Are Very Large Air Tankers needed in Arizona?

Martin Mars gel drop in Canada
Martin Mars making a gel drop recently in Canada. Photo: Forestry Division – Sustainable Resource Development

Update at 9:30 a.m. MT, June 9, 2011

KPHO’s report about the 747 being activated for the Arizona fires, even though it was picked up by numerous web sites and spread around the internet like, uh, wildfire, is incorrect. Wildfire Today talked with Steven Daniels who leads the 747 Supertanker program at Evergreen and he said the 747 is not being dispatched. As we reported yesterday below, the U.S. Forest Service is not interested in agreeing to an exclusive use contract with Evergreen or 10 Tanker Air Carrier for their 747 or the DC-10 air tankers.

However, Rick Hatton, the CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, told Wildfire Today Thursday that one of their DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers, Tanker 911, is en route to Phoenix Mesa Gateway airport now to work on the fires. They still do not have any kind of a contract with the USFS, so they are being activated through a Call When Needed contract the company has with CalFire. This is the same methodology used when the DC-10 was used in Texas a few weeks ago.

CalFire explained the deployment of the DC-10 on their website:

Victorville – One of the nation’s only DC-10 Very Large Airtankers has been deployed from California to assist in fighting the raging wildland fire in Arizona. The request was made yesterday by the United States Forest Service. The aircraft, Tanker 911, took off this morning to help in Arizona from its base in Victorville.

The Forest Service is accessing the DC-10 through a call when needed contract CAL FIRE has with 10 Tanker, the company that operates the only two DC-10 Very Large Airtankers in the world. During peak fire season, CAL FIRE has an exclusive use contract with 10 Tanker to enhance its aerial firefighting fleet.

Update at 11:54 p.m. MT, June 8, 2011

KPHO is reporting that “fire officials” said late Wednesday that they are bringing in the Evergreen 747 Supertanker to assist with the fires. It should arrive Thursday. The aircraft has been sitting at Tucson, so it will be a short 20-25 minute flight to the Wallow fire, if that is where it will be used.


If you are wondering why you have not heard anything about the Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) like the 747 or DC-10 being used in Arizona, it’s because they are not working on any fires in the United States. It is interesting that in the last couple of months both Mexico and Canada have contracted to use VLATs, with the 747 working in Mexico and the Martin Mars working in Mexico and Canada. A DC-10 is currently beginning an assignment in Canada. Two VLATs are being used in Canada right now, and another two are sitting at airports in Arizona and California waiting for the phone to ring.

We try not to be an armchair Incident Commander and second guess from hundreds of miles away the firefighters that are at the scene of a fire, breathing smoke and making decisions based on actual facts, so until we hear otherwise, we’ll give the firefighting agencies the benefit of the doubt and consider that maybe with the 15 to 18 large air tankers (conventional, not VLAT) that are presently or soon to be on contract and available, that there are plenty of them to deal with the very extremely large fires in Arizona, the multiple fires in Colorado, and the ones in Alaska. And the large DC-10s and the 747 may or may not be suitable for working in those terrain conditions.

One issue is that some large air tankers are not scheduled to come on contract until June 10. So, in a couple of days one or more additional conventional air tankers will be available.

Another issue is that this year the U.S. Forest Service is not interested in signing Exclusive Use contracts with the VLAT companies, which would put the aircraft on contract to be on standby every day for a period of months and be guaranteed payment for availability. The USFS is offering Call When Needed (CWN) contracts, whereby the agency would only pay for actual use on a fire, or for specific standby during a period of high fire activity.

It is going to be difficult for operators of VLATs to remain in business if the aircraft are only used on rare occasions. With only 18 or 19 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, versus the 44 we had in 2002, one might assume that the federal government would be seeking ways to have more air tankers available. And one would be wrong if they made that assumption.

Evergreen’s 747 Supertanker

We talked with Steven Daniels who leads the Supertanker program at Evergreen. Their 747, Tanker 979, holds 20,000 gallons, about seven times more than a conventional large air tanker. He told us that presently they have no contract with the U.S. Forest Service. Daniels said the USFS offered them a CWN contract, meaning that most of the fire season an expensive piece of equipment would sit without receiving any compensation. Evergreen would like to get an Exclusive Use contract, but the USFS is not interested in that concept.

Daniels told us that he received a phone call from the White House recently asking why the Supertanker was not being used in Arizona. He told them that it is available, sitting at Tucson, Arizona, but there is no contract with the USFS.


