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Fighting fire like a regular military ground, air war

Onetime ?jinxed? airliner now a superstar fire bomber


A Sikorsky CH54B Helitanker is equipped to siphon 3,000 gallons of water into its belly and drop it on advancing flames. Photo by Willy Cook

The exasperating, foot-by-foot battle to snuff out the Castle Rock fire comes close to replicating a genuine military ground war against a stubborn, human enemy.

Forest Service ground firefighters are the infantry. Earth-moving tractors are armored units. Large and small aircraft and helicopters "bombing" flames and clearing the way for ground troops is the air force.

The inscrutable, unpredictable enemy is the Castle Rock inferno sweeping through valley woodlands.

Most apparent to residents is the air war: Fixed-wing aircraft zooming low over the flaming terrain to unload water and chemical retardant, while helicopters hover over ponds sucking up more loads of water to shower on flaming woodlands too difficult for fixed wing aircraft to reach.

A small aerial armada of aircraft and copters is on duty here flying scores of sorties from dawn to dusk, winds and smoke permitting. By the weekend, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise had ordered more than two dozen airplanes and helicopters to work the Castle Rock Fire, although the mix of types and number changes from day to day. The Forest Service taps aircraft from its own fleet of 30 it owns outright, and contracts for the large aerial firefighting and support aircraft and helicopters from private owners, whose combined aerial fleet totals some 800 nationwide.

The most awesome on duty here are three workhorse, heavy lift Sky Crane helicopters. Resembling giant praying mantises, the lumbering, 25-feet-high, 88-feet-long monsters stir up tornadic winds with down wash from their enormous 72-foot main rotor blades. In one drop, Sky Cranes can spew 2,000 gallons of retardant from belly tanks while hovering.

Another half dozen smaller helicopters—Bell-made Rangers and Hueys—with smaller drop loads of 300 to 400 gallons each flit in and out of tighter terrain areas to spot-drop retardant from scoop buckets. Several small, single-engine aircraft that double as agricultural spray planes during the off-season take on smaller tasks.

The equivalent of military field commanders orbit thousands of feet above the flames and choking smoke in two twin-engine Aero Commander aircraft, spotting areas where aircraft should concentrate their drops. They're helped by infrared intelligence images from another aircraft.

For some, the most photogenic action in the air assault is when the twin-engine P2V Neptune, a post-World War II antisubmarine warfare bomber, and the four-engine P-3 Orion with their distinctive, big red stripes hedge-hop behind a twin turboprop Beech King Air aircraft leading the way to unload 3,000 gallons of coral-colored retardant, then pull up into graceful, banking climb-outs and head for more loads in Boise, Twin Falls or Pocatello.

The P2V's conventional props and engines give off an unpleasant clattering sound. But the aerodynamically comely Orion provides one of aviation's most dulcet sounds from its big paddle-blade props and turboprop engines—an almost hypnotizing, throaty, melodic hum.

Ironically, although it's now a superstar among firefighting bombers, the Orion in its earliest incarnation was a jinxed, killer commercial airliner with no apparent future, the turboprop Lockheed Electra L-188.

Its 1957 debut was ill timed. Jet airliners were rolling off assembly lines. The Electra's 400-mile-per-hour speed couldn't compete with pure jets' speed and cruise altitudes.

It's certain doom as an airliner, however, came when four crashed with heavy loss of life. Investigators found in at least three of the accidents a wing "flutter" had been triggered by harmonics of engines and propellers. The result: Wings ripped off the Electra in flight. In all, 57 of the 170 Electras built were destroyed in various accidents.

However, savvy Lockheed engineers thereafter reinforced wings and redesigned the engine mountings and sold the Electra in the 1960s as the P3 Orion for maritime duty to the US. Navy and dozens of other countries.

Dozens of P3 variations have since been built or modified, including the popular firefighting model.

The dark, lethal past of its Electra ancestor has all but been forgotten.

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