost per gallon delivered when large quantities of suppressant are typically demanded
- SAFETY – A platform delivering superior maneuverability and reduced flight exposure
In addition to 10 Tanker’s proven effectiveness in saving lives, property, natural resources and economic disruption, the enhanced suppression of wildfires has an enormous positive impact on reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Numerous studies indicate wildfires can easily outstrip human activity in terms of harmful CO2 emissions.
The consensus among wild land firefighting professionals is that suppressants dropped from fixed wing aerial support aircraft need to be reliable, controllable, and repeatable. Coverage levels (gallons per 100 square feet) ranging from two to ten are typically called for by incident commanders. Timing, accuracy, and quantity effectively delivered at the desired coverage level are vital to effective suppression and containment.
As dramatic as the aircraft may appear, it is the “mud on the ground” safely delivered to the right place at the right time that wins the day. Gravity propelled, computer controlled “constant flow” delivery systems have evolved to be the technology of choice in next generation air tankers. Safety is paramount for both aircrews and ground firefighters. The DC-10 enhances safety in two significant ways: Less flying to deliver the required quantity of suppressant; and an aircraft that is operating at only 60 percent of its previously certified takeoff gross weight when it departs with a full load of retardant, but only requires three hours of fuel. Vertical performance exceeds all other air tankers in the drop zone inclusive of an unlikely simultaneous failure of the drop and an engine.
10 Tanker personnel are proud to be contributors to the evolution of this industry by bringing a quantum improvement in payload housed in an aircraft that has the performance and control to safely and effectively deliver required suppressants at substantial savings to the public.