The 10 Tanker Air Carrier company has two DC-10 VLATs which have performed over 350 missions on 50 fires in their four years of operations, carrying up to 11,000 gallons of retardant, about four times more than a conventional large air tanker. One of them, Tanker 910, flew to Alberta, Canada yesterday and will begin working on fires out of Cold Bay today. The other, Tanker 911, is sitting at their base in Victorville, California, available for an assignment. Rick Hatton, the CEO of the company, told Wildfire Today that at this time neither of the DC-10s is on contract with the USFS. As with the 747, the USFS is not interested in an Exclusive Use contract with 10 Tanker Air Carrier, and a CWN contract is winding its way through the federal government contracting offices now. CalFire will have one of the DC-10s on Exclusive Use contract later this year. Hatton, like Daniels of Evergreen, would also like to have an Exclusive Use contract with the USFS, but at this time it is not in the cards.

Martin Mars

Right now the Martin Mars is also working on fires in Canada, flying out of Gregoire Lake near Fort McMurray. The company has a contract with the British Columbia government, but none with the USFS or any other agency in the United States. It can carry up to 7,200 gallons and can scoop water from a lake and mix gel or foam concentrate into it from on-board tanks.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

46 thoughts on “Are Very Large Air Tankers needed in Arizona?”

  1. Actually there is a very logical reason beyond politics and everything like that these tankers haven’t been used in Arizona.

    Density altitude is a huge factor in where a very large air tanker can be used in Arizona and other states not to mention loads of small canyons and everything else related to the terrain at least with the Wallow fire goes.

  2. In all honesty the density altitude is negligible for these aircraft to operate in Arizona. The DC-10’s for example operate out of the California Deserts with full loads all the time. The terrain in Southern California where the DC-10’s mostly operate on fires is much more mountainous than Eastern Arizona is, in the worst circumstances Arizona is nearly the same. These VLAT’s don’t fly into small canyons as that isn’t their purpose. They fly around the edges of the fire and create huge perimeters and drop a 100ft above unfriendly terrain over long distances to stop the fire’s outward and/or forward spread. Evergreen’s 747 VLAT is currently in Arizona just sitting on the ground at Evergreen’s maintenance facility just North of Tucson. The reasons why they haven’t been used is more than likely political/legal reasons and not an operational problem.

  3. How meny P3’s are there still flying, and not in use?The resouces are getting thin. The DC-10 has worked well in CA.,TX and other places.the 747 has been used a few times and worked out ok. one flight of about 4000+ miles in less then a day to get to a fire.I hope they get a chance to get used this year.

    1. Current fleet is 8 p3s and ~ 11 p2s…minus one that crashed on the tarmac last year in Colorado. I’m not sure if that is flying yet, and I think it was a neptune p2

  4. Aero Union is the only operator of the P-3’s, they have 8 of them and that’s it. To my knowledge nearly all of them are spread out between the fires in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. All of them are being used.

  5. With a month or more before the monsoon season in the Southwest these fires are driven by mother nature. What would the final Wallow fire “foot print” look like if everyone (firefighters and aircraft) just packed-up and went home today? Wallow will probably end up looking very close to the same with everyone staying,($)thrashing man and machine. Feds should call Wallow Station 2. Eleven days into the fire now lets call the VLATs. How about calling them (VLAT) eleven minutes into a new “breaking” fire that has perdictable consequenses. Seems to work for Cal Fire.

    1. That’s a great point! Here in California if the fire has explosive potential the VLAT’s are usually there that same day or the next day on the fire. Arizona’s fire prevention service is provided by the USFS, unlike California which has a dedicated state fire department (Cal Fire) that has 23 air tankers, and 13 helicopters of their own throughout the state on top of the USFS contract tanker fleet (that’s not even enough to fight some fires here). The problem being in Arizona that the USFS didn’t want to pay for the use of VLAT’s right away, hence why they are just now being used there.

  6. An intermittent swath of retardant won’t slow fire progression when you have spot fires 3 miles from a perimeter.

  7. the dc-10 is graet. i wish the 747 could get some work. Ca has found out that if fires can be stoped in the first day they don’t grow to the large fires we have in AZ. the planes we use are geting older, there are no new planes coming in to do this job. when we call 911 i want some oneto come.

  8. VLATs are a tool in the toolbox… nothing less and nothing more.

    Fire managers / incident responders often understand the need for specific specialized tools and uses, but often times the non-fire “contracting shop” sees things differently and is disconnected from “the mission”… nuff said.


    1. First off Bill your doing a great job at keeping up with the fires in AZ and every where else.

      As Ken said the VLATs are just a tool in the tool box. They are good for drops along the ridges and flat lands in the mid-west. They however lack the extremely slow speeds and maneuverability that the P2s, P3s, S2Ts, and the SEATs have. Although I have been against them for a long time I really would like to see what the BAE 146 can do. It was built for short fields, and can go low and slow. From what I have seen when the Minden Air 146 was at Fox Tanker Base it has the maneuverability needed for this type of work. I have been unable to confirm it but I have heard that Minden Air will be Field Testing their 146 this fire season.

  9. BURN BABY BURN!!! How tragic!! To allow some of the most beautiful forest in the arid Southwest to be obliterated by fire while the powers that be quibble over selection of a
    Carrier. It is ALL politics while thousands of citizens suffer from loss of forests, air quality and all their possessions. We who lovethese precious forests are forced to helplessly stand by while a lifetime of respect for such beauty goes up in smoke.. We citizens will never know such beauty of those forests again. WASHINGTON!! Tear down those walls of egocentric political play AND show you truly are serving the people of the country. This is homeland security????

  10. Seriously – The VLATs will save the day? Seems like a lot of people are falling for the Evergreen/Tanker 10/Cal Fire, media hype. Of course Cal Fire uses these things – money is no object to them, they do such an excellent job of taxing and spending! High tax rates, overpaid employees, – oh yes and state bankruptcy. Yes the 747 and DC10 carry a lot of retardent, but are terrible about actually fighting fire successfully unless you are in flatlands, rolling hills, or happen to be along a 3 mile ridge (See the NASA study on their effectiveness – which is a big well-duh for anyone that really inderstands aircraft). I cannot believe that this is being by so called professionals at this site. It is a terrrible waste of taxpayer dollars. It is as far from the right aircraft for the mission as you can get – we apparently learned nothing from the Blue Ribbon Commission report on air tankers back in 02-03. I can guarantee this – within the next decade one of these is going to plow into a mountain and people will be saying – hmm that was a bad decision. Give me the ten hotshot crews for a day for the cost of each of these glory photo opportunities that each single drop provides. This serves to prove that political and public opinion drive fire costs. For the public that is reading this – here is a hint, take care of cleaning up your property and make your homes defendable – don’t expect Uncle Sam to spend the country further into the hole to save your precious dream home that you didn’t take the time or effort to work on yourself – WE CAN’T AFFORD IT! For the firefighters that are reading this – use tactics and tools that work – don’t fall for the political pressure real or percieved. Gee Johny with your reasoning we will drop $100k minimum for every single tree fire, lets just double the national debt being stupid. Wildlands will burn, poorly constructed or prepared homes will burn, no single tool will save the day – stop the insanity! By the way the 747 was used in Mexico at the request of the Mexican gov’t at the request of the richest man in the world – MR. PEMEX himself – but guess who paid for it – the US State Department – thats right you and me! So those of you that think even Mexico is wiser than the Forest Service are right for the wrong reasons – why not use the most expensive tool when someone else is paying for it. Awesome!

    1. Mr. T.-

      Can you provide a source for your information that the U.S. State Department paid for the use of the 747 on the fires in Mexico? That is not what I understand to be the case.

      The Very Large Air Tankers are one tool in the firefighter’s tool box. There are some fire situations where they are an effective tool and others where they are not. They are not the panacea that will put out every fire. Air tankers do not put out fires. The appropriate air tankers in the right situation (winds and terrain) can slow down a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to actually put out the fire. Extreme terrain or wind conditions will make all air tankers ineffective. VLATs are less effective in steep topography than small, medium, or large air tankers.

    2. Mr. T-

      I contacted Evergreen and confirmed that for the 747’s mission on the fires in Mexico, they were paid directly by the Mexican Government, not by the U.S. State Department as you wrote. This calls into question some of the other “facts” in your comment.

  11. Bill, be aware of the likes of Ed Nemechek and his followers.

    They’ve been spamming blogs and credible news sources for years out of the high desert in CA, primarily seeking financial gain for their support of the IL76, DC10, and B747 platforms.

    Every time there is a large fire, they come out of the cracks.

  12. Dig a bit deeper – yes the mexican government paid the bill. The Mexican Forestry Commission got funding fron USAID – thanks to the State Dept… I suggest a FOIA request.

    1. Again, Mr. T, please provide the source of this information, or it sounds too much like a rumor or a conspiracy theory.

    2. Mr. T

      CONAFOR (Mexico Forestry Commission) IS NOT a wildland fire response agency.

      “The National Forestry Commission, created by presidential decree on April 4, 2001, is a decentralized public institution whose objective is to develop, encourage and promote productive activities, conservation and restoration forestry, as well as participate in the formulation of plans , programs, and implementation of sustainable forest development policy.”

      They are only a commission and not a response agency.

      The agencies responsible for US/MX cooperation are the Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries of the United Mexican States (Mexico) and the USDA Forest Service (State & Private Forestry, and International Programs).

  13. Thanks for the info Bill,what is the USFS saying about the VLAT systems? are they sold on the systems yet? What about night flights is that still under reveiw? It would be nice if we had a nation wide fire force like Ca fire to cover these large fires nation wide. would like your thoughts,thanks Mark

  14. Are they using tanker 911 in AZ. And how is tanker 910 doing in Canada? So even the VLATS are almost fully deployed.What reserves do we have left? Why can’t the Evergreeen 747 get any work? the plane has been flying for a few years and has made 3 flights for money in the USA?
    what is the cost to keep one of these planes on ground for a year with the inspections that have to be done if it flys or not? If you could ask evergreen I would like to know.

    1. Mark 1 Tanker 911 is working in AZ. Yes the VLATs are almost fully deployed, as to the reserves we have left; They will be the P2s and P3s that will be coming on contract next week if they were not brought on contract early.

  15. Matt off contract? the P2/P3 should have work for a along time.
    how does this work is there a bidding for the tankes that can work the fires? glad to hear that 911 has work. hope it is working out well. any word ? it seems the the firefighters are thin. what do we do when their is nofire fighters left?

    1. Mark 1,

      I am not an expert but my understanding of the contract process is that during the off season they tankers are on a call when needed status, also during this time they are inspected and made ready for the next season. The fire fighters are not thin yet there are a lot of crews that can be used and if all the crews are used up the National Guard and Active Duty Military can be used. As for when all the air tankers are used the forest service can call in the MAFFS birds which are Air force C-130s with Fire Fighting equipment installed in the cargo area. I hope this information helps.

  16. California in an evolutionary process, probably driven by politics, has WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) transformed from a watershed perimeter control to UI primary objective. If air tankers, via a number of studies, are most effective on perimeter shape and size during the first 2 hours – Initial Attack, but are utilized for UI will not the perimeter automatically become larger rapidly expanding any logistical limitation sense of perimeter control?

    Really big air tankers have a limited application. Air tanker effectiveness (no boots on the ground) is dependent on fuel loading and terrain.

    Air-tankers are not the solution, but as has been stated one tool. Perhaps the issue is that wild land fire perimeter and any urban interface paradigms have reached the alarm for a ‘shift’ in thinking.

    1. sblev,

      We’ve found in our airtanker study that LAT (large airtankers) within the forest service fleet (p2s, p3s) are primarily used for extended attack rather than initial attack. These findings will be published in the international journal of wildland fire. All results were compiled from the ABS (Aviation Business Systems Database). Does anyone on this blog have any anecdotal comments that support or refute these findings?

      1. Jason-

        I will be interested to read your study. Who conducted it? Is there a preconceived agenda? There are one or two groups out there that have a biased view of the role of air tankers and actively promote their agenda.

        Your comment implies that air tankers are not often used for initial attack. I find this hard to believe. Perhaps the stats are misleading. Initial attack only lasts for a relatively short time compared to extended attack, so more flight hours would be recorded to extended attack. And fires are larger during extended attack, so more air tankers would be needed, sometimes for days or weeks, rather than hours.

      2. Jason I too would be interested on reading this study. I also have the same questions Bill has already stated.

      3. The authors are Matt Thompson, Myself (Jason Herynk), Dave Calkin, Charles McHugh, and Karen Short. We’ve basically started to compile all the available airtanker data out there to inform the fleet replacement strategy. Cost information, and use trends are the main topics in the paper. We’ve also begun compiling drop location information as recorded by GPS units on the LATs. These GPS units record door events, when they open and close. Other information on airframe stresses like max G force are also recorded by on-board computers. Our study highlights the weaknesses in the reporting systems (ABS). Basically, the ABS database was designed for payroll/accounting and doesn’t work very well for tracking use/effectiveness.
        In order for a LAT to be recorded in ABS as initial attack, it has to fit into a very small window of opportunity. The fire size has to less than 300 acres to be recorded as an ‘ABCD’ initial attack P-code. ABCD codes show up very infrequently in ABS. So I think that LAT are often used in the first operational period but rarely do they make it to fires considered initial attack ( 5,000 acres by matching the flight date and fire to the perimeter date and fire size. Our paper has no hidden agenda, it was funded to help inform the fleet acquisition strategy moving forward. But it has thrown a wrench in some of the RAND reports findings. Many of their models were based on assuming that the use is primarily on IA. Our study puts that into question. So we will be helping RAND this summer in one form or another re-examine their strategy. If there are any LAT pilots on this blog reading, I’d really like to read your thoughts. The paper should be published very soon, I’d be more than happy to send it out once it is approved by the journal. Send my your email address to or

        1. Jason-

          Thanks for your reply.

          Are you considering the availability of air tankers before and after 2002 when the number was reduced from 44 to 19? I would compare the 10 years of data before and after 2002 to see if there is a significant difference in the number of times air tankers were used on IA.

          Fewer air tankers means they are located farther apart and if some, or all, are committed or out of service, availability and flight time to the fire becomes an issue. Are fewer air tankers being used on IA because there are fewer air tankers? Intuitively, saying air tankers are rarely used on IA, does not pass the smell test. If they are not being used during the IA stage of a fire, what are they doing at that time? Sitting at an airport close to the fire? Or not?

          1. We looked at the fleet prior to 2002 and after the drawdown. IA effectivness has gone down in recent years by a percent or two. This is likely due to other factors, like climate, increasing wui etc and not with LAT fleet size. If they are not being used on IA they are likely out of area (pre-positioned elsewhere by NIFC), or the incident command team simply doesn’t order them until the fire is out of hand. From what I understand it’s a big deal from an incident commanders point of view to call for a LAT. ICs are pressured to keep cost down, and as soon as a LAT is called out, the containment costs go up quickly.

        2. edit…Using ABS I matched drops to fire perimeters and extracted the fire size when the drop date matched the perimeter date. The majority of LAT drops occur on fires with fire sizes between 1,000 and 5,000 acres. Note that we were only able to match drops when fire perimeters were recorded, which generally occurs for large fires > 300 acres.

        3. Jason, there might be a problem with your data filters.

          Our direction (last two years) has been to assign a unique P-Code to all human caused fires instead of the generic “ABCD Misc” code regardless of size.

          Additionally, airtankers are often used in IA on “assistance by hire” IA fires (states, cooperators) and are coded as PN**** and wouldn’t show up in “ABCD Misc”.

          In areas that human caused IA fires are far more common that natural fires, this could severely skew your outputs and conclusions.

          Hope that made sense.

          1. Ken,

            You can probably see why ABS is difficult to use for tracking use (IA vs EA). For our paper, every flight was summarized by P-code. PA = BIA, PD = BLM, PP = NPS, PR = FWS, H = BAER, WF = AD Support, S = Severity, PN = FS Support of Non-Federal Fires, PF = Non-Wildland Federal Fire Depts, F = Fema activations, F.S. IA = Initial Attack, F.S. Extended Attack.

            So using ABS we could only determine IA vs EA for Forest Service Fires. In ABS if I filter for the PN (FS support fires) I still won’t be able to determine fire size ( 300 acres) at the time of the drop. Thats why I tried matching each flight to a fire perimeter using the firecode database(4 digit alpha numeric code), and I used fire perimeters from the GEOMAC website. Of 20,765 flights since 2007, 13,219 flights were matched to a perimeter using the firecode, perimeter date, and drop date. This leaves 7,546 flights without a perimeter match. Because these data show that the majority of the 13,219 flight are on fires > 300 acres (extended attack), even if we assumed that the 7,546 flights were all IA, EA still dominates the use of LATs from 2007-2010.

            And to respond to your follow up. ABS doesn’t track the transition from IA to EA. We are pushing the limits of its use because it was originally just a billing/accounting database. So these are just baseline numbers for an ongoing study to help inform the fleet replacement/acquisition strategy. This summer we are going to improve the results and our understanding of LAT use by utilizing the GPS drop location data attached to each LAT in the F.S. fleet.

        4. The name of the paper is…”Large Airtanker and Wildfire Management in the US Forest Service: Examining Data Availability and Exploring Usage and Cost Trends”

    2. Thank you for the answer. I have watched in amazement as “strike teams” are called in and in a few hours of a fire starting in LA we have air and ground forces in place.
      The WUI has large effect, and it would be hard to have resources like that in smaller states. The Hot shots are the fast response for wildfires. How many teams do we have in the USA?

  17. Instead of VLAT or LAT. in LA county we have the firehawk. It has night trained crews, large capacity, and multi-use. If one was in each state that would make a difference on these large fire if they were on seen in the first 12 hours?

  18. Followup:

    Jason, if you’re using “ABCD Misc” data as a baseline, are you accounting for IA use on fires that exceed initial attack and then have unique P-codes assigned as they go extended attack/large fire?

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